Edgar Saltus.

The Truth About Tristrem Varick: A Novel



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Tristrem found himself straying through its mazes and convolutions. Whichever way he turned there was some monition of its presence. From a street-car which had stayed his passage he saw the conductor blow a kiss to a hurrying form, and through an open window of Delmonico's he saw a girl with summer in her eyes reach across the table at which she sat and give her companion's hand an abrupt yet deliberate caress.

Tristrem continued his way, oppressed. He was beset by an insidious duscholia. He felt as one does who witnesses a festival in which there is no part for him. The town reeked with love as a brewery reeks with beer. The stars, the air, the very pavements told of it. It was omnipresent, and yet there was none for him.

He tried to put it from him and think of other things. Of Jones, for instance. Why had he spoken of Viola? And then, in the flight of fancies which surged through his mind, there was one that he stayed and detained. It was that he must see her again before she left town. He looked at his watch: it lacked twenty minutes to ten, and on the impulse of the moment he hailed a passing 'bus. It was inexplicable to him that the night before she should have let him go without a word as to her movements. It seemed to be understood that he was to come again to wish her a pleasant journey. And when was he to come if not that very evening? Surely at the time she had forgotten this engagement with the Wainwarings, and some note had been left for him at the door. And if no note had been left, then why should he not ask for her mother or wait till she returned? A bell rang sharply through the vehicle and aroused him from his reverie. He glanced up, and saw the driver eyeing him through the machicoulis of glass. It was the fare he wanted, and as Tristrem deposited it in the box he noticed that the familiar street was reached.

In a few moments he was at the house. On the stoop a servant was occupied with the mat.

"Is, eh, did – "

"Yes, sir," the man answered, promptly. "Miss Raritan is in the parlor."

In the surprise at the unexpected, Tristrem left his hat and coat, and pushing aside the porti?re, he entered the room unannounced. At first he fancied that the servant had been mistaken. Miss Raritan was not at her accustomed place, and he stood at the door-way gazing about in uncertainty. But in an instant, echoing from the room beyond, he caught the sound of her voice; yet in the voice was a tone which he had never heard before – a tone of smothered anger that carried with it the accent of hate.

Moved by unconscious springs, he left the door-way and looked into the adjoining room. A man whom at first he did not recognize was standing by a lounge from which he had presumably arisen. And before him, with both her small hands clinched and pendent, and in her exquisite face an expression of relentless indignation, stood Miss Raritan. Another might have thought them rehearsing a tableau for some theatricals of the melodramatic order, but not Tristrem.

He felt vaguely alarmed: there came to him that premonition without which no misfortune ever occurs; and suddenly the alarm changed to bewilderment. The man had turned: it was Royal Weldon. Tristrem could not credit his senses. He raised his hand to his head: it did not seem possible that a felon could have told a more wanton lie than he had been told but little over an hour before; and yet the teller of that lie was his nearest friend. And still he did not understand; surely there was some mistake. He would have spoken, but Weldon crossed the room to where he stood, and with set teeth and contracted muscles fronted him a second's space, and into his eyes he looked a defiance that was the more hideous in that it was mute. Then, with a gesture that almost tore the porti?re from its rings, he passed out into the hall and let the curtain fall behind him.

As he passed on Tristrem turned with the obedience of a subject under the influence of a mesmerist; and when the curtain fell again he started as subjects do when they awake from their trance.

The fairest, truest, and best may be stricken in the flush of health; yet after the grave has opened and closed again does not memory still subsist, and to the mourner may not the old dreams return? However acute the grief may be, is it not often better to know that affection is safe in the keeping of the dead than to feel it at the mercy of the living? We may prate as we will, but there are many things less endurable than the funeral of the best-beloved. Death is by no means the worst that can come. Whoso discovers that affection reposed has been given to an illusory representation; to one not as he is, but as fancy pictured him; to a trickster that has cheated the heart – in fact, to a phantom that has no real existence outside of the imagination, must experience a sinking more sickening than any corpse can convey. At the moment, the crack of doom that is to herald an eternal silence cannot more appal.

Tristrem still stood gazing at the porti?re through which Weldon had disappeared. He heard the front door close, and the sound of feet on the pavement. And presently he was back at St. Paul's, hurrying from the Upper School to intercede with the master. It was bitterly cold that morning, but in the afternoon the weather had moderated, and they had both gone to skate. And then the day he first came. He remembered his good looks, his patronizing, precocious ways; everything, even to the shirt he wore – blue, striped with white – and the watch with the crest and the motto Well done, Weldon. No, it was ill done, Weldon, and the lie was ignoble. And why had he told it? Their friendship, seemingly, had been so stanch, so unmarred by disagreement, that this lie was as a dash of blood on a white wall – an ineffaceable stain.

If there are years that count double, there are moments in which the hour-glass is transfixed. The entire scene, from Tristrem's entrance to Weldon's departure, was compassed in less than a minute, yet during that fragment of time there had been enacted a drama in epitome – a drama humdrum and ordinary indeed, but in which Tristrem found himself bidding farewell to one whom he had never known.

He was broken in spirit, overwhelmed by the suddenness of the disaster, and presently, as though in search of sympathy, he turned to Miss Raritan. The girl had thrown herself in a chair, and sat, her face hidden in her hands. As Tristrem approached her she looked up. Her cheeks were blanched.

"He told me you were at the Wainwaring's," Tristrem began. "I don't see," he added, after a moment – "I don't understand why he should have done so. He knew you were here, yet he said – "

"Did you hear what he said to me?"

Tristrem for all response shook his head wonderingly.

The girl's cheeks from white had turned flame.

"He has not been to you the friend you think," she said, and raising her arm to her face, she made a gesture as though to brush from her some distasteful thing.

"But what has he done? What did he say?"

"Don't ask me. Don't mention him to me." She buried her face again in her hands and was silent.

Tristrem turned uneasily and walked into the other room, and then back again to where she sat; but still she hid her face and was silent. And Tristrem left her and continued his walk, this time to the dining-room and then back to the parlor which he had first entered. And after a while Miss Raritan stood up from her seat and as though impelled by the nervousness of her companion, she, too, began to pace the rooms, but in the contrary direction to that which Tristrem had chosen. At last she stopped, and when Tristrem approached her she beckoned him to her side.

"What did you say to me last night?" she asked.

"What did I say? I said – you asked me – I said it would be difficult."

"Do you think so still?"

"Always."

"Tristrem, I will be your wife."

A Cimmerian led out of darkness into sudden light could not marvel more at multicolored vistas than did Tristrem, at this promise. Truly they are most hopeless who have hoped the most. And Tristrem, as he paced the rooms, had told himself it was done. His hopes had scattered before him like last year's leaves. He had groped in shadows and had been conscious only of a blind alley, with a dead wall, somewhere, near at hand. But now, abruptly, the shadows had gone, the blind alley had changed into a radiant avenue, the dead wall had parted like a curtain, and beyond was a new horizon, gold-barred and blue, and landscapes of asphodels and beckoning palms. He was as one who, overtaken by sleep on the banks of the Styx, awakes in Arcadia.

His face was so eloquent with the bewitchments through which he roamed that, for the first time that evening, Miss Raritan smiled. She raised a finger warningly.

"Now, Tristrem, if you say anything ridiculous I will take it back."

But the warning was needless. Tristrem caught the finger, and kissed her hand with old-fashioned grace.

"Viola," he said, at last, "I thank you. I do not know what I can do to show how I appreciate this gift of gifts. But yet, if it is anything, if it can bring any happiness to a girl to know that she fills a heart to fulfilment itself, that she dwells in thought as the substance of thought, that she animates each fibre of another's being, that she enriches a life with living springs, and feels that it will be never otherwise, then you will be happy, for so you will always be to me."

The speech, if pardonably incoherent, was not awkwardly made, and it was delivered with a seriousness that befitted the occasion. In a tone as serious as his own, she answered:

"I will be true to you, Tristrem." That was all. But she looked in his face as she spoke.

They had been standing, but now they found seats near to each other. Tristrem would not release her hand, and she let it lie unrebellious in his own. And in this fashion they sat and mapped the chartless future. Had Tristrem been allowed his way the marriage would have been an immediate one. But to this, of course, Miss Raritan would not listen.

"Not before November," she said, with becoming decision.

"Why, that is five months off!"

"And months are short, and then – "

"But, Viola, think! Five months! It is a kalpa of time. And besides," he added, with the cogent egotism of an accepted lover, "what shall I do with myself in the meantime?"

"If you are good you may come to the Pier, and there we will talk edelweiss and myosotis, as all engaged people do." She said this so prettily that the sarcasm, if sarcasm there were, was lost.

To this programme Tristrem was obliged to subscribe.

"Well, then, afterward we will go abroad."

"Don't you like this country?" the girl asked, all the stars and stripes fluttering in her voice, and in a tone which one might use in reciting, "Breathes there the man, with soul so dead?"

"I think," he answered, apologetically, "that I do like this country. It is a great country. But New York is not a great city, at least not to my thinking. Collectively it is great, I admit, but individually not, and that is to me the precise difference between it and Paris. Collectively the French amount to little, individually it is otherwise."

"But you told me once that Paris was tiresome."

"I was not there with you. And should it become so when we are there together, we have the whole world to choose from. In Germany we can have the middle ages over again. In London we can get the flush of the nineteenth century. There is all of Italy, from the lakes to Naples. We can take a doge's palace in Venice, or a C?sar's villa on the Baia. With a dahabieh we could float down into the dawn of history. You would look well in a dahabieh, Viola."

"As Aida?"

"Better. And that reminds me, Viola; tell me, you will give up all thought of the stage, will you not?"

"How foolish you are. Fancy Mrs. Tristrem Varick before the footlights. There are careers open to a girl that the acceptance of another's name must close. And the stage is one of them. I should have adopted it long ago, had it not been for mother. She seems to think that a Raritan – but there, you know what mothers are. Now, of course, I shall give it up. Besides, Italian opera is out of fashion. And even if it were otherwise, have I not now a lord, a master, whom I must obey?"

Her eyes looked anything but obedience, yet her voice was melodious with caresses.

And so they sat and talked and made their plans, until it was long past the conventional hour, and Tristrem felt that he should go. He had been afloat in unnavigated seas of happiness, but still in his heart he felt the burn of a red, round wound. The lie that Weldon had told smarted still, yet with serener spirit he thought there might be some unexplained excuse.

"Tell me," he asked, as he was about to leave, "what was it Weldon said?"

Miss Raritan looked at him, and hesitated before she spoke. Then catching his face in her two hands she drew it to her own.

"He said you were a goose," she whispered, and touched her lips to his.

With this answer Tristrem was fain to be content. And presently, when he left the house, he reeled as though he had drunk beaker after flagon of the headiest wine.

VI

After a ten-mile pull on the river, a shandygaff of Bass and champagne is comforting to the oarsman. It is accounted pleasant to pay a patient creditor an outlawed debt. But a poet has held that the most pleasurable thing imaginable is to awake on a summer morning with the consciousness of being in love. Even in winter the sensation ought not to be disagreeable; yet when to the consciousness of being in love is added the belief that the love is returned, then the bleakest day of all the year must seem like a rose of June.

Tristrem passed the night in dreams that told of Her. He strayed through imperishable beauties, through dawns surrounded by candors of hope. The breath of brooks caressed him, he was enveloped in the sorceries of a sempiternal spring. The winds, articulate with song, choired to the skies ululations and messages of praise. Each vista held a promise. The horizon was a prayer fulfilled. He saw grief collapse and joy enthroned. From bird and blossom he caught the incommunicable words of love. And when from some new witchery he at last awoke, he smiled – the real was fairer than the dream.

For some time he loitered in the gardens which his fancy disclosed, spectacular-wise, for his own delight, until at last he bethought him of the new duties of his position and of the accompanying necessity of making those duties known to those to whom he was related. Then, after a breakfast of sliced oranges and coffee, he rang for the servant and told him to ask his father whether he could spare a moment that morning. In a few minutes the servant returned. "Mr. Varick will be happy to see you, sir," he said.

"What did he say?" Tristrem asked; "what were his exact words?"

"Well, sir, I said as how you presented your compliments, and could you see him, and he didn't say nothing; he was feeding the bird. But I could tell, sir; when Mr. Varick doesn't like a thing, he looks at you and if he does, he doesn't."

"And he didn't look at you?"

"No, sir, he didn't turn his 'ead."

"H'm," said Tristrem to himself, as he descended the stairs, "I wonder, when I tell him, whether he will look at me." And the memory of his father's stare cast a shadow on his buoyant spirits.

On entering the room in which Mr. Varick passed his mornings, Tristrem found that gentleman seated at a table. In one hand he held a bronze-colored magazine, and in the other a silver knife. In the window was a gilt cage in which a bird was singing, and on the table was a profusion of roses – the room itself was vast and chill. One wall was lined, the entire length, with well-filled book-shelves. In a corner was a square pile of volumes, bound in pale sheep, which a lawyer would have recognized as belonging to the pleasant literature of his profession. And over the book-shelves was a row of Varicks, standing in the upright idleness which is peculiar to portraits in oil. It was many years since Tristrem had entered this room; yet now, save for the scent of flowers and the bird-cage, it was practically unchanged.

"Father," he began at once, "I would not have ventured to disturb you if – if – that is, unless I had something important to say." He was looking at his father, but his father was not looking at him. "It is this," he continued, irritated in spite of himself by the complete disinterestedness of one whose son he was; "I am engaged to be married."

At this announcement Mr. Varick fluttered the paper-knife, but said nothing.

"The young lady is Miss Raritan," he added, and then paused, amazed at the expression of his father's face. It was as though unseen hands were torturing it at will. The mouth, cheeks, and eyelids quivered and twitched, and then abruptly Mr. Varick raised the bronze-colored magazine, held it before his tormented features, and when he lowered it again his expression was as apathetic as before.

"You are ill!" Tristrem exclaimed, advancing to him.

But Mr. Varick shook his head, and motioned him back. "It is nothing," he answered. "Let me see, you were saying – ?"

"I am engaged to Miss Raritan."

"The daughter of – "

"Her father was Roanoke Raritan. He was minister somewhere – to England or to France, I believe."

While Tristrem was giving this information Mr. Varick went to the window. He looked at the occupant of the gilt cage, and ran a thumb through the wires. The bird ruffled its feathers, cocked its head, and edged gingerly along the perch, reproving the intrusive finger with the scorn and glitter of two eyes of bead. But the anger of the canary was brief. In a moment Mr. Varick left the cage, and turned again to his son.

"Nothing you could do," he said, "would please me better."

"Thank you," Tristrem answered, "I – "

"Are you to be married at once?"

"Not before November, sir."

"I wish it were sooner. I do not approve of protracted engagements. But, of course, you know your own business best. If I remember rightly, the father of this young lady did not leave much of a fortune, did he?"

"Nothing to speak of, I believe."

"You have my best wishes. The match is very suitable, very suitable. I wish you would say as much, with my compliments, to the young lady's mother. I would do so myself, but, as you know, I am something of an invalid. You might add that, too – and – er – I don't mean to advise you, but I would endeavor to hasten the ceremony. In such matters, it is usual for the young lady to be coy, but it is for the man to be pressing and resolute. I only regret that her father could not know of it. In regard to money, your allowance will have to be increased – well, I will attend to that. There is nothing else, is there? Oh, do me the favor not to omit to say that I am much pleased. I knew Miss Raritan's father." Mr. Varick looked up at the ceiling, and put his hand to his mouth. It was difficult to say whether he was concealing a smile or a yawn. "He would be pleased, I know." And with that Mr. Varick resumed his former position, and took up again the magazine.

"It is very good of you," Tristrem began; "I didn't know, of course – you see, I knew that if you saw the young lady – but what am I calling her a young lady for?" he asked, in an aside, of himself – "Miss Raritan, I mean," he continued aloud, "you would think me fortunate as a king's cousin." He paused. "I am sure," he reflected, "I don't know what I am talking about. What I say – is sheer imbecility. However," he continued, again, "I want to thank you. You have seen so little of me that I did not expect you would be particularly interested, I – I – "

He hesitated again, and then ceased speaking. He had been looking at his father, and something in his father's stare fascinated and disturbed his train of thought. For the moment he was puzzled. From his childhood he had felt that his father disliked him, though the reason of that dislike he had never understood. It was one of those things that you get so accustomed to that it is accepted, like baldness, as a matter of course, as a thing which had to be and could not be otherwise. To his grandfather, who was at once the most irascible and gentlest of men, and whom he had loved instinctively, from the first, with the unreasoning faith that children have – to him he had, in earlier days, spoken more than once of the singularity of his father's attitude. The old gentleman, however, had no explanation to give. Or, if he had one, he preferred to keep it to himself. But he petted the boy outrageously, with some idea of making up for it all, and of showing that he at least had love enough for two.

And now, as Tristrem gazed in his father's face, he seemed to decipher something that was not dislike – rather the contented look of one who learns of an enemy's disgrace, a compound of malice and of glee.

"That was all I had to say," Tristrem added, with his winning smile, as though apologizing for the lameness of the conclusion. And thereupon he left the room and went out to consult a jeweller and bear the tidings to other ears.



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