The Truth About Tristrem Varick: A Novel
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"The Sphinx. All those whom the desire of God torments, I have devoured."
Yorke had repeated these snatches from the duo in French. He had repeated them well, bringing out the harmony of the words in a manner which in our harsher tongue would have been impossible. And now he felt parched, and ordered some drink of the steward.
"It is the face of that Sphinx that I want," he continued. "If I were a composer I would put the duo itself to music. I know of no prose more admirable. I have the scene on canvas, all of it, that is, except the Sphinx's face, and that, of course, is the most important. I want a face that she alone could possess. I may find it, I may not. At all events, you see that just at present I too am in pursuit of the intangible. But there, tell me of the artist who is not. It is true, you go to the Academy, and in the Cleopatras and Psyches you recognize the same Mary Jane who the day before offered herself as model to you. My Sphinx, however, was not born in Clapham. Nor does she dwell in Pimlico. But, apropos to Pimlico, I have a fancy that that little friend of yours is on her way to St. John's Wood."
"What little friend?"
"Why, the girl that sits opposite. And what's more to the point, she's in love with you. Tous mes compliments, c'est un vrai morceau de roi."
At this Tristrem blushed in spite of himself. She might have been the Helen for whom the war of the world was fought; she might have been Mylitta or Venus Basilea, and still would she have left him unimpressed. He would not have recognized the divinity – he bowed but to one.
"You remind me," said Yorke, who had watched his expression – "you remind me of De Marsay, who did not know what he did to the women to make them all fall in love with him. There is nothing as fetching as that. And there is nothing, at least to my thinking, that compares with that charm which a woman in love exhales to her lover. It is small matter whether the woman is the daughter of an earl or whether she is a cocotte. There are, I know, people who like their claret in decanters, but so long as the wine is good, what does the bottle matter?
"De Musset was drunk when he wrote that," said Tristrem. "But whether he was drunk or sober, I don't agree with him. I don't agree with him at all. It is the speech of a man who can think himself in love over and over again, and who discovers in the end that through all his affairs he has loved no one but himself."
All of which Mr. Yorke pooh-poohed in the civilest manner, and when Tristrem had finished his little speech, expounded the principles of love as they are formulated in the works of a German metaphysician, supporting them as he did so with such clarity and force of argument that Tristrem, vanquished but unconvinced, left him in disgust.
The next day they were at Liverpool.In the confusion that is incidental to every debarcation Tristrem had had no opportunity of exchanging a word with his vis-?-vis. But in the custom-house he caught sight of her, and went forward to bid her good-bye.
"Good-bye," she answered, when he had done so, and putting out her hand, she looked at him with mischievous eyes. "Good-bye," she repeated, lightly, and then, between her teeth, she added, "Imbecile that you are!"
Though what she may have meant by that, Tristrem never understood.
It was under cover of a fog of leprous brown striated with ochre and acrid with smoke that Tristrem entered London. In allusion to that most delightful of cities, someone has said somewhere that hell must be just such another place. If the epigrammatist be right, then indeed is it time that the rehabilitation of the lower regions began. London is subtle and cruel, perhaps, and to the meditative traveller it not infrequently appears like an invocation to suicide writ in stone. But whoso has once accustomed himself to its breath may live ever after in flowerful Arcadias and yet dream of its exhalations with regret. In Venice one may coquette with phantoms; Rome has ghosts and memories of her own; in Paris there is a sparkle that is headier than absinthe; Berlin resounds so well to the beat of drums that even the pusillanimous are brave; but London is the great enchantress. It is London alone that holds the secret of inspiring love and hatred as well.
Tristrem sniffed the fog with a sensation of that morbid pleasure which girls in their teens and women in travail experience when they crave and obtain repulsive food. Had he not hungered for it himself? and did she not breathe it too?
The journey from Euston Square to the hotel in Jermyn Street at which he proposed to put up, was to him a confusion of impatience and anticipation. He was sure of finding a cablegram from Mrs. Raritan's attorney, and was it not possible that he might see Viola that very night? In Jermyn Street, however, no message awaited him. Under the diligent supervision of a waiter who had the look and presence of a bishop he managed later to eat some dinner. But the evening was a blank: he passed it twirling his thumbs, dumbly irritated, incapable of action, and perplexed as he had never been before.
The next morning his Odyssey began. He cabled to Mr. Meggs, and saw the clerk put beneath the message the cabalistic letters A. P. And then, in an attempt to frighten Time, he had his measure taken in Saville Row and his hair cut in Bond Street. But in vain – the day dragged as though its wheels were clogged. By noon he had exhausted every possible resource. Another, perhaps, might have beguiled the tedium with drink, or cultivated what Balzac has called the gastronomy of the eye, and which consists in idling in the streets. But unfortunately for Tristrem, he was none other than himself. The mere smell of liquor was distasteful to him, and he was too nervous to be actively inactive. Moreover, as in September there are never more than four million people in London, his chance of encountering an acquaintance was slight. Those that he possessed were among the absent ten thousand. They were in the country, among the mountains, at the seaside, on the Continent – anywhere, in fact, except in the neighborhood of Pall Mall. And even had it been otherwise, Tristrem was not in a mood to suffer entertainment. He had not the slightest wish to be amused. Wagner might have come to Covent Garden from the grave to conduct Parsifal in person and Tristrem would not have so much as bought a stall. He wanted Miss Raritan's address, and until he got it a comet that bridged the horizon would have left him incurious as the dead.
On the morrow, with his coffee, there came to him a yellow envelope. The message was brief, though not precisely to the point "Uninformed of Mrs. Raritan's address," it ran, and the signature was Meggs.
For the first time it occurred to Tristrem that Fate was conspiring against him. It had been idiocy on his part to leave New York before he had obtained the address; and now that he was in London, it would be irrational to write to any of her friends – the Wainwarings, for instance – and hope to get it. He knew the Wainwarings just well enough to attend a reception if they gave one, and a slighter acquaintance than that it were idle to describe.
Other friends the girl had in plenty, but to Tristrem they were little more than shadows. There seemed to be no one to whom he could turn. Indeed he was sorely perplexed. Since the hour in which he learned that his father and Viola's were not the same he had been possessed of but one thought – to see her and kneel at her feet; and in the haste he had not shown the slightest forethought – he had been too feverishly energetic to so much as wait till he got her address; and now in the helter-skelter he had run into a cul-de-sac where he could absolutely do nothing except sit and bite his thumb. The enforced inactivity was torturesome as suspense. In his restlessness he determined to retrace his steps; he would return to New York, he told himself, learn of her whereabouts, and start afresh. Already he began to calculate the number of days which that course of action would necessitate, and then suddenly, as he saw himself once more on Fifth Avenue, he bethought him of Alphabet Jones. What man was there that commanded larger sources of social information than he? He would cable to him at once, and on the morrow he would have the address.
The morrow dawned, and succeeding morrows – a week went by, and still no word from Jones. A second week passed, and when a third was drawing to a close and Tristrem, outwearied and enervated, had secured a berth on a returning steamer, at last the answer came – an answer in four words – "Brown Shipley, Founders' Court." That was all, but to Tristrem, in his over-wrought condition, they were as barbs of flame. "My own bankers!" he cried; "oh, thrice triple fool! why did I not think of them before?" He was so annoyed at his stupidity that on his way to the city his irritation counterbalanced the satisfaction which the message brought. "Three whole weeks have I waited," he kept telling himself – "three whole weeks! H'm! Jones might better have written. No, I might better have shown some common-sense. Three whole weeks!"
He was out of the cab before it had fairly stopped, and breathless when he reached the desk of the clerk whose duty it was to receive and forward the letters of those who banked with the house.
"I want Mrs. Raritan's address," he said – "Mrs. R. F. Raritan, please."
The clerk fumbled a moment over some papers. "Care of Munroe, Rue Scribe," he answered.
"Thank God!" Tristrem exclaimed; "and thank you. Send my letters there also."
That evening he started for Paris, and the next morning he was asking in the Rue Scribe the same question which he had asked the previous afternoon in Founders' Court. There he learned that Mrs. Raritan had sent word, the day before, that all letters should be held for her until further notice. She had been stopping with her daughter at the H?tel du Rhin, but whether or not she was still there the clerk did not know. The Rue Scribe is not far from the Place Vend?me, in which the H?tel du Rhin is situated, and it took Tristrem a little less than five minutes to get there. The concierge was lounging in her cubby-hole.
"Madame Raritan?" Tristrem began.
"Partie, m'sieu, partie d'puis hier —"
And then from Tristrem new questions came thick and fast. The concierge, encouraged by what is known as a white piece, and of which the value is five francs in current coin, became very communicative. Disentangled from layers of voluble digression, the kernel of her information amounted to this: Mrs. Raritan and her daughter had taken the Orient Express the day before. On the subject of their destination she declared herself ignorant. Suppositions she had in plenty, but actual knowledge none, and she took evident pleasure in losing herself in extravagant conjectures. "Bien le bonjour," she said when Tristrem, passably disheartened, turned to leave – "Bien le bonjour, m'sieu; si j'ose m'exprimer ainsi."
The Orient Express, as Tristrem knew, goes through Southern Germany into Austria, thence down to Buda-Pest and on to Constantinople. That Viola and her mother had any intention of going farther than Vienna was a thing which he declined to consider. On the way to Vienna was Stuttgart and Munich. In Munich there was Wagner every other night. In Stuttgart there was a conservatory of music, and at Vienna was not the Opera world-renowned? "They have gone to one of those three cities," he told himself. "Viola must have determined to relinquish the Italian school for the German. H'm," he mused, "I'll soon put a stop to that. As to finding her, all I have to do is go to the police. They keep an eye on strangers to some purpose. Let me see – I can get to Stuttgart by to-morrow noon. If she is not there I will go to Munich. I rather like the idea of a stroll on the Maximilien Strasse. It would be odd if I met her in the street. Well, if she isn't in Munich she is sure to be in Vienna." And as he entered the Grand H?tel he smiled anew in dreams forecast.
Tristrem carried out his programme to the end. But not in Stuttgart, not in Munich, nor in Vienna either, could he obtain the slightest intelligence of her. In the latter city he was overtaken by a low fever, which detained him for a month, and from which he arose enfeebled but with clearer mind. He wrote to Viola two letters, and two also to her mother. One of each he sent to the Rue Scribe, the others to Founders' Court. When ten days went by, and no answer came, he understood for the first time what the fable of Tantalus might mean, and that of Sisyphus too. He wrote at length to his grandfather, describing his Odyssey, his perplexities, and asking advice. He even wrote to Jones – though much more guardedly, of course – thanking him for his cable, and inquiring in a post-scriptum whether he had heard anything further on the subject of the Raritans' whereabouts. These letters were barely despatched when he was visited by a luminous thought. The idea that Viola intended to relinquish Italian music for that of Wagner had never seemed to him other than an incongruity. "Idiot that I am!" he exclaimed; "she came abroad to study at Milan, and there is where she is. She must have left the Orient Express at Munich and gone straight down through the Tyrol." And in the visitation of this comforting thought Tantalus and Sisyphus went back into the night from which they had come; in their place came again the blue-eyed divinity whose name is Hope.
It is not an easy journey, nor a comfortable one, from Vienna to Milan, but Hope aiding, it can be accomplished without loss of life or reason. And Hope aided Tristrem to his destination, and there disappeared. In all Milan no intelligence of Viola could be obtained. He wrote again to her. The result was the same. "I am as one accursed," he thought, and that night he saw himself in dream stopping passers in the street, asking them with lifted hat had they seen a girl wonderfully fair, with amber eyes. He asked the question in French, in German, in Italian, according to the nationality of those he encountered, and once, to a little old woman, he spoke in a jargon of his own invention. But she laughed, and seemed to understand, and gave him the address of a lupanar.
He idled awhile in Milan, and then went to Florence, and to Rome, and to Naples, crossing over, even, to Palermo; and then retracing his steps, he visited the smaller cities and outlying, unfrequented towns. Something there was which kept telling him that she was near at hand, waiting, like the enchanted princess, for his coming. And he hunted and searched, outwearied at times, and refreshed again by resuscitations of hope, and intussusceptions of her presence. But in the search his nights were white. It was rare for him to get any sleep before the dawn had come.
Early in spring he reached Milan again. He had written from Bergamo to the Rue Scribe, asking that his letters should be forwarded to that place, and among the communications that were given him on his arrival was a cablegram from New York. Come back, it ran; she is here. It was from his grandfather, Dirck Van Norden, and as Tristrem read it he trembled from head to foot. It was on a Tuesday that this occurred, and he reflected that he would just about be able to get to Havre in time for the Saturday steamer. An hour later he was in the train bound for Desenzano, from which place he proposed to go by boat to Riva, and thence up to Munich, where he could catch the Orient Express on its returning trip to France.
When the boat entered the harbor it was already night. Tristrem was tired, but his fatigue was pleasant to him. His Odyssey was done. New York, it is true, was many days away, but he was no longer to wander feverishly from town to town. If he was weary, at least his mind was at rest. Riva is on the Austrian frontier, and while the luggage was being examined Tristrem hummed contentedly to himself. He would get some dinner at the hotel, for he was hungry as he had not been in months. At last he would have a good night's rest; there would be no insomnia now. In the magic of a cablegram that succube had been exorcised forever. On the morrow he would start afresh, and neither stop nor stay till the goal was reached. It was no longer vague and intangible – it was full in sight. And so, while the officers were busy with his traps, he hummed the unforgotten air, O Magali, ma bien aim?e.
The hotel to which he presently had himself conveyed stands in a large garden that leans to the lake. It is a roomy structure, built quadrangularwise. On one side is a little ch?let. Above, to the right and left, precipitous cliffs and trellised mountains loom like battlements of Titan homes. The air is very sweet, and at that season of the year almost overweighted with the scent of flowers. In spite of the night, the sky was visibly blue, and high up in the heavens the moon glittered with the glint of sulphur.
As the carriage drew up at the door there was a clang of bells; an individual in a costume that was brilliant as the uniform of a field-officer hastened to greet the guest; at the threshold was the Oberkellner; a few steps behind him the manager stood bowing persuasively; and as Tristrem entered, the waiters, hastily marshalled, ranged themselves on either side of the hall.
"Vorrei," Tristrem began, and then remembering that he was no longer in Italy, continued in German.
The answer came in the promptest English.
"Yes, my lord; will your lordship dine at table d'h?te? Du, Konrad, schnell, die Speise-karte."
Tristrem examined the bill of fare which was then brought him, and while he studied the contents he heard himself called by name. He looked up, and recognized Ledyard Yorke, his companion of months before on the outward-bound Cunarder, who welcomed him with much warmth and cordiality.
"And whatever became of Miss Tippity-fitchet? You don't mean to say you did not see her again? Fancy that! It was through no fault of hers, then. But there, in spite of your promise, you didn't so much as look me up. I am just in from a tramp to Mori; suppose we brush up a bit and have dinner together?" He turned to the waiter. "Konrad, wir speisen draussen; verschaffen Sie 'was Monkenkloster."
"Zu Befehl, Herr Baron."
Half an hour later, when the brushing up was done and the Monkenkloster was uncorked, Tristrem and Yorke seated themselves in an arbor that overhung the lake.
"It's ever so much better here than at table d'h?te," Yorke began. "I hate that sort of business – don't you? I have been here over two months, but after a week or so of it I gave up promiscuous feeding. Since then, whenever I have been able, I have dined out here. I don't care to have every dish I eat seasoned with the twaddle of cheap-trippers. To be sure, few of them get here. Riva is well out of the beaten track. But one table d'h?te is just like another, and they are all of them wearying to the spirit and fatiguing to digestion. Look at that water, will you. It's almost Venice, isn't it? I can tell you, I have done some good work in this place. But what have you been doing yourself?"
"Nothing to speak of," Tristrem answered. "I have been roaming from pillar to post. It's the second time I have been over the Continent, and now I am on my way home. I am tired of it; I shall be glad to be back."
"Yes you were the last person I expected to meet. If I remember rightly, you said on the steamer that you were to be on this side but a short time. It's always the unexpected that occurs, isn't it? By the way, I have got my sphinx."
"I thought I told you. I have been looking for years for a certain face. I wanted one that I could give to a sphinx. The accessories were nothing. I put them on canvas long ago, but the face I never could grasp. Not one of all that I tried suited me. I had almost given it up; but I got it – I got it at last. I'll show it to you to-morrow."
"I am afraid – You see, I leave very early."
"I'll show it to you to-night, then; you must see it. If I had had it made to order it could not suit me better. It came about in such an odd way. All winter I have been at work in Munich. I intended to remain until June, but the spring there is bleaker than your own New England. One morning I said to myself, Why not take a run down to Italy? Two days later, I was on my way. But at Mori, instead of pushing straight on to Verona, I drove over here, thinking it would be pleasanter to take the boat. I arrived here at midnight. The next morning I looked out of the window, and there, right in front of me, in that ch?let, was my sphinx. Well, the upshot of it was, I have been here ever since. I repainted the entire picture – the old one wasn't good enough."
"I should like to see it very much," said Tristrem, less from interest than civility.
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