The Truth About Tristrem Varick: A Novel
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Already certain members of immediate groups had become interested in the new arrival, and it seemed to Tristrem that he heard his name circulating above the jangle of the waltz.
"I am going to the hotel," he said. "I wish you would walk back with me. I haven't spoken to a soul in an age. It would be an act of charity to tell me the gossip." Tristrem, as he made this invitation, marvelled at his own duplicity. For the time being, he cared for the society of Alphabet Jones as he cared for the companionship of a bum-bailiff. Yet still he lured him from the Casino and led him up the road, in the hope that perhaps without direct questioning he might gain some knowledge of Her.
As they walked on Jones descanted in the arbitrary didactic manner which is the privilege of men of letters whose letters are not in capitals, and moralized on a variety of topics, not with any covert intention of boring Tristrem, but merely from a habit he had of rehearsing ready-made phrases and noting their effect on a particular listener. This exercise he found beneficial. In airing his views he sometimes stumbled on a good thing which he had not thought of in private. And as he talked Tristrem listened, in the hope that he might say something which would permit him to lead up to the subject that was foremost in his mind. But nothing of such a nature was touched upon, and it was not until the cottage was reached that Tristrem spoke at all.
"The Raritans have gone, I see," he remarked, nodding at the cottage as he did so.
"Yes, I see by the papers that they sailed yesterday."
"You don't mean to say they have gone to Europe. I thought – I heard they were going to Lenox."
"If they were, they changed their plans. Miss Raritan didn't seem up to the mark when she was here. In some way she reminded me of a realized ideal – the charm had departed. She used to be enigmatical in her beauty, but this summer, though the beauty was still there, it was no longer enigmatical, it was like a problem solved. After all, it's the way with our girls. A winter or two in New York would take the color out of the cheeks of a Red Indian. Apropos de bottes, weren't you rather smitten in that direction?"
"And you say they have gone abroad?" Tristrem repeated, utterly unimpressed by the ornateness of the novelist's remarks.
"Yes, sir; and were it not that our beastly Government declines to give me the benefit of an international copyright, I should be able to go and do likewise. It's enough to turn an author into an anarchist. Why, you would be surprised – "
Jones rambled on, but Tristrem no longer listened. The position in which he found himself was more irritating than a dream. He was dumbly exasperated. It was his own inaction that was the cause of it all. If he had but bestirred himself sooner! Instead of struggling against that which every throb of his heart convinced him was false, he had dawdled with the impossible and toyed with apostils of grief.At the first obstacle he had turned aside. Where he should have been resolute, he had been weak. He had taken mists for barriers. A child frightened at its own shadow was never more absurd than he. And Viola – it was not surprising that the color had deserted her cheeks. It was no wonder that in his imbecile silence she had gone away. It was only surprising that she had not gone before. And if she had waited, might it not be that she waited expectant of some effort from him, hoping against hope, and when he had made no sign had believed in his defeat, and left him to it. There was no blame for her. And now, if he were free again, that very liberty was due not to his own persistence, but to chance. Surely she was right to go. Yet – yet – but, after all, it was not too late. Wherever she had gone he could follow. He would find her, and tell her, and hold her to him.
Already he smiled in scenes forecast. The exasperation had left him. Whether he came to Narragansett or journeyed to Paris, what matter did it make? The errand was identical, and the result would be the same. How foolish of him to be annoyed because he had not found her, in garlands of orange-blossoms, waiting on a balcony to greet his coming. The very fact of her absence added new weight to the import of his message. Yes, he would return to town at once, and the next steamer would bear him to her.
And then, unconsciously, through some obscure channel of memory, he was back where he had once been, in a Gasthof in the Bavarian Mountains. It was not yet dusk. Through the window came a choir of birds, and he could see the tender asparagus-green of neighborly trees. He was seated at a great, bare table of oak, and as he raised from it to his lips a stone measure of beer, his eyes rested on an engraving that hung on the wall. It represented a huntsman, galloping like mad, one steadying hand on the bridle and the other stretched forward to grasp a phantom that sped on before. Under the picture, in quaint German text, was the legend, The Chase after Happiness. "H'm;" he mused, "I don't see why I should think of that."
"That's the gist of it all," Jones was saying. "It's the fashion to rail against critics. I remember telling one of the guild the other day not to read my books – they might prejudice him in my favor; but in comparison to certain publishers the average reviewer stands as a misdemeanant does to a burglar. No, I have said it before and I say it again, until that copyright law is passed, the Government is guilty of nothing less than compounding a felony."
Of what had gone before Tristrem had not heard a single word, and these ultimate phrases which reached him were as meaningless as church-steeples. He started as one does from a nap, with that shake of the head which is peculiar to the absent-minded. He was standing, he discovered, at the entrance to the hotel at which he lodged.
"Don't you agree with me?" Jones asked. "Come and lunch at the Casino. You will get nothing here. Narragansett cookery is as iniquitous as the legislature. Besides, at this hour they give you dinner. It is tragic, on my word, it is."
"Thank you," Tristrem answered, elusively. "I have an appointment with – with a train." And with this excuse he entered the hotel, and as soon after as was practicable he returned to town.
It was, he learned, as Jones had said. Mrs. Raritan and Miss Raritan were passengers on a steamer which had sailed two days before. It was then Friday. One of the swiftest Cunarders was to sail the following morning, and it seemed not improbable to Tristrem that he might reach the other side, if not simultaneously with, at least but a few hours after the arrival of the Wednesday boat. Such preparations, therefore, as were necessary he made without delay. As incidental thereto, he went to the house in Thirty-ninth Street. There he learned, from a squat little Irishwoman who came out from the area and eyed him with unmollifiable suspicion, that, like the Narragansett cottage, the house was to let. The only address which he could obtain from her was that of a real-estate agent in the lower part of the city. Thither he posted at once. Yet even there the information which he gleaned was meagre. The house was offered for a year. During that period, the agent understood, Mrs. Raritan proposed to complete her daughter's musical education abroad; where, the agent did not know. The rental accruing from the lease of the house was to be paid over to the East and West Trust Co. Further than that he could say nothing. Thereupon Tristrem trudged hopefully to Wall Street; but the secretary of the East and West was vaguer even than the agent. He knew nothing whatever on the subject of Mrs. Raritan's whereabouts, and from his tone it was apparent that he cared less. There is, however, an emollient in courtesy which has softened greater oafs than he, and that emollient Tristrem possessed. There was in his manner a penetrating and pervasive refinement, and at the gruffness with which he was received there came to his face an expression of such perplexity that the secretary, disarmed in spite of himself, turned from his busy idleness and told Tristrem that if Mrs. Raritan had not left her address with him she must certainly have given it to the lawyer who held the power of attorney to collect the rents and profits of her estate. The name of that lawyer was Meggs, and his office was in the Mills Building.
In the Mills Building Tristrem's success was little better. Mr. Meggs, the managing clerk announced, had left town an hour before and would not return until Monday. However, if there was anything he could do, he was entirely at Tristrem's disposal. And then Tristrem explained his errand anew, adding that he sailed on the morrow, and that it was important for him to have Mrs. Raritan's address before he left. The clerk regretted, but he did not know it. Could not Mr. Meggs send it to him?
"He might cable it, might he not?" Tristrem suggested. And as this plan seemed feasible, he gave the clerk a card with a London address scrawled on it, and therewith some coin. "I should be extremely indebted if you would beg Mr. Meggs to send me the address at once," he added; and the clerk, who had read the name on the card and knew it to be that of the claimant and renouncer of a great estate, assured him that Mr. Meggs would take great pleasure in so doing.
After that there was nothing for Tristrem to do but to return to his grandfather's house and complete his preparations. He dined with Mr. Van Norden that evening, and a very pleasant dinner it was. Together they talked of those matters and memories that were most congenial to them; Mr. Van Norden looking steadily in the past, and Tristrem straight into the future. And at last, at midnight, when the carriage came to take Tristrem to the wharf – for the ship was to sail at so early an hour in the morning that it was deemed expedient for the passengers to sleep on board – as Tristrem took leave of his grandfather, "Bring her back soon," the old gentleman said, "bring her back as soon as you can. And, Tristrem, you must take this to her once more, with an old man's love and blessing."
Whereupon he gave Tristrem again the diamond brooch that had belonged to his daughter.
The journey over was precisely like any other, except in this, that, the tide of travel being in the contrary direction, the number of cabin passengers was limited. Among them there was no one whom Tristrem had met before; yet, after the second day out, there were few whom his appearance and manner had not attracted and coerced into some overture to better acquaintance. Of these his attention was particularly claimed by an Englishman who sat next to him at table, and a young lady who occupied the seat opposite to his own. In the eyes of the latter was the mischievous look of a precocious boy. She was extremely pretty; blonde, fair, with a mouth that said Kiss me – what the French call a frimousse frott?e de champagne; and her speech was marked by great vivacity. She was accompanied by an elderly person who appeared at table but once, and who during the rest of the voyage remained bundled in shawls in the ladies' cabin, where refreshments were presumably brought her.
It was rumored that this young lady was an ex-star of the Gaiety, and more recently a member of a burlesque troupe that had disbanded in the States. It was added – but then, are not ill-natured things said about everybody? You, sir, and you, madam, who happen to read this page, have never, of course, been spoken of other than with the greatest respect, but what is said of your neighbor? and what have you said yourself?
Tristrem, unaffected by the gossip of the smoking-room, to which, indeed, he lent but an inattentive ear, allowed the young lady to march him up and down the deck and, as was his wont, permitted himself to be generally made use of. Yet if the elderly person in the ladies' cabin had exacted of him similar attentions, the attentions would have been rendered with the same prompt and diligent willingness. He was not a good listener, although he seemed one, but there was a breeziness in the young lady's conversation which helped him not a little to forget the discomforts of ocean travel. He walked with her, in consequence, mile after mile, and when she wearied of that amusement, he got her comfortably seated and, until she needed him again, passed the time in the smoking-room.
It was there that he became acquainted with the Englishman who sat next to him at table. His name, he learned, was Ledyard Yorke. He was an artist by profession, and in the course of a symposium or two Tristrem discovered that he was a very cultivated fellow besides. He seemed to be well on in the thirties, and it was evident that there were few quarters of the globe with which he was not familiar. He was enthusiastic on the subject of French literature, but the manufactures of the pupils of the Beaux Arts he professed to abominate.
"The last time I was at the Salon," he said, one evening, "there were in those interminable halls over three thousand pictures. Of these, there were barely fifty worth looking at. The others were interesting as colored lithographs on a dead wall. There was a Manet or two, a Moreau, and a dozen or more excellent landscapes, but the rest represented the apotheosis of mediocrity. The pictures which G?r?me, Cabanel, Bouguereau, and the acolytes of those pastry-cooks exposed were stupid and sterile as church doors. What is art, after all, if it be not an imitation of nature? To my thinking, the greater the illusion, the nearer does the counterfeit approach the model. And look at the nymphs and dryads which those hair-dressers present. In the first place, nymphs and dryads are as overdone as the assumption of Virgins and the loves of Leda. Besides they were not modern, but even if they were, fancy a girl who lives in the open air in her birthday costume, and who, exposed to the sun, to say nothing of the wind, still preserves the pink and white skin of a baby – and a skin, mind you, that looks as though it had been polished and pinched by a masseur; however, place a dozen of them lolling in conventional attitudes in a glade, or represent them bathing in a pond, and although the sun shines on them through the foliage, be careful not to get so much as the criss-cross of a shadow on their bodies, smear the whole thing with cold cream, label one 'Arcadia,' and the other 'Nymphs surprised,' and you have what they call in France the faire distingu?."
There was nothing particularly new in what Mr. Yorke had to say, and if, like the majority of men whose thoughts run in a particular channel, he was apt to be dogmatic in his views, he yet possessed that saving quality, which consists in treating the subject in hand not as were it a matter of life and death, but rather as one which is as unimportant as the gout of a distant relative. And it was in the companionship of this gentleman, and that of the young lady alluded to, that Tristrem passed the six days which separated him from the Irish coast.
On the day preceding the debarcation he was in great and expectant spirits, but as the sun sank in the ocean his light-heartedness sank with it. During dinner his charming vis-?-vis rallied him as best she might, but he remained unresponsive, answering only when civility made it necessary for him to do so. It is just possible that the young lady may have entertained original ideas of her own on the subject of his taciturnity, but, however that may be, it so happened that before the meal was done Tristrem went up on deck, and seeking the stern of the ship, leaned over the gunwale.
So far in the distance as his eyes could reach was a trail of glistening white. On either side were impenetrable wastes of black. In his ears was the sob of water displaced, the moan of tireless discontent, and therewith the flash and shimmer of phosphorus seemed to invite and tell of realms of enchanted rest beneath. And, as Tristrem watched and listened, the sibilants of the sea gurgled in sympathy with his thoughts, accompanying and accentuating them with murmurs of its own. Its breast was bared to him, it lay at his feet, open-armed as though waiting his coming, and conjuring him to haste. "There is nothing sweeter," it seemed to say, "nothing swifter, and naught more still. I feed my lovers on lotus and Lethe. There is no fairer couch in the world than mine. A sister's kiss is not more chaste. I am better than fame, serener than hope; I am more than love, I am peace. I am unforsakable, and I never forsake."
And as the great ship sped on in fright, it almost seemed to Tristrem that the sea, like an affianced bride, was rising up to claim and take him as her own. Many months later, he thought of the sensation that he then experienced, the query that came to his mind, he knew not how or whence, whether it were not better perhaps – and then the after-shudder as he started back, wondering could it be that for the moment he was mad, and telling himself that in a few hours, a few days at most, he would be with Her. And what had the sea to do with him? Many months after he thought of it.
And as he still gazed at the tempting waters, he felt a hand touch his own, rest on, and nestle in it. He looked around; it was his charming vis-?-vis who had sought him out and was now looking in his face. She did not speak; her eyes had lost their mischief, but her mouth framed its message as before. Awkwardly as men do such things, Tristrem disengaged his hand. The girl made one little effort to detain it, and for a moment her lips moved; but she said nothing, and when the hand had gone from her, she turned with a toss of the head and disappeared in the night.
Soon after, Tristrem turned, too, and found his way to the smoking-room. In some way the caress which he had eluded had left a balm. He was as hopeful as before, and he smiled in silent amusement at the ups and downs of his needless fears. In a corner of the room was Yorke.
"I have been looking at the sea," he said, as he took a seat at his side; "it is captious as wine."
"You are a poet, are you not?" Yorke spoke not as though he were paying a compliment, but in the matter-of-fact fashion in which one drummer will say "Dry goods?" to another.
"No; I wish I were. I have never written."
"It's a popular prejudice to suppose that a poet must write. The greatest of all never put pen to paper. What is there left to us of Linus and Mus?us? Siddartha did not write, Valmiki did not know how. The parables of the Christ were voiced, not written. Besides, the poet feels – he does not spend a year, like Mallarm?, in polishing a sonnet. De Musset is certainly the best example of the poet that France has to offer; with him you always catch the foot-fall of the Muse – you feel, as he felt, the inspiration. And all the more clearly in that his verses limp. He never would have had time to express himself if he had tried to sand-paper his thoughts. Don't you suppose that Murillo was a poet? Don't you suppose that Guido was? Don't you think that anyone who is in love with beauty must be? I say beauty where I might say the ideal. That is the reason I thought you a poet. You have in your face that constant preoccupation which is distinctive of those who pursue the intangible."
"I am not pursuing the intangible, though," Tristrem answered, with a little sententious nod.
"Ah, who shall say? We all do. I am pursuing it myself, though not in the sense that I attribute to you. Did you ever read Flaubert's Tentation? No? Well, fancy the Sphinx crouching at sunset in the encroaching sand. In the background is a riot of color, and overhead a tender blue fading into salmon and the discreetest gray. Then add to that the impression of solitude and the most absolute silence. In the foreground flutters a Chimera, a bird with a dragon's tail and the rainbow wings of a giant butterfly. The Sphinx is staring at you, and yet through and beyond, as though her eyes rested on some inaccessible horizon. Cities crumble, nations rise and subside, and still that undeviating stare! And in her face the unroutable calm of fabulous beauty. I want those eyes, I want that face. You never heard the duo which Flaubert gives, did you? It runs somewhat this way: The motionless Sphinx calls: 'Here, Chimera, rest a while.'
"The Chimera answers: 'Rest? Not I.'
"The Sphinx. Whither goest thou in such haste?
"The Chimera. I gallop in the corridors of the labyrinth. I soar to the mountain-tops. I skim the waves. I yelp at the foot of precipices. I cling to the skirt of clouds. With my training tail I sweep the shores. The hills have taken their curve from the form of my shoulders. But thou – I find thee perpetually immobile, or else with the end of thy claw drawing alphabets in the sand.
"The Sphinx. I am guarding my secret, I calculate and I dream.
"The Chimera. I – I am joyous and light of heart. I discover to man resplendent perspectives, Utopias in the skies, and distant felicities. Into his soul I pour the eternal follies, projects of happiness, plans for the future, dreams of fame, and the vows of love and virtuous resolutions. I incite to perilous journeys, to great undertakings. It is I that chiselled the marvels of architecture. It is I that hung bells on the tomb of Porsenna, and surrounded with an orchalc wall the quays of the Atlantides. I seek new perfumes, larger flowers, and pleasures unenjoyed. If anywhere I perceive a man whose mind rests in wisdom, I drop from space and strangle him.
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