Crucial Instances by Edith Wharton
THE ANGEL AT THE
THE DUCHESS AT PRAYER
Have you ever questioned the long shuttered front of an old Italian
house, that motionless mask, smooth, mute, equivocal as the face of a
priest behind which buzz the secrets of the confessional? Other houses
declare the activities they shelter; they are the clear expressive
cuticle of a life flowing close to the surface; but the old palace in
its narrow street, the villa on its cypress-hooded hill, are as
impenetrable as death. The tall windows are like blind eyes, the great
door is a shut mouth. Inside there may be sunshine, the scent of
myrtles, and a pulse of life through all the arteries of the huge
frame; or a mortal solitude, where bats lodge in the disjointed stones
and the keys rust in unused doors....
From the loggia, with its vanishing frescoes, I looked down an
avenue barred by a ladder of cypress-shadows to the ducal escutcheon
and mutilated vases of the gate. Flat noon lay on the gardens, on
fountains, porticoes and grottoes. Below the terrace, where a
chrome-colored lichen had sheeted the balustrade as with fine
laminae of gold, vineyards stooped to the rich valley clasped in
hills. The lower slopes were strewn with white villages like stars
spangling a summer dusk; and beyond these, fold on fold of blue
mountain, clear as gauze against the sky. The August air was lifeless,
but it seemed light and vivifying after the atmosphere of the shrouded
rooms through which I had been led. Their chill was on me and I hugged
“The Duchess's apartments are beyond,” said the old man.
He was the oldest man I had ever seen; so sucked back into the past
that he seemed more like a memory than a living being. The one trait
linking him with the actual was the fixity with which his small saurian
eye held the pocket that, as I entered, had yielded a lira to
the gate-keeper's child. He went on, without removing his eye:
“For two hundred years nothing has been changed in the apartments of
“And no one lives here now?”
“No one, sir. The Duke, goes to Como for the summer season.”
I had moved to the other end of the loggia. Below me, through
hanging groves, white roofs and domes flashed like a smile.
“And that's Vicenza?”
“Proprio!” The old man extended fingers as lean as the hands
fading from the walls behind us. “You see the palace roof over there,
just to the left of the Basilica? The one with the row of statues like
birds taking flight? That's the Duke's town palace, built by Palladio.”
“And does the Duke come there?”
“Never. In winter he goes to Rome.”
“And the palace and the villa are always closed?”
“As you see—always.”
“How long has this been?”
“Since I can remember.”
I looked into his eyes: they were like tarnished metal mirrors
reflecting nothing. “That must be a long time,” I said involuntarily.
“A long time,” he assented.
I looked down on the gardens. An opulence of dahlias overran the
box-borders, between cypresses that cut the sunshine like basalt
shafts. Bees hung above the lavender; lizards sunned themselves on the
benches and slipped through the cracks of the dry basins. Everywhere
were vanishing traces of that fantastic horticulture of which our dull
age has lost the art. Down the alleys maimed statues stretched their
arms like rows of whining beggars; faun-eared terms grinned in the
thickets, and above the laurustinus walls rose the mock ruin of a
temple, falling into real ruin in the bright disintegrating air. The
glare was blinding.
“Let us go in,” I said.
The old man pushed open a heavy door, behind which the cold lurked
like a knife.
“The Duchess's apartments,” he said.
Overhead and around us the same evanescent frescoes, under foot the
same scagliola volutes, unrolled themselves interminably. Ebony
cabinets, with inlay of precious marbles in cunning perspective,
alternated down the room with the tarnished efflorescence of gilt
consoles supporting Chinese monsters; and from the chimney-panel a
gentleman in the Spanish habit haughtily ignored us.
“Duke Ercole II.,” the old man explained, “by the Genoese Priest.”
It was a narrow-browed face, sallow as a wax effigy, high-nosed and
cautious-lidded, as though modelled by priestly hands; the lips weak
and vain rather than cruel; a quibbling mouth that would have snapped
at verbal errors like a lizard catching flies, but had never learned
the shape of a round yes or no. One of the Duke's hands rested on the
head of a dwarf, a simian creature with pearl ear-rings and fantastic
dress; the other turned the pages of a folio propped on a skull.
“Beyond is the Duchess's bedroom,” the old man reminded me.
Here the shutters admitted but two narrow shafts of light, gold bars
deepening the subaqueous gloom. On a dais the bedstead, grim, nuptial,
official, lifted its baldachin; a yellow Christ agonized between the
curtains, and across the room a lady smiled at us from the
The old man unbarred a shutter and the light touched her face. Such
a face it was, with a flicker of laughter over it like the wind on a
June meadow, and a singular tender pliancy of mien, as though one of
Tiepolo's lenient goddesses had been busked into the stiff sheath of a
seventeenth century dress!
“No one has slept here,” said the old man, “since the Duchess
“And she was—?”
“The lady there—first Duchess of Duke Ercole II.”
He drew a key from his pocket and unlocked a door at the farther end
of the room. “The chapel,” he said. “This is the Duchess's balcony.” As
I turned to follow him the Duchess tossed me a sidelong smile.
I stepped into a grated tribune above a chapel festooned with
stucco. Pictures of bituminous saints mouldered between the pilasters;
the artificial roses in the altar-vases were gray with dust and age,
and under the cobwebby rosettes of the vaulting a bird's nest clung.
Before the altar stood a row of tattered arm-chairs, and I drew back at
sight of a figure kneeling near them.
“The Duchess,” the old man whispered. “By the Cavaliere Bernini.”
It was the image of a woman in furred robes and spreading fraise,
her hand lifted, her face addressed to the tabernacle. There was a
strangeness in the sight of that immovable presence locked in prayer
before an abandoned shrine. Her face was hidden, and I wondered whether
it were grief or gratitude that raised her hands and drew her eyes to
the altar, where no living prayer joined her marble invocation. I
followed my guide down the tribune steps, impatient to see what mystic
version of such terrestrial graces the ingenious artist had found—the
Cavaliere was master of such arts. The Duchess's attitude was one of
transport, as though heavenly airs fluttered her laces and the
love-locks escaping from her coif. I saw how admirably the sculptor had
caught the poise of her head, the tender slope of the shoulder; then I
crossed over and looked into her face—it was a frozen horror. Never
have hate, revolt and agony so possessed a human countenance....
The old man crossed himself and shuffled his feet on the marble.
“The Duchess Violante,” he repeated.
“The same as in the picture?”
“But the face—what does it mean?”
He shrugged his shoulders and turned deaf eyes on me. Then he shot a
glance round the sepulchral place, clutched my sleeve and said, close
to my ear: “It was not always so.”
“What was not?”
“The face—so terrible.”
“The Duchess's face?”
“The statue's. It changed after—”
“It was put here.”
“The statue's face changed—?”
He mistook my bewilderment for incredulity and his confidential
finger dropped from my sleeve. “Eh, that's the story. I tell what I've
heard. What do I know?” He resumed his senile shuffle across the
marble. “This is a bad place to stay in—no one comes here. It's too
cold. But the gentleman said, I must see everything!”
I let the lire sound. “So I must—and hear everything. This
story, now—from whom did you have it?”
His hand stole back. “One that saw it, by God!”
“That saw it?”
“My grandmother, then. I'm a very old man.”
“Your grandmother? Your grandmother was—?”
“The Duchess's serving girl, with respect to you.”
“Your grandmother? Two hundred years ago?”
“Is it too long ago? That's as God pleases. I am a very old man and
she was a very old woman when I was born. When she died she was as
black as a miraculous Virgin and her breath whistled like the wind in a
keyhole. She told me the story when I was a little boy. She told it to
me out there in the garden, on a bench by the fish-pond, one summer
night of the year she died. It must be true, for I can show you the
very bench we sat on....”
Noon lay heavier on the gardens; not our live humming warmth but the
stale exhalation of dead summers. The very statues seemed to drowse
like watchers by a death-bed. Lizards shot out of the cracked soil like
flames and the bench in the laurustinus-niche was strewn with the blue
varnished bodies of dead flies. Before us lay the fish-pond, a yellow
marble slab above rotting secrets. The villa looked across it, composed
as a dead face, with the cypresses flanking it for candles....
“Impossible, you say, that my mother's mother should have been the
Duchess's maid? What do I know? It is so long since anything has
happened here that the old things seem nearer, perhaps, than to those
who live in cities.... But how else did she know about the statue then?
Answer me that, sir! That she saw with her eyes, I can swear to, and
never smiled again, so she told me, till they put her first child in
her arms ... for she was taken to wife by the steward's son, Antonio,
the same who had carried the letters.... But where am I? Ah, well ...
she was a mere slip, you understand, my grandmother, when the Duchess
died, a niece of the upper maid, Nencia, and suffered about the Duchess
because of her pranks and the funny songs she knew. It's possible, you
think, she may have heard from others what she afterward fancied she
had seen herself? How that is, it's not for an unlettered man to say;
though indeed I myself seem to have seen many of the things she told
me. This is a strange place. No one comes here, nothing changes, and
the old memories stand up as distinct as the statues in the garden....
“It began the summer after they came back from the Brenta. Duke
Ercole had married the lady from Venice, you must know; it was a gay
city, then, I'm told, with laughter and music on the water, and the
days slipped by like boats running with the tide. Well, to humor her he
took her back the first autumn to the Brenta. Her father, it appears,
had a grand palace there, with such gardens, bowling-alleys, grottoes
and casinos as never were; gondolas bobbing at the water-gates, a
stable full of gilt coaches, a theatre full of players, and kitchens
and offices full of cooks and lackeys to serve up chocolate all day
long to the fine ladies in masks and furbelows, with their pet dogs and
their blackamoors and their abates. Eh! I know it all as if I'd
been there, for Nencia, you see, my grandmother's aunt, travelled with
the Duchess, and came back with her eyes round as platters, and not a
word to say for the rest of the year to any of the lads who'd courted
her here in Vicenza.
“What happened there I don't know—my grandmother could never get at
the rights of it, for Nencia was mute as a fish where her lady was
concerned—but when they came back to Vicenza the Duke ordered the
villa set in order; and in the spring he brought the Duchess here and
left her. She looked happy enough, my grandmother said, and seemed no
object for pity. Perhaps, after all, it was better than being shut up
in Vicenza, in the tall painted rooms where priests came and went as
softly as cats prowling for birds, and the Duke was forever closeted in
his library, talking with learned men. The Duke was a scholar; you
noticed he was painted with a book? Well, those that can read 'em make
out that they're full of wonderful things; as a man that's been to a
fair across the mountains will always tell his people at home it was
beyond anything they'll ever see. As for the Duchess, she was
all for music, play-acting and young company. The Duke was a silent
man, stepping quietly, with his eyes down, as though he'd just come
from confession; when the Duchess's lap-dog yapped at his heels he
danced like a man in a swarm of hornets; when the Duchess laughed he
winced as if you'd drawn a diamond across a window-pane. And the
Duchess was always laughing.
“When she first came to the villa she was very busy laying out the
gardens, designing grottoes, planting groves and planning all manner of
agreeable surprises in the way of water-jets that drenched you
unexpectedly, and hermits in caves, and wild men that jumped at you out
of thickets. She had a very pretty taste in such matters, but after a
while she tired of it, and there being no one for her to talk to but
her maids and the chaplain—a clumsy man deep in his books—why, she
would have strolling players out from Vicenza, mountebanks and
fortune-tellers from the market-place, travelling doctors and
astrologers, and all manner of trained animals. Still it could be seen
that the poor lady pined for company, and her waiting women, who loved
her, were glad when the Cavaliere Ascanio, the Duke's cousin, came to
live at the vineyard across the valley—you see the pinkish house over
there in the mulberries, with a red roof and a pigeon-cote?
“The Cavaliere Ascanio was a cadet of one of the great Venetian
houses, pezzi grossi of the Golden Book. He had been' meant for
the Church, I believe, but what! he set fighting above praying and cast
in his lot with the captain of the Duke of Mantua's bravi,
himself a Venetian of good standing, but a little at odds with the law.
Well, the next I know, the Cavaliere was in Venice again, perhaps not
in good odor on account of his connection with the gentleman I speak
of. Some say he tried to carry off a nun from the convent of Santa
Croce; how that may be I can't say; but my grandmother declared he had
enemies there, and the end of it was that on some pretext or other the
Ten banished him to Vicenza. There, of course, the Duke, being his
kinsman, had to show him a civil face; and that was how he first came
to the villa.
“He was a fine young man, beautiful as a Saint Sebastian, a rare
musician, who sang his own songs to the lute in a way that used to make
my grandmother's heart melt and run through her body like mulled wine.
He had a good word for everybody, too, and was always dressed in the
French fashion, and smelt as sweet as a bean-field; and every soul
about the place welcomed the sight of him.
“Well, the Duchess, it seemed, welcomed it too; youth will have
youth, and laughter turns to laughter; and the two matched each other
like the candlesticks on an altar. The Duchess—you've seen her
portrait—but to hear my grandmother, sir, it no more approached her
than a weed comes up to a rose. The Cavaliere, indeed, as became a
poet, paragoned her in his song to all the pagan goddesses of
antiquity; and doubtless these were finer to look at than mere women;
but so, it seemed, was she; for, to believe my grandmother, she made
other women look no more than the big French fashion-doll that used to
be shown on Ascension days in the Piazza. She was one, at any rate,
that needed no outlandish finery to beautify her; whatever dress she
wore became her as feathers fit the bird; and her hair didn't get its
color by bleaching on the housetop. It glittered of itself like the
threads in an Easter chasuble, and her skin was whiter than fine
wheaten bread and her mouth as sweet as a ripe fig....
“Well, sir, you could no more keep them apart than the bees and the
lavender. They were always together, singing, bowling, playing cup and
ball, walking in the gardens, visiting the aviaries and petting her
grace's trick-dogs and monkeys. The Duchess was as gay as a foal,
always playing pranks and laughing, tricking out her animals like
comedians, disguising herself as a peasant or a nun (you should have
seen her one day pass herself off to the chaplain as a mendicant
sister), or teaching the lads and girls of the vineyards to dance and
sing madrigals together. The Cavaliere had a singular ingenuity in
planning such entertainments and the days were hardly long enough for
their diversions. But toward the end of the summer the Duchess fell
quiet and would hear only sad music, and the two sat much together in
the gazebo at the end of the garden. It was there the Duke found them
one day when he drove out from Vicenza in his gilt coach. He came but
once or twice a year to the villa, and it was, as my grandmother said,
just a part of her poor lady's ill-luck to be wearing that day the
Venetian habit, which uncovered the shoulders in a way the Duke always
scowled at, and her curls loose and powdered with gold. Well, the three
drank chocolate in the gazebo, and what happened no one knew, except
that the Duke, on taking leave, gave his cousin a seat in his carriage;
but the Cavaliere never returned.
“Winter approaching, and the poor lady thus finding herself once
more alone, it was surmised among her women that she must fall into a
deeper depression of spirits. But far from this being the case, she
displayed such cheerfulness and equanimity of humor that my
grandmother, for one, was half-vexed with her for giving no more
thought to the poor young man who, all this time, was eating his heart
out in the house across the valley. It is true she quitted her
gold-laced gowns and wore a veil over her head; but Nencia would have
it she looked the lovelier for the change and so gave the Duke greater
displeasure. Certain it is that the Duke drove out oftener to the
villa, and though he found his lady always engaged in some innocent
pursuit, such as embroidery or music, or playing games with her young
women, yet he always went away with a sour look and a whispered word to
the chaplain. Now as to the chaplain, my grandmother owned there had
been a time when her grace had not handled him over-wisely. For,
according to Nencia, it seems that his reverence, who seldom approached
the Duchess, being buried in his library like a mouse in a
cheese—well, one day he made bold to appeal to her for a sum of money,
a large sum, Nencia said, to buy certain tall books, a chest full of
them, that a foreign pedlar had brought him; whereupon the Duchess, who
could never abide a book, breaks out at him with a laugh and a flash of
her old spirit—'Holy Mother of God, must I have more books about me? I
was nearly smothered with them in the first year of my marriage;' and
the chaplain turning red at the affront, she added: 'You may buy them
and welcome, my good chaplain, if you can find the money; but as for
me, I am yet seeking a way to pay for my turquoise necklace, and the
statue of Daphne at the end of the bowling-green, and the Indian parrot
that my black boy brought me last Michaelmas from the Bohemians—so you
see I've no money to waste on trifles;' and as he backs out awkwardly
she tosses at him over her shoulder: 'You should pray to Saint Blandina
to open the Duke's pocket!' to which he returned, very quietly, 'Your
excellency's suggestion is an admirable one, and I have already
entreated that blessed martyr to open the Duke's understanding.'
“Thereat, Nencia said (who was standing by), the Duchess flushed
wonderfully red and waved him out of the room; and then 'Quick!' she
cried to my grandmother (who was too glad to run on such errands),
'Call me Antonio, the gardener's boy, to the box-garden; I've a word to
say to him about the new clove-carnations....'
“Now I may not have told you, sir, that in the crypt under the
chapel there has stood, for more generations than a man can count, a
stone coffin containing a thighbone of the blessed Saint Blandina of
Lyons, a relic offered, I've been told, by some great Duke of France to
one of our own dukes when they fought the Turk together; and the
object, ever since, of particular veneration in this illustrious
family. Now, since the Duchess had been left to herself, it was
observed she affected a fervent devotion to this relic, praying often
in the chapel and even causing the stone slab that covered the entrance
to the crypt to be replaced by a wooden one, that she might at will
descend and kneel by the coffin. This was matter of edification to all
the household and should have been peculiarly pleasing to the chaplain;
but, with respect to you, he was the kind of man who brings a sour
mouth to the eating of the sweetest apple.
“However that may be, the Duchess, when she dismissed him, was seen
running to the garden, where she talked earnestly with the boy Antonio
about the new clove-carnations; and the rest of the day she sat indoors
and played sweetly on the virginal. Now Nencia always had it in mind
that her grace had made a mistake in refusing that request of the
chaplain's; but she said nothing, for to talk reason to the Duchess was
of no more use than praying for rain in a drought.
“Winter came early that year, there was snow on the hills by All
Souls, the wind stripped the gardens, and the lemon-trees were nipped
in the lemon-house. The Duchess kept her room in this black season,
sitting over the fire, embroidering, reading books of devotion (which
was a thing she had never done) and praying frequently in the chapel.
As for the chaplain, it was a place he never set foot in but to say
mass in the morning, with the Duchess overhead in the tribune, and the
servants aching with rheumatism on the marble floor. The chaplain
himself hated the cold, and galloped through the mass like a man with
witches after him. The rest of the day he spent in his library, over a
brazier, with his eternal books....
“You'll wonder, sir, if I'm ever to get to the gist of the story;
and I've gone slowly, I own, for fear of what's coming. Well, the
winter was long and hard. When it fell cold the Duke ceased to come out
from Vicenza, and not a soul had the Duchess to speak to but her
maid-servants and the gardeners about the place. Yet it was wonderful,
my grandmother said, how she kept her brave colors and her spirits;
only it was remarked that she prayed longer in the chapel, where a
brazier was kept burning for her all day. When the young are denied
their natural pleasures they turn often enough to religion; and it was
a mercy, as my grandmother said, that she, who had scarce a live sinner
to speak to, should take such comfort in a dead saint.
“My grandmother seldom saw her that winter, for though she showed a
brave front to all she kept more and more to herself, choosing to have
only Nencia about her and dismissing even her when she went to pray.
For her devotion had that mark of true piety, that she wished it not to
be observed; so that Nencia had strict orders, on the chaplain's
approach, to warn her mistress if she happened to be in prayer.
“Well, the winter passed, and spring was well forward, when my
grandmother one evening had a bad fright. That it was her own fault I
won't deny, for she'd been down the lime-walk with Antonio when her
aunt fancied her to be stitching in her chamber; and seeing a sudden
light in Nencia's window, she took fright lest her disobedience be
found out, and ran up quickly through the laurel-grove to the house.
Her way lay by the chapel, and as she crept past it, meaning to slip in
through the scullery, and groping her way, for the dark had fallen and
the moon was scarce up, she heard a crash close behind her, as though
someone had dropped from a window of the chapel. The young fool's heart
turned over, but she looked round as she ran, and there, sure enough,
was a man scuttling across the terrace; and as he doubled the corner of
the house my grandmother swore she caught the whisk of the chaplain's
skirts. Now that was a strange thing, certainly; for why should the
chaplain be getting out of the chapel window when he might have passed
through the door? For you may have noticed, sir, there's a door leads
from the chapel into the saloon on the ground floor; the only other way
out being through the Duchess's tribune.
“Well, my grandmother turned the matter over, and next time she met
Antonio in the lime-walk (which, by reason of her fright, was not for
some days) she laid before him what had happened; but to her surprise
he only laughed and said, 'You little simpleton, he wasn't getting out
of the window, he was trying to look in'; and not another word could
she get from him.
“So the season moved on to Easter, and news came the Duke had gone
to Rome for that holy festivity. His comings and goings made no change
at the villa, and yet there was no one there but felt easier to think
his yellow face was on the far side of the Apennines, unless perhaps it
was the chaplain.
“Well, it was one day in May that the Duchess, who had walked long
with Nencia on the terrace, rejoicing at the sweetness of the prospect
and the pleasant scent of the gilly-flowers in the stone vases, the
Duchess toward midday withdrew to her rooms, giving orders that her
dinner should be served in her bed-chamber. My grandmother helped to
carry in the dishes, and observed, she said, the singular beauty of the
Duchess, who in honor of the fine weather had put on a gown of
shot-silver and hung her bare shoulders with pearls, so that she looked
fit to dance at court with an emperor. She had ordered, too, a rare
repast for a lady that heeded so little what she ate—jellies,
game-pasties, fruits in syrup, spiced cakes and a flagon of Greek wine;
and she nodded and clapped her hands as the women set it before her,
saying again and again, 'I shall eat well to-day.'
“But presently another mood seized her; she turned from the table,
called for her rosary, and said to Nencia: 'The fine weather has made
me neglect my devotions. I must say a litany before I dine.'
“She ordered the women out and barred the door, as her custom was;
and Nencia and my grandmother went down-stairs to work in the
“Now the linen-room gives on the court-yard, and suddenly my
grandmother saw a strange sight approaching. First up the avenue came
the Duke's carriage (whom all thought to be in Rome), and after it,
drawn by a long string of mules and oxen, a cart carrying what looked
like a kneeling figure wrapped in death-clothes. The strangeness of it
struck the girl dumb and the Duke's coach was at the door before she
had the wit to cry out that it was coming. Nencia, when she saw it,
went white and ran out of the room. My grandmother followed, scared by
her face, and the two fled along the corridor to the chapel. On the way
they met the chaplain, deep in a book, who asked in surprise where they
were running, and when they said, to announce the Duke's arrival, he
fell into such astonishment and asked them so many questions and
uttered such ohs and ahs, that by the time he let them by the Duke was
at their heels. Nencia reached the chapel-door first and cried out that
the Duke was coming; and before she had a reply he was at her side,
with the chaplain following.
“A moment later the door opened and there stood the Duchess. She
held her rosary in one hand and had drawn a scarf over her shoulders;
but they shone through it like the moon in a mist, and her countenance
sparkled with beauty.
“The Duke took her hand with a bow. 'Madam,' he said, 'I could have
had no greater happiness than thus to surprise you at your devotions.'
“'My own happiness,' she replied, 'would have been greater had your
excellency prolonged it by giving me notice of your arrival.'
“'Had you expected me, Madam,' said he, 'your appearance could
scarcely have been more fitted to the occasion. Few ladies of your
youth and beauty array themselves to venerate a saint as they would to
welcome a lover.'
“'Sir,' she answered, 'having never enjoyed the latter opportunity,
I am constrained to make the most of the former.—What's that?' she
cried, falling back, and the rosary dropped from her hand.
“There was a loud noise at the other end of the saloon, as of a
heavy object being dragged down the passage; and presently a dozen men
were seen haling across the threshold the shrouded thing from the
oxcart. The Duke waved his hand toward it. 'That,' said he, 'Madam, is
a tribute to your extraordinary piety. I have heard with peculiar
satisfaction of your devotion to the blessed relics in this chapel, and
to commemorate a zeal which neither the rigors of winter nor the
sultriness of summer could abate I have ordered a sculptured image of
you, marvellously executed by the Cavaliere Bernini, to be placed
before the altar over the entrance to the crypt.'
“The Duchess, who had grown pale, nevertheless smiled playfully at
this. 'As to commemorating my piety,” she said, 'I recognize there one
of your excellency's pleasantries—'
“'A pleasantry?' the Duke interrupted; and he made a sign to the
men, who had now reached the threshold of the chapel. In an instant the
wrappings fell from the figure, and there knelt the Duchess to the
life. A cry of wonder rose from all, but the Duchess herself stood
whiter than the marble.
“'You will see,' says the Duke, 'this is no pleasantry, but a
triumph of the incomparable Bernini's chisel. The likeness was done
from your miniature portrait by the divine Elisabetta Sirani, which I
sent to the master some six months ago, with what results all must
“'Six months!' cried the Duchess, and seemed about to fall; but his
excellency caught her by the hand.
“'Nothing,' he said, 'could better please me than the excessive
emotion you display, for true piety is ever modest, and your thanks
could not take a form that better became you. And now,' says he to the
men, 'let the image be put in place.'
“By this, life seemed to have returned to the Duchess, and she
answered him with a deep reverence. 'That I should be overcome by so
unexpected a grace, your excellency admits to be natural; but what
honors you accord it is my privilege to accept, and I entreat only that
in mercy to my modesty the image be placed in the remotest part of the
“At that the Duke darkened. 'What! You would have this masterpiece
of a renowned chisel, which, I disguise not, cost me the price of a
good vineyard in gold pieces, you would have it thrust out of sight
like the work of a village stonecutter?'
“'It is my semblance, not the sculptor's work, I desire to conceal.'
“'It you are fit for my house, Madam, you are fit for God's, and
entitled to the place of honor in both. Bring the statue forward, you
dawdlers!' he called out to the men.
“The Duchess fell back submissively. 'You are right, sir, as always;
but I would at least have the image stand on the left of the altar,
that, looking up, it may behold your excellency's seat in the tribune.'
“'A pretty thought, Madam, for which I thank you; but I design
before long to put my companion image on the other side of the altar;
and the wife's place, as you know, is at her husband's right hand.'
“'True, my lord—but, again, if my poor presentment is to have the
unmerited honor of kneeling beside yours, why not place both before the
altar, where it is our habit to pray in life?'
“'And where, Madam, should we kneel if they took our places?
Besides,' says the Duke, still speaking very blandly, 'I have a more
particular purpose in placing your image over the entrance to the
crypt; for not only would I thereby mark your special devotion to the
blessed saint who rests there, but, by sealing up the opening in the
pavement, would assure the perpetual preservation of that holy martyr's
bones, which hitherto have been too thoughtlessly exposed to
“'What attempts, my lord?' cries the Duchess. 'No one enters this
chapel without my leave.'
“'So I have understood, and can well believe from what I have
learned of your piety; yet at night a malefactor might break in through
a window, Madam, and your excellency not know it.'
“'I'm a light sleeper,' said the Duchess.
“The Duke looked at her gravely. 'Indeed?' said he. 'A bad sign at
your age. I must see that you are provided with a sleeping-draught.'
“The Duchess's eyes filled. 'You would deprive me, then, of the
consolation of visiting those venerable relics?'
“'I would have you keep eternal guard over them, knowing no one to
whose care they may more fittingly be entrusted.'
“By this the image was brought close to the wooden slab that covered
the entrance to the crypt, when the Duchess, springing forward, placed
herself in the way.
“'Sir, let the statue be put in place to-morrow, and suffer me,
to-night, to say a last prayer beside those holy bones.'
“The Duke stepped instantly to her side. 'Well thought, Madam; I
will go down with you now, and we will pray together.'
“'Sir, your long absences have, alas! given me the habit of solitary
devotion, and I confess that any presence is distracting.'
“'Madam, I accept your rebuke. Hitherto, it is true, the duties of
my station have constrained me to long absences; but henceforward I
remain with you while you live. Shall we go down into the crypt
“'No; for I fear for your excellency's ague. The air there is
“'The more reason you should no longer be exposed to it; and to
prevent the intemperance of your zeal I will at once make the place
“The Duchess at this fell on her knees on the slab, weeping
excessively and lifting her hands to heaven.
“'Oh,' she cried, 'you are cruel, sir, to deprive me of access to
the sacred relics that have enabled me to support with resignation the
solitude to which your excellency's duties have condemned me; and if
prayer and meditation give me any authority to pronounce on such
matters, suffer me to warn you, sir, that I fear the blessed Saint
Blandina will punish us for thus abandoning her venerable remains!'
“The Duke at this seemed to pause, for he was a pious man, and my
grandmother thought she saw him exchange a glance with the chaplain;
who, stepping timidly forward, with his eyes on the ground, said,
'There is indeed much wisdom in her excellency's words, but I would
suggest, sir, that her pious wish might be met, and the saint more
conspicuously honored, by transferring the relics from the crypt to a
place beneath the altar.'
“'True!' cried the Duke, 'and it shall be done at once.'
“But thereat the Duchess rose to her feet with a terrible look.
“'No,' she cried, 'by the body of God! For it shall not be said
that, after your excellency has chosen to deny every request I
addressed to him, I owe his consent to the solicitation of another!'
“The chaplain turned red and the Duke yellow, and for a moment
“Then the Duke said, 'Here are words enough, Madam. Do you wish the
relics brought up from the crypt?'
“'I wish nothing that I owe to another's intervention!'
“'Put the image in place then,' says the Duke furiously; and handed
her grace to a chair.
“She sat there, my grandmother said, straight as an arrow, her hands
locked, her head high, her eyes on the Duke, while the statue was
dragged to its place; then she stood up and turned away. As she passed
by Nencia, 'Call me Antonio,' she whispered; but before the words were
out of her mouth the Duke stepped between them.
“'Madam,' says he, all smiles now, 'I have travelled straight from
Rome to bring you the sooner this proof of my esteem. I lay last night
at Monselice and have been on the road since daybreak. Will you not
invite me to supper?'
“'Surely, my lord,' said the Duchess. 'It shall be laid in the
dining-parlor within the hour.'
“'Why not in your chamber and at once, Madam? Since I believe it is
your custom to sup there.'
“'In my chamber?' says the Duchess, in disorder.
“'Have you anything against it?' he asked.
“'Assuredly not, sir, if you will give me time to prepare myself.'
“'I will wait in your cabinet,' said the Duke.
“At that, said my grandmother, the Duchess gave one look, as the
souls in hell may have looked when the gates closed on our Lord; then
she called Nencia and passed to her chamber.
“What happened there my grandmother could never learn, but that the
Duchess, in great haste, dressed herself with extraordinary splendor,
powdering her hair with gold, painting her face and bosom, and covering
herself with jewels till she shone like our Lady of Loreto; and hardly
were these preparations complete when the Duke entered from the
cabinet, followed by the servants carrying supper. Thereupon the
Duchess dismissed Nencia, and what follows my grandmother learned from
a pantry-lad who brought up the dishes and waited in the cabinet; for
only the Duke's body-servant entered the bed-chamber.
“Well, according to this boy, sir, who was looking and listening
with his whole body, as it were, because he had never before been
suffered so near the Duchess, it appears that the noble couple sat down
in great good humor, the Duchess playfully reproving her husband for
his long absence, while the Duke swore that to look so beautiful was
the best way of punishing him. In this tone the talk continued, with
such gay sallies on the part of the Duchess, such tender advances on
the Duke's, that the lad declared they were for all the world like a
pair of lovers courting on a summer's night in the vineyard; and so it
went till the servant brought in the mulled wine.
“'Ah,' the Duke was saying at that moment, 'this agreeable evening
repays me for the many dull ones I have spent away from you; nor do I
remember to have enjoyed such laughter since the afternoon last year
when we drank chocolate in the gazebo with my cousin Ascanio. And that
reminds me,' he said, 'is my cousin in good health?'
“'I have no reports of it,' says the Duchess. 'But your excellency
should taste these figs stewed in malmsey—'
“'I am in the mood to taste whatever you offer,' said he; and as she
helped him to the figs he added, 'If my enjoyment were not complete as
it is, I could almost wish my cousin Ascanio were with us. The fellow
is rare good company at supper. What do you say, Madam? I hear he's
still in the country; shall we send for him to join us?'
“'Ah,' said the Duchess, with a sigh and a languishing look, 'I see
your excellency wearies of me already.'
“'I, Madam? Ascanio is a capital good fellow, but to my mind his
chief merit at this moment is his absence. It inclines me so tenderly
to him that, by God, I could empty a glass to his good health.'
“With that the Duke caught up his goblet and signed to the servant
to fill the Duchess's.
“'Here's to the cousin,' he cried, standing, 'who has the good taste
to stay away when he's not wanted. I drink to his very long life—and
“At this the Duchess, who had sat staring at him with a changed
face, rose also and lifted her glass to her lips.
“'And I to his happy death,' says she in a wild voice; and as she
spoke the empty goblet dropped from her hand and she fell face down on
“The Duke shouted to her women that she had swooned, and they came
and lifted her to the bed.... She suffered horribly all night, Nencia
said, twisting herself like a heretic at the stake, but without a word
escaping her. The Duke watched by her, and toward daylight sent for the
chaplain; but by this she was unconscious and, her teeth being locked,
our Lord's body could not be passed through them.
* * * * *
“The Duke announced to his relations that his lady had died after
partaking too freely of spiced wine and an omelet of carp's roe, at a
supper she had prepared in honor of his return; and the next year he
brought home a new Duchess, who gave him a son and five daughters....”
The sky had turned to a steel gray, against which the villa stood
out sallow and inscrutable. A wind strayed through the gardens,
loosening here and there a yellow leaf from the sycamores; and the
hills across the valley were purple as thunder-clouds.
* * * * *
“And the statue—?” I asked.
“Ah, the statue. Well, sir, this is what my grandmother told me,
here on this very bench where we're sitting. The poor child, who
worshipped the Duchess as a girl of her years will worship a beautiful
kind mistress, spent a night of horror, you may fancy, shut out from
her lady's room, hearing the cries that came from it, and seeing, as
she crouched in her corner, the women rush to and fro with wild looks,
the Duke's lean face in the door, and the chaplain skulking in the
antechamber with his eyes on his breviary. No one minded her that night
or the next morning; and toward dusk, when it became known the Duchess
was no more, the poor girl felt the pious wish to say a prayer for her
dead mistress. She crept to the chapel and stole in unobserved. The
place was empty and dim, but as she advanced she heard a low moaning,
and coming in front of the statue she saw that its face, the day before
so sweet and smiling, had the look on it that you know—and the moaning
seemed to come from its lips. My grandmother turned cold, but
something, she said afterward, kept her from calling or shrieking out,
and she turned and ran from the place. In the passage she fell in a
swoon; and when she came to her senses, in her own chamber, she heard
that the Duke had locked the chapel door and forbidden any to set foot
there.... The place was never opened again till the Duke died, some ten
years later; and then it was that the other servants, going in with the
new heir, saw for the first time the horror that my grandmother had
kept in her bosom....”
“And the crypt?” I asked. “Has it never been opened?”
“Heaven forbid, sir!” cried the old man, crossing himself. “Was it
not the Duchess's express wish that the relics should not be
THE ANGEL AT THE GRAVE
The House stood a few yards back from the elm-shaded village street,
in that semi-publicity sometimes cited as a democratic protest against
old-world standards of domestic exclusiveness. This candid exposure to
the public eye is more probably a result of the gregariousness which,
in the New England bosom, oddly coexists with a shrinking from direct
social contact; most of the inmates of such houses preferring that
furtive intercourse which is the result of observations through
shuttered windows and a categorical acquaintance with the neighboring
clothes-lines. The House, however, faced its public with a difference.
For sixty years it had written itself with a capital letter, had
self-consciously squared itself in the eye of an admiring nation. The
most searching inroads of village intimacy hardly counted in a
household that opened on the universe; and a lady whose door-bell was
at any moment liable to be rung by visitors from London or Vienna was
not likely to flutter up-stairs when she observed a neighbor “stepping
The solitary inmate of the Anson House owed this induration of the
social texture to the most conspicuous accident in her annals: the fact
that she was the only granddaughter of the great Orestes Anson. She had
been born, as it were, into a museum, and cradled in a glass case with
a label; the first foundations of her consciousness being built on the
rock of her grandfather's celebrity. To a little girl who acquires her
earliest knowledge of literature through a Reader embellished
with fragments of her ancestor's prose, that personage necessarily
fills an heroic space in the foreground of life. To communicate with
one's past through the impressive medium of print, to have, as it were,
a footing in every library in the country, and an acknowledged kinship
with that world-diffused clan, the descendants of the great, was to be
pledged to a standard of manners that amazingly simplified the lesser
relations of life. The village street on which Paulina Anson's youth
looked out led to all the capitals of Europe; and over the roads of
intercommunication unseen caravans bore back to the elm-shaded House
the tribute of an admiring world.
Fate seemed to have taken a direct share in fitting Paulina for her
part as the custodian of this historic dwelling. It had long been
secretly regarded as a “visitation” by the great man's family that he
had left no son and that his daughters were not “intellectual.” The
ladies themselves were the first to lament their deficiency, to own
that nature had denied them the gift of making the most of their
opportunities. A profound veneration for their parent and an unswerving
faith in his doctrines had not amended their congenital incapacity to
understand what he had written. Laura, who had her moments of mute
rebellion against destiny, had sometimes thought how much easier it
would have been if their progenitor had been a poet; for she could
recite, with feeling, portions of The Culprit Fay and of the
poems of Mrs. Hemans; and Phoebe, who was more conspicuous for memory
than imagination, kept an album filled with “selections.” But the great
man was a philosopher; and to both daughters respiration was difficult
on the cloudy heights of metaphysic. The situation would have been
intolerable but for the fact that, while Phoebe and Laura were still at
school, their father's fame had passed from the open ground of
conjecture to the chill privacy of certitude. Dr. Anson had in fact
achieved one of those anticipated immortalities not uncommon at a time
when people were apt to base their literary judgments on their
emotions, and when to affect plain food and despise England went a long
way toward establishing a man's intellectual pre-eminence. Thus, when
the daughters were called on to strike a filial attitude about their
parent's pedestal, there was little to do but to pose gracefully and
point upward; and there are spines to which the immobility of worship
is not a strain. A legend had by this time crystallized about the great
Orestes, and it was of more immediate interest to the public to hear
what brand of tea he drank, and whether he took off his boots in the
hall, than to rouse the drowsy echo of his dialectic. A great man never
draws so near his public as when it has become unnecessary to read his
books and is still interesting to know what he eats for breakfast.
As recorders of their parent's domestic habits, as pious scavengers
of his waste-paper basket, the Misses Anson were unexcelled. They
always had an interesting anecdote to impart to the literary pilgrim,
and the tact with which, in later years, they intervened between the
public and the growing inaccessibility of its idol, sent away many an
enthusiast satisfied to have touched the veil before the sanctuary.
Still it was felt, especially by old Mrs. Anson, who survived her
husband for some years, that Phoebe and Laura were not worthy of their
privileges. There had been a third daughter so unworthy of hers that
she had married a distant cousin, who had taken her to live in a new
Western community where the Works of Orestes Anson had not yet
become a part of the civic consciousness; but of this daughter little
was said, and she was tacitly understood to be excluded from the family
heritage of fame. In time, however, it appeared that the traditional
penny with which she had been cut off had been invested to unexpected
advantage; and the interest on it, when she died, returned to the Anson
House in the shape of a granddaughter who was at once felt to be what
Mrs. Anson called a “compensation.” It was Mrs. Anson's firm belief
that the remotest operations of nature were governed by the centripetal
force of her husband's greatness and that Paulina's exceptional
intelligence could be explained only on the ground that she was
designed to act as the guardian of the family temple.
The House, by the time Paulina came to live in it, had already
acquired the publicity of a place of worship; not the perfumed chapel
of a romantic idolatry but the cold clean empty meeting-house of
ethical enthusiasms. The ladies lived on its outskirts, as it were, in
cells that left the central fane undisturbed. The very position of the
furniture had come to have a ritual significance: the sparse ornaments
were the offerings of kindred intellects, the steel engravings by
Raphael Morghen marked the Via Sacra of a European tour, and the
black-walnut desk with its bronze inkstand modelled on the Pantheon was
the altar of this bleak temple of thought.
To a child compact of enthusiasms, and accustomed to pasture them on
the scanty herbage of a new social soil, the atmosphere of the old
house was full of floating nourishment. In the compressed perspective
of Paulina's outlook it stood for a monument of ruined civilizations,
and its white portico opened on legendary distances. Its very aspect
was impressive to eyes that had first surveyed life from the jig-saw
“residence” of a raw-edged Western town. The high-ceilinged rooms, with
their panelled walls, their polished mahogany, their portraits of
triple-stocked ancestors and of ringleted “females” in crayon,
furnished the child with the historic scenery against which a young
imagination constructs its vision of the past. To other eyes the cold
spotless thinly-furnished interior might have suggested the shuttered
mind of a maiden-lady who associates fresh air and sunlight with dust
and discoloration; but it is the eye which supplies the
coloring-matter, and Paulina's brimmed with the richest hues.
Nevertheless, the House did not immediately dominate her. She had
her confused out-reachings toward other centres of sensation, her vague
intuition of a heliocentric system; but the attraction of habit, the
steady pressure of example, gradually fixed her roving allegiance and
she bent her neck to the yoke. Vanity had a share in her subjugation;
for it had early been discovered that she was the only person in the
family who could read her grandfather's works. The fact that she had
perused them with delight at an age when (even presupposing a
metaphysical bias) it was impossible for her to understand them, seemed
to her aunts and grandmother sure evidence of predestination. Paulina
was to be the interpreter of the oracle, and the philosophic fumes so
vertiginous to meaner minds would throw her into the needed condition
of clairvoyance. Nothing could have been more genuine than the emotion
on which this theory was based. Paulina, in fact, delighted in her
grandfather's writings. His sonorous periods, his mystic vocabulary,
his bold flights into the rarefied air of the abstract, were thrilling
to a fancy unhampered by the need of definitions. This purely verbal
pleasure was supplemented later by the excitement of gathering up
crumbs of meaning from the rhetorical board. What could have been more
stimulating than to construct the theory of a girlish world out of the
fragments of this Titanic cosmogony? Before Paulina's opinions had
reached the stage when ossification sets in their form was fatally
The fact that Dr. Anson had died and that his apotheosis had taken
place before his young priestess's induction to the temple, made her
ministrations easier and more inspiring. There were no little personal
traits—such as the great man's manner of helping himself to salt, or
the guttural cluck that started the wheels of speech—to distract the
eye of young veneration from the central fact of his divinity. A man
whom one knows only through a crayon portrait and a dozen yellowing,
tomes on free-will and intuition is at least secure from the belittling
effects of intimacy.
Paulina thus grew up in a world readjusted to the fact of her
grandfather's greatness; and as each organism draws from its
surroundings the kind of nourishment most needful to its growth, so
from this somewhat colorless conception she absorbed warmth, brightness
and variety. Paulina was the type of woman who transmutes thought into
sensation and nurses a theory in her bosom like a child.
In due course Mrs. Anson “passed away”—no one died in the Anson
vocabulary—and Paulina became more than ever the foremost figure of
the commemorative group. Laura and Phoebe, content to leave their
father's glory in more competent hands, placidly lapsed into needlework
and fiction, and their niece stepped into immediate prominence as the
chief “authority” on the great man. Historians who were “getting up"
the period wrote to consult her and to borrow documents; ladies with
inexplicable yearnings begged for an interpretation of phrases which
had “influenced” them, but which they had not quite understood; critics
applied to her to verify some doubtful citation or to decide some
disputed point in chronology; and the great tide of thought and
investigation kept up a continuous murmur on the quiet shores of her
An explorer of another kind disembarked there one day in the shape
of a young man to whom Paulina was primarily a kissable girl, with an
after-thought in the shape of a grandfather. From the outset it had
been impossible to fix Hewlett Winsloe's attention on Dr. Anson. The
young man behaved with the innocent profanity of infants sporting on a
tomb. His excuse was that he came from New York, a Cimmerian outskirt
which survived in Paulina's geography only because Dr. Anson had gone
there once or twice to lecture. The curious thing was that she should
have thought it worth while to find excuses for young Winsloe. The fact
that she did so had not escaped the attention of the village; but
people, after a gasp of awe, said it was the most natural thing in the
world that a girl like Paulina Anson should think of marrying. It would
certainly seem a little odd to see a man in the House, but young
Winsloe would of course understand that the Doctor's books were not to
be disturbed, and that he must go down to the orchard to smoke—. The
village had barely framed this modus vivendi when it was
convulsed by the announcement that young Winsloe declined to live in
the House on any terms. Hang going down to the orchard to smoke! He
meant to take his wife to New York. The village drew its breath and
Did Persephone, snatched from the warm fields of Enna, peer
half-consentingly down the abyss that opened at her feet? Paulina, it
must be owned, hung a moment over the black gulf of temptation. She
would have found it easy to cope with a deliberate disregard of her
grandfather's rights; but young Winsloe's unconsciousness of that
shadowy claim was as much a natural function as the falling of leaves
on a grave. His love was an embodiment of the perpetual renewal which
to some tender spirits seems a crueller process than decay.
On women of Paulina's mould this piety toward implicit demands,
toward the ghosts of dead duties walking unappeased among usurping
passions, has a stronger hold than any tangible bond. People said that
she gave up young Winsloe because her aunts disapproved of her leaving
them; but such disapproval as reached her was an emanation from the
walls of the House, from the bare desk, the faded portraits, the dozen
yellowing tomes that no hand but hers ever lifted from the shelf.
After that the House possessed her. As if conscious of its victory,
it imposed a conqueror's claims. It had once been suggested that she
should write a life of her grandfather, and the task from which she had
shrunk as from a too-oppressive privilege now shaped itself into a
justification of her course. In a burst of filial pantheism she tried
to lose herself in the vast ancestral consciousness. Her one refuge
from scepticism was a blind faith in the magnitude and the endurance of
the idea to which she had sacrificed her life, and with a passionate
instinct of self-preservation she labored to fortify her position.
The preparations for the Life led her through by-ways that
the most scrupulous of the previous biographers had left unexplored.
She accumulated her material with a blind animal patience unconscious
of fortuitous risks. The years stretched before her like some vast
blank page spread out to receive the record of her toil; and she had a
mystic conviction that she would not die till her work was
The aunts, sustained by no such high purpose, withdrew in turn to
their respective divisions of the Anson “plot,” and Paulina remained
alone with her task. She was forty when the book was completed. She had
travelled little in her life, and it had become more and more difficult
to her to leave the House even for a day; but the dread of entrusting
her document to a strange hand made her decide to carry it herself to
the publisher. On the way to Boston she had a sudden vision of the
loneliness to which this last parting condemned her. All her youth, all
her dreams, all her renunciations lay in that neat bundle on her knee.
It was not so much her grandfather's life as her own that she had
written; and the knowledge that it would come back to her in all the
glorification of print was of no more help than, to a mother's grief,
the assurance that the lad she must part with will return with
She had naturally addressed herself to the firm which had published
her grandfather's works. Its founder, a personal friend of the
philosopher's, had survived the Olympian group of which he had been a
subordinate member, long enough to bestow his octogenarian approval on
Paulina's pious undertaking. But he had died soon afterward; and Miss
Anson found herself confronted by his grandson, a person with a brisk
commercial view of his trade, who was said to have put “new blood” into
This gentleman listened attentively, fingering her manuscript as
though literature were a tactile substance; then, with a confidential
twist of his revolving chair, he emitted the verdict: “We ought to have
had this ten years sooner.”
Miss Anson took the words as an allusion to the repressed avidity of
her readers. “It has been a long time for the public to wait,” she
The publisher smiled. “They haven't waited,” he said.
She looked at him strangely. “Haven't waited?”
“No—they've gone off; taken another train. Literature's like a big
railway-station now, you know: there's a train starting every minute.
People are not going to hang round the waiting-room. If they can't get
to a place when they want to they go somewhere else.”
The application of this parable cost Miss Anson several minutes of
throbbing silence. At length she said: “Then I am to understand that
the public is no longer interested in—in my grandfather?” She felt as
though heaven must blast the lips that risked such a conjecture.
“Well, it's this way. He's a name still, of course. People don't
exactly want to be caught not knowing who he is; but they don't want to
spend two dollars finding out, when they can look him up for nothing in
any biographical dictionary.”
Miss Anson's world reeled. She felt herself adrift among mysterious
forces, and no more thought of prolonging the discussion than of
opposing an earthquake with argument. She went home carrying the
manuscript like a wounded thing. On the return journey she found
herself travelling straight toward a fact that had lurked for months in
the background of her life, and that now seemed to await her on the
very threshold: the fact that fewer visitors came to the House. She
owned to herself that for the last four or five years the number had
steadily diminished. Engrossed in her work, she had noted the change
only to feel thankful that she had fewer interruptions. There had been
a time when, at the travelling season, the bell rang continuously, and
the ladies of the House lived in a chronic state of “best silks” and
expectancy. It would have been impossible then to carry on any
consecutive work; and she now saw that the silence which had gathered
round her task had been the hush of death.
Not of his death! The very walls cried out against the
implication. It was the world's enthusiasm, the world's faith, the
world's loyalty that had died. A corrupt generation that had turned
aside to worship the brazen serpent. Her heart yearned with a prophetic
passion over the lost sheep straying in the wilderness. But all great
glories had their interlunar period; and in due time her grandfather
would once more flash full-orbed upon a darkling world.
The few friends to whom she confided her adventure reminded her with
tender indignation that there were other publishers less subject to the
fluctuations of the market; but much as she had braved for her
grandfather she could not again brave that particular probation. She
found herself, in fact, incapable of any immediate effort. She had lost
her way in a labyrinth of conjecture where her worst dread was that she
might put her hand upon the clue.
She locked up the manuscript and sat down to wait. If a pilgrim had
come just then the priestess would have fallen on his neck; but she
continued to celebrate her rites alone. It was a double solitude; for
she had always thought a great deal more of the people who came to see
the House than of the people who came to see her. She fancied that the
neighbors kept a keen eye on the path to the House; and there were days
when the figure of a stranger strolling past the gate seemed to focus
upon her the scorching sympathies of the village. For a time she
thought of travelling; of going to Europe, or even to Boston; but to
leave the House now would have seemed like deserting her post.
Gradually her scattered energies centred themselves in the fierce
resolve to understand what had happened. She was not the woman to live
long in an unmapped country or to accept as final her private
interpretation of phenomena. Like a traveller in unfamiliar regions she
began to store for future guidance the minutest natural signs.
Unflinchingly she noted the accumulating symptoms of indifference that
marked her grandfather's descent toward posterity. She passed from the
heights on which he had been grouped with the sages of his day to the
lower level where he had come to be “the friend of Emerson,” “the
correspondent of Hawthorne,” or (later still) “the Dr. Anson” mentioned
in their letters. The change had taken place as slowly and
imperceptibly as a natural process. She could not say that any ruthless
hand had stripped the leaves from the tree: it was simply that, among
the evergreen glories of his group, her grandfather's had proved
She had still to ask herself why. If the decay had been a natural
process, was it not the very pledge of renewal? It was easier to find
such arguments than to be convinced by them. Again and again she tried
to drug her solicitude with analogies; but at last she saw that such
expedients were but the expression of a growing incredulity. The best
way of proving her faith in her grandfather was not to be afraid of his
critics. She had no notion where these shadowy antagonists lurked; for
she had never heard of the great man's doctrine being directly
combated. Oblique assaults there must have been, however, Parthian
shots at the giant that none dared face; and she thirsted to close with
such assailants. The difficulty was to find them. She began by
re-reading the Works; thence she passed to the writers of the
same school, those whose rhetoric bloomed perennial in First Readers
from which her grandfather's prose had long since faded. Amid that
clamor of far-off enthusiasms she detected no controversial note. The
little knot of Olympians held their views in common with an
early-Christian promiscuity. They were continually proclaiming their
admiration for each other, the public joining as chorus in this
guileless antiphon of praise; and she discovered no traitor in their
What then had happened? Was it simply that the main current of
thought had set another way? Then why did the others survive? Why were
they still marked down as tributaries to the philosophic stream? This
question carried her still farther afield, and she pressed on with the
passion of a champion whose reluctance to know the worst might be
construed into a doubt of his cause. At length—slowly but
inevitably—an explanation shaped itself. Death had overtaken the
doctrines about which her grandfather had draped his cloudy rhetoric.
They had disintegrated and been re-absorbed, adding their little pile
to the dust drifted about the mute lips of the Sphinx. The great man's
contemporaries had survived not by reason of what they taught, but of
what they were; and he, who had been the mere mask through which they
mouthed their lesson, the instrument on which their tune was played,
lay buried deep among the obsolete tools of thought.
The discovery came to Paulina suddenly. She looked up one evening
from her reading and it stood before her like a ghost. It had entered
her life with stealthy steps, creeping close before she was aware of
it. She sat in the library, among the carefully-tended books and
portraits; and it seemed to her that she had been walled alive into a
tomb hung with the effigies of dead ideas. She felt a desperate longing
to escape into the outer air, where people toiled and loved, and living
sympathies went hand in hand. It was the sense of wasted labor that
oppressed her; of two lives consumed in that ruthless process that uses
generations of effort to build a single cell. There was a dreary
parallel between her grandfather's fruitless toil and her own
unprofitable sacrifice. Each in turn had kept vigil by a corpse.
The bell rang—she remembered it afterward—with a loud thrilling
note. It was what they used to call the “visitor's ring”; not the
tentative tinkle of a neighbor dropping in to borrow a sauce-pan or
discuss parochial incidents, but a decisive summons from the outer
Miss Anson put down her knitting and listened. She sat up-stairs
now, making her rheumatism an excuse for avoiding the rooms below. Her
interests had insensibly adjusted themselves to the perspective of her
neighbors' lives, and she wondered—as the bell re-echoed—if it could
mean that Mrs. Heminway's baby had come. Conjecture had time to ripen
into certainty, and she was limping toward the closet where her cloak
and bonnet hung, when her little maid fluttered in with the
announcement: “A gentleman to see the house.”
“Yes, m'm. I don't know what he means,” faltered the messenger,
whose memory did not embrace the period when such announcements were a
daily part of the domestic routine.
Miss Anson glanced at the proffered card. The name it bore—Mr.
George Corby—was unknown to her, but the blood rose to her languid
cheek. “Hand me my Mechlin cap, Katy,” she said, trembling a little, as
she laid aside her walking stick. She put her cap on before the mirror,
with rapid unsteady touches. “Did you draw up the library blinds?” she
She had gradually built up a wall of commonplace between herself and
her illusions, but at the first summons of the past filial passion
swept away the frail barriers of expediency.
She walked down-stairs so hurriedly that her stick clicked like a
girlish heel; but in the hall she paused, wondering nervously if Katy
had put a match to the fire. The autumn air was cold and she had the
reproachful vision of a visitor with elderly ailments shivering by her
inhospitable hearth. She thought instinctively of the stranger as a
survivor of the days when such a visit was a part of the young
The fire was unlit and the room forbiddingly cold; but the figure
which, as Miss Anson entered, turned from a lingering scrutiny of the
book-shelves, was that of a fresh-eyed sanguine youth clearly
independent of any artificial caloric. She stood still a moment,
feeling herself the victim of some anterior impression that made this
robust presence an insubstantial thing; but the young man advanced with
an air of genial assurance which rendered him at once more real and
“Why this, you know,” he exclaimed, “is simply immense!”
The words, which did not immediately present themselves as slang to
Miss Anson's unaccustomed ear, echoed with an odd familiarity through
the academic silence.
“The room, you know, I mean,” he explained with a comprehensive
gesture. “These jolly portraits, and the books—that's the old
gentleman himself over the mantelpiece, I suppose?—and the elms
outside, and—and the whole business. I do like a congruous
His hostess was silent. No one but Hewlett Winsloe had ever spoken
of her grandfather as “the old gentleman.”
“It's a hundred times better than I could have hoped,” her visitor
continued, with a cheerful disregard of her silence. “The seclusion,
the remoteness, the philosophic atmosphere—there's so little of that
kind of flavor left! I should have simply hated to find that he lived
over a grocery, you know.—I had the deuce of a time finding out where
he did live,” he began again, after another glance of
parenthetical enjoyment. “But finally I got on the trail through some
old book on Brook Farm. I was bound I'd get the environment right
before I did my article.”
Miss Anson, by this time, had recovered sufficient self-possession
to seat herself and assign a chair to her visitor.
“Do I understand,” she asked slowly, following his rapid eye about
the room, “that you intend to write an article about my grandfather?”
“That's what I'm here for,” Mr. Corby genially responded; “that is,
if you're willing to help me; for I can't get on without your help,” he
added with a confident smile.
There was another pause, during which Miss Anson noticed a fleck of
dust on the faded leather of the writing-table and a fresh spot of
discoloration in the right-hand upper corner of Raphael Morghen's
“Then you believe in him?” she said, looking up. She could not tell
what had prompted her; the words rushed out irresistibly.
“Believe in him?” Corby cried, springing to his feet. “Believe in
Orestes Anson? Why, I believe he's simply the greatest—the most
stupendous—the most phenomenal figure we've got!”
The color rose to Miss Anson's brow. Her heart was beating
passionately. She kept her eyes fixed on the young man's face, as
though it might vanish if she looked away.
“You—you mean to say this in your article?” she asked.
“Say it? Why, the facts will say it,” he exulted. “The baldest kind
of a statement would make it clear. When a man is as big as that he
doesn't need a pedestal!”
Miss Anson sighed. “People used to say that when I was young,” she
murmured. “But now—”
Her visitor stared. “When you were young? But how did they
know—when the thing hung fire as it did? When the whole edition was
thrown back on his hands?”
“The whole edition—what edition?” It was Miss Anson's turn to
“Why, of his pamphlet—the pamphlet—the one thing that
counts, that survives, that makes him what he is! For heaven's sake,”
he tragically adjured her, “don't tell me there isn't a copy of it
Miss Anson was trembling slightly. “I don't think I understand what
you mean,” she faltered, less bewildered by his vehemence than by the
strange sense of coming on an unexplored region in the very heart of
“Why, his account of the amphioxus, of course! You can't mean
that his family didn't know about it—that you don't know about
it? I came across it by the merest accident myself, in a letter of
vindication that he wrote in 1830 to an old scientific paper; but I
understood there were journals—early journals; there must be
references to it somewhere in the 'twenties. He must have been at least
ten or twelve years ahead of Yarrell; and he saw the whole significance
of it, too—he saw where it led to. As I understand it, he actually
anticipated in his pamphlet Saint Hilaire's theory of the universal
type, and supported the hypothesis by describing the notochord of the
amphioxus as a cartilaginous vertebral column. The specialists of
the day jeered at him, of course, as the specialists in Goethe's time
jeered at the plant-metamorphosis. As far as I can make out, the
anatomists and zoologists were down on Dr. Anson to a man; that was why
his cowardly publishers went back on their bargain. But the pamphlet
must be here somewhere—he writes as though, in his first
disappointment, he had destroyed the whole edition; but surely there
must be at least one copy left?”
His scientific jargon was as bewildering as his slang; and there
were even moments in his discourse when Miss Anson ceased to
distinguish between them; but the suspense with which he continued to
gaze on her acted as a challenge to her scattered thoughts.
“The amphioxus,” she murmured, half-rising. “It's an animal,
isn't it—a fish? Yes, I think I remember.” She sank back with the
inward look of one who retraces some lost line of association.
Gradually the distance cleared, the details started into life. In
her researches for the biography she had patiently followed every
ramification of her subject, and one of these overgrown paths now led
her back to the episode in question. The great Orestes's title of
“Doctor” had in fact not been merely the spontaneous tribute of a
national admiration; he had actually studied medicine in his youth, and
his diaries, as his granddaughter now recalled, showed that he had
passed through a brief phase of anatomical ardor before his attention
was diverted to super-sensual problems. It had indeed seemed to
Paulina, as she scanned those early pages, that they revealed a
spontaneity, a freshness of feeling somehow absent from his later
lucubrations—as though this one emotion had reached him directly, the
others through some intervening medium. In the excess of her
commemorative zeal she had even struggled through the unintelligible
pamphlet to which a few lines in the journal had bitterly directed her.
But the subject and the phraseology were alien to her and unconnected
with her conception of the great man's genius; and after a hurried
perusal she had averted her thoughts from the episode as from a
revelation of failure. At length she rose a little unsteadily,
supporting herself against the writing-table. She looked hesitatingly
about the room; then she drew a key from her old-fashioned reticule and
unlocked a drawer beneath one of the book-cases. Young Corby watched
her breathlessly. With a tremulous hand she turned over the dusty
documents that seemed to fill the drawer. “Is this it?” she said,
holding out a thin discolored volume.
He seized it with a gasp. “Oh, by George,” he said, dropping into
the nearest chair.
She stood observing him strangely as his eye devoured the mouldy
“Is this the only copy left?” he asked at length, looking up for a
moment as a thirsty man lifts his head from his glass.
“I think it must be. I found it long ago, among some old papers that
my aunts were burning up after my grandmother's death. They said it was
of no use—that he'd always meant to destroy the whole edition and that
I ought to respect his wishes. But it was something he had written; to
burn it was like shutting the door against his voice—against something
he had once wished to say, and that nobody had listened to. I wanted
him to feel that I was always here, ready to listen, even when others
hadn't thought it worth while; and so I kept the pamphlet, meaning to
carry out his wish and destroy it before my death.”
Her visitor gave a groan of retrospective anguish. “And but for
me—but for to-day—you would have?”
“I should have thought it my duty.”
“Oh, by George—by George,” he repeated, subdued afresh by the
inadequacy of speech.
She continued to watch him in silence. At length he jumped up and
impulsively caught her by both hands.
“He's bigger and bigger!” he almost shouted. “He simply leads the
field! You'll help me go to the bottom of this, won't you? We must turn
out all the papers—letters, journals, memoranda. He must have made
notes. He must have left some record of what led up to this. We must
leave nothing unexplored. By Jove,” he cried, looking up at her with
his bright convincing smile, “do you know you're the granddaughter of a
Her color flickered like a girl's. “Are you—sure of him?” she
whispered, as though putting him on his guard against a possible
betrayal of trust.
“Sure! Sure! My dear lady—” he measured her again with his quick
confident glance. “Don't you believe in him?”
She drew back with a confused murmur. “I—used to.” She had left her
hands in his: their pressure seemed to send a warm current to her
heart. “It ruined my life!” she cried with sudden passion. He looked at
“I gave up everything,” she went on wildly, “to keep him alive. I
sacrificed myself—others—I nursed his glory in my bosom and it
died—and left me—left me here alone.” She paused and gathered her
courage with a gasp. “Don't make the same mistake!” she warned him.
He shook his head, still smiling. “No danger of that! You're not
alone, my dear lady. He's here with you—he's come back to you to-day.
Don't you see what's happened? Don't you see that it's your love that
has kept him alive? If you'd abandoned your post for an instant—let
things pass into other hands—if your wonderful tenderness hadn't
perpetually kept guard—this might have been—must have
been—irretrievably lost.” He laid his hand on the pamphlet. “And
then—then he would have been dead!”
“Oh,” she said, “don't tell me too suddenly!” And she turned away
and sank into a chair.
The young man stood watching her in an awed silence. For a long time
she sat motionless, with her face hidden, and he thought she must be
At length he said, almost shyly: “You'll let me come back, then?
You'll help me work this thing out?”
She rose calmly and held out her hand. “I'll help you,” she
“I'll come to-morrow, then. Can we get to work early?”
“As early as you please.”
“At eight o'clock, then,” he said briskly. “You'll have the papers
“I'll have everything ready.” She added with a half-playful
hesitancy: “And the fire shall be lit for you.”
He went out with his bright nod. She walked to the window and
watched his buoyant figure hastening down the elm-shaded street. When
she turned back into the empty room she looked as though youth had
touched her on the lips.
To the visiting stranger Hillbridge's first question was, “Have you
seen Keniston's things?” Keniston took precedence of the colonial State
House, the Gilbert Stuart Washington and the Ethnological Museum; nay,
he ran neck and neck with the President of the University, a
prehistoric relic who had known Emerson, and who was still sent about
the country in cotton-wool to open educational institutions with a
toothless oration on Brook Farm.
Keniston was sent about the country too: he opened art exhibitions,
laid the foundation of academies, and acted in a general sense as the
spokesman and apologist of art. Hillbridge was proud of him in his
peripatetic character, but his fellow-townsmen let it be understood
that to “know” Keniston one must come to Hillbridge. Never was work
more dependent for its effect on “atmosphere,” on milieu.
Hillbridge was Keniston's milieu, and there was one lady, a devotee of
his art, who went so far as to assert that once, at an exhibition in
New York, she had passed a Keniston without recognizing it. “It simply
didn't want to be seen in such surroundings; it was hiding itself under
an incognito,” she declared.
It was a source of special pride to Hillbridge that it contained all
the artist's best works. Strangers were told that Hillbridge had
discovered him. The discovery had come about in the simplest manner.
Professor Driffert, who had a reputation for “collecting,” had one day
hung a sketch on his drawing-room wall, and thereafter Mrs. Driffert's
visitors (always a little flurried by the sense that it was the kind of
house in which one might be suddenly called upon to distinguish between
a dry-point and an etching, or between Raphael Mengs and Raphael
Sanzio) were not infrequently subjected to the Professor's off-hand
inquiry, “By-the-way, have you seen my Keniston?” The visitors,
perceptibly awed, would retreat to a critical distance and murmur the
usual guarded generalities, while they tried to keep the name in mind
long enough to look it up in the Encyclopaedia. The name was not in the
Encyclopaedia; but, as a compensating fact, it became known that the
man himself was in Hillbridge. Hillbridge, then, owned an artist whose
celebrity it was the proper thing to take for granted! Some one else,
emboldened by the thought, bought a Keniston; and the next year, on the
occasion of the President's golden jubilee, the Faculty, by unanimous
consent, presented him with a Keniston. Two years later there was a
Keniston exhibition, to which the art-critics came from New York and
Boston; and not long afterward a well-known Chicago collector vainly
attempted to buy Professor Driffert's sketch, which the art journals
cited as a rare example of the painter's first or silvery manner. Thus
there gradually grew up a small circle of connoisseurs known in
artistic, circles as men who collected Kenistons.
Professor Wildmarsh, of the chair of Fine Arts and Archaeology, was
the first critic to publish a detailed analysis of the master's methods
and purpose. The article was illustrated by engravings which (though
they had cost the magazine a fortune) were declared by Professor
Wildmarsh to give but an imperfect suggestion of the esoteric
significance of the originals. The Professor, with a tact that
contrived to make each reader feel himself included among the
exceptions, went on to say that Keniston's work would never appeal to
any but exceptional natures; and he closed with the usual assertion
that to apprehend the full meaning of the master's “message” it was
necessary to see him in the surroundings of his own home at Hillbridge.
Professor Wildmarsh's article was read one spring afternoon by a
young lady just speeding eastward on her first visit to Hillbridge, and
already flushed with anticipation of the intellectual opportunities
awaiting her. In East Onondaigua, where she lived, Hillbridge was
looked on as an Oxford. Magazine writers, with the easy American use of
the superlative, designated it as “the venerable Alma Mater,” the
“antique seat of learning,” and Claudia Day had been brought up to
regard it as the fountain-head of knowledge, and of that mental
distinction which is so much rarer than knowledge. An innate passion
for all that was thus distinguished and exceptional made her revere
Hillbridge as the native soil of those intellectual amenities that were
of such difficult growth in the thin air of East Onondaigua. At the
first suggestion of a visit to Hillbridge—whither she went at the
invitation of a girl friend who (incredible apotheosis!) had married
one of the University professors—Claudia's spirit dilated with the
sense of new possibilities. The vision of herself walking under the
“historic elms” toward the Memorial Library, standing rapt before the
Stuart Washington, or drinking in, from some obscure corner of an
academic drawing-room, the President's reminiscences of the Concord
group—this vividness of self-projection into the emotions awaiting her
made her glad of any delay that prolonged so exquisite a moment.
It was in this mood that she opened the article on Keniston. She
knew about him, of course; she was wonderfully “well up,” even for East
Onondaigua. She had read of him in the magazines; she had met, on a
visit to New York, a man who collected Kenistons, and a photogravure of
a Keniston in an “artistic” frame hung above her writing-table at home.
But Professor Wildmarsh's article made her feel how little she really
knew of the master; and she trembled to think of the state of relative
ignorance in which, but for the timely purchase of the magazine, she
might have entered Hillbridge. She had, for instance, been densely
unaware that Keniston had already had three “manners,” and was showing
symptoms of a fourth. She was equally ignorant of the fact that he had
founded a school and “created a formula”; and she learned with a thrill
that no one could hope to understand him who had not seen him in his
studio at Hillbridge, surrounded by his own works. “The man and the art
interpret each other,” their exponent declared; and Claudia Day,
bending a brilliant eye on the future, wondered if she were ever to be
admitted to the privilege of that double initiation.
Keniston, to his other claims to distinction, added that of being
hard to know. His friends always hastened to announce the fact to
strangers—adding after a pause of suspense that they “would see what
they could do.” Visitors in whose favor he was induced to make an
exception were further warned that he never spoke unless he was
interested—so that they mustn't mind if he remained silent. It was
under these reassuring conditions that, some ten days after her arrival
at Hillbridge, Miss Day was introduced to the master's studio. She
found him a tall listless-looking man, who appeared middle-aged to her
youth, and who stood before his own pictures with a vaguely
interrogative gaze, leaving the task of their interpretation to the
lady who had courageously contrived the visit. The studio, to Claudia's
surprise, was bare and shabby. It formed a rambling addition to the
small cheerless house in which the artist lived with his mother and a
widowed sister. For Claudia it added the last touch to his distinction
to learn that he was poor, and that what he earned was devoted to the
maintenance of the two limp women who formed a neutral-tinted
background to his impressive outline. His pictures of course fetched
high prices; but he worked slowly—“painfully,” as his devotees
preferred to phrase it—with frequent intervals of ill health and
inactivity, and the circle of Keniston connoisseurs was still as small
as it was distinguished. The girl's fancy instantly hailed in him that
favorite figure of imaginative youth, the artist who would rather
starve than paint a pot-boiler. It is known to comparatively few that
the production of successful pot-boilers is an art in itself, and that
such heroic abstentions as Keniston's are not always purely voluntary.
On the occasion of her first visit the artist said so little that
Claudia was able to indulge to the full the harrowing sense of her
inadequacy. No wonder she had not been one of the few that he cared to
talk to; every word she uttered must so obviously have diminished the
inducement! She had been cheap, trivial, conventional; at once gushing
and inexpressive, eager and constrained. She could feel him counting
the minutes till the visit was over, and as the door finally closed on
the scene of her discomfiture she almost shared the hope with which she
confidently credited him—that they might never meet again.
Mrs. Davant glanced reverentially about the studio. “I have always
said,” she murmured, “that they ought to be seen in Europe.”
Mrs. Davant was young, credulous and emotionally extravagant: she
reminded Claudia of her earlier self—the self that, ten years before,
had first set an awestruck foot on that very threshold.
“Not for his sake,” Mrs. Davant continued, “but for
Claudia smiled. She was glad that her husband's pictures were to be
exhibited in Paris. She concurred in Mrs. Davant's view of the
importance of the event; but she thought her visitor's way of putting
the case a little overcharged. Ten years spent in an atmosphere of
Keniston-worship had insensibly developed in Claudia a preference for
moderation of speech. She believed in her husband, of course; to
believe in him, with an increasing abandonment and tenacity, had become
one of the necessary laws of being; but she did not believe in his
admirers. Their faith in him was perhaps as genuine as her own; but it
seemed to her less able to give an account of itself. Some few of his
appreciators doubtless measured him by their own standards; but it was
difficult not to feel that in the Hillbridge circle, where rapture ran
the highest, he was accepted on what was at best but an indirect
valuation; and now and then she had a frightened doubt as to the
independence of her own convictions. That innate sense of relativity
which even East Onondaigua had not been able to check in Claudia Day
had been fostered in Mrs. Keniston by the artistic absolutism of
Hillbridge, and she often wondered that her husband remained so
uncritical of the quality of admiration accorded him. Her husband's
uncritical attitude toward himself and his admirers had in fact been
one of the surprises of her marriage. That an artist should believe in
his potential powers seemed to her at once the incentive and the pledge
of excellence: she knew there was no future for a hesitating talent.
What perplexed her was Keniston's satisfaction in his achievement. She
had always imagined that the true artist must regard himself as the
imperfect vehicle of the cosmic emotion—that beneath every difficulty
overcome a new one lurked, the vision widening as the scope enlarged.
To be initiated into these creative struggles, to shed on the toiler's
path the consolatory ray of faith and encouragement, had seemed the
chief privilege of her marriage. But there is something supererogatory
in believing in a man obviously disposed to perform that service for
himself; and Claudia's ardor gradually spent itself against the dense
surface of her husband's complacency. She could smile now at her vision
of an intellectual communion which should admit her to the inmost
precincts of his inspiration. She had learned that the creative
processes are seldom self-explanatory, and Keniston's inarticulateness
no longer discouraged her; but she could not reconcile her sense of the
continuity of all high effort to his unperturbed air of finishing each
picture as though he had despatched a masterpiece to posterity. In the
first recoil from her disillusionment she even allowed herself to
perceive that, if he worked slowly, it was not because he mistrusted
his powers of expression, but because he had really so little to
“It's for Europe,” Mrs. Davant vaguely repeated; and Claudia noticed
that she was blushingly intent on tracing with the tip of her elaborate
sunshade the pattern of the shabby carpet.
“It will be a revelation to them,” she went on provisionally, as
though Claudia had missed her cue and left an awkward interval to fill.
Claudia had in fact a sudden sense of deficient intuition. She felt
that her visitor had something to communicate which required, on her
own part, an intelligent co-operation; but what it was her insight
failed to suggest. She was, in truth, a little tired of Mrs. Davant,
who was Keniston's latest worshipper, who ordered pictures recklessly,
who paid for them regally in advance, and whose gallery was,
figuratively speaking, crowded with the artist's unpainted
masterpieces. Claudia's impatience was perhaps complicated by the
uneasy sense that Mrs. Davant was too young, too rich, too
inexperienced; that somehow she ought to be warned.—Warned of what?
That some of the pictures might never be painted? Scarcely that, since
Keniston, who was scrupulous in business transactions, might be trusted
not to take any material advantage of such evidence of faith. Claudia's
impulse remained undefined. She merely felt that she would have liked
to help Mrs. Davant, and that she did not know how.
“You'll be there to see them?” she asked, as her visitor lingered.
“In Paris?” Mrs. Davant's blush deepened. “We must all be there
Claudia smiled. “My husband and I mean to go abroad some day—but I
don't see any chance of it at present.”
“But he ought to go—you ought both to go this summer!” Mrs.
Davant persisted. “I know Professor Wildmarsh and Professor Driffert
and all the other critics think that Mr. Keniston's never having been
to Europe has given his work much of its wonderful individuality, its
peculiar flavor and meaning—but now that his talent is formed, that he
has full command of his means of expression,” (Claudia recognized one
of Professor Driffert's favorite formulas) “they all think he ought to
see the work of the other great masters—that he ought to visit
the home of his ancestors, as Professor Wildmarsh says!” She stretched
an impulsive hand to Claudia. “You ought to let him go, Mrs. Keniston!”
Claudia accepted the admonition with the philosophy of the wife who
is used to being advised on the management of her husband. “I sha'n't
interfere with him,” she declared; and Mrs. Davant instantly caught her
up with a cry of, “Oh, it's too lovely of you to say that!” With this
exclamation she left Claudia to a silent renewal of wonder.
A moment later Keniston entered: to a mind curious in combinations
it might have occurred that he had met Mrs. Davant on the door-step. In
one sense he might, for all his wife cared, have met fifty Mrs. Davants
on the door-step: it was long since Claudia had enjoyed the solace of
resenting such coincidences. Her only thought now was that her
husband's first words might not improbably explain Mrs. Davant's last;
and she waited for him to speak.
He paused with his hands in his pockets before an unfinished picture
on the easel; then, as his habit was, he began to stroll touristlike
from canvas to canvas, standing before each in a musing ecstasy of
contemplation that no readjustment of view ever seemed to disturb. Her
eye instinctively joined his in its inspection; it was the one point
where their natures merged. Thank God, there, was no doubt about the
pictures! She was what she had always dreamed of being—the wife of a
great artist. Keniston dropped into an armchair and filled his pipe.
“How should you like to go to Europe?” he asked.
His wife looked up quickly. “When?”
“Now—this spring, I mean.” He paused to light the pipe. “I should
like to be over there while these things are being exhibited.”
Claudia was silent.
“Well?” he repeated after a moment.
“How can we afford it?” she asked.
Keniston had always scrupulously fulfilled his duty to the mother
and sister whom his marriage had dislodged; and Claudia, who had the
atoning temperament which seeks to pay for every happiness by making it
a source of fresh obligations, had from the outset accepted his ties
with an exaggerated devotion. Any disregard of such a claim would have
vulgarized her most delicate pleasures; and her husband's sensitiveness
to it in great measure extenuated the artistic obtuseness that often
seemed to her like a failure of the moral sense. His loyalty to the
dull women who depended on him was, after all, compounded of finer
tissues than any mere sensibility to ideal demands.
“Oh, I don't see why we shouldn't,” he rejoined. “I think we might
“At Mrs. Davant's expense?” leaped from Claudia. She could not tell
why she had said it; some inner barrier seemed to have given way under
a confused pressure of emotions.
He looked up at her with frank surprise. “Well, she has been very
jolly about it—why not? She has a tremendous feeling for art—the
keenest I ever knew in a woman.” Claudia imperceptibly smiled. “She
wants me to let her pay in advance for the four panels she has ordered
for the Memorial Library. That would give us plenty of money for the
trip, and my having the panels to do is another reason for my wanting
to go abroad just now.”
“Yes; I've never worked on such a big scale. I want to see how those
old chaps did the trick; I want to measure myself with the big fellows
over there. An artist ought to, once in his life.”
She gave him a wondering look. For the first time his words implied
a sense of possible limitation; but his easy tone seemed to retract
what they conceded. What he really wanted was fresh food for his
self-satisfaction: he was like an army that moves on after exhausting
the resources of the country.
Womanlike, she abandoned the general survey of the case for the
consideration of a minor point.
“Are you sure you can do that kind of thing?” she asked.
“What kind of thing?”
He glanced at her indulgently: his self-confidence was too
impenetrable to feel the pin-prick of such a doubt.
“Immensely sure,” he said with a smile.
“And you don't mind taking so much money from her in advance?”
He stared. “Why should I? She'll get it back—with interest!” He
laughed and drew at his pipe. “It will be an uncommonly interesting
experience. I shouldn't wonder if it freshened me up a bit.”
She looked at him again. This second hint of self-distrust struck
her as the sign of a quickened sensibility. What if, after all, he was
beginning to be dissatisfied with his work? The thought filled her with
a renovating sense of his sufficiency.
They stopped in London to see the National Gallery.
It was thus that, in their inexperience, they had narrowly put it;
but in reality every stone of the streets, every trick of the
atmosphere, had its message of surprise for their virgin sensibilities.
The pictures were simply the summing up, the final interpretation, of
the cumulative pressure of an unimagined world; and it seemed to
Claudia that long before they reached the doors of the gallery she had
some intuitive revelation of what awaited them within.
They moved about from room to room without exchanging a word. The
vast noiseless spaces seemed full of sound, like the roar of a distant
multitude heard only by the inner ear. Had their speech been articulate
their language would have been incomprehensible; and even that far-off
murmur of meaning pressed intolerably on Claudia's nerves. Keniston
took the onset without outward sign of disturbance. Now and then he
paused before a canvas, or prolonged from one of the benches his silent
communion with some miracle of line or color; but he neither looked at
his wife nor spoke to her. He seemed to have forgotten her presence.
Claudia was conscious of keeping a furtive watch on him; but the sum
total of her impressions was negative. She remembered thinking when she
first met him that his face was rather expressionless; and he had the
habit of self-engrossed silences.
All that evening, at the hotel, they talked about London, and he
surprised her by an acuteness of observation that she had sometimes
inwardly accused him of lacking. He seemed to have seen everything, to
have examined, felt, compared, with nerves as finely adjusted as her
own; but he said nothing of the pictures. The next day they returned to
the National Gallery, and he began to study the paintings in detail,
pointing out differences of technique, analyzing and criticising, but
still without summing up his conclusions. He seemed to have a sort of
provincial dread of showing himself too much impressed. Claudia's own
sensations were too complex, too overwhelming, to be readily
classified. Lacking the craftsman's instinct to steady her, she felt
herself carried off her feet by the rush of incoherent impressions. One
point she consciously avoided, and that was the comparison of her
husband's work with what they were daily seeing. Art, she inwardly
argued, was too various, too complex, dependent on too many
inter-relations of feeling and environment, to allow of its being
judged by any provisional standard. Even the subtleties of technique
must be modified by the artist's changing purpose, as this in turn is
acted on by influences of which he is himself unconscious. How, then,
was an unprepared imagination to distinguish between such varied
reflections of the elusive vision? She took refuge in a passionate
exaggeration of her own ignorance and insufficiency.
After a week in London they went to Paris. The exhibition of
Keniston's pictures had been opened a few days earlier; and as they
drove through the streets on the way to the station an “impressionist"
poster here and there invited them to the display of the American
artist's work. Mrs. Davant, who had been in Paris for the opening, had
already written rapturously of the impression produced, enclosing
commendatory notices from one or two papers. She reported that there
had been a great crowd on the first day, and that the critics had been
The Kenistons arrived in the evening, and the next morning Claudia,
as a matter of course, asked her husband at what time he meant to go
and see the pictures.
He looked up absently from his guide-book.
“Why—yours,” she said, surprised.
“Oh, they'll keep,” he answered; adding with a slightly embarrassed
laugh, “We'll give the other chaps a show first.” Presently he laid
down his book and proposed that they should go to the Louvre.
They spent the morning there, lunched at a restaurant near by, and
returned to the gallery in the afternoon. Keniston had passed from
inarticulateness to an eager volubility. It was clear that he was
beginning to co-ordinate his impressions, to find his way about in a
corner of the great imaginative universe. He seemed extraordinarily
ready to impart his discoveries; and Claudia felt that her ignorance
served him as a convenient buffer against the terrific impact of new
On the way home she asked when he meant to see Mrs. Davant.
His answer surprised her. “Does she know we're here?”
“Not unless you've sent her word,” said Claudia, with a touch of
“That's all right, then,” he returned simply. “I want to wait and
look about a day or two longer. She'd want us to go sight-seeing with
her; and I'd rather get my impressions alone.”
The next two days were hampered by the necessity of eluding Mrs.
Davant. Claudia, under different circumstances, would have scrupled to
share in this somewhat shabby conspiracy; but she found herself in a
state of suspended judgment, wherein her husband's treatment of Mrs.
Davant became for the moment merely a clue to larger meanings.
They had been four days in Paris when Claudia, returning one
afternoon from a parenthetical excursion to the Rue de la Paix, was
confronted on her threshold by the reproachful figure of their
benefactress. It was not to her, however, that Mrs. Davant's reproaches
were addressed. Keniston, it appeared, had borne the brunt of them; for
he stood leaning against the mantelpiece of their modest salon
in that attitude of convicted negligence when, if ever, a man is glad
to take refuge behind his wife.
Claudia had however no immediate intention of affording him such
shelter. She wanted to observe and wait.
“He's too impossible!” cried Mrs. Davant, sweeping her at once into
the central current of her grievance.
Claudia looked from one to the other.
“For not going to see you?”
“For not going to see his pictures!” cried the other nobly.
Claudia colored and Keniston shifted his position uneasily.
“I can't make her understand,” he said, turning to his wife.
“I don't care about myself!” Mrs. Davant interjected.
“I do, then; it's the only thing I do care about,” he
hurriedly protested. “I meant to go at once—to write—Claudia wanted
to go, but I wouldn't let her.” He looked helplessly about the pleasant
red-curtained room, which was rapidly burning itself into Claudia's
consciousness as a visible extension of Mrs. Davant's claims.
“I can't explain,” he broke off.
Mrs. Davant in turn addressed herself to Claudia.
“People think it's so odd,” she complained. “So many of the artists
here are anxious to meet him; they've all been so charming about the
pictures; and several of our American friends have come over from
London expressly for the exhibition. I told every one that he would be
here for the opening—there was a private view, you know—and they were
so disappointed—they wanted to give him an ovation; and I didn't know
what to say. What am I to say?” she abruptly ended.
“There's nothing to say,” said Keniston slowly.
“But the exhibition closes the day after to-morrow.”
“Well, I sha'n't close—I shall be here,” he declared with an
effort at playfulness. “If they want to see me—all these people you're
kind enough to mention—won't there be other chances?”
“But I wanted them to see you among your pictures—to hear
you talk about them, explain them in that wonderful way. I wanted you
to interpret each other, as Professor Wildmarsh says!”
“Oh, hang Professor Wildmarsh!” said Keniston, softening the
commination with a smile. “If my pictures are good for anything they
oughtn't to need explaining.”
Mrs. Davant stared. “But I thought that was what made them so
interesting!” she exclaimed.
Keniston looked down. “Perhaps it was,” he murmured.
There was an awkward silence, which Claudia broke by saying, with a
glance at her husband: “But if the exhibition is to remain open
to-morrow, could we not meet you there? And perhaps you could send word
to some of our friends.”
Mrs. Davant brightened like a child whose broken toy is glued
together. “Oh, do make him!” she implored. “I'll ask them to
come in the afternoon—we'll make it into a little tea—a five
o'clock. I'll send word at once to everybody!” She gathered up her
beruffled boa and sunshade, settling her plumage like a reassured bird.
“It will be too lovely!” she ended in a self-consoling murmur.
But in the doorway a new doubt assailed her. “You won't fail me?”
she said, turning plaintively to Keniston. “You'll make him come, Mrs.
“I'll bring him!” Claudia promised.
When, the next morning, she appeared equipped for their customary
ramble, her husband surprised her by announcing that he meant to stay
“The fact is I'm rather surfeited,” he said, smiling. “I suppose my
appetite isn't equal to such a plethora. I think I'll write some
letters and join you somewhere later.”
She detected the wish to be alone and responded to it with her usual
“I shall sink to my proper level and buy a bonnet, then,” she said.
“I haven't had time to take the edge off that appetite.”
They agreed to meet at the Hotel Cluny at mid-day, and she set out
alone with a vague sense of relief. Neither she nor Keniston had made
any direct reference to Mrs. Davant's visit; but its effect was
implicit in their eagerness to avoid each other.
Claudia accomplished some shopping in the spirit of perfunctoriness
that robs even new bonnets of their bloom; and this business
despatched, she turned aimlessly into the wide inviting brightness of
the streets. Never had she felt more isolated amid that ordered beauty
which gives a social quality to the very stones and mortar of Paris.
All about her were evidences of an artistic sensibility pervading every
form of life like the nervous structure of the huge frame—a
sensibility so delicate, alert and universal that it seemed to leave no
room for obtuseness or error. In such a medium the faculty of plastic
expression must develop as unconsciously as any organ in its normal
surroundings; to be “artistic” must cease to be an attitude and become
a natural function. To Claudia the significance of the whole vast
revelation was centred in the light it shed on one tiny spot of
consciousness—the value of her husband's work. There are moments when
to the groping soul the world's accumulated experiences are but
stepping-stones across a private difficulty.
She stood hesitating on a street corner. It was barely eleven, and
she had an hour to spare before going to the Hotel Cluny. She seemed to
be letting her inclination float as it would on the cross-currents of
suggestion emanating from the brilliant complex scene before her; but
suddenly, in obedience to an impulse that she became aware of only in
acting on it, she called a cab and drove to the gallery where her
husband's pictures were exhibited.
A magnificent official in gold braid sold her a ticket and pointed
the way up the empty crimson-carpeted stairs. His duplicate, on the
upper landing, held out a catalogue with an air of recognizing the
futility of the offer; and a moment later she found herself in the long
noiseless impressive room full of velvet-covered ottomans and exotic
plants. It was clear that the public ardor on which Mrs. Davant had
expatiated had spent itself earlier in the week; for Claudia had this
luxurious apartment to herself. Something about its air of rich
privacy, its diffusion of that sympathetic quality in other countries
so conspicuously absent from the public show-room, seemed to emphasize
its present emptiness. It was as though the flowers, the carpet, the
lounges, surrounded their visitor's solitary advance with the mute
assurance that they had done all they could toward making the thing “go
off,” and that if they had failed it was simply for lack of
co-operation. She stood still and looked about her. The pictures struck
her instantly as odd gaps in the general harmony; it was self-evident
that they had not co-operated. They had not been pushing, aggressive,
discordant: they had merely effaced themselves. She swept a startled
eye from one familiar painting to another. The canvases were all
there—and the frames—but the miracle, the mirage of life and meaning,
had vanished like some atmospheric illusion. What was it that had
happened? And had it happened to her or to the pictures? She
tried to rally her frightened thoughts; to push or coax them into a
semblance of resistance; but argument was swept off its feet by the
huge rush of a single conviction—the conviction that the pictures were
bad. There was no standing up against that: she felt herself submerged.
The stealthy fear that had been following her all these days had her
by the throat now. The great vision of beauty through which she had
been moving as one enchanted was turned to a phantasmagoria of evil
mocking shapes. She hated the past; she hated its splendor, its power,
its wicked magical vitality.... She dropped into a seat and continued
to stare at the wall before her. Gradually, as she stared, there stole
out to her from the dimmed humbled canvases a reminder of what she had
once seen in them, a spectral appeal to her faith to call them back to
life. What proof had she that her present estimate of them was less
subjective than the other? The confused impressions of the last few
days were hardly to be pleaded as a valid theory of art. How, after
all, did she know that the pictures were bad? On what suddenly acquired
technical standard had she thus decided the case against them? It
seemed as though it were a standard outside of herself, as though some
unheeded inner sense were gradually making her aware of the presence,
in that empty room, of a critical intelligence that was giving out a
subtle effluence of disapproval. The fancy was so vivid that, to shake
it off, she rose and began to move about again. In the middle of the
room stood a monumental divan surmounted by a massif of palms
and azaleas. As Claudia's muffled wanderings carried her around the
angle of this seat, she saw that its farther side was occupied by the
figure of a man, who sat with his hands resting on his stick and his
head bowed upon them. She gave a little cry and her husband rose and
Instantly the live point of consciousness was shifted, and she
became aware that the quality of the pictures no longer mattered. It
was what he thought of them that counted: her life hung on that.
They looked at each other a moment in silence; such concussions are
not apt to flash into immediate speech. At length he said simply, “I
didn't know you were coming here.”
She colored as though he had charged her with something underhand.
“I didn't mean to,” she stammered; “but I was too early for our
Her word's cast a revealing glare on the situation. Neither of them
looked at the pictures; but to Claudia those unobtruding presences
seemed suddenly to press upon them and force them apart.
Keniston glanced at his watch. “It's twelve o'clock,” he said.
“Shall we go on?”
At the door he called a cab and put her in it; then, drawing out his
watch again, he said abruptly: “I believe I'll let you go alone. I'll
join you at the hotel in time for luncheon.” She wondered for a moment
if he meant to return to the gallery; but, looking back as she drove
off, she saw him walk rapidly away in the opposite direction.
The cabman had carried her half-way to the Hotel Cluny before she
realized where she was going, and cried out to him to turn home. There
was an acute irony in this mechanical prolongation of the quest of
beauty. She had had enough of it, too much of it; her one longing was
to escape, to hide herself away from its all-suffusing implacable
At the hotel, alone in her room, a few tears came to soften her
seared vision; but her mood was too tense to be eased by weeping. Her
whole being was centred in the longing to know what her husband
thought. Their short exchange of words had, after all, told her
nothing. She had guessed a faint resentment at her unexpected
appearance; but that might merely imply a dawning sense, on his part,
of being furtively watched and criticised. She had sometimes wondered
if he was never conscious of her observation; there were moments when
it seemed to radiate from her in visible waves. Perhaps, after all, he
was aware of it, on his guard against it, as a lurking knife behind the
thick curtain of his complacency; and to-day he must have caught the
gleam of the blade.
Claudia had not reached the age when pity is the first chord to
vibrate in contact with any revelation of failure. Her one hope had
been that Keniston should be clear-eyed enough to face the truth.
Whatever it turned out to be, she wanted him to measure himself with
it. But as his image rose before her she felt a sudden half-maternal
longing to thrust herself between him and disaster. Her eagerness to
see him tested by circumstances seemed now like a cruel scientific
curiosity. She saw in a flash of sympathy that he would need her most
if he fell beneath his fate.
He did not, after all, return for luncheon; and when she came
up-stairs from her solitary meal their salon was still
untenanted. She permitted herself no sensational fears; for she could
not, at the height of apprehension, figure Keniston as yielding to any
tragic impulse; but the lengthening hours brought an uneasiness that
was fuel to her pity. Suddenly she heard the clock strike five. It was
the hour at which they had promised to meet Mrs. Davant at the
gallery—the hour of the “ovation.” Claudia rose and went to the
window, straining for a glimpse of her husband in the crowded street.
Could it be that he had forgotten her, had gone to the gallery without
her? Or had something happened—that veiled “something” which, for the
last hour, had grimly hovered on the outskirts of her mind?
She heard a hand on the door and Keniston entered. As she turned to
meet him her whole being was swept forward on a great wave of pity: she
was so sure, now, that he must know.
But he confronted her with a glance of preoccupied brightness; her
first impression was that she had never seen him so vividly, so
expressively pleased. If he needed her, it was not to bind up his
He gave her a smile which was clearly the lingering reflection of
some inner light. “I didn't mean to be so late,” he said, tossing aside
his hat and the little red volume that served as a clue to his
explorations. “I turned in to the Louvre for a minute after I left you
this morning, and the place fairly swallowed me up—I couldn't get away
from it. I've been there ever since.” He threw himself into a chair and
glanced about for his pipe.
“It takes time,” he continued musingly, “to get at them, to make out
what they're saying—the big fellows, I mean. They're not a
communicative lot. At first I couldn't make much out of their lingo—it
was too different from mine! But gradually, by picking up a hint here
and there, and piecing them together, I've begun to understand; and
to-day, by Jove, I got one or two of the old chaps by the throat and
fairly turned them inside out—made them deliver up their last drop.”
He lifted a brilliant eye to her. “Lord, it was tremendous!” he
He had found his pipe and was musingly filling it. Claudia waited in
“At first,” he began again, “I was afraid their language was too
hard for me—that I should never quite know what they were driving at;
they seemed to cold-shoulder me, to be bent on shutting me out. But I
was bound I wouldn't be beaten, and now, to-day”—he paused a moment to
strike a match—“when I went to look at those things of mine it all
came over me in a flash. By Jove! it was as if I'd made them all into a
big bonfire to light me on my road!”
His wife was trembling with a kind of sacred terror. She had been
afraid to pray for light for him, and here he was joyfully casting his
whole past upon the pyre!
“Is there nothing left?” she faltered.
“Nothing left? There's everything!” he exulted. “Why, here I am, not
much over forty, and I've found out already—already!” He stood up and
began to move excitedly about the room. “My God! Suppose I'd never
known! Suppose I'd gone on painting things like that forever! Why, I
feel like those chaps at revivalist meetings when they get up and say
they're saved! Won't somebody please start a hymn?”
Claudia, with a tremulous joy, was letting herself go on the strong
current of his emotion; but it had not yet carried her beyond her
depth, and suddenly she felt hard ground underfoot.
“Mrs. Davant—” she exclaimed.
He stared, as though suddenly recalled from a long distance. “Mrs.
“We were to have met her—this afternoon—now—”
“At the gallery? Oh, that's all right. I put a stop to that; I went
to see her after I left you; I explained it all to her.”
“I told her I was going to begin all over again.”
Claudia's heart gave a forward bound and then sank back hopelessly.
“But the panels—?”
“That's all right too. I told her about the panels,” he reassured
“You told her—?”
“That I can't paint them now. She doesn't understand, of course; but
she's the best little woman and she trusts me.”
She could have wept for joy at his exquisite obtuseness. “But that
isn't all,” she wailed. “It doesn't matter how much you've explained to
her. It doesn't do away with the fact that we're living on those
“Living on them?”
“On the money that she paid you to paint them. Isn't that what
brought us here? And—if you mean to do as you say—to begin all over
again—how in the world are we ever to pay her back?”
Her husband turned on her an inspired eye. “There's only one way
that I know of,” he imperturbably declared, “and that's to stay out
here till I learn how to paint them.”
Mrs. Ambrose Dale—forty, slender, still young—sits in her
drawing-room at the tea-table. The winter twilight is falling, a lamp
has been lit, there is a fire on the hearth, and the room is pleasantly
dim and flower-scented. Books are scattered everywhere—mostly with
autograph inscriptions “From the Author”—and a large portrait of
Mrs. Dale, at her desk, with papers strewn about her, takes up one
of the wall-panels. Before Mrs. Dale stands Hilda, fair
and twenty, her hands full of letters.
Mrs. Dale. Ten more applications for autographs? Isn't it
strange that people who'd blush to borrow twenty dollars don't scruple
to beg for an autograph?
Hilda (reproachfully). Oh—
Mrs. Dale. What's the difference, pray?
Hilda. Only that your last autograph sold for fifty—
Mrs. Dale (not displeased). Ah?—I sent for you, Hilda,
because I'm dining out to-night, and if there's nothing important to
attend to among these letters you needn't sit up for me.
Hilda. You don't mean to work?
Mrs. Dale. Perhaps; but I sha'n't need you. You'll see that
my cigarettes and coffee-machine are in place, and: that I don't have
to crawl about the floor in search of my pen-wiper? That's all. Now
about these letters—
Hilda (impulsively). Oh, Mrs. Dale—
Mrs. Dale. Well?
Hilda. I'd rather sit up for you.
Mrs. Dale. Child, I've nothing for you to do. I shall be
blocking out the tenth chapter of Winged Purposes and it won't
be ready for you till next week.
Hilda. It isn't that—but it's so beautiful to sit here,
watching and listening, all alone in the night, and to feel that you're
in there (she points to the study-door) creating—.
(Impulsively.) What do I care for sleep?
Mrs. Dale (indulgently). Child—silly child!—Yes, I should
have felt so at your age—it would have been an inspiration—
Hilda (rapt). It is!
Mrs. Dale. But you must go to bed; I must have you fresh in
the morning; for you're still at the age when one is fresh in the
morning! (She sighs.) The letters? (Abruptly.) Do you take
notes of what you feel, Hilda—here, all alone in the night, as you
Hilda (shyly). I have—
Mrs. Dale (smiling). For the diary?
Hilda (nods and blushes).
Mrs. Dale (caressingly). Goose!—Well, to business. What is
Hilda. Nothing important, except a letter from Stroud
&Fayerweather to say that the question of the royalty on Pomegranate
Seed has been settled in your favor. The English publishers of
Immolation write to consult you about a six-shilling edition;
Olafson, the Copenhagen publisher, applies for permission to bring out
a Danish translation of The Idol's Feet; and the editor of the
Semaphore wants a new serial—I think that's all; except that
Woman's Sphere and The Droplight ask for interviews—with
Mrs. Dale. The same old story! I'm so toed of it all. (To
herself, in an undertone.) But how should I feel if it all stopped?
(The servant brings in a card.)
Mrs. Dale (reading it). Is it possible? Paul Ventnor? (To
the servant.) Show Mr. Ventnor up. (To herself.) Paul
Hilda (breathless). Oh, Mrs. Dale—the Mr. Ventnor?
Mrs. Dale (smiling). I fancy there's only one.
Hilda. The great, great poet? (Irresolute.) No, I don't
Mrs. Dale (with a tinge of impatience). What?
Hilda (fervently). Ask you—if I might—oh, here in this
corner, where he can't possibly notice me—stay just a moment? Just to
see him come in? To see the meeting between you—the greatest novelist
and the greatest poet of the age? Oh, it's too much to ask! It's an
Mrs. Dale. Why, I suppose it is. I hadn't thought of it in
that light. Well (smiling), for the diary—
Hilda. Oh, thank you, thank you! I'll be off the very
instant I've heard him speak.
Mrs. Dale. The very instant, mind. (She rises, looks at
herself in the glass, smooths her hair, sits down again, and rattles
the tea-caddy.) Isn't the room very warm?—(She looks over at
her portrait.) I've grown stouter since that was painted—. You'll
make a fortune out of that diary, Hilda—
Hilda (modestly). Four publishers have applied to me already—
The Servant (announces). Mr. Paul Ventnor.
(Tall, nearing fifty, with an incipient stoutness buttoned into a
masterly frock-coat, Ventnor drops his glass and advances vaguely, with
a short-sighted stare.)
Ventnor. Mrs. Dale?
Mrs. Dale. My dear friend! This is kind. (She looks over her
shoulder at Hilda, mho vanishes through the door to the left.) The
papers announced your arrival, but I hardly hoped—
Ventnor (whose short-sighted stare is seen to conceal a deeper
embarrassment). You hadn't forgotten me, then?
Mrs. Dale. Delicious! Do you forget that you're public
Ventnor. Forgotten, I mean, that we were old friends?
Mrs. Dale. Such old friends! May I remind you that it's
nearly twenty years since we've met? Or do you find cold reminiscences
Ventnor. On the contrary, I've come to ask you for a dish of
them—we'll warm them up together. You're my first visit.
Mrs. Dale. How perfect of you! So few men visit their women
friends in chronological order; or at least they generally do it the
other way round, beginning with the present day and working back—if
there's time—to prehistoric woman.
Ventnor. But when prehistoric woman has become historic
Mrs. Dale. Oh, it's the reflection of my glory that has
guided you here, then?
Ventnor. It's a spirit in my feet that has led me, at the
first opportunity, to the most delightful spot I know.
Mrs. Dale. Oh, the first opportunity—!
Ventnor. I might have seen you very often before; but never
just in the right way.
Mrs. Dale. Is this the right way?
Ventnor. It depends on you to make it so.
Mrs. Dale. What a responsibility! What shall I do?
Ventnor. Talk to me—make me think you're a little glad to
see me; give me some tea and a cigarette; and say you're out to
Mrs. Dale. Is that all? (She hands him a cup of tea.) The
cigarettes are at your elbow—. And do you think I shouldn't have been
glad to see you before?
Ventnor. No; I think I should have been too glad to see you.
Mrs. Dale. Dear me, what precautions! I hope you always wear
goloshes when it looks like rain and never by any chance expose
yourself to a draught. But I had an idea that poets courted the
Ventnor. Do novelists?
Mrs. Dale. If you ask me—on paper!
Ventnor. Just so; that's safest. My best things about the sea
have been written on shore. (He looks at her thoughtfully.) But it
wouldn't have suited us in the old days, would it?
Mrs. Dale (sighing). When we were real people!
Ventnor. Real people?
Mrs. Dale. Are you, now? I died years ago. What you
see before you is a figment of the reporter's brain—a monster
manufactured out of newspaper paragraphs, with ink in its veins. A keen
sense of copyright is my nearest approach to an emotion.
Ventnor (sighing). Ah, well, yes—as you say, we're public
Mrs. Dale. If one shared equally with the public! But the
last shred of my identity is gone.
Ventnor. Most people would be glad to part with theirs on
such terms. I have followed your work with immense interest.
Immolation is a masterpiece. I read it last summer when it first
Mrs. Dale (with a shade less warmth). Immolation has
been out three years.
Ventnor. Oh, by Jove—no? Surely not—But one is so
overwhelmed—one loses count. (Reproachfully.) Why have you
never sent me your books?
Mrs. Dale. For that very reason.
Ventnor (deprecatingly). You know I didn't mean it for you!
And my first book—do you remember—was dedicated to you.
Mrs. Dale. Silver Trumpets—
Ventnor (much interested). Have you a copy still, by any
chance? The first edition, I mean? Mine was stolen years ago. Do you
think you could put your hand on it?
Mrs. Dale (taking a small shabby book from the table at her side). It's here.
Ventnor (eagerly). May I have it? Ah, thanks. This is very
interesting. The last copy sold in London for L40, and they tell me the
next will fetch twice as much. It's quite introuvable.
Mrs. Dale. I know that. (A pause. She takes the book from
him, opens it, and reads, half to herself—)
How much we two have seen together,
Of other eyes unwist,
Dear as in days of leafless weather
The willow's saffron mist,
Strange as the hour when Hesper swings
A-sea in beryl green,
While overhead on dalliant wings
The daylight hangs serene,
And thrilling as a meteor's fall
Through depths of lonely sky,
When each to each two watchers call:
I saw it!—So did I.
Ventnor. Thin, thin—the troubadour tinkle. Odd how little
promise there is in first volumes!
Mrs. Dale (with irresistible emphasis). I thought there was a
distinct promise in this!
Ventnor (seeing his mistake). Ah—the one you would never let
me fulfil? (Sentimentally.) How inexorable you were! You never
dedicated a book to me.
Mrs. Dale. I hadn't begun to write when we were—dedicating
things to each other.
Ventnor. Not for the public—but you wrote for me; and,
wonderful as you are, you've never written anything since that I care
for half as much as—
Mrs. Dale (interested). Well?
Ventnor. Your letters.
Mrs. Dale (in a changed voice). My letters—do you remember
Ventnor. When I don't, I reread them.
Mrs. Dale (incredulous). You have them still?
Ventnor (unguardedly). You haven't mine, then?
Mrs. Dale (playfully). Oh, you were a celebrity already. Of
course I kept them! (Smiling.) Think what they are worth now! I
always keep them locked up in my safe over there. (She indicates a
Ventnor (after a pause). I always carry yours with me.
Mrs. Dale (laughing). You—
Ventnor. Wherever I go. (A longer pause. She looks at him
fixedly.) I have them with me now.
Mrs. Dale (agitated). You—have them with you—now?
Ventnor (embarrassed). Why not? One never knows—
Mrs. Dale. Never knows—?
Ventnor (humorously). Gad—when the bank-examiner may come
round. You forget I'm a married man.
Mrs. Dale. Ah—yes.
Ventnor (sits down beside her). I speak to you as I couldn't
to anyone else—without deserving a kicking. You know how it all came
about. (A pause.) You'll bear witness that it wasn't till you
denied me all hope—
Mrs. Dale (a little breathless). Yes, yes—
Ventnor. Till you sent me from you—
Mrs. Dale. It's so easy to be heroic when one is young! One
doesn't realize how long life is going to last afterward. (Musing.)
Nor what weary work it is gathering up the fragments.
Ventnor. But the time comes when one sends for the
china-mender, and has the bits riveted together, and turns the cracked
side to the wall—
Mrs. Dale. And denies that the article was ever damaged?
Ventnor. Eh? Well, the great thing, you see, is to keep one's
self out of reach of the housemaid's brush. (A pause.) If you're
married you can't—always. (Smiling.) Don't you hate to be taken
down and dusted?
Mrs. Dale (with intention). You forget how long ago my husband
died. It's fifteen years since I've been an object of interest to
anybody but the public.
Ventnor (smiling). The only one of your admirers to whom
you've ever given the least encouragement!
Mrs. Dale. Say rather the most easily pleased!
Ventnor. Or the only one you cared to please?
Mrs. Dale. Ah, you haven't kept my letters!
Ventnor (gravely). Is that a challenge? Look here, then!
(He drams a packet from his pocket and holds it out to her.)
Mrs. Dale (taking the packet and looking at him earnestly).
Why have you brought me these?
Ventnor. I didn't bring them; they came because I
came—that's all. (Tentatively.) Are we unwelcome?
Mrs. Dale (who has undone the packet and does not appear to hear
him). The very first I ever wrote you—the day after we met at the
concert. How on earth did you happen to keep it? (She glances over
it.) How perfectly absurd! Well, it's not a compromising document.
Ventnor. I'm afraid none of them are.
Mrs. Dale (quickly). Is it to that they owe their immunity?
Because one could leave them about like safety matches?—Ah, here's
another I remember—I wrote that the day after we went skating together
for the first time. (She reads it slowly.) How odd! How very
Mrs. Dale. Why, it's the most curious thing—I had a letter
of this kind to do the other day, in the novel I'm at work on now—the
letter of a woman who is just—just beginning—
Ventnor. Yes—just beginning—?
Mrs. Dale. And, do you know, I find the best phrase in it,
the phrase I somehow regarded as the fruit of—well, of all my
subsequent discoveries—is simply plagiarized, word for word, from
Ventnor (eagerly). I told you so! You were all there!
Mrs. Dale (critically). But the rest of it's poorly done—very
poorly. (Reads the letter over.) H'm—I didn't know how to leave
off. It takes me forever to get out of the door.
Ventnor (gayly). Perhaps I was there to prevent you!
(After a pause.) I wonder what I said in return?
Mrs. Dale (interested). Shall we look? (She rises.)
Shall we—really? I have them all here, you know. (She goes toward
Ventnor (following her with repressed eagerness). Oh—all!
Mrs. Dale (throws open the door of the cabinet, revealing a
number of packets). Don't you believe me now?
Ventnor. Good heavens! How I must have repeated myself! But
then you were so very deaf.
Mrs. Dale (takes out a packet and returns to her seat. Ventnor
extends an impatient hand for the letters). No—no; wait! I want to
find your answer to the one I was just reading. (After a pause.)
Here it is—yes, I thought so!
Ventnor. What did you think?
Mrs. Dale (triumphantly). I thought it was the one in which
you quoted Epipsychidion—
Ventnor. Mercy! Did I quote things? I don't wonder you
Mrs. Dale. Ah, and here's the other—the one I—the one I
didn't answer—for a long time. Do you remember?
Ventnor (with emotion). Do I remember? I wrote it the morning
after we heard Isolde—
Mrs. Dale (disappointed). No—no. That wasn't the one I
didn't answer! Here—this is the one I mean.
Ventnor (takes it curiously). Ah—h'm—this is very like
unrolling a mummy—(he glances at her)—with a live grain of
wheat in it, perhaps?—Oh, by Jove!
Mrs. Dale. What?
Ventnor. Why, this is the one I made a sonnet out of
afterward! By Jove, I'd forgotten where that idea came from. You may
know the lines perhaps? They're in the fourth volume of my Complete
Edition—It's the thing beginning
Love came to me with unrelenting eyes—
one of my best, I rather fancy. Of course, here it's very crudely
put—the values aren't brought out—ah! this touch is good though—very
good. H'm, I daresay there might be other material. (He glances toward
Mrs. Dale (drily). The live grain of wheat, as you said!
Ventnor. Ah, well—my first harvest was sown on rocky
ground—now I plant for the fowls of the air. (Rising and
walking toward the cabinet.) When can I come and carry off all this
Mrs. Dale. Carry it off?
Ventnor (embarrassed). My dear lady, surely between you and me
explicitness is a burden. You must see that these letters of ours can't
be left to take their chance like an ordinary correspondence—you said
yourself we were public property.
Mrs. Dale. To take their chance? Do you suppose that, in my
keeping, your letters take any chances? (Suddenly.) Do mine—in
Ventnor (still more embarrassed). Helen—! (He takes a
turn through the room.) You force me to remind you that you and I
are differently situated—that in a moment of madness I sacrificed the
only right you ever gave me—the right to love you better than any
other woman in the world. (A pause. She says nothing and he
continues, with increasing difficulty—) You asked me just now why I
carried your letters about with me—kept them, literally, in my own
hands. Well, suppose it's to be sure of their not falling into some one
Mrs. Dale. Oh!
Ventnor (throws himself into a chair). For God's sake don't
Mrs. Dale (after a long pause). Am I dull—or are you trying
to say that you want to give me back my letters?
Ventnor (starting up). I? Give you back—? God forbid! Your
letters? Not for the world! The only thing I have left! But you can't
dream that in my hands—
Mrs. Dale (suddenly). You want yours, then?
Ventnor (repressing his eagerness). My dear friend, if I'd
ever dreamed that you'd kept them—?
Mrs. Dale (accusingly). You do want them. (A pause.
He makes a deprecatory gesture.) Why should they be less safe with
me than mine with you? I never forfeited the right to keep them.
Ventnor (after another pause). It's compensation enough,
almost, to have you reproach me! (He moves nearer to her, but she
makes no response.) You forget that I've forfeited all my
rights—even that of letting you keep my letters.
Mrs. Dale. You do want them! (She rises, throws all
the letters into the cabinet, locks the door and puts the key in her
pocket.) There's my answer.
Mrs. Dale. Ah, I paid dearly enough for the right to keep
them, and I mean to! (She turns to him passionately.) Have you ever
asked yourself how I paid for it? With what months and years of
solitude, what indifference to flattery, what resistance to
affection?—Oh, don't smile because I said affection, and not love.
Affection's a warm cloak in cold weather; and I have been cold;
and I shall keep on growing colder! Don't talk to me about living in
the hearts of my readers! We both know what kind of a domicile that is.
Why, before long I shall become a classic! Bound in sets and kept on
the top book-shelf—brr, doesn't that sound freezing? I foresee the day
when I shall be as lonely as an Etruscan museum! (She breaks into a
laugh.) That's what I've paid for the right to keep your letters.
(She holds out her hand.) And now give me mine.
Mrs. Dale (haughtily). Yes; I claim them.
Ventnor (in the same tone). On what ground?
Mrs. Dale. Hear the man!—Because I wrote them, of course.
Ventnor. But it seems to me that—under your inspiration, I
admit—I also wrote mine.
Mrs. Dale. Oh, I don't dispute their authenticity—it's yours
Mrs. Dale. You voluntarily ceased to be the man who wrote me
those letters—you've admitted as much. You traded paper for flesh and
blood. I don't dispute your wisdom—only you must hold to your bargain!
The letters are all mine.
Ventnor (groping between two tones). Your arguments are as
convincing as ever. (He hazards a faint laugh.) You're a
marvellous dialectician—but, if we're going to settle the matter in
the spirit of an arbitration treaty, why, there are accepted
conventions in such cases. It's an odious way to put it, but since you
won't help me, one of them is—
Mrs. Dale. One of them is—?
Ventnor. That it is usual—that technically, I mean, the
letter—belongs to its writer—
Mrs. Dale (after a pause). Such letters as these?
Ventnor. Such letters especially—
Mrs. Dale. But you couldn't have written them if I
hadn't—been willing to read them. Surely there's more of myself in
them than of you.
Ventnor. Surely there's nothing in which a man puts more of
himself than in his love-letters!
Mrs. Dale (with emotion). But a woman's love-letters are like
her child. They belong to her more than to anybody else—
Ventnor. And a man's?
Mrs. Dale (with sudden violence). Are all he risks!—There,
take them. (She flings the key of the cabinet at his feet and sinks
into a chair.)
Ventnor (starts as though to pick up the key; then approaches and
bends over her). Helen—oh, Helen!
Mrs. Dale (she yields her hands to him, murmuring:) Paul!
(Suddenly she straightens herself and draws back illuminated.) What
a fool I am! I see it all now. You want them for your memoirs!
Ventnor (disconcerted). Helen—
Mrs. Dale (agitated). Come, come—the rule is to unmask when
the signal's given! You want them for your memoirs.
Ventnor (with a forced laugh). What makes you think so?
Mrs. Dale (triumphantly). Because I want them for mine!
Ventnor (in a changed tone). Ah—. (He moves away from her
and leans against the mantelpiece. She remains seated, with her eyes
fixed on him.)
Mrs. Dale. I wonder I didn't see it sooner. Your reasons were
Ventnor (ironically). Yours were masterly. You're the more
accomplished actor of the two. I was completely deceived.
Mrs. Dale. Oh, I'm a novelist. I can keep up that sort of
thing for five hundred pages!
Ventnor. I congratulate you. (A pause.)
Mrs. Dale (moving to her seat behind the tea-table). I've
never offered you any tea. (She bends over the kettle.) Why
don't you take your letters?
Ventnor. Because you've been clever enough to make it
impossible for me. (He picks up the key and hands it to her. Then
abruptly)—Was it all acting—just now?
Mrs. Dale. By what right do you ask?
Ventnor. By right of renouncing my claim to my letters. Keep
them—and tell me.
Mrs. Dale. I give you back your claim—and I refuse to tell
Ventnor (sadly). Ah, Helen, if you deceived me, you deceived
Mrs. Dale. What does it matter, now that we're both
undeceived? I played a losing game, that's all.
Ventnor. Why losing—since all the letters are yours?
Mrs. Dale. The letters? (Slowly.) I'd forgotten the
Ventnor (exultant). Ah, I knew you'd end by telling me the
Mrs. Dale. The truth? Where is the truth? (Half to
herself.) I thought I was lying when I began—but the lies turned
into truth as I uttered them! (She looks at Ventnor.) I did
want your letters for my memoirs—I did think I'd kept them for
that purpose—and I wanted to get mine back for the same reason—but
now (she puts out her hand and picks up some of her letters, which
are lying scattered on the table near her)—how fresh they seem, and
how they take me back to the time when we lived instead of writing
Ventnor (smiling). The time when we didn't prepare our
impromptu effects beforehand and copyright our remarks about the
Mrs. Dale. Or keep our epigrams in cold storage and our
adjectives under lock and key!
Ventnor. When our emotions weren't worth ten cents a word,
and a signature wasn't an autograph. Ah, Helen, after all, there's
nothing like the exhilaration of spending one's capital!
Mrs. Dale. Of wasting it, you mean. (She points to the
letters.) Do you suppose we could have written a word of these if
we'd known we were putting our dreams out at interest? (She sits
musing, with her eyes on the fire, and he watches her in silence.)
Paul, do you remember the deserted garden we sometimes used to walk in?
Ventnor. The old garden with the high wall at the end of the
village street? The garden with the ruined box-borders and the
broken-down arbor? Why, I remember every weed in the paths and every
patch of moss on the walls!
Mrs. Dale. Well—I went back there the other day. The village
is immensely improved. There's a new hotel with gas-fires, and a
trolley in the main street; and the garden has been turned into a
public park, where excursionists sit on cast-iron benches admiring the
statue of an Abolitionist.
Ventnor. An Abolitionist—how appropriate!
Mrs. Dale. And the man who sold the garden has made a fortune
that he doesn't know how to spend—
Ventnor (rising impulsively). Helen, (he approaches and
lays his hand on her letters), let's sacrifice our fortune and keep
the excursionists out!
Mrs. Dale (with a responsive movement). Paul, do you really
Ventnor (gayly). Mean it? Why, I feel like a landed proprietor
already! It's more than a garden—it's a park.
Mrs. Dale. It's more than a park, it's a world—as long as we
keep it to ourselves!
Ventnor. Ah, yes—even the pyramids look small when one sees
a Cook's tourist on top of them! (He takes the key from the table,
unlocks the cabinet and brings out his letters, which he lays beside
hers.) Shall we burn the key to our garden?
Mrs. Dale. Ah, then it will indeed be boundless! (Watching
him while he throws the letters into the fire.)
Ventnor (turning back to her with a half-sad smile). But not
too big for us to find each other in?
Mrs. Dale. Since we shall be the only people there! (He takes
both her hands and they look at each other a moment in silence. Then he
goes out by the door to the right. As he reaches the door she takes a
step toward him, impulsively; then turning back she leans against the
chimney-piece, quietly watching the letters burn.)
“You're so artistic,” my cousin Eleanor Copt began.
Of all Eleanor's exordiums it is the one I most dread. When she
tells me I'm so clever I know this is merely the preamble to inviting
me to meet the last literary obscurity of the moment: a trial to be
evaded or endured, as circumstances dictate; whereas her calling me
artistic fatally connotes the request to visit, in her company, some
distressed gentlewoman whose future hangs on my valuation of her old
Saxe or of her grandfather's Marc Antonios. Time was when I attempted
to resist these compulsions of Eleanor's; but I soon learned that,
short of actual flight, there was no refuge from her beneficent
despotism. It is not always easy for the curator of a museum to abandon
his post on the plea of escaping a pretty cousin's importunities; and
Eleanor, aware of my predicament, is none too magnanimous to take
advantage of it. Magnanimity is, in fact, not in Eleanor's line. The
virtues, she once explained to me, are like bonnets: the very ones that
look best on other people may not happen to suit one's own particular
style; and she added, with a slight deflection of metaphor, that none
of the ready-made virtues ever had fitted her: they all pinched
somewhere, and she'd given up trying to wear them.
Therefore when she said to me, “You're so artistic.”
emphasizing the conjunction with a tap of her dripping umbrella
(Eleanor is out in all weathers: the elements are as powerless against
her as man), I merely stipulated, “It's not old Saxe again?”
She shook her head reassuringly. “A picture—a Rembrandt!”
“Good Lord! Why not a Leonardo?”
“Well”—she smiled—“that, of course, depends on you.”
“On your attribution. I dare say Mrs. Fontage would consent to the
change—though she's very conservative.”
A gleam of hope came to me and I pronounced: “One can't judge of a
picture in this weather.”
“Of course not. I'm coming for you to-morrow.”
“I've an engagement to-morrow.”
“I'll come before or after your engagement.”
The afternoon paper lay at my elbow and I contrived a furtive
consultation of the weather-report. It said “Rain to-morrow,” and I
answered briskly: “All right, then; come at ten”—rapidly calculating
that the clouds on which I counted might lift by noon.
My ingenuity failed of its due reward; for the heavens, as if in
league with my cousin, emptied themselves before morning, and
punctually at ten Eleanor and the sun appeared together in my office.
I hardly listened, as we descended the Museum steps and got into
Eleanor's hansom, to her vivid summing-up of the case. I guessed
beforehand that the lady we were about to visit had lapsed by the most
distressful degrees from opulence to a “hall-bedroom”; that her
grandfather, if he had not been Minister to France, had signed the
Declaration of Independence; that the Rembrandt was an heirloom, sole
remnant of disbanded treasures; that for years its possessor had been
unwilling to part with it, and that even now the question of its
disposal must be approached with the most diplomatic obliquity.
Previous experience had taught me that all Eleanor's “cases"
presented a harrowing similarity of detail. No circumstance tending to
excite the spectator's sympathy and involve his action was omitted from
the history of her beneficiaries; the lights and shades were indeed so
skilfully adjusted that any impartial expression of opinion took on the
hue of cruelty. I could have produced closetfuls of “heirlooms” in
attestation of this fact; for it is one more mark of Eleanor's
competence that her friends usually pay the interest on her
philanthropy. My one hope was that in this case the object, being a
picture, might reasonably be rated beyond my means; and as our cab drew
up before a blistered brown-stone door-step I formed the self-defensive
resolve to place an extreme valuation on Mrs. Fontage's Rembrandt. It
is Eleanor's fault if she is sometimes fought with her own weapons.
The house stood in one of those shabby provisional-looking New York
streets that seem resignedly awaiting demolition. It was the kind of
house that, in its high days, must have had a bow-window with a bronze
in it. The bow-window had been replaced by a plumber's devanture, and one might conceive the bronze to have gravitated to the limbo
where Mexican onyx tables and bric-a-brac in buffalo-horn await the
first signs of our next aesthetic reaction.
Eleanor swept me through a hall that smelled of poverty, up unlit
stairs to a bare slit of a room. “And she must leave this in a month!”
she whispered across her knock.
I had prepared myself for the limp widow's weed of a woman that one
figures in such a setting; and confronted abruptly with Mrs. Fontage's
white-haired erectness I had the disconcerting sense that I was somehow
in her presence at my own solicitation. I instinctively charged Eleanor
with this reversal of the situation; but a moment later I saw it must
be ascribed to a something about Mrs. Fontage that precluded the
possibility of her asking any one a favor. It was not that she was of
forbidding, or even majestic, demeanor; but that one guessed, under her
aquiline prettiness, a dignity nervously on guard against the petty
betrayal of her surroundings. The room was unconcealably poor: the
little faded “relics,” the high-stocked ancestral silhouettes, the
steel-engravings after Raphael and Correggio, grouped in a vain attempt
to hide the most obvious stains on the wall-paper, served only to
accentuate the contrast of a past evidently diversified by foreign
travel and the enjoyment of the arts. Even Mrs. Fontage's dress had the
air of being a last expedient, the ultimate outcome of a much-taxed
ingenuity in darning and turning. One felt that all the poor lady's
barriers were falling save that of her impregnable manner.
To this manner I found myself conveying my appreciation of being
admitted to a view of the Rembrandt.
Mrs. Fontage's smile took my homage for granted. “It is always,” she
conceded, “a privilege to be in the presence of the great masters.” Her
slim wrinkled hand waved me to a dusky canvas near the window.
“It's so interesting, dear Mrs. Fontage,” I heard Eleanor
exclaiming, “and my cousin will be able to tell you exactly—” Eleanor,
in my presence, always admits that she knows nothing about art; but she
gives the impression that this is merely because she hasn't had time to
look into the matter—and has had me to do it for her.
Mrs. Fontage seated herself without speaking, as though fearful that
a breath might disturb my communion with the masterpiece. I felt that
she thought Eleanor's reassuring ejaculations ill-timed; and in this I
was of one mind with her; for the impossibility of telling her exactly
what I thought of her Rembrandt had become clear to me at a glance.
My cousin's vivacities began to languish and the silence seemed to
shape itself into a receptacle for my verdict. I stepped back,
affecting a more distant scrutiny; and as I did so my eye caught Mrs.
Fontage's profile. Her lids trembled slightly. I took refuge in the
familiar expedient of asking the history of the picture, and she waved
me brightly to a seat.
This was indeed a topic on which she could dilate. The Rembrandt, it
appeared, had come into Mr. Fontage's possession many years ago, while
the young couple were on their wedding-tour, and under circumstances so
romantic that she made no excuse for relating them in all their
parenthetic fulness. The picture belonged to an old Belgian Countess of
redundant quarterings, whom the extravagances of an ungovernable nephew
had compelled to part with her possessions (in the most private manner)
about the time of the Fontages' arrival. By a really remarkable
coincidence, it happened that their courier (an exceptionally
intelligent and superior man) was an old servant of the Countess's, and
had thus been able to put them in the way of securing the Rembrandt
under the very nose of an English Duke, whose agent had been sent to
Brussels to negotiate for its purchase. Mrs. Fontage could not recall
the Duke's name, but he was a great collector and had a famous Highland
castle, where somebody had been murdered, and which she herself had
visited (by moonlight) when she had travelled in Scotland as a girl.
The episode had in short been one of the most interesting “experiences"
of a tour almost chromo-lithographic in vivacity of impression; and
they had always meant to go back to Brussels for the sake of reliving
so picturesque a moment. Circumstances (of which the narrator's
surroundings declared the nature) had persistently interfered with the
projected return to Europe, and the picture had grown doubly valuable
as representing the high-water mark of their artistic emotions. Mrs.
Fontage's moist eye caressed the canvas. “There is only,” she added
with a perceptible effort, “one slight drawback: the picture is not
signed. But for that the Countess, of course, would have sold it to a
museum. All the connoisseurs who have seen it pronounce it an undoubted
Rembrandt, in the artist's best manner; but the museums”—she arched
her brows in smiling recognition of a well-known weakness—“give the
preference to signed examples—”
Mrs. Fontage's words evoked so touching a vision of the young
tourists of fifty years ago, entrusting to an accomplished and
versatile courier the direction of their helpless zeal for art, that I
lost sight for a moment of the point at issue. The old Belgian
Countess, the wealthy Duke with a feudal castle in Scotland, Mrs.
Fontage's own maiden pilgrimage to Arthur's Seat and Holyrood, all the
accessories of the naif transaction, seemed a part of that vanished
Europe to which our young race carried its indiscriminate ardors, its
tender romantic credulity: the legendary castellated Europe of
keepsakes, brigands and old masters, that compensated, by one such
“experience” as Mrs. Fontage's, for an after-life of aesthetic
I was restored to the present by Eleanor's looking at her watch. The
action mutely conveyed that something was expected of me. I risked the
temporizing statement that the picture was very interesting; but Mrs.
Fontage's polite assent revealed the poverty of the expedient.
Eleanor's impatience overflowed.
“You would like my cousin to give you an idea of its value?” she
Mrs. Fontage grew more erect. “No one,” she corrected with great
gentleness, “can know its value quite as well as I, who live with it—”
We murmured our hasty concurrence.
“But it might be interesting to hear”—she addressed herself to
me—“as a mere matter of curiosity—what estimate would be put on it
from the purely commercial point of view—if such a term may be used in
speaking of a work of art.”
I sounded a note of deprecation.
“Oh, I understand, of course,” she delicately anticipated me, “that
that could never be your view, your personal view; but since
occasions may arise—do arise—when it becomes necessary to—to
put a price on the priceless, as it were—I have thought—Miss Copt has
“Some day,” Eleanor encouraged her, “you might feel that the picture
ought to belong to some one who has more—more opportunity of showing
it—letting it be seen by the public—for educational reasons—”
“I have tried,” Mrs. Fontage admitted, “to see it in that light.”
The crucial moment was upon me. To escape the challenge of Mrs.
Fontage's brilliant composure I turned once more to the picture. If my
courage needed reinforcement, the picture amply furnished it. Looking
at that lamentable canvas seemed the surest way of gathering strength
to denounce it; but behind me, all the while, I felt Mrs. Fontage's
shuddering pride drawn up in a final effort of self-defense. I hated
myself for my sentimental perversion of the situation. Reason argued
that it was more cruel to deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the
truth; but that merely proved the inferiority of reason to instinct in
situations involving any concession to the emotions. Along with her
faith in the Rembrandt I must destroy not only the whole fabric of Mrs.
Fontage's past, but even that lifelong habit of acquiescence in
untested formulas that makes the best part of the average feminine
strength. I guessed the episode of the picture to be inextricably
interwoven with the traditions and convictions which served to veil
Mrs. Fontage's destitution not only from others but from herself.
Viewed in that light the Rembrandt had perhaps been worth its
purchase-money; and I regretted that works of art do not commonly sell
on the merit of the moral support they may have rendered.
From this unavailing flight I was recalled by the sense that
something must be done. To place a fictitious value on the picture was
at best a provisional measure; while the brutal alternative of advising
Mrs. Fontage to sell it for a hundred dollars at least afforded an
opening to the charitably disposed purchaser. I intended, if other
resources failed, to put myself forward in that light; but delicacy of
course forbade my coupling my unflattering estimate of the Rembrandt
with an immediate offer to buy it. All I could do was to inflict the
wound: the healing unguent must be withheld for later application.
I turned to Mrs. Fontage, who sat motionless, her finely-lined
cheeks touched with an expectant color, her eyes averted from the
picture which was so evidently the one object they beheld.
“My dear madam—” I began. Her vivid smile was like a light held up
to dazzle me. It shrouded every alternative in darkness and I had the
flurried sense of having lost my way among the intricacies of my
contention. Of a sudden I felt the hopelessness of finding a crack in
her impenetrable conviction. My words slipped from me like broken
weapons. “The picture,” I faltered, “would of course be worth more if
it were signed. As it is, I—I hardly think—on a conservative
estimate—it can be valued at—at more—than—a thousand dollars,
My deflected argument ran on somewhat aimlessly till it found itself
plunging full tilt against the barrier of Mrs. Fontage's silence. She
sat as impassive as though I had not spoken. Eleanor loosed a few
fluttering words of congratulation and encouragement, but their flight
was suddenly cut short. Mrs. Fontage had risen with a certain
“I could never,” she said gently—her gentleness was
adamantine—“under any circumstances whatever, consider, for a moment
even, the possibility of parting with the picture at such a price.”
Within three weeks a tremulous note from Mrs. Fontage requested the
favor of another visit. If the writing was tremulous, however, the
writer's tone was firm. She named her own day and hour, without the
conventional reference to her visitor's convenience.
My first impulse was to turn the note over to Eleanor. I had
acquitted myself of my share in the ungrateful business of coming to
Mrs. Fontage's aid, and if, as her letter denoted, she had now yielded
to the closer pressure of need, the business of finding a purchaser for
the Rembrandt might well be left to my cousin's ingenuity. But here
conscience put in the uncomfortable reminder that it was I who, in
putting a price on the picture, had raised the real obstacle in the way
of Mrs. Fontage's rescue. No one would give a thousand dollars for the
Rembrandt; but to tell Mrs. Fontage so had become as unthinkable as
murder. I had, in fact, on returning from my first inspection of the
picture, refrained from imparting to Eleanor my opinion of its value.
Eleanor is porous, and I knew that sooner or later the unnecessary
truth would exude through the loose texture of her dissimulation. Not
infrequently she thus creates the misery she alleviates; and I have
sometimes suspected her of paining people in order that she might be
sorry for them. I had, at all events, cut off retreat in Eleanor's
direction; and the remaining alternative carried me straight to Mrs.
She received me with the same commanding sweetness. The room was
even barer than before—I believe the carpet was gone—but her manner
built up about her a palace to which I was welcomed with high state;
and it was as a mere incident of the ceremony that I was presently made
aware of her decision to sell the Rembrandt. My previous unsuccess in
planning how to deal with Mrs. Fontage had warned me to leave my
farther course to chance; and I listened to her explanation with
complete detachment. She had resolved to travel for her health; her
doctor advised it, and as her absence might be indefinitely prolonged
she had reluctantly decided to part with the picture in order to avoid
the expense of storage and insurance. Her voice drooped at the
admission, and she hurried on, detailing the vague itinerary of a
journey that was to combine long-promised visits to impatient friends
with various “interesting opportunities” less definitely specified. The
poor lady's skill in rearing a screen of verbiage about her enforced
avowal had distracted me from my own share in the situation, and it was
with dismay that I suddenly caught the drift of her assumptions. She
expected me to buy the Rembrandt for the Museum; she had taken my
previous valuation as a tentative bid, and when I came to my senses she
was in the act of accepting my offer.
Had I had a thousand dollars of my own to dispose of, the bargain
would have been concluded on the spot; but I was in the impossible
position of being materially unable to buy the picture and morally
unable to tell her that it was not worth acquiring for the Museum.
I dashed into the first evasion in sight. I had no authority, I
explained, to purchase pictures for the Museum without the consent of
Mrs. Fontage coped for a moment in silence with the incredible fact
that I had rejected her offer; then she ventured, with a kind of pale
precipitation: “But I understood—Miss Copt tells me that you
practically decide such matters for the committee.” I could guess what
the effort had cost her.
“My cousin is given to generalizations. My opinion may have some
weight with the committee—”
“Well, then—” she timidly prompted.
“For that very reason I can't buy the picture.”
She said, with a drooping note, “I don't understand.”
“Yet you told me,” I reminded her, “that you knew museums didn't buy
“Not for what they are worth! Every one knows that. But I—I
understood—the price you named—” Her pride shuddered back from the
abasement. “It's a misunderstanding then,” she faltered.
To avoid looking at her, I glanced desperately at the Rembrandt.
Could I—? But reason rejected the possibility. Even if the committee
had been blind—and they all were but Crozier—I simply
shouldn't have dared to do it. I stood up, feeling that to cut the
matter short was the only alleviation within reach.
Mrs. Fontage had summoned her indomitable smile; but its brilliancy
dropped, as I opened the door, like a candle blown out by a draught.
“If there's any one else—if you knew any one who would care to see
the picture, I should be most happy—” She kept her eyes on me, and I
saw that, in her case, it hurt less than to look at the Rembrandt. “I
shall have to leave here, you know,” she panted, “if nobody cares to
That evening at my club I had just succeeded in losing sight of Mrs.
Fontage in the fumes of an excellent cigar, when a voice at my elbow
evoked her harassing image.
“I want to talk to you,” the speaker said, “about Mrs. Fontage's
“There isn't any,” I was about to growl; but looking up I recognized
the confiding countenance of Mr. Jefferson Rose.
Mr. Rose was known to me chiefly as a young man suffused with a
vague enthusiasm for Virtue and my cousin Eleanor.
One glance at his glossy exterior conveyed the assurance that his
morals were as immaculate as his complexion and his linen. Goodness
exuded from his moist eye, his liquid voice, the warm damp pressure of
his trustful hand. He had always struck me as one of the most
uncomplicated organisms I had ever met. His ideas were as simple and
inconsecutive as the propositions in a primer, and he spoke slowly,
with a kind of uniformity of emphasis that made his words stand out
like the raised type for the blind. An obvious incapacity for abstract
conceptions made him peculiarly susceptible to the magic of
generalization, and one felt he would have been at the mercy of any
Cause that spelled itself with a capital letter. It was hard to explain
how, with such a superabundance of merit, he managed to be a good
fellow: I can only say that he performed the astonishing feat as
naturally as he supported an invalid mother and two sisters on the
slender salary of a banker's clerk. He sat down beside me with an air
of bright expectancy.
“It's a remarkable picture, isn't it?” he said.
“You've seen it?”
“I've been so fortunate. Miss Copt was kind enough to get Mrs.
Fontage's permission; we went this afternoon.” I inwardly wished that
Eleanor had selected another victim; unless indeed the visit were part
of a plan whereby some third person, better equipped for the
cultivation of delusions, was to be made to think the Rembrandt
remarkable. Knowing the limitations of Mr. Rose's resources I began to
wonder if he had any rich aunts.
“And her buying it in that way, too,” he went on with his limpid
smile, “from that old Countess in Brussels, makes it all the more
interesting, doesn't it? Miss Copt tells me it's very seldom old
pictures can be traced back for more than a generation. I suppose the
fact of Mrs. Fontage's knowing its history must add a good deal to its
Uncertain as to his drift, I said: “In her eyes it certainly appears
Implications are lost on Mr. Rose, who glowingly continued: “That's
the reason why I wanted to talk to you about it—to consult you. Miss
Copt tells me you value it at a thousand dollars.”
There was no denying this, and I grunted a reluctant assent.
“Of course,” he went on earnestly, “your valuation is based on the
fact that the picture isn't signed—Mrs. Fontage explained that; and it
does make a difference, certainly. But the thing is—if the picture's
really good—ought one to take advantage—? I mean—one can see that
Mrs. Fontage is in a tight place, and I wouldn't for the world—”
My astonished stare arrested him.
“I mean—you see, it's just this way”; he coughed and blushed: “I
can't give more than a thousand dollars myself—it's as big a sum as I
can manage to scrape together—but before I make the offer I want to be
sure I'm not standing in the way of her getting more money.”
My astonishment lapsed to dismay. “You're going to buy the picture
for a thousand dollars?”
His blush deepened. “Why, yes. It sounds rather absurd, I suppose.
It isn't much in my line, of course. I can see the picture's very
beautiful, but I'm no judge—it isn't the kind of thing, naturally,
that I could afford to go in for; but in this case I'm very glad to do
what I can; the circumstances are so distressing; and knowing what you
think of the picture I feel it's a pretty safe investment—”
“I don't think!” I blurted out.
“I don't think the picture's worth a thousand dollars; I don't think
it's worth ten cents; I simply lied about it, that's all.”
Mr. Rose looked as frightened as though I had charged him with the
“Hang it, man, can't you see how it happened? I saw the poor woman's
pride and happiness hung on her faith in that picture. I tried to make
her understand that it was worthless—but she wouldn't; I tried to tell
her so—but I couldn't. I behaved like a maudlin ass, but you shan't
pay for my infernal bungling—you mustn't buy the picture!”
Mr. Rose sat silent, tapping one glossy boot-tip with another.
Suddenly he turned on me a glance of stored intelligence. “But you
know,” he said good-humoredly, “I rather think I must.”
“Oh, no; the offer's not made.”
His look gathered a brighter significance.
“But if the picture's worth nothing, nobody will buy it—”
“Except,” he continued, “some fellow like me, who doesn't know
anything. I think it's lovely, you know; I mean to hang it in my
mother's sitting-room.” He rose and clasped my hand in his adhesive
pressure. “I'm awfully obliged to you for telling me this; but perhaps
you won't mind my asking you not to mention our talk to Miss Copt? It
might bother her, you know, to think the picture isn't exactly up to
the mark; and it won't make a rap of difference to me.”
Mr. Rose left me to a sleepless night. The next morning my resolve
was formed, and it carried me straight to Mrs. Fontage's. She answered
my knock by stepping out on the landing, and as she shut the door
behind her I caught a glimpse of her devastated interior. She
mentioned, with a careful avoidance of the note of pathos on which our
last conversation had closed, that she was preparing to leave that
afternoon; and the trunks obstructing the threshold showed that her
preparations were nearly complete. They were, I felt certain, the same
trunks that, strapped behind a rattling vettura, had accompanied the
bride and groom on that memorable voyage of discovery of which the
booty had till recently adorned her walls; and there was a dim
consolation in the thought that those early “finds” in coral and Swiss
wood-carving, in lava and alabaster, still lay behind the worn locks,
in the security of worthlessness.
Mrs. Fontage, on the landing, among her strapped and corded
treasures, maintained the same air of stability that made it
impossible, even under such conditions, to regard her flight as
anything less dignified than a departure. It was the moral support of
what she tacitly assumed that enabled me to set forth with proper
deliberation the object of my visit; and she received my announcement
with an absence of surprise that struck me as the very flower of tact.
Under cover of these mutual assumptions the transaction was rapidly
concluded; and it was not till the canvas passed into my hands that, as
though the physical contact had unnerved her, Mrs. Fontage suddenly
faltered. “It's the giving it up—” she stammered, disguising herself
to the last; and I hastened away from the collapse of her splendid
I need hardly point out that I had acted impulsively, and that
reaction from the most honorable impulses is sometimes attended by
moral perturbation. My motives had indeed been mixed enough to justify
some uneasiness, but this was allayed by the instinctive feeling that
it is more venial to defraud an institution than a man. Since Mrs.
Fontage had to be kept from starving by means not wholly defensible, it
was better that the obligation should be borne by a rich institution
than an impecunious youth. I doubt, in fact, if my scruples would have
survived a night's sleep, had they not been complicated by some
uncertainty as to my own future. It was true that, subject to the
purely formal assent of the committee, I had full power to buy for the
Museum, and that the one member of the committee likely to dispute my
decision was opportunely travelling in Europe; but the picture once in
place I must face the risk of any expert criticism to which chance
might expose it. I dismissed this contingency for future study, stored
the Rembrandt in the cellar of the Museum, and thanked heaven that
Crozier was abroad.
Six months later he strolled into my office. I had just concluded,
under conditions of exceptional difficulty, and on terms unexpectedly
benign, the purchase of the great Bartley Reynolds; and this
circumstance, by relegating the matter of the Rembrandt to a lower
stratum of consciousness, enabled me to welcome Crozier with unmixed
pleasure. My security was enhanced by his appearance. His smile was
charged with amiable reminiscences, and I inferred that his trip had
put him in the humor to approve of everything, or at least to ignore
what fell short of his approval. I had therefore no uneasiness in
accepting his invitation to dine that evening. It is always pleasant to
dine with Crozier and never more so than when he is just back from
Europe. His conversation gives even the food a flavor of the Cafe
The repast was delightful, and it was not till we had finished a
Camembert which he must have brought over with him, that my host said,
in a tone of after-dinner perfunctoriness: “I see you've picked up a
picture or two since I left.”
I assented. “The Bartley Reynolds seemed too good an opportunity to
miss, especially as the French government was after it. I think we got
“Connu, connu” said Crozier pleasantly. “I know all about the
Reynolds. It was the biggest kind of a haul and I congratulate you.
Best stroke of business we've done yet. But tell me about the other
“I never said it was a Rembrandt.” I could hardly have said why, but
I felt distinctly annoyed with Crozier.
“Of course not. There's 'Rembrandt' on the frame, but I saw you'd
modified it to 'Dutch School'; I apologize.” He paused, but I offered
no explanation. “What about it?” he went on. “Where did you pick it
up?” As he leaned to the flame of the cigar-lighter his face seemed
ruddy with enjoyment.
“I got it for a song,” I said.
“A thousand, I think?”
“Have you seen it?” I asked abruptly.
“Went over the place this afternoon and found it in the cellar. Why
hasn't it been hung, by the way?”
I paused a moment. “I'm waiting—”
“To have it varnished.”
“Ah!” He leaned back and poured himself a second glass of
Chartreuse. The smile he confided to its golden depths provoked me to
challenge him with—
“What do you think of it?”
“The Rembrandt?” He lifted his eyes from the glass. “Just what you
“It isn't a Rembrandt.”
“I apologize again. You call it, I believe, a picture of the same
“I'm uncertain of the period.”
“H'm.” He glanced appreciatively along his cigar. “What are you
“That it's a damned bad picture,” I said savagely.
He nodded. “Just so. That's all we wanted to know.”
“We—I—the committee, in short. You see, my dear fellow, if you
hadn't been certain it was a damned bad picture our position would have
been a little awkward. As it is, my remaining duty—I ought to explain
that in this matter I'm acting for the committee—is as simple as it's
“I'll be hanged,” I burst out, “if I understand one word you're
He fixed me with a kind of cruel joyousness. “You will—you will,”
he assured me; “at least you'll begin to, when you hear that I've seen
“And that she has told me under what conditions the picture was
“She doesn't know anything about the conditions! That is,” I added,
hastening to restrict the assertion, “she doesn't know my opinion of
the picture.” I thirsted for five minutes with Eleanor.
“Are you quite sure?” Crozier took me up. “Mr. Jefferson Rose does.”
“I thought you would,” he reminded me. “As soon as I'd laid eyes on
the Rembrandt—I beg your pardon!—I saw that it—well, required some
“You might have come to me.”
“I meant to; but I happened to meet Miss Copt, whose encyclopaedic
information has often before been of service to me. I always go to Miss
Copt when I want to look up anything; and I found she knew all about
“Precisely. The knowledge was in fact causing her sleepless nights.
Mr. Rose, who was suffering from the same form of insomnia, had taken
her into his confidence, and she—ultimately—took me into hers.”
“I must ask you to do your cousin justice. She didn't speak till it
became evident to her uncommonly quick perceptions that your buying the
picture on its merits would have been infinitely worse for—for
everybody—than your diverting a small portion of the Museum's funds to
philanthropic uses. Then she told me the moving incident of Mr. Rose.
Good fellow, Rose. And the old lady's case was desperate. Somebody had
to buy that picture.” I moved uneasily in my seat “Wait a moment, will
you? I haven't finished my cigar. There's a little head of Il
Fiammingo's that you haven't seen, by the way; I picked it up the other
day in Parma. We'll go in and have a look at it presently. But
meanwhile what I want to say is that I've been charged—in the most
informal way—to express to you the committee's appreciation of your
admirable promptness and energy in capturing the Bartley Reynolds. We
shouldn't have got it at all if you hadn't been uncommonly wide-awake,
and to get it at such a price is a double triumph. We'd have thought
nothing of a few more thousands—”
“I don't see,” I impatiently interposed, “that, as far as I'm
concerned, that alters the case.”
“Of Mrs. Fontage's Rembrandt. I bought the picture because, as you
say, the situation was desperate, and I couldn't raise a thousand
myself. What I did was of course indefensible; but the money shall be
Crozier raised a protesting hand. “Don't interrupt me when I'm
talking ex cathedra. The money's been refunded already. The fact is,
the Museum has sold the Rembrandt.”
I stared at him wildly. “Sold it? To whom?”
“Why—to the committee.—Hold on a bit, please.—Won't you take
another cigar? Then perhaps I can finish what I've got to say.—Why, my
dear fellow, the committee's under an obligation to you—that's the way
we look at it. I've investigated Mrs. Fontage's case, and—well, the
picture had to be bought. She's eating meat now, I believe, for the
first time in a year. And they'd have turned her out into the street
that very day, your cousin tells me. Something had to be done at once,
and you've simply given a number of well-to-do and self-indulgent
gentlemen the opportunity of performing, at very small individual
expense, a meritorious action in the nick of time. That's the first
thing I've got to thank you for. And then—you'll remember, please,
that I have the floor—that I'm still speaking for the committee—and
secondly, as a slight recognition of your services in securing the
Bartley Reynolds at a very much lower figure than we were prepared to
pay, we beg you—the committee begs you—to accept the gift of Mrs.
Fontage's Rembrandt. Now we'll go in and look at that little head....”
THE MOVING FINGER
The news of Mrs. Grancy's death came to me with the shock of an
immense blunder—one of fate's most irretrievable acts of vandalism. It
was as though all sorts of renovating forces had been checked by the
clogging of that one wheel. Not that Mrs. Grancy contributed any
perceptible momentum to the social machine: her unique distinction was
that of filling to perfection her special place in the world. So many
people are like badly-composed statues, over-lapping their niches at
one point and leaving them vacant at another. Mrs. Grancy's niche was
her husband's life; and if it be argued that the space was not large
enough for its vacancy to leave a very big gap, I can only say that, at
the last resort, such dimensions must be determined by finer
instruments than any ready-made standard of utility. Ralph Grancy's was
in short a kind of disembodied usefulness: one of those constructive
influences that, instead of crystallizing into definite forms, remain
as it were a medium for the development of clear thinking and fine
feeling. He faithfully irrigated his own dusty patch of life, and the
fruitful moisture stole far beyond his boundaries. If, to carry on the
metaphor, Grancy's life was a sedulously-cultivated enclosure, his wife
was the flower he had planted in its midst—the embowering tree,
rather, which gave him rest and shade at its foot and the wind of
dreams in its upper branches.
We had all—his small but devoted band of followers—known a moment
when it seemed likely that Grancy would fail us. We had watched him
pitted against one stupid obstacle after another—ill-health, poverty,
misunderstanding and, worst of all for a man of his texture, his first
wife's soft insidious egotism. We had seen him sinking under the leaden
embrace of her affection like a swimmer in a drowning clutch; but just
as we despaired he had always come to the surface again, blinded,
panting, but striking out fiercely for the shore. When at last her
death released him it became a question as to how much of the man she
had carried with her. Left alone, he revealed numb withered patches,
like a tree from which a parasite has been stripped. But gradually he
began to put out new leaves; and when he met the lady who was to become
his second wife—his one real wife, as his friends reckoned—the
whole man burst into flower.
The second Mrs. Grancy was past thirty when he married her, and it
was clear that she had harvested that crop of middle joy which is
rooted in young despair. But if she had lost the surface of eighteen
she had kept its inner light; if her cheek lacked the gloss of
immaturity her eyes were young with the stored youth of half a
life-time. Grancy had first known her somewhere in the East—I believe
she was the sister of one of our consuls out there—and when he brought
her home to New York she came among us as a stranger. The idea of
Grancy's remarriage had been a shock to us all. After one such
calcining most men would have kept out of the fire; but we agreed that
he was predestined to sentimental blunders, and we awaited with
resignation the embodiment of his latest mistake. Then Mrs. Grancy
came—and we understood. She was the most beautiful and the most
complete of explanations. We shuffled our defeated omniscience out of
sight and gave it hasty burial under a prodigality of welcome. For the
first time in years we had Grancy off our minds. “He'll do something
great now!” the least sanguine of us prophesied; and our sentimentalist
emended: “He has done it—in marrying her!”
It was Claydon, the portrait-painter, who risked this hyperbole; and
who soon afterward, at the happy husband's request, prepared to defend
it in a portrait of Mrs. Grancy. We were all—even Claydon—ready to
concede that Mrs. Grancy's unwontedness was in some degree a matter of
environment. Her graces were complementary and it needed the mate's
call to reveal the flash of color beneath her neutral-tinted wings. But
if she needed Grancy to interpret her, how much greater was the service
she rendered him! Claydon professionally described her as the right
frame for him; but if she defined she also enlarged, if she threw the
whole into perspective she also cleared new ground, opened fresh
vistas, reclaimed whole areas of activity that had run to waste under
the harsh husbandry of privation. This interaction of sympathies was
not without its visible expression. Claydon was not alone in
maintaining that Grancy's presence—or indeed the mere mention of his
name—had a perceptible effect on his wife's appearance. It was as
though a light were shifted, a curtain drawn back, as though, to borrow
another of Claydon's metaphors, Love the indefatigable artist were
perpetually seeking a happier “pose” for his model. In this
interpretative light Mrs. Grancy acquired the charm which makes some
women's faces like a book of which the last page is never turned. There
was always something new to read in her eyes. What Claydon read
there—or at least such scattered hints of the ritual as reached him
through the sanctuary doors—his portrait in due course declared to us.
When the picture was exhibited it was at once acclaimed as his
masterpiece; but the people who knew Mrs. Grancy smiled and said it was
flattered. Claydon, however, had not set out to paint their Mrs.
Grancy—or ours even—but Ralph's; and Ralph knew his own at a glance.
At the first confrontation he saw that Claydon had understood. As for
Mrs. Grancy, when the finished picture was shown to her she turned to
the painter and said simply: “Ah, you've done me facing the east!”
The picture, then, for all its value, seemed a mere incident in the
unfolding of their double destiny, a foot-note to the illuminated text
of their lives. It was not till afterward that it acquired the
significance of last words spoken on a threshold never to be recrossed.
Grancy, a year after his marriage, had given up his town house and
carried his bliss an hour's journey away, to a little place among the
hills. His various duties and interests brought him frequently to New
York but we necessarily saw him less often than when his house had
served as the rallying-point of kindred enthusiasms. It seemed a pity
that such an influence should be withdrawn, but we all felt that his
long arrears of happiness should be paid in whatever coin he chose. The
distance from which the fortunate couple radiated warmth on us was not
too great for friendship to traverse; and our conception of a glorified
leisure took the form of Sundays spent in the Grancys' library, with
its sedative rural outlook, and the portrait of Mrs. Grancy
illuminating its studious walls. The picture was at its best in that
setting; and we used to accuse Claydon of visiting Mrs. Grancy in order
to see her portrait. He met this by declaring that the portrait was
Mrs. Grancy; and there were moments when the statement seemed
unanswerable. One of us, indeed—I think it must have been the
novelist—said that Clayton had been saved from falling in love with
Mrs. Grancy only by falling in love with his picture of her; and it was
noticeable that he, to whom his finished work was no more than the shed
husk of future effort, showed a perennial tenderness for this one
achievement. We smiled afterward to think how often, when Mrs. Grancy
was in the room, her presence reflecting itself in our talk like a
gleam of sky in a hurrying current, Claydon, averted from the real
woman, would sit as it were listening to the picture. His attitude, at
the time, seemed only a part of the unusualness of those picturesque
afternoons, when the most familiar combinations of life underwent a
magical change. Some human happiness is a landlocked lake; but the
Grancys' was an open sea, stretching a buoyant and illimitable surface
to the voyaging interests of life. There was room and to spare on those
waters for all our separate ventures; and always beyond the sunset, a
mirage of the fortunate isles toward which our prows bent.
It was in Rome that, three years later, I heard of her death. The
notice said “suddenly”; I was glad of that. I was glad too—basely
perhaps—to be away from Grancy at a time when silence must have seemed
obtuse and speech derisive.
I was still in Rome when, a few months afterward, he suddenly
arrived there. He had been appointed secretary of legation at
Constantinople and was on the way to his post. He had taken the place,
he said frankly, “to get away.” Our relations with the Porte held out a
prospect of hard work, and that, he explained, was what he needed. He
could never be satisfied to sit down among the ruins. I saw that, like
most of us in moments of extreme moral tension, he was playing a part,
behaving as he thought it became a man to behave in the eye of
disaster. The instinctive posture of grief is a shuffling compromise
between defiance and prostration; and pride feels the need of striking
a worthier attitude in face of such a foe. Grancy, by nature musing and
retrospective, had chosen the role of the man of action, who answers
blow for blow and opposes a mailed front to the thrusts of destiny; and
the completeness of the equipment testified to his inner weakness. We
talked only of what we were not thinking of, and parted, after a few
days, with a sense of relief that proved the inadequacy of friendship
to perform, in such cases, the office assigned to it by tradition.
Soon afterward my own work called me home, but Grancy remained
several years in Europe. International diplomacy kept its promise of
giving him work to do, and during the year in which he acted as
charge d'affaires he acquitted himself, under trying conditions,
with conspicuous zeal and discretion. A political redistribution of
matter removed him from office just as he had proved his usefulness to
the government; and the following summer I heard that he had come home
and was down at his place in the country.
On my return to town I wrote him and his reply came by the next
post. He answered as it were in his natural voice, urging me to spend
the following Sunday with him, and suggesting that I should bring down
any of the old set who could be persuaded to join me. I thought this a
good sign, and yet—shall I own it?—I was vaguely disappointed.
Perhaps we are apt to feel that our friends' sorrows should be kept
like those historic monuments from which the encroaching ivy is
That very evening at the club I ran across Claydon. I told him of
Grancy's invitation and proposed that we should go down together; but
he pleaded an engagement. I was sorry, for I had always felt that he
and I stood nearer Ralph than the others, and if the old Sundays were
to be renewed I should have preferred that we two should spend the
first alone with him. I said as much to Claydon and offered to fit my
time to his; but he met this by a general refusal.
“I don't want to go to Grancy's,” he said bluntly. I waited a
moment, but he appended no qualifying clause.
“You've seen him since he came back?” I finally ventured.
“And is he so awfully bad?”
“Bad? No: he's all right.”
“All right? How can he be, unless he's changed beyond all
“Oh, you'll recognize him,” said Claydon, with a puzzling
deflection of emphasis.
His ambiguity was beginning to exasperate me, and I felt myself shut
out from some knowledge to which I had as good a right as he.
“You've been down there already, I suppose?”
“Yes; I've been down there.”
“And you've done with each other—the partnership is dissolved?”
“Done with each other? I wish to God we had!” He rose nervously and
tossed aside the review from which my approach had diverted him. “Look
here,” he said, standing before me, “Ralph's the best fellow going and
there's nothing under heaven I wouldn't do for him—short of going down
there again.” And with that he walked out of the room.
Claydon was incalculable enough for me to read a dozen different
meanings into his words; but none of my interpretations satisfied me. I
determined, at any rate, to seek no farther for a companion; and the
next Sunday I travelled down to Grancy's alone. He met me at the
station and I saw at once that he had changed since our last meeting.
Then he had been in fighting array, but now if he and grief still
housed together it was no longer as enemies. Physically the
transformation was as marked but less reassuring. If the spirit
triumphed the body showed its scars. At five-and-forty he was gray and
stooping, with the tired gait of an old man. His serenity, however, was
not the resignation of age. I saw that he did not mean to drop out of
the game. Almost immediately he began to speak of our old interests;
not with an effort, as at our former meeting, but simply and naturally,
in the tone of a man whose life has flowed back into its normal
channels. I remembered, with a touch of self-reproach, how I had
distrusted his reconstructive powers; but my admiration for his
reserved force was now tinged by the sense that, after all, such
happiness as his ought to have been paid with his last coin. The
feeling grew as we neared the house and I found how inextricably his
wife was interwoven with my remembrance of the place: how the whole
scene was but an extension of that vivid presence.
Within doors nothing was changed, and my hand would have dropped
without surprise into her welcoming clasp. It was luncheon-time, and
Grancy led me at once to the dining-room, where the walls, the
furniture, the very plate and porcelain, seemed a mirror in which a
moment since her face had been reflected. I wondered whether Grancy,
under the recovered tranquillity of his smile, concealed the same sense
of her nearness, saw perpetually between himself and the actual her
bright unappeasable ghost. He spoke of her once or twice, in an easy
incidental way, and her name seemed to hang in the air after he had
uttered it, like a chord that continues to vibrate. If he felt her
presence it was evidently as an enveloping medium, the moral atmosphere
in which he breathed. I had never before known how completely the dead
After luncheon we went for a long walk through the autumnal fields
and woods, and dusk was falling when we re-entered the house. Grancy
led the way to the library, where, at this hour, his wife had always
welcomed us back to a bright fire and a cup of tea. The room faced the
west, and held a clear light of its own after the rest of the house had
grown dark. I remembered how young she had looked in this pale gold
light, which irradiated her eyes and hair, or silhouetted her girlish
outline as she passed before the windows. Of all the rooms the library
was most peculiarly hers; and here I felt that her nearness might take
visible shape. Then, all in a moment, as Grancy opened the door, the
feeling vanished and a kind of resistance met me on the threshold. I
looked about me. Was the room changed? Had some desecrating hand
effaced the traces of her presence? No; here too the setting was
undisturbed. My feet sank into the same deep-piled Daghestan; the
bookshelves took the firelight on the same rows of rich subdued
bindings; her armchair stood in its old place near the tea-table; and
from the opposite wall her face confronted me.
Her face—but was it hers? I moved nearer and stood looking
up at the portrait. Grancy's glance had followed mine and I heard him
move to my side.
“You see a change in it?” he said.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“It means—that five years have passed.”
“Why not?—Look at me!” He pointed to his gray hair and furrowed
temples. “What do you think kept her so young? It was happiness!
But now—” he looked up at her with infinite tenderness. “I like her
better so,” he said. “It's what she would have wished.”
“That we should grow old together. Do you think she would have
wanted to be left behind?”
I stood speechless, my gaze travelling from his worn grief-beaten
features to the painted face above. It was not furrowed like his; but a
veil of years seemed to have descended on it. The bright hair had lost
its elasticity, the cheek its clearness, the brow its light: the whole
woman had waned.
Grancy laid his hand on my arm. “You don't like it?” he said sadly.
“Like it? I—I've lost her!” I burst out.
“And I've found her,” he answered.
“In that?” I cried with a reproachful gesture.
“Yes; in that.” He swung round on me almost defiantly. “The other
had become a sham, a lie! This is the way she would have looked—does
look, I mean. Claydon ought to know, oughtn't he?”
I turned suddenly. “Did Claydon do this for you?”
“Since your return?”
“Yes. I sent for him after I'd been back a week—.” He turned away
and gave a thrust to the smouldering fire. I followed, glad to leave
the picture behind me. Grancy threw himself into a chair near the
hearth, so that the light fell on his sensitive variable face. He
leaned his head back, shading his eyes with his hand, and began to
“You fellows knew enough of my early history to A guess what my
second marriage meant to me. I say guess, because no one could
understand—really. I've always had a feminine streak in me, I suppose:
the need of a pair of eyes that should see with me, of a pulse that
should keep time with mine. Life is a big thing, of course; a
magnificent spectacle; but I got so tired of looking at it alone!
Still, it's always good to live, and I had plenty of happiness—of the
evolved kind. What I'd never had a taste of was the simple inconscient
sort that one breathes in like the air....
“Well—I met her. It was like finding the climate in which I was
meant to live. You know what she was—how indefinitely she multiplied
one's points of contact with life, how she lit up the caverns and
bridged the abysses! Well, I swear to you (though I suppose the sense
of all that was latent in me) that what I used to think of on my way
home at the end of the day, was simply that when I opened this door
she'd be sitting over there, with the lamp-light falling in a
particular way on one little curl in her neck.... When Claydon painted
her he caught just the look she used to lift to mine when I came
in—I've wondered, sometimes, at his knowing how she looked when she
and I were alone.—How I rejoiced in that picture! I used to say to
her, 'You're my prisoner now—I shall never lose you. If you grew tired
of me and left me you'd leave your real self there on the wall!' It was
always one of our jokes that she was going to grow tired of me—
“Three years of it—and then she died. It was so sudden that there
was no change, no diminution. It was as if she had suddenly become
fixed, immovable, like her own portrait: as if Time had ceased at its
happiest hour, just as Claydon had thrown down his brush one day and
said, 'I can't do better than that.'
“I went away, as you know, and stayed over there five years. I
worked as hard as I knew how, and after the first black months a little
light stole in on me. From thinking that she would have been interested
in what I was doing I came to feel that she was interested—that
she was there and that she knew. I'm not talking any psychical
jargon—I'm simply trying to express the sense I had that an influence
so full, so abounding as hers couldn't pass like a spring shower. We
had so lived into each other's hearts and minds that the consciousness
of what she would have thought and felt illuminated all I did. At first
she used to come back shyly, tentatively, as though not sure of finding
me; then she stayed longer and longer, till at last she became again
the very air I breathed.... There were bad moments, of course, when her
nearness mocked me with the loss of the real woman; but gradually the
distinction between the two was effaced and the mere thought of her
grew warm as flesh and blood.
“Then I came home. I landed in the morning and came straight down
here. The thought of seeing her portrait possessed me and my heart beat
like a lover's as I opened the library door. It was in the afternoon
and the room was full of light. It fell on her picture—the picture of
a young and radiant woman. She smiled at me coldly across the distance
that divided us. I had the feeling that she didn't even recognize me.
And then I caught sight of myself in the mirror over there—a
gray-haired broken man whom she had never known!
“For a week we two lived together—the strange woman and the strange
man. I used to sit night after night and question her smiling face; but
no answer ever came. What did she know of me, after all? We were
irrevocably separated by the five years of life that lay between us. At
times, as I sat here, I almost grew to hate her; for her presence had
driven away my gentle ghost, the real wife who had wept, aged,
struggled with me during those awful years.... It was the worst
loneliness I've ever known. Then, gradually, I began to notice a look
of sadness in the picture's eyes; a look that seemed to say: 'Don't you
see that I am lonely too?' And all at once it came over me how
she would have hated to be left behind! I remembered her comparing life
to a heavy book that could not be read with ease unless two people held
it together; and I thought how impatiently her hand would have turned
the pages that divided us!—So the idea came to me: 'It's the picture
that stands between us; the picture that is dead, and not my wife. To
sit in this room is to keep watch beside a corpse.' As this feeling
grew on me the portrait became like a beautiful mausoleum in which she
had been buried alive: I could hear her beating against the painted
walls and crying to me faintly for help....
“One day I found I couldn't stand it any longer and I sent for
Claydon. He came down and I told him what I'd been through and what I
wanted him to do. At first he refused point-blank to touch the picture.
The next morning I went off for a long tramp, and when I came home I
found him sitting here alone. He looked at me sharply for a moment and
then he said: 'I've changed my mind; I'll do it.' I arranged one of the
north rooms as a studio and he shut himself up there for a day; then he
sent for me. The picture stood there as you see it now—it was as
though she'd met me on the threshold and taken me in her arms! I tried
to thank him, to tell him what it meant to me, but he cut me short.
“'There's an up train at five, isn't there?' he asked. 'I'm booked
for a dinner to-night. I shall just have time to make a bolt for the
station and you can send my traps after me.' I haven't seen him since.
“I can guess what it cost him to lay hands on his masterpiece; but,
after all, to him it was only a picture lost, to me it was my wife
After that, for ten years or more, I watched the strange spectacle
of a life of hopeful and productive effort based on the structure of a
dream. There could be no doubt to those who saw Grancy during this
period that he drew his strength and courage from the sense of his
wife's mystic participation in his task. When I went back to see him a
few months later I found the portrait had been removed from the library
and placed in a small study up-stairs, to which he had transferred his
desk and a few books. He told me he always sat there when he was alone,
keeping the library for his Sunday visitors. Those who missed the
portrait of course made no comment on its absence, and the few who were
in his secret respected it. Gradually all his old friends had gathered
about him and our Sunday afternoons regained something of their former
character; but Claydon never reappeared among us.
As I look back now I see that Grancy must have been failing from the
time of his return home. His invincible spirit belied and disguised the
signs of weakness that afterward asserted themselves in my remembrance
of him. He seemed to have an inexhaustible fund of life to draw on, and
more than one of us was a pensioner on his superfluity.
Nevertheless, when I came back one summer from my European holiday
and heard that he had been at the point of death, I understood at once
that we had believed him well only because he wished us to.
I hastened down to the country and found him midway in a slow
convalescence. I felt then that he was lost to us and he read my
thought at a glance.
“Ah,” he said, “I'm an old man now and no mistake. I suppose we
shall have to go half-speed after this; but we shan't need towing just
The plural pronoun struck me, and involuntarily I looked up at Mrs.
Grancy's portrait. Line by line I saw my fear reflected in it. It was
the face of a woman who knows that her husband is dying. My heart stood
still at the thought of what Claydon had done.
Grancy had followed my glance. “Yes, it's changed her,” he said
quietly. “For months, you know, it was touch and go with me—we had a
long fight of it, and it was worse for her than for me.” After a pause
he added: “Claydon has been very kind; he's so busy nowadays that I
seldom see him, but when I sent for him the other day he came down at
I was silent and we spoke no more of Grancy's illness; but when I
took leave it seemed like shutting him in alone with his death-warrant.
The next time I went down to see him he looked much better. It was a
Sunday and he received me in the library, so that I did not see the
portrait again. He continued to improve and toward spring we began to
feel that, as he had said, he might yet travel a long way without being
One evening, on returning to town after a visit which had confirmed
my sense of reassurance, I found Claydon dining alone at the club. He
asked me to join him and over the coffee our talk turned to his work.
“If you're not too busy,” I said at length, “you ought to make time
to go down to Grancy's again.”
He looked up quickly. “Why?” he asked.
“Because he's quite well again,” I returned with a touch of cruelty.
“His wife's prognostications were mistaken.”
Claydon stared at me a moment. “Oh, she knows,” he affirmed
with a smile that chilled me.
“You mean to leave the portrait as it is then?” I persisted.
He shrugged his shoulders. “He hasn't sent for me yet!”
A waiter came up with the cigars and Claydon rose and joined another
It was just a fortnight later that Grancy's housekeeper telegraphed
for me. She met me at the station with the news that he had been “taken
bad” and that the doctors were with him. I had to wait for some time in
the deserted library before the medical men appeared. They had the
baffled manner of empirics who have been superseded by the great
Healer; and I lingered only long enough to hear that Grancy was not
suffering and that my presence could do him no harm.
I found him seated in his arm-chair in the little study. He held out
his hand with a smile.
“You see she was right after all,” he said.
“She?” I repeated, perplexed for the moment.
“My wife.” He indicated the picture. “Of course I knew she had no
hope from the first. I saw that”—he lowered his voice—“after Claydon
had been here. But I wouldn't believe it at first!”
I caught his hands in mine. “For God's sake don't believe it now!” I
He shook his head gently. “It's too late,” he said. “I might have
known that she knew.”
“But, Grancy, listen to me,” I began; and then I stopped. What could
I say that would convince him? There was no common ground of argument
on which we could meet; and after all it would be easier for him to die
feeling that she had known. Strangely enough, I saw that Claydon
had missed his mark....
Grancy's will named me as one of his executors; and my associate,
having other duties on his hands, begged me to assume the task of
carrying out our friend's wishes. This placed me under the necessity of
informing Claydon that the portrait of Mrs. Grancy had been bequeathed
to him; and he replied by the next post that he would send for the
picture at once. I was staying in the deserted house when the portrait
was taken away; and as the door closed on it I felt that Grancy's
presence had vanished too. Was it his turn to follow her now, and could
one ghost haunt another?
After that, for a year or two, I heard nothing more of the picture,
and though I met Claydon from time to time we had little to say to each
other. I had no definable grievance against the man and I tried to
remember that he had done a fine thing in sacrificing his best picture
to a friend; but my resentment had all the tenacity of unreason.
One day, however, a lady whose portrait he had just finished begged
me to go with her to see it. To refuse was impossible, and I went with
the less reluctance that I knew I was not the only friend she had
invited. The others were all grouped around the easel when I entered,
and after contributing my share to the chorus of approval I turned away
and began to stroll about the studio. Claydon was something of a
collector and his things were generally worth looking at. The studio
was a long tapestried room with a curtained archway at one end. The
curtains were looped back, showing a smaller apartment, with books and
flowers and a few fine bits of bronze and porcelain. The tea-table
standing in this inner room proclaimed that it was open to inspection,
and I wandered in. A bleu poudre vase first attracted me; then I
turned to examine a slender bronze Ganymede, and in so doing found
myself face to face with Mrs. Grancy's portrait. I stared up at her
blankly and she smiled back at me in all the recovered radiance of
youth. The artist had effaced every trace of his later touches and the
original picture had reappeared. It throned alone on the panelled wall,
asserting a brilliant supremacy over its carefully-chosen surroundings.
I felt in an instant that the whole room was tributary to it: that
Claydon had heaped his treasures at the feet of the woman he loved.
Yes—it was the woman he had loved and not the picture; and my
instinctive resentment was explained.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Ah, how could you?” I cried, turning on him.
“How could I?” he retorted. “How could I not? Doesn't she
belong to me now?”
I moved away impatiently.
“Wait a moment,” he said with a detaining gesture. “The others have
gone and I want to say a word to you.—Oh, I know what you've thought
of me—I can guess! You think I killed Grancy, I suppose?”
I was startled by his sudden vehemence. “I think you tried to do a
cruel thing,” I said.
“Ah—what a little way you others see into life!” he murmured. “Sit
down a moment—here, where we can look at her—and I'll tell you.”
He threw himself on the ottoman beside me and sat gazing up at the
picture, with his hands clasped about his knee.
“Pygmalion,” he began slowly, “turned his statue into a real woman;
I turned my real woman into a picture. Small compensation, you
think—but you don't know how much of a woman belongs to you after
you've painted her!—Well, I made the best of it, at any rate—I gave
her the best I had in me; and she gave me in return what such a woman
gives by merely being. And after all she rewarded me enough by making
me paint as I shall never paint again! There was one side of her,
though, that was mine alone, and that was her beauty; for no one else
understood it. To Grancy even it was the mere expression of
herself—what language is to thought. Even when he saw the picture he
didn't guess my secret—he was so sure she was all his! As though a man
should think he owned the moon because it was reflected in the pool at
“Well—when he came home and sent for me to change the picture it
was like asking me to commit murder. He wanted me to make an old woman
of her—of her who had been so divinely, unchangeably young! As if any
man who really loved a woman would ask her to sacrifice her youth and
beauty for his sake! At first I told him I couldn't do it—but
afterward, when he left me alone with the picture, something queer
happened. I suppose it was because I was always so confoundedly fond of
Grancy that it went against me to refuse what he asked. Anyhow, as I
sat looking up at her, she seemed to say, 'I'm not yours but his, and I
want you to make me what he wishes.” And so I did it. I could have cut
my hand off when the work was done—I daresay he told you I never would
go back and look at it. He thought I was too busy—he never
“Well—and then last year he sent for me again—you remember. It was
after his illness, and he told me he'd grown twenty years older and
that he wanted her to grow older too—he didn't want her to be left
behind. The doctors all thought he was going to get well at that time,
and he thought so too; and so did I when I first looked at him. But
when I turned to the picture—ah, now I don't ask you to believe me;
but I swear it was her face that told me he was dying, and that
she wanted him to know it! She had a message for him and she made me
He rose abruptly and walked toward the portrait; then he sat down
beside me again.
“Cruel? Yes, it seemed so to me at first; and this time, if I
resisted, it was for his sake and not for mine. But all the
while I felt her eyes drawing me, and gradually she made me understand.
If she'd been there in the flesh (she seemed to say) wouldn't she have
seen before any of us that he was dying? Wouldn't he have read the news
first in her face? And wouldn't it be horrible if now he should
discover it instead in strange eyes?—Well—that was what she wanted of
me and I did it—I kept them together to the last!” He looked up at the
picture again. “But now she belongs to me,” he repeated....
When I was a young man I thought a great deal of local color. At
that time it was still a pigment of recent discovery, and supposed to
have a peculiarly stimulating effect on the mental eye. As an aid to
the imagination its value was perhaps overrated; but as an object of
pursuit to that vagrant faculty, it had all the merits claimed for it.
I certainly never hunted any game better worth my powder; and to a
young man with rare holidays and long working hours, its value was
enhanced by the fact that one might bring it down at any turn, if only
one kept one's eye alert and one's hand on the trigger.
Even the large manufacturing city where, for some years, my young
enthusiasms were chained to an accountant's desk, was not without its
romantic opportunities. Many of the mill-hands at Dunstable were
Italians, and a foreign settlement had formed itself in that unsavory
and unsanitary portion of the town known as the Point. The Point, like
more aristocratic communities, had its residential and commercial
districts, its church, its theatre and its restaurant. When the craving
for local color was on me it was my habit to resort to the restaurant,
a low-browed wooden building with the appetizing announcement:
“Aristiu di montone“
pasted in one of its fly-blown window-panes. Here the consumption of
tough macaroni or of an ambiguous frittura sufficed to transport
me to the Cappello d'Oro in Venice, while my cup of coffee and a
wasp-waisted cigar with a straw in it turned my greasy table-cloth into
the marble top of one of the little round tables under the arcade of
the Caffe Pedrotti at Padua. This feat of the imagination was
materially aided by Agostino, the hollow-eyed and low-collared waiter,
whose slimy napkin never lost its Latin flourish and whose zeal for my
comfort was not infrequently displayed by his testing the warmth of my
soup with his finger. Through Agostino I became acquainted with the
inner history of the colony, heard the details of its feuds and
vendettas, and learned to know by sight the leading characters in these
The restaurant was frequented by the chief personages of the
community: the overseer of the Italian hands at the Meriton Mills, the
doctor, his wife the levatrice (a plump Neapolitan with greasy
ringlets, a plush picture-hat, and a charm against the evil-eye hanging
in a crease of her neck) and lastly by Don Egidio, the parocco
of the little church across the street. The doctor and his wife came
only on feast days, but the overseer and Don Egidio were regular
patrons. The former was a quiet saturnine-looking man, of accomplished
manners but reluctant speech, and I depended for my diversion chiefly
on Don Egidio, whose large loosely-hung lips were always ajar for
conversation. The remarks issuing from them were richly tinged by the
gutturals of the Bergamasque dialect, and it needed but a slight
acquaintance with Italian types to detect the Lombard peasant under the
priest's rusty cassock. This inference was confirmed by Don Egidio's
telling me that he came from a village of Val Camonica, the radiant
valley which extends northward from the lake of Iseo to the Adamello
glaciers. His step-father had been a laborer on one of the fruit-farms
of a Milanese count who owned large estates in the Val Camonica; and
that gentleman, taking a fancy to the lad, whom he had seen at work in
his orchards, had removed him to his villa on the lake of Iseo and had
subsequently educated him for the Church.
It was doubtless to this picturesque accident that Don Egidio owed
the mingling of ease and simplicity that gave an inimitable charm to
his stout shabby presence. It was as though some wild mountain-fruit
had been transplanted to the Count's orchards and had mellowed under
cultivation without losing its sylvan flavor. I have never seen the
social art carried farther without suggestion of artifice. The fact
that Don Egidio's amenities were mainly exercised on the mill-hands
composing his parish proved the genuineness of his gift. It is easier
to simulate gentility among gentlemen than among navvies; and the plain
man is a touchstone who draws out all the alloy in the gold.
Among his parishioners Don Egidio ruled with the cheerful despotism
of the good priest. On cardinal points he was inflexible, but in minor
matters he had that elasticity of judgment which enables the Catholic
discipline to fit itself to every inequality of the human conscience.
There was no appeal from his verdict; but his judgment-seat was a
revolving chair from which he could view the same act at various
angles. His influence was acknowledged not only by his flock, but by
the policeman at the corner, the “bar-keep'“ in the dive, the ward
politician in the corner grocery. The general verdict of Dunstable was
that the Point would have been hell without the priest. It was perhaps
not precisely heaven with him; but such light of the upper sky as
pierced its murky atmosphere was reflected from Don Egidio's
countenance. It is hardly possible for any one to exercise such
influence without taking pleasure in it; and on the whole the priest
was probably a contented man; though it does not follow that he was a
happy one. On this point the first stages of our acquaintance yielded
much food for conjecture. At first sight Don Egidio was the image of
cheerfulness. He had all the physical indications of a mind at ease:
the leisurely rolling gait, the ready laugh, the hospitable eye of the
man whose sympathies are always on the latch. It took me some time to
discover under his surface garrulity the impenetrable reticence of his
profession, and under his enjoyment of trifles a levelling melancholy
which made all enjoyment trifling. Don Egidio's aspect and conversation
were so unsuggestive of psychological complexities that I set down this
trait to poverty or home-sickness. There are few classes of men more
frugal in tastes and habit than the village priest in Italy; but Don
Egidio, by his own account, had been introduced, at an impressionable
age, to a way of living that must have surpassed his wildest dreams of
self-indulgence. To whatever privations his parochial work had since
accustomed him, the influences of that earlier life were too
perceptible in his talk not to have made a profound impression on his
tastes; and he remained, for all his apostolic simplicity, the image of
the family priest who has his seat at the rich man's table.
It chanced that I had used one of my short European holidays to
explore afoot the romantic passes connecting the Valtelline with the
lake of Iseo; and my remembrance of that enchanting region made it seem
impossible that Don Egidio should ever look without a reminiscent pang
on the grimy perspective of his parochial streets. The transition was
too complete, too ironical, from those rich glades and Titianesque
acclivities to the brick hovels and fissured sidewalks of the Point.
This impression was confirmed when Don Egidio, in response to my
urgent invitation, paid his first visit to my modest lodgings. He
called one winter evening, when a wood-fire in its happiest humor was
giving a factitious lustre to my book-shelves and bringing out the
values of the one or two old prints and Chinese porcelains that
accounted for the perennial shabbiness of my wardrobe.
“Ah,” said he with a murmur of satisfaction, as he laid aside his
shiny hat and bulging umbrella, “it is a long time since I have been in
a casa signorile.”
My remembrance of his own room (he lodged with the doctor and the
levatrice) saved this epithet from the suggestion of irony and kept
me silent while he sank into my arm-chair with the deliberation of a
tired traveller lowering himself gently into a warm bath.
“Good! good!” he repeated, looking about him. “Books, porcelains,
objects of virtu—I am glad to see that there are still such
things in the world!” And he turned a genial eye on the glass of
Marsala that I had poured out for him.
Don Egidio was the most temperate of men and never exceeded his one
glass; but he liked to sit by the hour puffing at my Cabanas, which I
suspected him of preferring to the black weed of his native country.
Under the influence of my tobacco he became even more blandly
garrulous, and I sometimes fancied that of all the obligations of his
calling none could have placed such a strain on him as that of
preserving the secrets of the confessional. He often talked of his
early life at the Count's villa, where he had been educated with his
patron's two sons till he was of age to be sent to the seminary; and I
could see that the years spent in simple and familiar intercourse with
his benefactors had been the most vivid chapter in his experience. The
Italian peasant's inarticulate tenderness for the beauty of his
birthplace had been specialized in him by contact with cultivated
tastes, and he could tell me not only that the Count had a “stupendous"
collection of pictures, but that the chapel of the villa contained a
sepulchral monument by Bambaja, and that the art-critics were divided
as to the authenticity of the Leonardo in the family palace at Milan.
On all these subjects he was inexhaustibly voluble; but there was
one point which he always avoided, and that was his reason for coming
to America. I remember the round turn with which he brought me up when
I questioned him.
“A priest,” said he, “is a soldier and must obey orders like a
soldier.” He set down his glass of Marsala and strolled across the
room. “I had not observed,” he went on, “that you have here a
photograph of the Sposalizio of the Brera. What a picture! E
stupendo!” and he turned back to his seat and smilingly lit a fresh
I saw at once that I had hit on a point where his native garrulity
was protected by the chain-mail of religious discipline that every
Catholic priest wears beneath his cassock. I had too much respect for
my friend to wish to penetrate his armor, and now and then I almost
fancied he was grateful to me for not putting his reticence to the
Don Egidio must have been past sixty when I made his acquaintance;
but it was not till the close of an exceptionally harsh winter, some
five or six years after our first meeting, that I began to think of him
as an old man. It was as though the long-continued cold had cracked and
shrivelled him. He had grown bent and hollow-chested and his lower lip
shook like an unhinged door. The summer heat did little to revive him,
and in September, when I came home from my vacation, I found him just
recovering from an attack of pneumonia. That autumn he did not care to
venture often into the night air, and now and then I used to go and sit
with him in his little room, to which I had contributed the unheard-of
luxuries of an easy-chair and a gas-stove.
My engagements, however, made these visits infrequent, and several
weeks had elapsed without my seeing the parocco when, one snowy
November morning, I ran across him in the railway-station. I was on my
way to New York for the day and had just time to wave a greeting to him
as I jumped into the railway-carriage; but a moment later, to my
surprise, I saw him stiffly clambering into the same train. I found him
seated in the common car, with his umbrella between his knees and a
bundle done up in a red cotton handkerchief on the seat at his side.
The caution with which, at my approach, he transferred this bundle to
his arms caused me to glance at it in surprise; and he answered my look
by saying with a smile:
“They are flowers for the dead—the most exquisite flowers—from the
greenhouses of Mr. Meriton—si figuri!” And he waved a
descriptive hand. “One of my lads, Gianpietro, is employed by the
gardener there, and every year on this day he brings me a beautiful
bunch of flowers—for such a purpose it is no sin,” he added, with the
charming Italian pliancy of judgment.
“And why are you travelling in this snowy weather, signor parocco
?” I asked, as he ended with a cough.
He fixed me gravely with his simple shallow eye. “Because it is the
day of the dead, my son,” he said, “and I go to place these on the
grave of the noblest man that ever lived.”
“You are going to New York?”
I hesitated a moment, wishing to question him, yet uncertain whether
his replies were curtailed by the persistency of his cough or by the
desire to avoid interrogation.
“This is no weather to be travelling with such a cough,” I said at
He made a deprecating gesture.
“I have never missed the day—not once in eighteen years. But for me
he would have no one!” He folded his hands on his umbrella and looked
away from me to hide the trembling of his lip.
I resolved on a last attempt to storm his confidence. “Your friend
is buried in Calvary cemetery?”
He signed an assent.
“That is a long way for you to go alone, signor parocco. The
streets are sure to be slippery and there is an icy wind blowing. Give
me your flowers and let me send them to the cemetery by a messenger. I
give you my word they shall reach their destination safely.”
He turned a quiet look on me. “My son, you are young,” he said, “and
you don't know how the dead need us.” He drew his breviary from his
pocket and opened it with a smile. “Mi scusi?” he murmured.
The business which had called me to town obliged me to part from him
as soon as the train entered the station, and in my dash for the street
I left his unwieldy figure laboring far behind me through the crowd on
the platform. Before we separated, however, I had learned that he was
returning to Dunstable by the four o'clock train, and had resolved to
despatch my business in time to travel home with him. When I reached
Wall Street I was received with the news that the man I had appointed
to meet was ill and detained in the country. My business was “off” and
I found myself with the rest of the day at my disposal. I had no
difficulty in deciding how to employ my time. I was at an age when, in
such contingencies, there is always a feminine alternative; and even
now I don't know how it was that, on my way to a certain hospitable
luncheon-table, I suddenly found myself in a cab which was carrying me
at full-speed to the Twenty-third Street ferry. It was not till I had
bought my ticket and seated myself in the varnished tunnel of the
ferry-boat that I was aware of having been diverted from my purpose by
an overmastering anxiety for Don Egidio. I rapidly calculated that he
had not more than an hour's advance on me, and that, allowing for my
greater agility and for the fact that I had a cab at my call, I was
likely to reach the cemetery in time to see him under shelter before
the gusts of sleet that were already sweeping across the river had
thickened to a snow-storm.
At the gates of the cemetery I began to take a less sanguine view of
my attempt. The commemorative anniversary had filled the silent avenues
with visitors, and I felt the futility of my quest as I tried to fix
the gatekeeper's attention on my delineation of a stout Italian priest
with a bad cough and a bunch of flowers tied up in a red cotton
handkerchief. The gate-keeper showed that delusive desire to oblige
that is certain to send its victims in the wrong direction; but I had
the presence of mind to go exactly contrary to his indication, and
thanks to this precaution I came, after half an hour's search, on the
figure of my poor parocco, kneeling on the wet ground in one of
the humblest by-ways of the great necropolis. The mound before which he
knelt was strewn with the spoils of Mr. Meriton's conservatories, and
on the weather-worn tablet at its head I read the inscription:
IL CONTE SIVIANO DA MILANO.
Super flumina Babylonis, illic sedimus et flevimus.
So engrossed was Don Egidio that for some moments I stood behind him
unobserved; and when he rose and faced me, grief had left so little
room for any minor emotion that he looked at me almost without
“Don Egidio,” I said, “I have a carriage waiting for you at the
gate. You must come home with me.”
He nodded quietly and I drew his hand through my arm.
He turned back to the grave. “One moment, my son,” he said. “It may
be for the last time.” He stood motionless, his eyes on the heaped-up
flowers which were already bruised and blackened by the cold. “To leave
him alone—after sixty years! But God is everywhere—” he murmured as I
led him away.
On the journey home he did not care to talk, and my chief concern
was to keep him wrapped in my greatcoat and to see that his bed was
made ready as soon as I had restored him to his lodgings. The
levatrice brought a quilted coverlet from her own room and hovered
over him as gently as though he had been of the sex to require her
services; while Agostino, at my summons, appeared with a bowl of hot
soup that was heralded down the street by a reviving waft of garlic. To
these ministrations I left the parocco, intending to call for
news of him the next evening; but an unexpected pressure of work kept
me late at my desk, and the following day some fresh obstacle delayed
On the third afternoon, as I was leaving the office, an agate-eyed
infant from the Point hailed me with a message from the doctor. The
parocco was worse and had asked for me. I jumped into the nearest
car and ten minutes later was running up the doctor's greasy stairs.
To my dismay I found Don Egidio's room cold and untenanted; but I
was reassured a moment later by the appearance of the levatrice,
who announced that she had transferred the blessed man to her own
apartment, where he could have the sunlight and a good bed to lie in.
There in fact he lay, weak but smiling, in a setting which contrasted
oddly enough with his own monastic surroundings: a cheerful grimy room,
hung with anecdotic chromos, photographs of lady-patients proudly
presenting their offspring to the camera, and innumerable Neapolitan
santolini decked out with shrivelled palm-leaves.
The levatrice whispered that the good man had the pleurisy,
and that, as she phrased it, he was nearing his last mile-stone. I saw
that he was in fact in a bad way, but his condition did not indicate
any pressing danger, and I had the presentiment that he would still, as
the saying is, put up a good fight. It was clear, however, that he knew
what turn the conflict must take, and the solemnity with which he
welcomed me showed that my summons was a part of that spiritual
strategy with which the Catholic opposes the surprise of death.
“My son,” he said, when the levatrice had left us, “I have a
favor to ask you. You found me yesterday bidding good-bye to my best
friend.” His cough interrupted him. “I have never told you,” he went
on, “the name of the family in which I was brought up. It was Siviano,
and that was the grave of the Count's eldest son, with whom I grew up
as a brother. For eighteen years he has lain in that strange ground—
in terra aliena—and when I die, there will be no one to care for
I saw what he waited for. “I will care for it, signor parocco.”
“I knew I should have your promise, my child; and what you promise
you keep. But my friend is a stranger to you—you are young and at your
age life is a mistress who kisses away sad memories. Why should you
remember the grave of a stranger? I cannot lay such a claim on you. But
I will tell you his story—and then I think that neither joy nor grief
will let you forget him; for when you rejoice you will remember how he
sorrowed; and when you sorrow the thought of him will be like a
friend's hand in yours.”
You tell me (Don Egidio began) that you know our little lake; and if
you have seen it you will understand why it always used to remind me of
the “garden enclosed” of the Canticles.
Hortus inclusus; columba mea in foraminibus petrae: the words
used to come back to me whenever I returned from a day's journey across
the mountains, and looking down saw the blue lake far below, hidden in
its hills like a happy secret in a stern heart. We were never envious
of the glory of the great lakes. They are like the show pictures that
some nobleman hangs in his public gallery; but our Iseo is the treasure
that he hides in his inner chamber.
You tell me you saw it in summer, when it looks up like a saint's
eye, reflecting the whole of heaven. It was then too that I first saw
it. My future friend, the old Count, had found me at work on one of his
fruit-farms up the valley, and hearing that I was ill-treated by my
step-father—a drunken pedlar from the Val Mastellone, whom my poor
mother a year or two earlier had come across at the fair of Lovere—he
had taken me home with him to Iseo. I used to serve mass in our
hill-village of Cerveno, and the village children called me “the little
priest” because when my work was done I often crept back to the church
to get away from my step-father's blows and curses. “I will make a real
priest of him,” the Count declared; and that afternoon, perched on the
box of his travelling-carriage, I was whirled away from the dark scenes
of my childhood into a world, where, as it seemed to me, every one was
as happy as an angel on a presepio.
I wonder if you remember the Count's villa? It lies on the shore of
the lake, facing the green knoll of Monte Isola, and overlooked by the
village of Siviano and by the old parish-church where I said mass for
fifteen happy years. The village hangs on a ledge of the mountain; but
the villa dips its foot in the lake, smiling at its reflection like a
bather lingering on the brink. What Paradise it seemed to me that day!
In our church up the valley there hung an old brown picture, with a
Saint Sabastian in the foreground; and behind him the most wonderful
palace, with terraced gardens adorned with statues and fountains, where
fine folk in resplendent dresses walked up and down without heeding the
blessed martyr's pangs. The Count's villa, with its terraces, its
roses, its marble steps descending to the lake, reminded me of that
palace; only instead of being inhabited by wicked people engrossed in
their selfish pleasures it was the home of the kindest friends that
ever took a poor lad by the hand.
The old Count was a widower when I first knew him. He had been twice
married, and his first wife had left him two children, a son and a
daughter. The eldest, Donna Marianna, was then a girl of twenty, who
kept her father's house and was a mother to the two lads. She was not
handsome or learned, and had no taste for the world; but she was like
the lavender-plant in a poor man's window—just a little gray flower,
but a sweetness that fills the whole house. Her brother, Count Roberto,
had been ailing from his birth, and was a studious lad with a
melancholy musing face such as you may see in some of Titian's
portraits of young men. He looked like an exiled prince dressed in
mourning. There was one child by the second marriage, Count Andrea, a
boy of my own age, handsome as a Saint George, but not as kind as the
others. No doubt, being younger, he was less able to understand why an
uncouth peasant lad should have been brought to his father's table; and
the others were so fearful of hurting my feelings that, but for his
teasing, I might never have mended my clumsy manners or learned how to
behave in the presence of my betters. Count Andrea was not sparing in
such lessons, and Count Roberto, in spite of his weak arms, chastised
his brother roundly when he thought the discipline had been too severe;
but for my part it seemed to me natural enough that such a godlike
being should lord it over a poor clodhopper like myself.
Well—I will not linger over the beginning of my new life for my
story has to do with its close. Only I should like to make you
understand what the change meant to me—an ignorant peasant lad, coming
from hard words and blows and a smoke-blackened hut in the hills to
that great house full of rare and beautiful things, and of beings who
seemed to me even more rare and beautiful. Do you wonder I was ready to
kiss the ground they trod, and would have given the last drop of my
blood to serve them?
In due course I was sent to the seminary at Lodi; and on holidays I
used to visit the family in Milan. Count Andrea was growing up to be
one of the handsomest young men imaginable, but a trifle wild; and the
old Count married him in haste to the daughter of a Venetian noble, who
brought as her dower a great estate in Istria. The Countess Gemma, as
this lady was called, was as light as thistledown and had an eye like a
baby's; but while she was cooing for the moon her pretty white hands
were always stealing toward something within reach that she had not
been meant to have. The old Count was not alert enough to follow these
manoeuvres; and the Countess hid her designs under a torrent of
guileless chatter, as pick-pockets wear long sleeves to conceal their
movements. Her only fault, he used to say, was that one of her aunts
had married an Austrian; and this event having taken place before she
was born he laughingly acquitted her of any direct share in it. She
confirmed his good opinion of her by giving her husband two sons; and
Roberto showing no inclination to marry, these boys naturally came to
be looked on as the heirs of the house.
Meanwhile I had finished my course of studies, and the old Count, on
my twenty-first birthday, had appointed me priest of the parish of
Siviano. It was the year of Count Andrea's marriage and there were
great festivities at the villa. Three years later the old Count died,
to the sorrow of his two eldest children. Donna Marianna and Count
Roberto closed their apartments in the palace at Milan and withdrew for
a year to Siviano. It was then that I first began to know my friend.
Before that I had loved him without understanding him; now I learned of
what metal he was made. His bookish tastes inclined him to a secluded
way of living; and his younger brother perhaps fancied that he would
not care to assume the charge of the estate. But if Andrea thought this
he was disappointed. Roberto resolutely took up the tradition of his
father's rule, and, as if conscious of lacking the old Count's easy way
with the peasants, made up for it by a redoubled zeal for their
welfare. I have seen him toil for days to adjust some trifling
difficulty that his father would have set right with a ready word; like
the sainted bishop who, when a beggar asked him for a penny, cried out:
“Alas, my brother, I have not a penny in my purse; but here are two
gold pieces, if they can be made to serve you instead!” We had many
conferences over the condition of his people, and he often sent me up
the valley to look into the needs of the peasantry on the fruit-farms.
No grievance was too trifling for him to consider it, no abuse too
deep-seated for him to root it out; and many an hour that other men of
his rank would have given to books or pleasure was devoted to adjusting
a quarrel about boundary-lines or to weighing the merits of a complaint
against the tax-collector. I often said that he was as much his
people's priest as I; and he smiled and answered that every landowner
was a king and that in old days the king was always a priest.
Donna Marianna was urgent with him to marry, but he always declared
that he had a family in his tenantry, and that, as for a wife, she had
never let him feel the want of one. He had that musing temper which
gives a man a name for coldness; though in fact he may all the while be
storing fuel for a great conflagration. But to me he whispered another
reason for not marrying. A man, he said, does not take wife and rejoice
while his mother is on her death-bed; and Italy, his mother, lay dying,
with the foreign vultures waiting to tear her apart.
You are too young to know anything of those days, my son; and how
can any one understand them who did not live through them? Italy lay
dying indeed; but Lombardy was her heart, and the heart still beat, and
sent the faint blood creeping to her cold extremities. Her torturers,
weary of their work, had allowed her to fall into a painless stupor;
but just as she was sinking from sleep to death, heaven sent Radetsky
to scourge her back to consciousness; and at the first sting of his
lash she sprang maimed and bleeding to her feet.
Ah, those days, those days, my son! Italy—Italy—was the word on
our lips; but the thought in our hearts was just Austria. We
clamored for liberty, unity, the franchise; but under our breath we
prayed only to smite the white-coats. Remove the beam from our eye, we
cried, and we shall see our salvation clearly enough! We priests in the
north were all liberals and worked with the nobles and the men of
letters. Gioberti was our breviary and his Holiness the new Pope was
soon to be the Tancred of our crusade. But meanwhile, mind you, all
this went on in silence, underground as it were, while on the surface
Lombardy still danced, feasted, married, and took office under the
Austrian. In the iron-mines up our valley there used to be certain
miners who stayed below ground for months at a time; and, like one of
these, Roberto remained buried in his purpose, while life went its way
overhead. Though I was not in his confidence I knew well enough where
his thoughts were, for he went among us with the eye of a lover, the
visionary look of one who hears a Voice. We all heard that Voice, to be
sure, mingling faintly with the other noises of life; but to Roberto it
was already as the roar of mighty waters, drowning every other sound
with its thunder.
On the surface, as I have said, things looked smooth enough. An
Austrian cardinal throned in Milan and an Austrian-hearted Pope ruled
in Rome. In Lombardy, Austria couched like a beast of prey, ready to
spring at our throats if we stirred or struggled. The Moderates, to
whose party Count Roberto belonged, talked of prudence, compromise, the
education of the masses; but if their words were a velvet sheath their
thought was a dagger. For many years, as you know, the Milanese had
maintained an outward show of friendliness with their rulers. The
nobles had accepted office under the vice-roy, and in the past there
had been frequent intermarriage between the two aristocracies. But now,
one by one, the great houses had closed their doors against official
society. Though some of the younger and more careless, those who must
dance and dine at any cost, still went to the palace and sat beside the
enemy at the opera, fashion was gradually taking sides against them,
and those who had once been laughed at as old fogeys were now applauded
as patriots. Among these, of course, was Count Roberto, who for several
years had refused to associate with the Austrians, and had silently
resented his easy-going brother's disregard of political distinctions.
Andrea and Gemma belonged to the moth tribe, who flock to the brightest
light; and Gemma's Istrian possessions, and her family's connection
with the Austrian nobility, gave them a pretext for fluttering about
the vice-regal candle. Roberto let them go their way, but his own
course was a tacit protest against their conduct. They were always
welcome at the palazzo Siviano; but he and Donna Marianna withdrew from
society in order to have an excuse for not showing themselves at the
Countess Gemma's entertainments. If Andrea and Gemma were aware of his
disapproval they were clever enough to ignore it; for the rich elder
brother who paid their debts and never meant to marry was too important
a person to be quarrelled with on political grounds. They seemed to
think that if he married it would be only to spite them; and they were
persuaded that their future depended on their giving him no cause to
take such reprisals. I shall never be more than a plain peasant at
heart and I have little natural skill in discerning hidden motives; but
the experience of the confessional gives every priest a certain insight
into the secret springs of action, and I often wondered that the
worldly wisdom of Andrea and Gemma did not help them to a clearer
reading of their brother's character. For my part I knew that, in
Roberto's heart, no great passion could spring from a mean motive; and
I had always thought that if he ever loved any woman as he loved Italy,
it must be from his country's hand that he received his bride. And so
it came about.
Have you ever noticed, on one of those still autumn days before a
storm, how here and there a yellow leaf will suddenly detach itself
from the bough and whirl through the air as though some warning of the
gale had reached it? So it was then in Lombardy. All round was the
silence of decay; but now and then a word, a look, a trivial incident,
fluttered ominously through the stillness. It was in '45. Only a year
earlier the glorious death of the Bandiera brothers had sent a long
shudder through Italy. In the Romagna, Renzi and his comrades had tried
to uphold by action the protest set forth in the “Manifesto of Rimini”;
and their failure had sowed the seed which d'Azeglio and Cavour were to
harvest. Everywhere the forces were silently gathering; and nowhere was
the hush more profound, the least reverberation more audible, than in
the streets of Milan.
It was Count Roberto's habit to attend early mass in the Cathedral;
and one morning, as he was standing in the aisle, a young girl passed
him with her father. Roberto knew the father, a beggarly Milanese of
the noble family of Intelvi, who had cut himself off from his class by
accepting an appointment in one of the government offices. As the two
went by he saw a group of Austrian officers looking after the girl, and
heard one of them say: “Such a choice morsel as that is too good for
slaves;” and another answer with a laugh: “Yes, it's a dish for the
The girl heard too. She was as white as a wind-flower and he saw the
words come out on her cheek like the red mark from a blow. She
whispered to her father, but he shook his head and drew her away
without so much as a glance at the Austrians. Roberto heard mass and
then hastened out and placed himself in the porch of the Cathedral. A
moment later the officers appeared, and they too stationed themselves
near the doorway. Presently the girl came out on her father's arm. Her
admirers stepped forward to greet Intelvi; and the cringing wretch
stood there exchanging compliments with them, while their insolent
stare devoured his daughter's beauty. She, poor thing, shook like a
leaf, and her eyes, in avoiding theirs, suddenly encountered Roberto's.
Her look was a wounded bird that flew to him for shelter. He carried it
away in his breast and its live warmth beat against his heart. He
thought that Italy had looked at him through those eyes; for love is
the wiliest of masqueraders and has a thousand disguises at his
Within a month Faustina Intelvi was his wife. Donna Marianna and I
rejoiced; for we knew he had chosen her because he loved her, and she
seemed to us almost worthy of such a choice. As for Count Andrea and
his wife, I leave you to guess what ingredients were mingled in the
kiss with which they welcomed the bride. They were all smiles at
Roberto's marriage, and had only words of praise for his wife. Donna
Marianna, who had sometimes taxed me with suspecting their motives,
rejoiced in this fresh proof of their magnanimity; but for my part I
could have wished to see them a little less kind. All such twilight
fears, however, vanished in the flush of my friend's happiness. Over
some natures love steals gradually, as the morning light widens across
a valley; but it had flashed on Roberto like the leap of dawn to a
snow-peak. He walked the world with the wondering step of a blind man
suddenly restored to sight; and once he said to me with a laugh: “Love
makes a Columbus of every one of us!”
And the Countess—? The Countess, my son, was eighteen, and her
husband was forty. Count Roberto had the heart of a poet, but he walked
with a limp and his skin was sallow. Youth plucks the fruit for its
color rather than its flavor; and first love does not serenade its
mistress on a church-organ. In Italy girls are married as land is sold;
if two estates adjoin two lives are united. As for the portionless
girl, she is a knick-knack that goes to the highest bidder. Faustina
was handed over to her purchaser as if she had been a picture for his
gallery; and the transaction doubtless seemed as natural to her as to
her parents. She walked to the altar like an Iphigenia; but pallor
becomes a bride, and it looks well for a daughter to weep on leaving
her mother. Perhaps it would have been different if she had guessed
that the threshold of her new home was carpeted with love and its four
corners hung with tender thoughts of her; but her husband was a silent
man, who never called attention to his treasures.
The great palace in Milan was a gloomy house for a girl to enter.
Roberto and his sister lived in it as if it had been a monastery, going
nowhere and receiving only those who labored for the Cause. To
Faustina, accustomed to the easy Austrian society, the Sunday evening
receptions at the palazzo Siviano must have seemed as dreary as a
scientific congress. It pleased Roberto to regard her as a victim of
barbarian insolence, an embodiment of his country desecrated by the
desire of the enemy; but though, like any handsome penniless girl,
Faustina had now and then been exposed to a free look or a familiar
word, I doubt if she connected such incidents with the political
condition of Italy. She knew, of course, that in marrying Siviano she
was entering a house closed against the Austrian. One of Siviano's
first cares had been to pension his father-in-law, with the stipulation
that Intelvi should resign his appointment and give up all relations
with the government; and the old hypocrite, only too glad to purchase
idleness on such terms, embraced the liberal cause with a zeal which
left his daughter no excuse for half-heartedness. But he found it less
easy than he had expected to recover a footing among his own people. In
spite of his patriotic bluster the Milanese held aloof from him; and
being the kind of man who must always take his glass in company he
gradually drifted back to his old associates. It was impossible to
forbid Faustina to visit her parents; and in their house she breathed
an air that was at least tolerant of Austria.
But I must not let you think that the young Countess appeared
ungrateful or unhappy. She was silent and shy, and it needed a more
enterprising temper than Roberto's to break down the barrier between
them. They seemed to talk to one another through a convent-grating,
rather than across a hearth; but if Roberto had asked more of her than
she could give, outwardly she was a model wife. She chose me at once as
her confessor and I watched over the first steps of her new life. Never
was younger sister tenderer to her elder than she to Donna Marianna;
never was young wife more mindful of her religious duties, kinder to
her dependents, more charitable to the poor; yet to be with her was
like living in a room with shuttered windows. She was always the caged
bird, the transplanted flower: for all Roberto's care she never bloomed
Donna Marianna was the first to speak of it. “The child needs more
light and air,” she said.
“Light? Air?” Roberto repeated. “Does she not go to mass every
morning? Does she not drive on the Corso every evening?”
Donna Marianna was not called clever, but her heart was wiser than
most women's heads.
“At our age, brother,” said she, “the windows of the mind face north
and look out on a landscape full of lengthening shadows. Faustina needs
another outlook. She is as pale as a hyacinth grown in a cellar.”
Roberto himself turned pale and I saw that she had uttered his own
“You want me to let her go to Gemma's!” he exclaimed.
“Let her go wherever there is a little careless laughter.”
“Laughter—now!” he cried, with a gesture toward the sombre line of
portraits above his head.
“Let her laugh while she can, my brother.”
That evening after dinner he called Faustina to him.
“My child,” he said, “go and put on your jewels. Your sister Gemma
gives a ball to-night and the carriage waits to take you there. I am
too much of a recluse to be at ease in such scenes, but I have sent
word to your father to go with you.”
Andrea and Gemma welcomed their young sister-in-law with effusion,
and from that time she was often in their company. Gemma forbade any
mention of politics in her drawing-room, and it was natural that
Faustina should be glad to escape from the solemn conclaves of the
palazzo Siviano to a house where life went as gaily as in that villa
above Florence where Boccaccio's careless story-tellers took refuge
from the plague. But meanwhile the political distemper was rapidly
spreading, and in spite of Gemma's Austrian affiliations it was no
longer possible for her to receive the enemy openly. It was whispered
that her door was still ajar to her old friends; but the rumor may have
risen from the fact that one of the Austrian cavalry officers stationed
at Milan was her own cousin, the son of the aunt on whose misalliance
the old Count had so often bantered her. No one could blame the
Countess Gemma for not turning her own flesh and blood out of doors;
and the social famine to which the officers of the garrison were
reduced made it natural that young Welkenstern should press the claims
All this must have reached Roberto's ears; but he made no sign and
his wife came and went as she pleased. When they returned the following
year to the old dusky villa at Siviano she was like the voice of a
brook in a twilight wood: one could not look at her without ransacking
the spring for new similes to paint her freshness. With Roberto it was
different. I found him older, more preoccupied and silent; but I
guessed that his preoccupations were political, for when his eye rested
on his wife it cleared like the lake when a cloud-shadow lifts from it.
Count Andrea and his wife occupied an adjoining villa; and during
the villeggiatura the two households lived almost as one family.
Roberto, however, was often absent in Milan, called thither on business
of which the nature was not hard to guess. Sometimes he brought back
guests to the villa; and on these occasions Faustina and Donna Marianna
went to Count Andrea's for the day. I have said that I was not in his
confidence; but he knew my sympathies were with the liberals and now
and then he let fall a word of the work going on underground. Meanwhile
the new Pope had been elected, and from Piedmont to Calabria we hailed
in him the Banner that was to lead our hosts to war.
So time passed and we reached the last months of '47. The villa on
Iseo had been closed since the end of August. Roberto had no great
liking for his gloomy palace in Milan, and it had been his habit to
spend nine months of the year at Siviano; but he was now too much
engrossed in his work to remain away from Milan, and his wife and
sister had joined him there as soon as the midsummer heat was over.
During the autumn he had called me once or twice to the city to consult
me on business connected with his fruit-farms; and in the course of our
talks he had sometimes let fall a hint of graver matters. It was in
July of that year that a troop of Croats had marched into Ferrara, with
muskets and cannon loaded. The lighted matches of their cannon had
fired the sleeping hate of Austria, and the whole country now echoed
the Lombard cry: “Out with the barbarian!” All talk of adjustment,
compromise, reorganization, shrivelled on lips that the live coal of
patriotism had touched. Italy for the Italians, and then—monarchy,
federation, republic, it mattered not what!
The oppressor's grip had tightened on our throats and the
clear-sighted saw well enough that Metternich's policy was to provoke a
rebellion and then crush it under the Croat heel. But it was too late
to cry prudence in Lombardy. With the first days of the new year the
tobacco riots had drawn blood in Milan. Soon afterward the Lions' Club
was closed, and edicts were issued forbidding the singing of Pio Nono's
hymn, the wearing of white and blue, the collecting of subscriptions
for the victims of the riots. To each prohibition Milan returned a
fresh defiance. The ladies of the nobility put on mourning for the
rioters who had been shot down by the soldiery. Half the members of the
Guardia Nobile resigned and Count Borromeo sent back his Golden Fleece
to the Emperor. Fresh regiments were continually pouring into Milan and
it was no secret that Radetsky was strengthening the fortifications.
Late in January several leading liberals were arrested and sent into
exile, and two weeks later martial law was proclaimed in Milan. At the
first arrests several members of the liberal party had hastily left
Milan, and I was not surprised to hear, a few days later, that orders
had been given to reopen the villa at Siviano. The Count and Countess
arrived there early in February.
It was seven months since I had seen the Countess, and I was struck
with the change in her appearance.
She was paler than ever, and her step had lost its lightness. Yet
she did not seem to share her husband's political anxieties; one would
have said that she was hardly aware of them. She seemed wrapped in a
veil of lassitude, like Iseo on a still gray morning, when dawn is
blood-red on the mountains but a mist blurs its reflection in the lake.
I felt as though her soul were slipping away from me, and longed to win
her back to my care; but she made her ill-health a pretext for not
coming to confession, and for the present I could only wait and carry
the thought of her to the altar. She had not been long at Siviano
before I discovered that this drooping mood was only one phase of her
humor. Now and then she flung back the cowl of melancholy and laughed
life in the eye; but next moment she was in shadow again, and her
muffled thoughts had given us the slip. She was like the lake on one of
those days when the wind blows twenty ways and every promontory holds a
gust in ambush.
Meanwhile there was a continual coming and going of messengers
between Siviano and the city. They came mostly at night, when the
household slept, and were away again with the last shadows; but the
news they brought stayed and widened, shining through every cranny of
the old house. The whole of Lombardy was up. From Pavia to Mantua, from
Como to Brescia, the streets ran blood like the arteries of one great
body. At Pavia and Padua the universities were closed. The frightened
vice-roy was preparing to withdraw from Milan to Verona, and Radetsky
continued to pour his men across the Alps, till a hundred thousand were
massed between the Piave and the Ticino. And now every eye was turned
to Turin. Ah, how we watched for the blue banner of Piedmont on the
mountains! Charles Albert was pledged to our cause; his whole people
had armed to rescue us, the streets echoed with avanti, Savoia!
and yet Savoy was silent and hung back. Each day was a life-time
strained to the cracking-point with hopes and disappointments. We
reckoned the hours by rumors, the very minutes by hearsay. Then
suddenly—ah, it was worth living through!—word came to us that Vienna
was in revolt. The points of the compass had shifted and our sun had
risen in the north. I shall never forget that day at the villa. Roberto
sent for me early, and I found him smiling and resolute, as becomes a
soldier on the eve of action. He had made all his preparations to leave
for Milan and was awaiting a summons from his party. The whole
household felt that great events impended, and Donna Marianna, awed and
tearful, had pleaded with her brother that they should all receive the
sacrament together the next morning. Roberto and his sister had been to
confession the previous day, but the Countess Faustina had again
excused herself. I did not see her while I was with the Count, but as I
left the house she met me in the laurel-walk. The morning was damp and
cold, and she had drawn a black scarf over her hair, and walked with a
listless dragging step; but at my approach she lifted her head quickly
and signed to me to follow her into one of the recesses of clipped
laurel that bordered the path.
“Don Egidio,” she said, “you have heard the news?”
“The Count goes to Milan to-morrow?”
“It seems probable, your excellency.”
“There will be fighting—we are on the eve of war, I mean?”
“We are in God's hands, your excellency.”
“In God's hands!” she murmured. Her eyes wandered and for a moment
we stood silent; then she drew a purse from her pocket. “I was
forgetting,” she exclaimed. “This is for that poor girl you spoke to me
about the other day—what was her name? The girl who met the Austrian
soldier at the fair at Peschiera—”
“Ah, Vannina,” I said; “but she is dead, your excellency.”
“Dead!” She turned white and the purse dropped from her hand. I
picked it up and held it out to her, but she put back my hand. “That is
for masses, then,” she said; and with that she moved away toward the
I walked on to the gate; but before I had reached it I heard her
step behind me.
“Don Egidio!” she called; and I turned back.
“You are coming to say mass in the chapel to-morrow morning?”
“That is the Count's wish.”
She wavered a moment. “I am not well enough to walk up to the
village this afternoon,” she said at length. “Will you come back later
and hear my confession here?”
“Willingly, your excellency.”
“Come at sunset then.” She looked at me gravely. “It is a long time
since I have been to confession,” she added.
“My child, the door of heaven is always unlatched.”
She made no answer and I went my way.
I returned to the villa a little before sunset, hoping for a few
words with Roberto. I felt with Faustina that we were on the eve of
war, and the uncertainty of the outlook made me treasure every moment
of my friend's company. I knew he had been busy all day, but hoped to
find that his preparations were ended and that he could spare me a half
hour. I was not disappointed; for the servant who met me asked me to
follow him to the Count's apartment. Roberto was sitting alone, with
his back to the door, at a table spread with maps and papers. He stood
up and turned an ashen face on me.
“Roberto!” I cried, as if we had been boys together.
He signed to me to be seated.
“Egidio,” he said suddenly, “my wife has sent for you to confess
“The Countess met me on my way home this morning and expressed a
wish to receive the sacrament to-morrow morning with you and Donna
Marianna, and I promised to return this afternoon to hear her
Roberto sat silent, staring before him as though he hardly heard. At
length he raised his head and began to speak.
“You have noticed lately that my wife has been ailing?” he asked.
“Every one must have seen that the Countess is not in her usual
health. She has seemed nervous, out of spirits—I have fancied that she
might be anxious about your excellency.”
He leaned across the table and laid his wasted hand on mine. “Call
me Roberto,” he said.
There was another pause before he went on. “Since I saw you this
morning,” he said slowly, “something horrible has happened. After you
left I sent for Andrea and Gemma to tell them the news from Vienna and
the probability of my being summoned to Milan before night. You know as
well as I that we have reached a crisis. There will be fighting within
twenty-four hours, if I know my people; and war may follow sooner than
we think. I felt it my duty to leave my affairs in Andrea's hands, and
to entrust my wife to his care. Don't look startled,” he added with a
faint smile. “No reasonable man goes on a journey without setting his
house in order; and if things take the turn I expect it may be some
months before you see me back at Siviano.—But it was not to hear this
that I sent for you.” He pushed his chair aside and walked up and down
the room with his short limping step. “My God!” he broke out wildly,
“how can I say it?—When Andrea had heard me, I saw him exchange a
glance with his wife, and she said with that infernal sweet voice of
hers, 'Yes, Andrea, it is our duty.'
“'Your duty?' I asked. 'What is your duty?'
“Andrea wetted his lips with his tongue and looked at her again; and
her look was like a blade in his hand.
“'Your wife has a lover,' he said.
“She caught my arm as I flung myself on him. He is ten times
stronger than I, but you remember how I made him howl for mercy in the
old days when he used to bully you.
“'Let me go,' I said to his wife. 'He must live to unsay it.'
“Andrea began to whimper. 'Oh, my poor brother, I would give my
heart's blood to unsay it!'
“'The secret has been killing us,' she chimed in.
“'The secret? Whose secret? How dare you—?'
“Gemma fell on her knees like a tragedy actress. 'Strike me—kill
me—it is I who am the offender! It was at my house that she met him—'
“'Franz Welkenstern—my cousin,' she wailed.
“I suppose I stood before them like a stunned ox, for they repeated
the name again and again, as if they were not sure of my having heard
it.—Not hear it!” he cried suddenly, dropping into a chair and hiding
his face in his hands. “Shall I ever on earth hear anything else
He sat a long time with his face hidden and I waited. My head was
like a great bronze bell with one thought for the clapper.
After a while he went on in a low deliberate voice, as though his
words were balancing themselves on the brink of madness. With strange
composure he repeated each detail of his brother's charges: the
meetings in the Countess Gemma's drawing-room, the innocent
friendliness of the two young people, the talk of mysterious visits to
a villa outside the Porta Ticinese, the ever-widening circle of scandal
that had spread about their names. At first, Andrea said, he and his
wife had refused to listen to the reports which reached them. Then,
when the talk became too loud, they had sent for Welkenstern,
remonstrated with him, implored him to exchange into another regiment;
but in vain. The young officer indignantly denied the reports and
declared that to leave his post at such a moment would be desertion.
With a laborious accuracy Roberto went on, detailing one by one each
incident of the hateful story, till suddenly he cried out, springing
from his chair—“And now to leave her with this lie unburied!”
His cry was like the lifting of a grave-stone from my breast. “You
must not leave her!” I exclaimed.
He shook his head. “I am pledged.”
“This is your first duty.”
“It would be any other man's; not an Italian's.”
I was silent: in those days the argument seemed unanswerable.
At length I said: “No harm can come to her while you are away. Donna
Marianna and I are here to watch over her. And when you come back—”
He looked at me gravely. “If I come back—”
“We are men, Egidio; we both know what is coming. Milan is up
already; and there is a rumor that Charles Albert is moving. This year
the spring rains will be red in Italy.”
“In your absence not a breath shall touch her!”
“And if I never come back to defend her? They hate her as hell
hates, Egidio!—They kept repeating, 'He is of her own age and youth
draws youth—.' She is in their way, Egidio!”
“Consider, my son. They do not love her, perhaps; but why should
they hate her at such cost? She has given you no child.”
“No child!” He paused. “But what if—? She has ailed lately!” he
cried, and broke off to grapple with the stabbing thought.
“Roberto! Roberto!” I adjured him.
He jumped up and gripped my arm.
“Egidio! You believe in her?”
“She's as pure as a lily on the altar!”
“Those eyes are wells of truth—and she has been like a daughter to
Marianna.—Egidio! do I look like an old man?”
“Quiet yourself, Roberto,” I entreated.
“Quiet myself? With this sting in my blood? A lover—and an Austrian
lover! Oh, Italy, Italy, my bride!”
“I stake my life on her truth,” I cried, “and who knows better than
I? Has her soul not lain before me like the bed of a clear stream?”
“And if what you saw there was only the reflection of your faith in
“My son, I am a priest, and the priest penetrates to the soul as the
angel passed through the walls of Peter's prison. I see the truth in
her heart as I see Christ in the host!”
“No, no, she is false!” he cried.
I sprang up terrified. “Roberto, be silent!”
He looked at me with a wild incredulous smile. “Poor simple man of
God!” he said.
“I would not exchange my simplicity for yours—the dupe of envy's
first malicious whisper!”
“Envy—you think that?”
“Is it questionable?”
“You would stake your life on it?”
“Your vows as a priest?”
“My vows—” I stopped and stared at him. He had risen and laid his
hand on my shoulder.
“You see now what I would be at,” he said quietly. “I must take your
“When my wife comes down. You understand me.”
“Ah, now you are quite mad!” I cried breaking away from him.
“Am I?” he returned, maintaining his strange composure. “Consider a
moment. She has not confessed to you before since our return from
He cut me short with a gesture. “Yet to-day she sends for you—”
“In order that she may receive the sacrament with you on the eve of
your first separation.”
“If that is her only reason her first words will clear her. I must
hear those words, Egidio!”
“You are quite mad,” I repeated.
“Strange,” he said slowly. “You stake your life on my wife's
innocence, yet you refuse me the only means of vindicating it!”
“I would give my life for any one of you—but what you ask is not
mine to give.”
“The priest first—the man afterward?” he sneered.
He measured me with a contemptuous eye. “We laymen are ready to give
the last shred of flesh from our bones, but you priests intend to keep
your cassocks whole.”
“I tell you my cassock is not mine,” I repeated.
“And, by God,” he cried, “you are right; for it's mine! Who put it
on your back but my father? What kept it there but my charity? Peasant!
beggar! Hear his holiness pontificate!” “Yes,” I said, “I was a peasant
and a beggar when your father found me; and if he had left me one I
might have been excused for putting my hand to any ugly job that my
betters required of me; but he made me a priest, and so set me above
all of you, and laid on me the charge of your souls as well as mine.”
He sat down shaken with dreadful tears. “Ah,” he broke out, “would
you have answered me thus when we were boys together, and I stood
between you and Andrea?”
“If God had given me the strength.”
“You call it strength to make a woman's soul your stepping-stone to
“Her soul is in my care, not yours, my son. She is safe with me.”
“She? But I? I go out to meet death, and leave a worse death behind
me!” He leaned over and clutched my arm. “It is not for myself I plead
but for her—for her, Egidio! Don't you see to what a hell you condemn
her if I don't come back? What chance has she against that slow
unsleeping hate? Their lies will fasten themselves to her and suck out
her life. You and Marianna are powerless against such enemies.”
“You leave her in God's hands, my son.”
“Easily said—but, ah, priest, if you were a man! What if their
poison works in me and I go to battle thinking that every Austrian
bullet may be sent by her lover's hand? What if I die not only to free
Italy but to free my wife as well?”
I laid my hand on his shoulder. “My son, I answer for her. Leave
your faith in her in my hands and I will keep it whole.”
He stared at me strangely. “And what if your own fail you?”
“In her? Never. I call every saint to witness!”
“And yet—and yet—ah, this is a blind,” he shouted; “you know all
and perjure yourself to spare me!”
At that, my son, I felt a knife in my breast. I looked at him in
anguish and his gaze was a wall of metal. Mine seemed to slip away from
it, like a clawless thing struggling up the sheer side of a precipice.
“You know all,” he repeated, “and you dare not let me hear her!”
“I dare not betray my trust.”
He waved the answer aside.
“Is this a time to quibble over church discipline? If you believed
in her you would save her at any cost!”
I said to myself, “Eternity can hold nothing worse than this for
me—” and clutched my resolve again like a cross to my bosom.
Just then there was a hand on the door and we heard Donna Marianna.
“Faustina has sent to know if the signar parocco is here.”
“He is here. Bid her come down to the chapel.” Roberta spoke
quietly, and closed the door on her so that she should not see his
face. We heard her patter away across the brick floor of the salone.
Roberto turned to me. “Egidio!” he said; and all at once I was no
more than a straw on the torrent of his will.
The chapel adjoined the room in which we sat. He opened the door,
and in the twilight I saw the light glimmering before the Virgin's
shrine and the old carved confessional standing like a cowled watcher
in its corner. But I saw it all in a dream; for nothing in heaven or
earth was real to me but the iron grip on my shoulder.
“Quick!” he said and drove me forward. I heard him shoot back the
bolt of the outer door and a moment later I stood alone in the garden.
The sun had set and the cold spring dusk was falling. Lights shone here
and there in the long front of the villa; the statues glimmered gray
among the thickets. Through the window-pane of the chapel I caught the
faint red gleam of the Virgin's lamp; but I turned my back on it and
* * * * *
All night I lay like a heretic on the fire. Before dawn there came a
call from the villa. The Count had received a second summons from Milan
and was to set out in an hour. I hurried down the cold dewy path to the
lake. All was new and hushed and strange as on the day of resurrection;
and in the dark twilight of the garden alleys the statues stared at me
like the shrouded dead.
In the salone, where the old Count's portrait hung, I found
the family assembled. Andrea and Gemma sat together, a little pinched,
I thought, but decent and self-contained, like mourners who expect to
inherit. Donna Marianna drooped near them, with something black over
her head and her face dim with weeping. Roberto received me calmly and
then turned to his sister.
“Go fetch my wife,” he said.
While she was gone there was silence. We could hear the cold drip of
the garden-fountain and the patter of rats in the wall. Andrea and his
wife stared out of window and Roberto sat in his father's carved seat
at the head of the long table. Then the door opened and Faustina
When I saw her I stopped breathing. She seemed no more than the
shell of herself, a hollow thing that grief has voided. Her eyes
returned our images like polished agate, but conveyed to her no sense
of our presence. Marianna led her to a seat, and she crossed her hands
and nailed her dull gaze on Roberto. I looked from one to another, and
in that spectral light it seemed to me that we were all souls come to
judgment and naked to each other as to God. As to my own wrongdoing, it
weighed on me no more than dust. The only feeling I had room for was
fear—a fear that seemed to fill my throat and lungs and bubble coldly
over my drowning head.
Suddenly Roberto began to speak. His voice was clear and steady, and
I clutched at his words to drag myself above the surface of my terror.
He touched on the charge that had been made against his wife—he did
not say by whom—the foul rumor that had made itself heard on the eve
of their first parting. Duty, he said, had sent him a double summons;
to fight for his country and for his wife. He must clear his wife's
name before he was worthy to draw sword for Italy. There was no time to
tame the slander before throttling it; he had to take the shortest way
to its throat. At this point he looked at me and my soul shook. Then he
turned to Andrea and Gemma.
“When you came to me with this rumor,” he said quietly, “you agreed
to consider the family honor satisfied if I could induce Don Egidio to
let me take his place and overhear my wife's confession, and if that
confession convinced me of her innocence. Was this the understanding?”
Andrea muttered something and Gemma tapped a sullen foot.
“After you had left,” Roberto continued, “I laid the case before Don
Egidio and threw myself on his mercy.” He looked at me fixedly. “So
strong was his faith in my wife's innocence that for her sake he agreed
to violate the sanctity of the confessional. I took his place.”
Marianna sobbed and crossed herself and a strange look flitted over
There was a moment's pause; then Roberto, rising, walked across the
room to his wife and took her by the hand.
“Your seat is beside me, Countess Siviano,” he said, and led her to
the empty chair by his own.
Gemma started to her feet, but her husband pulled her down again.
“Jesus! Mary!” We heard Donna Marianna moan.
Roberto raised his wife's hand to his lips. “You forgive me,” he
said, “the means I took to defend you?” And turning to Andrea he added
slowly: “I declare my wife innocent and my honor satisfied. You swear
to stand by my decision?”
What Andrea stammered out, what hissing serpents of speech Gemma's
clinched teeth bit back, I never knew—for my eyes were on Faustina,
and her face was a wonder to behold.
She had let herself be led across the room like a blind woman, and
had listened without change of feature to her husband's first words;
but as he ceased her frozen gaze broke and her whole body seemed to
melt against his breast. He put his arm out, but she slipped to his
feet and Marianna hastened forward to raise her up. At that moment we
heard the stroke of oars across the quiet water and saw the Count's
boat touch the landing-steps. Four strong oarsmen from Monte Isola were
to row him down to Iseo, to take horse for Milan, and his servant,
knapsack on shoulder, knocked warningly at the terrace window.
“No time to lose, excellency!” he cried.
Roberto turned and gripped my hand. “Pray for me,” he said low; and
with a brief gesture to the others ran down the terrace to the boat.
Marianna was bathing Faustina with happy tears.
“Look up, dear! Think how soon he will come back! And there is the
Andrea and Gemma had slunk away like ghosts at cock-crow, and a red
dawn stood over Milan.
* * * * *
If that sun rose red it set scarlet. It was the first of the Five
Days in Milan—the Five Glorious Days, as they are called. Roberto
reached the city just before the gates closed. So much we knew—little
more. We heard of him in the Broletto (whence he must have escaped when
the Austrians blew in the door) and in the Casa Vidiserti, with Casati,
Cattaneo and the rest; but after the barricading began we could trace
him only as having been seen here and there in the thick of the
fighting, or tending the wounded under Bertani's orders. His place, one
would have said, was in the council-chamber, with the soberer heads;
but that was an hour when every man gave his blood where it was most
needed, and Cernuschi, Dandolo, Anfossi, della Porta fought shoulder to
shoulder with students, artisans and peasants. Certain it is that he
was seen on the fifth day; for among the volunteers who swarmed after
Manara in his assault on the Porta Tosa was a servant of palazzo
Siviano; and this fellow swore he had seen his master charge with
Manara in the last assault—had watched him, sword in hand, press close
to the gates, and then, as they swung open before the victorious dash
of our men, had seen him drop and disappear in the inrushing tide of
peasants that almost swept the little company off its feet. After that
we heard nothing. There was savage work in Milan in those days, and
more than one well-known figure lay lost among the heaps of dead hacked
and disfeatured by Croat blades.
At the villa, we waited breathless. News came to us hour by hour:
the very wind seemed to carry it, and it was swept to us on the
incessant rush of the rain. On the twenty-third Radetsky had fled from
Milan, to face Venice rising in his path. On the twenty-fourth the
first Piedmontese had crossed the Ticino, and Charles Albert himself
was in Pavia on the twenty-ninth. The bells of Milan had carried the
word from Turin to Naples, from Genoa to Ancona, and the whole country
was pouring like a flood-tide into Lombardy. Heroes sprang up from the
bloody soil as thick as wheat after rain, and every day carried some
new name to us; but never the one for which we prayed and waited. Weeks
passed. We heard of Pastrengo, Goito, Rivoli; of Radetsky hemmed into
the Quadrilateral, and our troops closing in on him from Rome, Tuscany
and Venetia. Months passed—and we heard of Custozza. We saw Charles
Albert's broken forces flung back from the Mincio to the Oglio, from
the Oglio to the Adda. We followed the dreadful retreat from Milan, and
saw our rescuers dispersed like dust before the wind. But all the while
no word came to us of Roberto.
These were dark days in Lombardy; and nowhere darker than in the old
villa on Iseo. In September Donna Marianna and the young Countess put
on black, and Count Andrea and his wife followed their example. In
October the Countess gave birth to a daughter. Count Andrea then took
possession of the palazzo Siviano, and the two women remained at the
villa. I have no heart to tell you of the days that followed. Donna
Marianna wept and prayed incessantly, and it was long before the baby
could snatch a smile from her. As for the Countess Faustina, she went
among us like one of the statues in the garden. The child had a
wet-nurse from the village, and it was small wonder there was no milk
for it in that marble breast. I spent much of my time at the villa,
comforting Donna Marianna as best I could; but sometimes, in the long
winter evenings, when we three sat in the dimly-lit salone, with
the old Count's portrait overhead, and I looked up and saw the Countess
Faustina in the tall carved seat beside her husband's empty chair, my
spine grew chill and I felt a cold wind in my hair.
The end of it was that in the spring I went to see my bishop and
laid my sin before him. He was a saintly and merciful old man, and gave
me a patient hearing.
“You believed the lady innocent?” he asked when I had ended.
“Monsignore, on my soul!”
“You thought to avert a great calamity from the house to which you
owed more than your life?”
“It was my only thought.”
He laid his hand on my shoulder.
“Go home, my son. You shall learn my decision.”
Three months later I was ordered to resign my living and go to
America, where a priest was needed for the Italian mission church in
New York. I packed my possessions and set sail from Genoa. I knew no
more of America than any peasant up in the hills. I fully expected to
be speared by naked savages on landing; and for the first few months
after my arrival I wished at least once a day that such a blessed fate
had befallen me. But it is no part of my story to tell you what I
suffered in those early days. The Church had dealt with me mercifully,
as is her wont, and her punishment fell far below my deserts....
I had been some four years in New York, and no longer thought of
looking back from the plough, when one day word was brought me that an
Italian professor lay ill and had asked for a priest. There were many
Italian refugees in New York at that time, and the greater number,
being well-educated men, earned a living by teaching their language,
which was then included among the accomplishments of fashionable New
York. The messenger led me to a poor boarding-house and up to a small
bare room on the top floor. On the visiting-card nailed to the door I
read the name “De Roberti, Professor of Italian.” Inside, a gray-haired
haggard man tossed on the narrow bed. He turned a glazed eye on me as I
entered, and I recognized Roberto Siviano.
I steadied myself against the door-post and stood staring at him
without a word.
“What's the matter?” asked the doctor who was bending over the bed.
I stammered that the sick man was an old friend.
“He wouldn't know his oldest friend just now,” said the doctor. “The
fever's on him; but it will go down toward sunset.”
I sat down at the head of the bed and took Roberto's hand in mine.
“Is he going to die?” I asked.
“I don't believe so; but he wants nursing.”
“I will nurse him.”
The doctor nodded and went out. I sat in the little room, with
Roberto's burning hand in mine. Gradually his skin cooled, the fingers
grew quiet, and the flush faded from his sallow cheek-bones. Toward
dusk he looked up at me and smiled.
“Egidio,” he said quietly.
I administered the sacrament, which he received with the most
fervent devotion; then he fell into a deep sleep.
During the weeks that followed I had no time to ask myself the
meaning of it all. My one business was to keep him alive if I could. I
fought the fever day and night, and at length it yielded. For the most
part he raved or lay unconscious; but now and then he knew me for a
moment, and whispered “Egidio” with a look of peace.
I had stolen many hours from my duties to nurse him; and as soon as
the danger was past I had to go back to my parish work. Then it was
that I began to ask myself what had brought him to America; but I dared
not face the answer.
On the fourth day I snatched a moment from my work and climbed to
his room. I found him sitting propped against his pillows, weak as a
child but clear-eyed and quiet. I ran forward, but his look stopped me.
“Signor parocco,” he said, “the doctor tells me that I owe my
life to your nursing, and I have to thank you for the kindness you have
shown to a friendless stranger.”
“A stranger?” I gasped.
He looked at me steadily. “I am not aware that we have met before,”
For a moment I thought the fever was on him; but a second glance
convinced me that he was master of himself.
“Roberto!” I cried, trembling.
“You have the advantage of me,” he said civilly. “But my name is
Roberti, not Roberto.”
The floor swam under me and I had to lean against the wall.
“You are not Count Roberto Siviano of Milan?”
“I am Tommaso de Roberti, professor of Italian, from Modena.”
“And you have never seen me before?”
“Never that I know of.”
“Were you never at Siviano, on the lake of Iseo?” I faltered.
He said calmly: “I am unacquainted with that part of Italy.”
My heart grew cold and I was silent.
“You mistook me for a friend, I suppose?” he added.
“Yes,” I cried, “I mistook you for a friend;” and with that I fell
on my knees by his bed and cried like a child.
Suddenly I felt a touch on my shoulder. “Egidio,” said he in a
broken voice, “look up.”
I raised my eyes, and there was his old smile above me, and we clung
to each other without a word. Presently, however, he drew back, and put
me quietly aside.
“Sit over there, Egidio. My bones are like water and I am not good
for much talking yet.”
“Let us wait, Roberto. Sleep now—we can talk tomorrow.”
“No. What I have to say must be said at once.” He examined me
thoughtfully. “You have a parish here in New York?”
“And my work keeps me here. I have pupils. It is too late to make a
He continued to look at me calmly. “It would be difficult for me,”
he explained, “to find employment in a new place.”
“But why should you leave here?”
“I shall have to,” he returned deliberately, “if you persist in
recognizing in me your former friend Count Siviano.”
He lifted his hand. “Egidio,” he said, “I am alone here, and without
friends. The companionship, the sympathy of my parish priest would be a
consolation in this strange city; but it must not be the companionship
of the parocco of Siviano. You understand?”
“Roberto,” I cried, “it is too dreadful to understand!”
“Be a man, Egidio,” said he with a touch of impatience. “The choice
lies with you, and you must make it now. If you are willing to ask no
questions, to name no names, to make no allusions to the past, let us
live as friends together, in God's name! If not, as soon as my legs can
carry me I must be off again. The world is wide, luckily—but why
should we be parted?”
I was on my knees at his side in an instant. “We must never be
parted!” I cried. “Do as you will with me. Give me your orders and I
obey—have I not always obeyed you?”
I felt his hand close sharply on mine. “Egidio!” he admonished me.
“No—no—I shall remember. I shall say nothing—”
“Think nothing,” I said with a last effort.
“God bless you!” he answered.
My son, for eight years I kept my word to him. We met daily almost,
we ate and walked and talked together, we lived like David and
Jonathan—but without so much as a glance at the past. How he had
escaped from Milan—how he had reached New York—I never knew. We
talked often of Italy's liberation—as what Italians would not?—but
never touched on his share in the work. Once only a word slipped from
him; and that was when one day he asked me how it was that I had been
sent to America. The blood rushed to my face, and before I could answer
he had raised a silencing hand.
“I see,” he said; “it was your penance too.”
During the first years he had plenty of work to do, but he lived so
frugally that I guessed he had some secret use for his earnings. It was
easy to conjecture what it was. All over the world Italian exiles were
toiling and saving to further the great cause. He had political friends
in New York, and sometimes he went to other cities to attend meetings
and make addresses. His zeal never slackened; and but for me he would
often have gone hungry that some shivering patriot might dine. I was
with him heart and soul, but I had the parish on my shoulders, and
perhaps my long experience of men had made me a little less credulous
than Christian charity requires; for I could have sworn that some of
the heroes who hung on him had never had a whiff of Austrian blood, and
would have fed out of the same trough with the white-coats if there had
been polenta enough to go round. Happily my friend had no such doubts.
He believed in the patriots as devoutly as in the cause; and if some of
his hard-earned dollars travelled no farther than the nearest
wine-cellar or cigar-shop, he never suspected the course they took.
His health was never the same after the fever; and by and by he
began to lose his pupils, and the patriots cooled off as his pockets
fell in. Toward the end I took him to live in my shabby attic. He had
grown weak and had a troublesome cough, and he spent the greater part
of his days indoors. Cruel days they must have been to him, but he made
no sign, and always welcomed me with a cheerful word. When his pupils
dropped off, and his health made it difficult for him to pick up work
outside, he set up a letter-writer's sign, and used to earn a few
pennies by serving as amanuensis to my poor parishioners; but it went
against him to take their money, and half the time he did the work for
nothing. I knew it was hard for him to live on charity, as he called
it, and I used to find what jobs I could for him among my friends the
negozianti, who would send him letters to copy, accounts to make up
and what not; but we were all poor together, and the master had licked
the platter before the dog got it.
So lived that just man, my son; and so, after eight years of exile,
he died one day in my arms. God had let him live long enough to see
Solferino and Villa-franca; and was perhaps never more merciful than in
sparing him Monte Rotondo and Mentana. But these are things of which it
does not become me to speak. The new Italy does not wear the face of
our visions; but it is written that God shall know His own, and it
cannot be that He shall misread the hearts of those who dreamed of
fashioning her in His image.
As for my friend, he is at peace, I doubt not; and his just life and
holy death intercede for me, who sinned for his sake alone.