The Truth About Tristrem Varick: A Novel
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For some time he was absurdly happy. His grandfather received the announcement of the coming marriage with proper enthusiasm. He laughed sagaciously at Tristrem's glowing descriptions of the bride that was to be, and was for going to call on the mother and daughter at once, and was only prevented on learning that they had both left town.
"But I must write," he said, and write he did, two elaborate letters, couched in that phraseology at once recondite and simple which made our ancestors the delightful correspondents that they were. The letters were old-fashioned indeed. Some of the sentences were enlivened with the eccentricities of orthography which were in vogue in the days of the Spectator. The handwriting was infamous, and the signature on each was adorned with an enormous flourish. They were not models for a Perfect Letter Writer, but they were heartfelt and honest, and they served their purpose very well.
"And, Tristrem," the old gentleman said, when the addresses had been dried with a shower of sand and the letters despatched, "you must take her this, with my love. I gave it to your mother on her wedding day, and now it should go to her." From a little red case he took a diamond brooch, set in silver, which he polished reflectively on his sleeve. "She was very sweet, Tristrem, your mother was – a good girl, and a pretty one. Did I ever tell you about the time – "
And the old gentleman ran on with some anecdote of the dear dead days in which his heart was tombed. Tristrem listened with the interest of those that love. He had heard the story, and many others of a similar tenor, again and again, but, somehow, he never heard them too often. There was nothing wearisome to him in such chronicles; and as he sat listening, and now and then prompting with some forgotten detail, anyone who had happened on the scene would have accounted it pleasant to watch the young fellow and the old man talking together over the youth of her who had been mother to one and daughter to the other.
"See!" said Tristrem at last, when his grandfather had given the brooch into his keeping. "See! I have something for her too." And with that he displayed a ruby, unset, that was like a clot of blood. "I shall have it put in a ring," he explained, "but this might do for a bonnet-pin;" and then he produced a green stone, white-filmed, that had a heart of oscillating flame.
Mr. Van Norden had taken the ruby in his hand and held it off at arm's length, and then between two fingers, to the light, that he might the better judge of its beauty. But at the mention of the bonnet-pin he turned to look:
"Surely, Tristrem, you would not give her that; it's an opal."
"And what if it is?"
"But it is not lucky."
Tristrem smiled blithely, with the bravery that comes of nineteenth-century culture.
"It's a pearl with a soul," he answered, "that's what it is. And if Viola doesn't like it I'll send it to you."
"God forbid," Mr.Van Norden replied; "if anyone sent me an opal I would swear so hard that if the devil heard me he'd go in a corner and cross himself."
At this threat Tristrem burst out laughing, and the old gentleman, amused in spite of himself at the fantasy of his own speech, burst out laughing too.
Then there was more chat, and more reminiscences, and much planning as to how Tristrem should best assume the rank and appanages of the married state. Tristrem dined with his grandfather that evening, and when Mr. Van Norden started out to his club for a game of whist, Tristrem accompanied him as far as the club door.
When they parted, Tristrem was in such spirits that he could have run up to Central Park and back again. "Divinities of Pindar," he kept exclaiming – a phrase that he had caught somewhere – "divinities of Pindar, she is mine."
Thereafter, for several days, he lived, as all true lovers do, on air and the best tenderloins he could obtain.
One morning Tristrem found the sliced oranges companied by a note from Her. It was not long, but he read it so often that it became lengthy in spite of the writer. The cottage, it informed him, which had been taken for the summer, was becoming habitable. As yet but one of the hotels, and that the worst, was prepared for guests. In a fortnight, however, the others would begin to open their doors, and meanwhile if, in the course of the week, he care to run up, there was a room in the cottage at his disposal.
"In the course of the week," soliloquized Tristrem; "h'm – well, this afternoon is in the course of it, and this afternoon will I go."
Pleasured by the artfulness of his own sophistry, he procured a provision of langues dor?es, a comestible of which she was fond, found at Tiffany's the ruby and opal set in accordance with orders already given, and at two o'clock boarded the Newport express.
The train reached New London before Tristrem had so much as glanced at a volume which he held in his hand. He had little need of anything to occupy his thoughts. His mind was a scenario in which he followed the changes and convolutions of an entertainment more alluring than any that romancer or playwright could convey. He was in that mood which we all of us have experienced, in which life seems not only worth living, but a fountain of delight as well. Were ever fields more green or sky more fair? And such a promise as the future held! In his hearing was a choir of thrushes, and on his spirit had been thrown a mantle so subtle, yet of texture so insistent, that no thought not wholly pure could pierce the woof or find a vantage-ground therein. He was in that mood in which one feels an ascension of virtues, the companionship of unviolated illusions, the pomp and purple of worship, a communion with all that is best, a repulsion of all that is base – that mood in which hymns mount unsummoned from the heart.
He was far away, but the Ideal was at his side. The past was a mirror, mirroring nothing save his own preparation and the dream of the coming of her. And now she had come, fairer than the fairest vision and desire that ever visited a poet starving in a garret. To be worthy of her, even in the slightest measure, what was there that he would leave undone? And as the train brought him to his journey's end, he repeated to himself, gravely and decorously, and with the earnestness and sincerity of the untried, the grave covenants of the marriage pact.
On descending at the station he remembered, for the first time, that he had omitted to send Miss Raritan an avant-courier in the shape of a telegram. It is one of the oddities of hazard that, in turning down one street instead of turning up another, a man's existence, and not his own alone, but that of others also, may seem to be wholly changed thereby. The term seem is used advisedly, for, with a better understanding of the interconnection of cause and effect, chance has been outlawed by science, and in the operations of consistent laws the axiom, "Whatever will be, Is," has passed to the kindergarten. Tristrem thought of this months afterward. He remembered then, that that morning he had started out with the intention of sending a telegram from the club, but on the way there he had thought of the chocolate which Viola preferred, and, after turning into Broadway to purchase it, he had drifted into Tiffany's, and from there he had returned to Waverley Place, the message unsent and forgotten. He recalled these incidents months later, but for the moment he merely felt a vague annoyance at his own neglect.
There was a negro at the station, the driver of a coach in whose care Tristrem placed himself, and presently the coach rattled over a road that skirted the sea, and drew up at the gate of a tiny villa. On the porch Mrs. Raritan was seated, and when she recognized her visitor she came down the path, exclaiming her pleasure and welcome. It was evident at once that she had been gratified by her daughter's choice.
"But we didn't expect you," she said. "Viola told me you would not come before Saturday. I am glad you did, though; as yet there's hardly a soul in the place. Viola has gone riding. It's after seven, isn't it? She ought to be back now. Why didn't you send us word? We would have met you at the train."
They had found seats on the porch. Tristrem explained his haste, apologizing for the neglect to wire. The haste seemed pardonable to Mrs. Raritan, and the attendant absent-mindedness easily understood. And so for some moments they talked together. Tristrem delivered his father's message, and learned that Mr. Van Norden's letters had been received. Some word was even said of the possibility of a September wedding. And then a little plot was concocted. Dinner would be served almost immediately, so soon, in fact, as Viola returned. Meanwhile, Tristrem would go to his room, Mrs. Raritan would say nothing of his arrival, but, when dinner was announced, a servant would come to his door, and then he was to appear and give Viola the treat and pleasure of a genuine surprise.
This plan was acted on at once. Tristrem was shown to the room which he was to occupy, and proceeded to get his things in order. From his shirt-box, which, with his valise, had already been brought upstairs, he took the ring, the brooch, the pin, and placed them on the mantel. Then he found other garments, and began to dress. In five minutes he was in readiness, but as yet he heard nothing indicative of Viola's return. He went to the window and looked out. Above the trees, in an adjacent property, there loomed a tower. The window was at the back of the house; he could not see the ocean, but he heard its resilient sibilants, and from the garden came the hum of insects. It had grown quite dark, but still there was no sign of Viola's return.
He took up the volume which he had brought with him in the cars. It was the Rime Nuove of Carducci, and with the fancies of that concettist of modern Rome he stayed his impatience for a while. There was one octave that had appealed to him before. He read it twice, and was about to endeavor to repeat the lines from memory, when through the open window he heard the clatter of horses' hoofs, the roll of wheels; it was evident that some conveyance had stopped at the gate of the villa. Then came the sound of hurrying feet, a murmur of voices, and abruptly the night was cut with the anguish of a woman's cry.
Tristrem rushed from the room and down the stairs. Through the open door beyond a trembling star was visible, and in the road a group of undistinguished forms.
"She's only fainted," someone was saying; "she was right enough a minute ago."
Before the sentence was completed, Tristrem was at the gate. Hatless, with one hand ungloved and the other clutching a broken whip, the habit rent from hem to girdle, dust-covered and dishevelled, the eyes closed, and in the face the pallor and contraction of mortal pain, Viola Raritan lay, waist-supported, in her mother's arms.
"Help me with her to the house," the mother moaned. Then noticing Tristrem at her side, "She's been thrown," she added; "I knew she would be – I knew it – "
And as Tristrem reached to aid her with the burden, the girl's eyes opened, "It's nothing." She raised her ungloved hand, "I – " and swooned again.
They bore her into a little sitting-room, and laid her down. Mrs. Raritan followed, distraught with fright. In her helplessness, words came from her unsequenced and obscure. But soon she seemed to feel the need of action. One servant she despatched for a physician, from another a restorative was obtained. And Tristrem, meanwhile, knelt at the girl's side, beating her hand with his. It had been scratched, he noticed, as by a briar, and under the nails were stains such as might come from plucking berries that are red.
As he tried to take from her the whip, that he might rub the hand that held it too, the girl recovered consciousness again. The swoon had lasted but a moment or so, yet to him who watched it had been unmeasured time. She drew away the hand he held, and raising herself she looked at him; to her lips there came a tremulousness and her eyes filled.
"My darling," Mrs. Raritan sobbed, "are you hurt? Tell me. How did it happen? Did the horse run away with you. Oh, Viola, I knew there would be an accident. Where are you hurt? Did the horse drag you?"
The girl turned to her mother almost wonderingly. It seemed to Tristrem that she was not yet wholly herself.
"Yes," she answered; "no, I mean – no, he didn't, it was an accident, he shied. Do get me upstairs." And with that her head fell again on the cushion.
Tristrem sought to raise her, but she motioned him back and caught her mother's hand, and rising with its assistance she let the arm circle her waist, and thus supported she suffered herself to be led away.
Tristrem followed them to the hall. On the porch a man loitered, hat in hand; as Tristrem approached he rubbed the brim reflectively.
"I saw the horse as good as an hour ago," he said, "I was going to Caswell's." And with this information he crooked his arm and made a backward gesture. "It's down yonder on the way to the Point," he explained. "As I passed Hazard's I looked in the cross-road – I call it a road, but after you get on a bit it's nothing more than a cow-path, all bushes and suchlike. But just up the road I see'd the horse. He was nibbling grass as quiet as you please. I didn't pay no attention, I thought he was tied. Well, when I was coming back I looked again; he wasn't there, but just as I got to the turn I heard somebody holloaing, and I stopped. A man ran up and says to me, 'There's a lady hurt herself, can't you give her a lift?' 'Where?' says I. 'Down there,' he says, 'back of Hazard's; she's been thrown.' So I turned round, and sure enough there she was, by the fence, sort of dazed like. I says, 'Are you hurt, miss?' and she says, 'No,' but could I bring her here, and then I see'd that her dress was torn. She got in, and I asked her where her hat was, and she said it was back there, but it didn't make no difference, she wanted to get home. And when we were driving on here I told her as how I see'd the horse, and I asked if it wasn't one of White's, and she said, 'Yes, it was,' and I was a-going to ask where she was thrown, but she seemed sort of faint, and, sure enough, just as we got here away she went. I always says women-folk ought not to be let on horse-back, she might have broke her neck; like as not – "
"You have been very kind," Tristrem answered, "very kind, indeed."
During the entire scene he had not said a word. The spectacle of Viola fainting on the roadside, the fear that she might be maimed, the trouble at her pallor – these things had tied his tongue; and even now, as he spoke, his voice was not assured, and a hand with which he fumbled in his waistcoat trembled so that the roll of bills which he drew out fell on the porch at his feet. He stooped and picked it up.
"If Mrs. Raritan were here, she would thank you as I do," he continued. "I wish – " and he was about to make some present, but the man drew back.
"That's all right, I don't want no pay for that."
"I beg your pardon," Tristrem answered, "I know you do not. Tell me, are you married?"
The man laughed.
"Yes, I am, and I got the biggest boy you ever see. He's going on four years and he weighs a ton."
"I wish you would do me a favor. Let me make him a little present."
But even to this the man would not listen. He was reluctant to accept so much as thanks. Having done what good he could, he was anxious to go his way – the sort of man that one has to visit the seashore to find, and who, when found, is as refreshing as the breeze.
As he left the porch, he looked back. "Here's the doctor," he said, and passed on into the night.
While the physician visited the patient, Tristrem paced the sitting-room counting the minutes till he could have speech with him, himself. And when at last he heard the stairs creak, he was out in the hall, prepared to question and intercept. The physician was most reassuring. There was nothing at all the matter. By morning Miss Raritan would be up and about. She had had a shock, no doubt. She was upset, and a trifle nervous, but all she needed was a good night's rest, with a chop and a glass of claret to help her to it. If sleep were elusive, then a bromide. But that was all. If she had been seventy a tumble like that might have done for her, but at nineteen! And the doctor left the house, reflecting that were not educated people the most timorous of all, the emoluments of his profession would be slight.
Whether or not Miss Raritan found the chop and claret sufficient, or whether she partook of a bromide as well, is not a part of history. In a little while after the physician's departure a servant brought word to Tristrem that for the moment Mrs. Raritan was unable to leave her daughter, but if he would have his dinner then, Mrs. Raritan would see him later. Such was the revulsion of feeling that Tristrem, to whom, ten minutes before, the mere mention of food would have been distasteful, sat down, and ate like a wolf. The meal finished, he went out on the porch. There was no moon as yet, but the sky was brilliant with the lights of other worlds. Before him was the infinite, in the air was the scent of sea-weed, and beyond, the waves leaped up and fawned upon the bluffs. And as he stood and watched it all, the servant came to him with Mrs. Raritan's apologies. She thought it better, the maid explained, not to leave Miss Raritan just yet, and would Mr. Varick be good enough to excuse her for that evening?
"Wait a second," he answered, and went to his room. He found the jewels, and brought them down-stairs. "Take these to Miss Raritan," he said, and on a card he wrote some word of love, which he gave with the trinkets to the maid. "La parlate d'amor," he murmured, as the servant left to do his bidding, and then he went again to his room, and sat down at the window companioned only by the stars. From beyond, the boom and retreating wash of waves was still audible, and below in the garden he caught, now and then, the spark and glitter of a firefly gyrating in loops of gold, but the tower which he had noticed on arriving was lost in the night.
It was in that direction, he told himself, that the accident must have occurred. And what was it, after all? As yet he had not fully understood. Had the horse stumbled, or had he bolted and thrown her? If he had only been there! And as his fancy evoked the possibilities of that ride, he saw a terrified brute tearing along a deserted road, carrying the exquisite girl straight to some sudden death, and, just when the end was imminent, his own muscles hardened into steel, he had him by the bit and, though dragged by the impetus, at last he held him, and she was safe. She was in his arms, her own about his neck, and were he a knight-errant and she some gracious princess, what sweeter guerdon could he claim?
But one thing preoccupied him. In the vertiginous flight she had lost something – her whip, no, her hat – and it was incumbent on him to restore it to her. Very softly, then, that he might not disturb her, he opened the door. The house was hushed, and in a moment he was on the road. He could see the tower now; it was illuminated, and it seemed to him odd that he had not noticed the illumination before. It was that way, he knew, back of Hazard's, and he hurried along in the direction which the man had indicated. The insects had stilled their murmur, and the sky was more obscure, but the road was clear.
He hurried on, and as he hurried he heard steps behind him, hurrying too. He turned his head; behind him was a woman running, and who, as she ran, cast a shadow that was monstrous. In the glimpse that he caught of her he saw that she was bare of foot and that her breast was uncovered. Her skirt was tattered and her hair was loose. He turned again, the face was hideous. The eyes squinted, lustreless and opaque, the nose was squat, the chin retreated, the forehead was seamed with scars, and the mouth, that stretched to the ears, was extended with laughter. As she ran she took her teeth out one by one, replacing them with either hand. And still she laughed, a silent laughter, her thin lips distorted as though she mocked the world.
Tristrem, overcome by the horror of that laughter, felt as agonized as a child pursued. There was a fence at hand, a vacant lot, and across it a light glimmered. Away he sped. In the field his foot caught in a bramble; he fell, and could not rise, but he heard her coming and, with a great effort just as she was on him, he was up again, distancing her with ever-increasing space. The light was just beyond. He saw now it came from the tower; there was another fence, he was over it; the door was barred; no, it opened; he was safe!
In the middle of the room, circular as befits a tower, was a cradle, and in the cradle was a little boy. As Tristrem looked at him he smiled; it was, he knew, the child of the man to whom he had spoken that evening. One hand was under the pillow, but the other, that lay on the coverlid, held Viola's hat. He bent over to examine it; the fingers that held it were grimy and large, and, as he looked closer, he saw that it was not a child, but the man himself. Before he had an opportunity to account for the delusion he heard the gallop of feet and a thunder at the door. It was she! He wheeled like a rat surprised. There was a lateral exit, through which he fled, and presently he found himself in a corridor that seemed endless in extension. The man evidently had left the cradle and preceded him, for Tristrem saw him putting on a great-coat some distance ahead. In his feverish fright he thought, could he but disguise himself with that, he might pass out unobserved, and he ran on to supplicate for an exchange of costume; but when he reached the place where the man had stood he had gone, vanished through a dead wall, and down the corridor he heard her come. He could hear her bare feet patter on the stones. Oh, God, what did she wish of him? And no escape, not one. He was in her power, immured with her forevermore. He called for help, and beat at the walls, and ever nearer she came, swifter than disease, and more appalling than death. His nails sank in his flesh, he raised a hand to stay the beating of his heart, and then at once she was upon him, felling him to the ground as a ruffian fells his mistress, her knees were on his arms, he was powerless, dumb with dread, and in his face was the fetor of her breath. Her eyes were no longer lustreless, they glittered like twin stars, and still she laughed, her naked breast heaving with the convulsions of her mirth. "I am Truth," she bawled, and laughed again. And with that Tristrem awoke, suffocating, quivering, and outwearied as though he had run a race and lost it.
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