Edgar Saltus.

The Truth About Tristrem Varick: A Novel



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"Miss Raritan," he began, hastily, "I don't suppose you remember me. I am Mr. Varick. I heard you sing the other night. I have come here every day since in the hope of – ; you see, I wanted to ask if I might not have the privilege of hearing you sing again?"

"If you consider it a privilege, certainly. On Sunday evening, though, I thought you seemed rather bored." She made this answer very graciously, with her head held like a bird's, a trifle to one side.

Tristrem gazed at her in a manner that would have mollified a tigress. "I was not bored. I had never heard anyone sing before."

"Yet your friend, Mr. Weldon, tells me that you are very fond of music."

"That is exactly what I mean."

At this speech of his she looked at him, musingly. "I wish I deserved that," she said.

Tristrem began again with new courage. "It is like anything else, I fancy. I doubt if anyone, ignorant of difficulties overcome, ever appreciates a masterpiece. A sonnet, if perfect, is only perfect to a sonneteer. The gallery may applaud a drama, it is the playwright who judges it at its worth. It is the sculptor that appreciates a Canova – "

They had reached the corner where the barrel-organ was in ambush. A woman dragging a child with Italy and dirt in its face followed them, her hand outstretched. Tristrem had an artful way of being rid of a beggar, and after the fumble of a moment he gave her some coin.

" – And the artist who appreciates rags," added Miss Raritan.

"Perhaps. I am not fond of rags myself, but I have often caught myself envying the simplicity which they sometimes conceal. That woman, now, she may be as pleased with my little gift as I am to be walking with you."

"I thought it was my voice you liked," Miss Raritan answered, demurely.

Tristrem experienced a mental start. A suspicion entered his mind which he chased indignantly. There was about the girl an aroma that was incompatible with coquetry.

"You would not, I am sure, have me think of you in the vox et pr?terea nihil style," he replied. "To be candid, I thought that very matter over the other night." He hesitated, as though waiting for some question, but she did not so much as look at him, and he continued unassisted. "I thought of a flower and its perfume, I wondered which was the more admirable, and – and – I decided that I did not care for tulips."

"But that you did care for me, I suppose?"

"Yes, I decided that."

Miss Raritan threw back her head with a movement indicative of impatience.

"I didn't mean to tell you," he added – "that is, not yet."

They had crossed Broadway and were entering Fifth Avenue. There the stream of carriages kept them a moment on the curb.

"I hope," Tristrem began again, "I hope you are not vexed."

"Vexed at what? No, I am not vexed. I am tired; every other man I meet – There, we can cross now. Besides, I am married. Don't get run over. I am going in that shop."

"You are not married!"

"Yes, I am; if I were a Harvard graduate I would say to Euterpe.

As it is, Scales is more definite." She had led him to the door of a milliner, a portal which Tristrem knew was closed to him. "If you care to come and see me," she added, by way of cong?, "my husband will probably be at home." And with that she opened the door and passed into the shop.

"I can imagine a husband," thought Tristrem, with a glimmer of that spirit of belated repartee which Thackeray called cab-wit, the brilliancy which comes to us when we are going home, "I can imagine a husband whose greatest merit is his wife."

IV

The fact that few days elapsed before Tristrem Varick availed himself of Miss Raritan's invitation, and that thereafter he continued to avail himself of it with frequence and constancy, should surprise no one. During the earliest of these visits he met Miss Raritan's mother, and was unaccountably annoyed when he heard that lady address her daughter as Viola. He had been so sure that her baptismal name was Madeleine that the one by which he found she was called sounded false as an alias, and continued so to sound until he accustomed himself to the syllables and ended by preferring it to the Madeleine of his fancy. This, however, by the way. Mrs. Raritan was a woman who, in her youth, must have been very beautiful, and traces of that beauty she still preserved. When she spoke her voice endeared her to you, and in her manner there was that something which made you feel that she might be calumniated, as good women often are, but yet that she could never be the subject of gossip. She did not seem resolute, but she did seem warm of heart, and Tristrem felt at ease with her at once.

Of her he saw at first but little. In a city like New York it is difficult for anyone to become suddenly intimate in a household, however cordial and well-intentioned that household may be. And during those hours of the winter days when Miss Raritan was at home it was seldom that her mother was visible. But it was not long before Tristrem became an occasional guest at dinner, and it was in the process of breaking bread that a semblance of intimacy was established. And at last, when winter had gone and the green afternoons opposed the dusk, Tristrem now and then would drop in of an evening, and in the absence of Miss Raritan pass an hour with her mother. Truly she was not the rose, but did she not dwell at her side?

Meanwhile, Miss Raritan's attitude differed but little from the one which she had first adopted. She treated Tristrem with exasperating familiarity, and kept him at arm's length. She declined to see him when the seeing would have been easy, and summoned him when the summons was least to be expected. He was useful to her as a piece of furniture, and she utilized him as such. In the matter of flowers and theatres he was a convenience. And at routs and assemblies the attention of an heir apparent to seven million was a homage and a tribute which Miss Raritan saw no reason to forego.

In this Tristrem had no one but himself to blame. He had been, and was, almost canine in his demeanor to her. She saw it, knew it, felt it, and treated him accordingly. And he, with the cowardice of love, made little effort at revolt. Now and then he protested to Mrs. Raritan, to whom he had made no secret of his admiration for her daughter, and who consoled him as best she might; but that was all. And so the winter passed and the green afternoons turned sultry, and Tristrem was not a step further advanced than on the day when he had left the girl at the milliner's. On the infrequent occasions when he had ventured to say some word of that which was nearest his heart, she had listened with tantalizing composure, and when he had paused for encouragement or rebuke, she would make a remark of such inappositeness that anyone else would have planted her there and gone. But Tristrem was none other than himself; his nature commanded and he obeyed.

It so happened that one May morning a note was brought him, in which Miss Raritan said that her mother and herself were to leave in a day or two for the country, and could he not get her something to read on the way. Tristrem passed an hour selecting, with infinite and affectionate care, a small bundle of foreign literature. In the package he found room for Balzac's "Pierrette" and the "Cur? de Tours," one of Mme. Craven's stupidities, a volume of platitude in rhyme by Fran?ois Copp?e, a copy of De Amicis' futile wanderings in Spain – a few samples, in fact, of the pueris virginibusque school. And that evening, with the bundle under his arm, he sought Miss Raritan.

The girl glanced at the titles and put the books aside. "When we get in order at Narragansett," she said, "I wish you would come up."

Had she kissed him, Tristrem could not have revelled more. "There are any number of hotels," she added, by way of douche.

"Certainly, if you wish it, but – but – "

"Well, but what?"

"I don't know. You see – well, it's this way: You know that I love you, and you know also that you care for me as for the snows of yester-year. There is no reason why you should do otherwise. I don't mean to complain. If I am unable to make you care, the fault is mine. I did think – h'm – no matter. What I wanted to say is this: there is no reason why you should care, and yet – . See here; take two slips of paper, write on one, I will marry you, and, on the other, Put a bullet through your head, and let me draw. I would take the chance so gladly. But that chance, of course, you will not give. Why should you, after all? Why should I give everything I own to the first beggar I meet? But why should you have any other feeling for me than that which you have? And yet, sometimes I think you don't understand. Any man you meet could be more attractive than I, and very easy he would find it to be so; but no one could care for you more – no one – "

Miss Raritan was sitting opposite to him, her feet crossed, her head thrown back, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. One arm lay along the back of the lounge which she occupied, the other was pendant at her side. And while he still addressed her, she arose with the indolence of a panther, crossed the room, picked up a miniature from a table, eyed it as though she had never seen it before and did not particularly care to see it again, and then, seating herself at the piano, she attacked the Il segreto per esser felice, the brindisi from "Lucrezia Borgia."

In the wonder of her voice Tristrem forgot the discourtesy of the action. He listened devoutly. And, as he listened, each note was an electric shock. Il segreto per esser felice, indeed! The secret of happiness was one which she alone of all others in the world could impart. And, as the measures of the song rose and fell, they brought him a transient exhilaration like to that which comes of champagne, dowering him with factitious force wherewith to strive anew. And so it happened that, when the ultimate note had rung out and the girl's fingers loitered on the keys, he went over to her with a face so eloquent that she needed but a glance at it to know what he was seeking to say.

With a gesture coercive as a bit, she lifted one hand from the keys and stayed his lips. Then, she stood up and faced him. "Tristrem," she began, "when I first saw you I told you that I was married to my art. And in an art such as mine there is no divorce. It may be that I shall go on the stage. After all, why should I not? Is society so alluring that I should sacrifice for it that which is to me infinitely preferable? If I have not done so already it is because of my mother. But should I decide to do so, there are years of study before me yet. In which case I could not marry, that is self-evident, not only because I would not marry a man who would suffer me to sing in public – don't interrupt – but also because – well, you told me that you understood the possibilities of the human voice, and you must know what the result would be. But even independent of that, you said a moment ago that I did not love you. Well, I don't. I don't love you. Tristrem, listen to me. I don't love you as you would have me. I wish I did. But I like you. I like you as I can like few other men. Tristrem, except my mother, I have not a friend in the world. Women never care for me, and men – well, save in the case of yourself, when their friendship has been worth the having, it belonged to someone else. Give me yours."

"It will be hard, very hard."

Miss Raritan moved from where she had been standing and glanced at the clock. "You must go now," she said, "but promise that you will try."

She held her hand to him, and Tristrem raised it to his lips and kissed the wrist. "You might as well ask me to increase my stature," he answered. And presently he dropped the hand which he held and left the house.

It was a perfect night. The moon hung like a yellow feather in the sky, and in the air was a balm that might have come from fields of tamaris and of thyme. The street itself was quiet, and as Tristrem walked on, something of the enchantment of the hour fell upon him. On leaving Miss Raritan, he had been irritated at himself. It seemed to him that when with her he was at his worst; that he stood before her dumb for love, awkward, embarrassed, and ineffectual of speech. It seemed to him that he lacked the tact of other men, and that, could she see him as he really was when unemotionalized by her presence, if the eloquence which came to him in solitude would visit him once at her side, if he could plead to her with the fervor with which he addressed the walls, full surely her answer would be other. She would make no proffer then of friendship, or if she did, it would be of that friendship which is born of love, and is better than love itself. But as he walked on the enchantment of the night encircled him. He declined to accept her reply; he told himself that in his eagerness he had been abrupt; that a girl who was worth the winning was slow of capture; that he had expected months to give him what only years could afford, and that Time, in which all things unroll, might yet hold this gift for him. He resolved to put his impatience aside like an unbecoming coat. He would pretend to be but a friend. As a friend he would be privileged to see her, and then, some day the force and persistence of his affection would do the rest. He smiled at his own cunning. It was puerile as a jack-straw, but it seemed shrewdness itself to him. Yes, that was the way. He had done wrong; he had unmasked his batteries too soon. And such batteries! But no matter, of his patience he was now assured. On the morrow he would go to her and begin the campaign anew.

He had reached the corner and was on the point of turning down the avenue, when a hansom rattled up and wheeled so suddenly into the street through which he had come, that he stepped back a little to let it pass. As he did so he looked in at the fare. The cab was beyond him in a second, but in the momentary glimpse which he caught of the occupant, he recognized Royal Weldon. And as he continued his way, he wondered where Royal Weldon could be going.

The following evening he went to dine at the Athen?um Club. The house in Waverley Place affected him as might an empty bier in a tomb. The bread that he broke there choked him. His father was as congenial as a spectre. He only appeared when dinner was announced, and after he had seated himself at the table he asked grace of God in a low, determined fashion, and that was the end of the conversation. Tristrem remembered that in the infrequent vacations of his school and college days, that was the way it always had been, and being tolerably convinced that that was the way it always would be, he preferred, when not expected elsewhere, to dine at the club.

On entering the Athen?um on this particular evening, he put his hat and coat in the vestiary and was about to order dinner, when he was accosted by Alphabet Jones.

"I say, Varick," the novelist exclaimed – (during the winter they had seen much of each other), "do you know who was the originator of the cloak-room? Of course you don't – I'll tell you; who do you suppose now? Give it up? Mrs. Potiphar! How's that? Good enough for Theodore Hook, eh? Let's dine together, and I'll tell you some more."

"Let's dine together" was a formula which Mr. Jones had adopted. Literally, it meant, I'll order and you pay. Tristrem was aware in what light the invitation should be viewed, he had heard it before; but, though the novelist was of the genus spongia, he was seldom tiresome, often entertaining, and moreover, Tristrem was one who would rather pay than not. As there were few of that category in the club, Mr. Jones made a special prey of him, and on this particular evening, when the ordering had been done and the dinner announced, he led him in triumph to the lift.

As they were about to step in, Weldon stepped out. He seemed hurried and would have passed on with a nod, but Tristrem caught him by the arm. Of late he had seen little of him, and it had seemed to Tristrem that the fault, if fault there were, must be his own.

"I caught a glimpse of you last night, didn't I, Royal?" he asked.

Weldon raised his eyebrows for all response. Evidently he was not in a conversational mood. But at once an idea seemed to strike him. "I dare say," he answered, "I roam about now and then like anyone else. By the way, where are you going to-night? Why not look in on my wife? She says you neglect her."

"I would like it, Royal, but the fact is I am going to make a call."

"In Thirty-ninth Street?"

Tristrem looked at him much as a yokel at a fair might look at a wizard. He was so astonished at Weldon's prescience that he merely nodded.

"You can save yourself the trouble then – I happened to meet Miss Raritan this afternoon. She is dining at the Wainwarings. Look in at Gramercy Park." And with that he turned on his heel and disappeared into the smoking-room.

"Didn't I hear Weldon mention Miss Raritan?" Jones asked, when he and Tristrem had finished the roast. "There's a girl I'd like to put in a book. She has hell in her eyes and heaven in her voice. What a heroine she would make!" he exclaimed, enthusiastically; and then in a complete change of key, in a tone that was pregnant with suggestion, he added, "and what a wife!"

"I don't understand you," said Tristrem, in a manner which, for him, was defiant.

Whether or not Jones was a good sailor is a matter of small moment. In any event he tacked at once.

"Bah! I am speaking in the first person. I don't believe in matrimony myself, I am too poor. And besides, I never heard of but one happy marriage, and that was between a blind man and a deaf-mute. Though even then it must have been difficult to know what the woman thought. Now, in regard to Miss Raritan, half the men in the city are after her, pour le bon motif, s'entend; but when a girl has had the dessus du panier at her feet, no fellow can afford to ask her to take a promenade with him down the aisle of Grace Church, unless he has the Chemical Bank in one pocket and the United States Trust Company in the other. Et avec ?a!" And Jones waved his head as though not over-sure that the coffers of those institutions would suffice.

"I don't see what that has to do with it," Tristrem indignantly interjected.

"Isn't that odd now?" was Jones' sarcastic reply. "Dr. Holmes says that no fellow can be a thorough-going swell unless he has three generations in oil. And mind you, daguerreotypes won't do. There are any number of your ancestors strung along the walls of the Historical Society, and how many more you may have in that crypt of yours in Waverley Place, heaven only knows. Imprimis, if you accept Dr. Holmes as an authority, you are a thorough-going swell. In the second place, you look like a Greek shepherd. Third, you are the biggest catch in polite society. Certainly it's odd that with such possibilities you should see no reason for not marrying a girl who will want higher-stepping horses than Elisha's, and who, while there is a bandit of a dressmaker in Paris, will decline to imitate the lilies of the field. Certainly – "

"I never said anything about it, I never said anything about marrying or not marrying – "

"Oh, didn't you? I thought you did." And Jones leaned back in his chair and summoned a waiter with an upward movement of the chin. "Bring another pint of this, will you."

"I think I won't take anything more," said Tristrem, rising from the table as he spoke. "It's hot in here. I may see you down-stairs." And with that he left the room.

Mr. Alphabet Jones looked after him a second and nodded sagaciously to himself. "Another man overboard," he muttered, as he toyed with his empty glass. "Ah! jeunesse, jeunesse!"

V

Tristrem descended the stair and hesitated a moment at the door of the smoking-room. Near-by, at a small table, two men were drinking brandy. He caught a fragment of their speech: it was about a woman. Beyond, another group was listening to that story of the eternal feminine which is everlastingly the same. Within, the air was lifeless and heavy with the odor of cigars, but in the hall there came through the wide portals of the entrance the irresistible breath of a night in May.

Tristrem turned and presently sauntered aimlessly out of the club and up the avenue. Before him, a man was loitering with a girl; his arm was in hers, and he was whispering in her ear. A cab passed, bearing a couple that sat waist-encircled devouring each other with insatiate eyes. And at Twenty-third Street, a few shop-girls, young and very pretty, that were laughing conspicuously together, were joined by some clerks, with whom they paired off and disappeared. At the corner, through the intersecting thoroughfares came couple after couple, silent for the most part, as though oppressed by the invitations of the night. Beyond, in the shadows of the Square, the benches were filled with youths and maidens, who sat hand-in-hand, oblivious to the crowd that circled in indolent coils about them. The moon had not yet risen, but a leash of stars that night had loosed glowed and trembled with desire. The air was sentient with murmurs, redolent with promise. The avenues and the adjacent streets seemed to have forgotten their toil and to swoon unhushed in the bewitchments of a dream of love.



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