Edgar Saltus.

The Truth About Tristrem Varick: A Novel



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He emphasized the last word, and, as his meaning grew clear to Mr. Van Norden, that gentleman got very red in the face. He rang the bell.

"Thank you, sir," he said. "I shall be indebted if you will send me your account. And I shall be particularly indebted if you will send it at your very earliest convenience. Henry, get this – this – get this gentleman his hat and see him to the street."

Unfortunately for those that practise, there are a great many more lawyers in New York than one. And before the last will and testament of Erastus Varick came up for probate, Mr. Van Norden experienced slight difficulty in retaining another attorney to defend Tristrem's interests. The matter, of course, was set down for a hearing, and came up on the calendar three months later.

Of the result of that hearing the reader has been already informed, and then it was that Tristrem was taxed with old-world folly.

X

In years gone by it had been Mr. Van Norden's custom to pass the heated term at Rockaway. But when Rockaway became a popular resort, Mr. Van Norden, like the sensible man that he was, discovered that his own house was more comfortable than a crowded hotel. This particular summer, therefore, he passed as usual in New York, and Tristrem, who had moved to his house, kept him company. June was not altogether disagreeable, but in July the city was visited by a heat at once insistent and enervating. In August it was cooler, as our Augusts are apt to be; yet the air was lifeless, and New York was not a nosegay. During these months Tristrem was as lifeless as the air. In his first need of sympathy he had gone to the irascible and kind-hearted old gentleman and told him of the breaking of the engagement, and, he might have added, of his heart, though in the telling he sought, with a lover's fealty, to palliate the grievousness of the cruelty to which he had been subjected.

"It is this way," he said; "Viola, I think, feels that she does not know me sufficiently well. After all, we have seen but little of each other, and if she accepted me, it was on the spur of the moment. Since then she has thought of it more seriously. It is for me to win her, not for her to throw herself in my arms. That is what she has thought. She may seem capricious; and what if she does? Your knowledge of women has, I am sure, made you indulgent."

"Not in the least," Mr. Van Norden answered. And then, for the time being, the subject was dropped.

It was this semi-consolatory view which Tristrem took of the matter after the effect of the first shock had lost its force. But when he received the bundle of letters, together with the Panama hat, which, through some splendid irony, had been devised to him in the only clause of the will in which his name was mentioned, it was as though a flash had rent the darkness and revealed in one quick glare an answer to the enigma in which he groped.

The letters were few in number – a dozen at most – and they were tied together with a bit of faded ribbon.

They were all in the same hand, one and all contained protestations of passionate love, and each was signed in full, Roanoke Raritan. The envelope which held them was addressed to Mrs. Erastus Varick.

It was then that he saw the reason of his disinheritance, and it was then that he understood the cause of Viola's withdrawal. It was evident to him that Mrs. Raritan possessed either thorough knowledge of the facts, or else that she had some inkling of them which her feminine instinct had supplemented into evidence, and which had compelled her to forbid the banns. There were, however, certain things which he could not make clear to his mind. Why had Mrs. Raritan treated him with such consideration? She had known from the first that he loved her daughter. And after the engagement, if she wished it broken, why had she allowed Viola to invite him to the Pier?

These things were at first inexplicable to him. Afterward he fancied that it might be that Mrs. Raritan, originally uninformed, had become so only through the man whom he had believed was his father, after the announcement of the engagement had been made to him, and possibly through some communication which had only reached her after his sudden death. This explanation he was inclined to accept, and he was particularly inclined to do so on recalling the spasm which had agitated the deceased when he had come to him with the intelligence of the engagement, and the nervous excitement which Mrs. Raritan displayed on the morning when he left for town.

This explanation he accepted later – but in the horror of the situation in which he first found himself his mind declined to act. He had never known his mother, but her fame he had cherished as one cherishes that which is best and most perfect of all. And abruptly that fame was tarnished, as some fair picture might be sullied by a splash and splatter of mud. And as though that were insufficient, the letters which devastated his mother's honor brought him a hideous suspicion, and one which developed into certainty, that his father and the father of the girl whom he loved were one and the same.

It is not surprising, then, that during the summer months Tristrem was as lifeless as the air he breathed. His grandfather noticed the change – he would have been blind indeed had he not – and he urged him to leave New York. But at each remonstrance Tristrem shook his head with persistent apathy. What did it matter to him where he was? If New York, instead of being merely hot and uncomfortable, had been cholera-smitten, and the prey of pest, Tristrem's demeanor would not have altered. There are people whom calamity affects like a tonic, who rise from misfortune refreshed; there are others on whom disaster acts like a soporific, and he was one of the latter. For three months he did not open a book, the daily papers were taken from him unread, and if during that time he had lost his reason, it is probable that his insanity would have consisted in sitting always with eyes fixed, without laughing, weeping, or changing place.

But after the hearing in the Surrogate's Court there was a change of scene. The will was set aside, and the estate, of which Tristrem had taken absolutely no thought whatever, reverted to him. It was then that he made it over in its entirety to the institution to which it had been originally devised; and it was in connection with the disposal of the property, a disposal which he effected as a matter of course, and as the only right and proper thing for him to do, that he enjoyed a memorable interview with his grandfather.

He had not spoken to Mr. Van Norden about the letters, and the old gentleman, through some restraining sense of delicacy, had hesitated to question. Besides, he was confident that the estate would be Tristrem's, and thus assured, it seemed unnecessary to him to touch on a matter to which Tristrem had not alluded, and which was presumably distasteful to him. But when he learned what Tristrem had done, he looked upon the matter in a different light, and attacked him very aggressively the next day.

"I can understand perfectly," he said, "that you should decline to hold property on what you seem to regard as a legal quibble. But I should be very much gratified to learn in what your judgment is superior to that of the Legislature, and why you should refuse that to which you had as clear and indefeasible a claim as I have to this fob on my waistcoat. I should be really very much gratified to learn – "

Tristrem looked at his grandfather very much as though he had been asked to open a wound. But he answered nothing. He got the letters and placed them in the old gentleman's hand.

Mr. Van Norden glanced at one, and then turned to Tristrem. It was evident that he was in the currents of conflicting and retroacting emotions. He made as though he would speak, yet for the time being the intensity of his feelings prevented him. He took up the letters again and eyed them, shaking his head as he did so with the anger of one enraged at the irreparable, and conscious of the futility of the wrath.

In the lives of most men and women there are moments in which they are pregnant with words. The necessity of speech is so great that until the parturition is accomplished they experience the throes of suffocation. If no listener be at hand, there are at least the walls. Mr. Van Norden was standing near to Tristrem, but that he might be the better assured of his attention, he caught him by the arm, and addressed him in abrupt, disjointed sentences, in a torrent of phrases, unconnected, as though others than himself beat their vocables from his mouth. His words were so tumultuous that they assailed the gates of speech, as spectators at the sight of flame crowd the exits of a hall, and issue, some as were they hurled from catapults, others, maimed, in disarray.

He was possessed of anger, and as sometimes happens off the stage, his anger was splendid and glorious to behold. And Tristrem, with the thirst of one who has drunk of thirst itself, caught the cascade of words, and found in them the waters and fountains of life.

"These letters – But how is it possible? God in Heaven – ! But can't you see? – the bare idea is an infamy. Your mother was as interested in Raritan as – as – It's enough to make a mad dog blush. It was just a few months before you were born – Bah! the imbecility of Erastus Varick would unnerve a pirate. I know he was always running there, Raritan was, but anyone with the brain of a wooden Indian would have understood – Why, they were here – they came to me, all three of them, and because I knew her father – And precious little thanks I got for my pains. He said he would see the girl in her grave first. He would have it that Raritan was after her for her money. It's true he hadn't a penny – but – what's that got to do with it? The mischief's done. She must have sent these letters to your mother to return to Raritan just before she married that idiot Wainwaring. Your mother was her most intimate friend – they were at school together at Pelham Priory. Raritan, I suppose, was away. Before he got back, your mother – you were born, you know, and she died. She had no chance to return them. That imbecile of a father of yours must have found the letters, and thought – But how is such a thing possible? Good God! he ought to be dug up and cowhided. And it was for this he left you a Panama hat! And it was for this you have turned over millions to an institution for the shelter of vice! It was for this – See here, since Christ was crucified, a greater stupidity, or one more iniquitous, has never been committed."

In the magnificence of his indignation, Mr. Van Norden stormed on until he lacked the strength to continue. But he stormed to ravished and indulgent ears. And when at last he did stop, Tristrem, who meanwhile had been silent as a mouse, went over to the arm-chair into which, in his exhaustion, he had thrown himself, and touched his shoulder.

"If he did not wish me to have the money," he said, "how could I keep it? How could I?" And before the honesty that was in his face the old man lowered his eyes to the ground. "I am gladder," Tristrem continued, "to know myself his son than to be the possessor of all New York. But when I thought that I was not his son, was that a reason why I should cease to be a gentleman. Though I lost everything else, what did it matter if I kept my self-respect?"

He waited a moment for an answer, and then a very singular thing happened. From Dirck Van Norden's lowered eyes first one tear and then a second rolled down into the furrows of his cheek. From his throat came a sound that did not wholly resemble a sob and yet was not like to laughter, his mouth twitched, and he turned his head aside. "It's the first time since your mother died," he said at last, but what he meant by that absurd remark, who shall say?

For some time Tristrem lingered, lost in thought. It was indeed as he had said. He was gladder to feel again that he was free to love and free to be loved in return than he would have been at holding all New York in fee. As he rose from the nightmare in which he suffocated he did not so much as pay the lost estate the compliment of a regret. It was not that which had debarred him from her, nor was it for that that she had once placed her hand in his. He was well rid of it all, since in the riddance the doors of his prison-house were unlocked. For three months his heart had been not dead but haunted, and now it was instinct with life and fluttered by the beckonings of hope. He had fronted sorrow. Pain had claimed him for its own, and in its intensity it had absorbed his tears. He had sunk to the uttermost depths of grief, and, unbereft of reason, he had explored the horrors of the abyss. And now in the magic of the unforeseen he was transported to dazzling altitudes, to landscapes from which happiness, like the despot that it is, had routed sorrow and banished pain. He was like one who, overtaken by years and disease, suddenly finds his youth restored.

His plans were quickly made. He would go to Narragansett at once, and not leave until the engagement was renewed. He had even the cruelty to determine that his grandfather should come to the Pier himself, and argue with Mrs. Raritan, if argument were necessary.

"I have so much to say," he presently exclaimed, "that I don't know where to begin."

"Begin at the end," his grandfather suggested.

But Tristrem found it more convenient to begin in the middle. He led the old gentleman into the rhyme and reason of the rupture, he carried him forward and backward from old fancies to newer hopes. He explained how imperative it was that with the demolition of the obstacle which his father had erected the engagement should be at once renewed; he blamed himself for having even suggested that Viola was capricious; he mourned over the position in which she had been placed; he pictured Mrs. Raritan's relief when she learned of the error into which she had wandered; and after countless digressions wound up by commanding his grandfather to write an explanation which would serve him as a passport to renewed and uninterruptable favor.

"Certainly – certainly," Mr. Van Norden cried, with the impatience of one battling against a stream. "But even granting that your father wrote to Mrs. Raritan, which I doubt – although, to be sure, he was capable of anything – don't you see that you are in a very different position to-day than you would have been had you not – had you not – "

"You mean about the money?"

"Why, most assuredly I mean about the money," the old gentleman cried, aroused to new indignation by the wantonness of the question.

At this Tristrem, with the blithe confidence of a lover, shook his head. "You don't know Viola," he answered. "Besides, I can work. Other men do – why shouldn't I?"

"And be able to marry when you are ready for the grave. That's nonsense. Unless the young lady is a simpleton, and her mother a fit subject for Bedlam, don't tell them that you are going to work. And what would you work at, pray? No, no – that won't do. You are as fitted to go into business as I am to open a bake-shop."

"I might try stocks," said Tristrem, bravely.

"So you might, if you had the St. Nicholas money to start with. And even then you would have to lose two fortunes before you could learn how to make one. No, if you have not six or seven millions, you will, one of these days – and the later the day the better for me – you will have a few hundred thousand. It is paltry enough in comparison to the property which you threw out of the window, but, paltry or not, it's more than you deserve. Meanwhile, I will – There, don't begin your nonsense again, sir. For the last three months you have done nothing but bother the soul out of me. Meanwhile, if you don't accept what I care to give, and accept it, what's more, with a devilish good grace, I'll – I'll disinherit you myself – begad I will. I'll leave everything I have to the St. Nicholas. It's a game that two can play at. You have set the fashion, and you can abide by it. And now I would be very much indebted if you would let me get some rest."

Therewith the fierce old gentleman looked Tristrem in the eyes, and grasping him by the shoulder, he held him to him for a second's space.

XI

When Tristrem reached Narragansett he had himself driven to an hotel, where he removed the incidental traces of travel before venturing to present himself at the villa. It was a glorious forenoon, and as he dressed, the tonic that was blown to him through the open window affected his spirits like wine. The breeze promised victory. He had been idle and dilatory, he told himself; but he was older, the present was his, and he felt the strength to make it wholly to his use. The past would be forgotten and put aside; no, but utterly, as Nature forgets – and in the future, what things might be!

"O Magali, ma bien aim?e,

Fuyons tous deux, tous de – ux – "

The old song came back to him, and as he set out for the villa he hummed it gayly to himself. The villa was but the throw of a stone from the hotel, and in a moment he would be there. He was just a little bit nervous, and he walked rapidly. As he reached the gate his excitement increased. In his breast was a tightening sensation. And then at once he stopped short. On the door of the cottage hung a sign, bearing for legend, "To Let – Furnished."

"But it is impossible," he exclaimed, "they were to be here till October."

He went up and rang the bell. The front windows were closed and barred. The porch on which he stood was chairless. He listened, and heard no sound. He tried the door – it was locked.

"But it is impossible," he kept repeating. "H'm! 'To let – furnished; for particulars apply to J. F. Brown, at the Casino.' Most certainly, I will – most certainly," and monologuing in the fashion that was peculiar to him, he went down the road again, mindful only of his own perplexity.

On reaching the Casino he found that he would have no difficulty in seeing the agent. Mr. Brown, the door-keeper told him, was "right in there," and as he gave this information he pointed to a cramped little office which stood to the left of the entrance.

"Is this Mr. Brown?" Tristrem began. "Mr. Brown, I am sorry to trouble you. Would you be good enough to tell me about Mrs. Raritan's cottage. I – "

"For next summer? Nine hundred, payable in advance."

"I didn't mean about the price. I meant – I was told that Mrs. Raritan had taken it until October – "

"So she did. You can sublet for the balance of the season."

"Thank you – yes – but Mrs. Raritan hasn't gone away, has she?"

"She went weeks ago. There's nothing the matter with the cottage, however. Drainage excellent."

"I have no doubt. But can you tell me where Mrs. Raritan went to?"

"I haven't the remotest idea. Lenox, perhaps. If you want to look at the cottage I'll give you the key."

"I should think – Really, I must apologize for troubling you. Didn't Mrs. Raritan leave her address?"

"If she did, it wasn't with me. When do you want the cottage for?"

Tristrem had not the courage to question more. He turned despondently from Mr. Brown, and passing on through the vestibule, reached the veranda that fronts the sea. In an angle a group of violinists were strumming an inanity of Strauss with perfect independence of one another. Beyond, on the narrow piazza, and on a division of the lawn that leaned to the road, were a number of small tables close-packed with girls in bright costumes and men in loose flannels and coats of diverting hues. At the open windows of the restaurant other groups were seated, dividing their attention between the food before them and the throng without. And through the crowd a number of Alsatians pushed their way, bearing concoctions to the thirstless. The hubbub was enervating, and in the air was a stench of liquor with which the sea-breeze coped in vain.

Tristrem hesitated a second, and would have fled. He was in one of those moods in which the noise and joviality of pleasure-seekers are jarring even to the best-disposed. While he hesitated he saw a figure rising and beckoning from a table on the lawn. And as he stood, uncertain whether or no the signals were intended for him, the figure crossed the intervening space, and he recognized Alphabet Jones.

"Come and have a drink," said that engaging individual. "You're as solemn as a comedian. I give you my word, I believe you are the only sober man in the place."

"Thank you," Tristrem answered; "I believe I do not care for anything. I only came to ask – By the way, have you been here long?"

"Off and on all summer. It's a good place for points. You got my card, didn't you? I wanted to express my sympathy at your bereavement."

"You are very kind; I – "

"But what's this I hear about you? You've bloomed out into a celebrity. Everybody is talking about you – everybody, men, women, and children, particularly the girls. When a fellow gives away a fortune like that! Mais, tu sais, mon cher, c'est beau, c'est bien beau, ?a." And to himself he added, "Et bien b?te."



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