An Evening With
The room was filled with a blue haze of tobacco smoke, and I had made
all of it, for Callender, it seemed to me, had foresworn most of his old
habits. He used not once to lie back languidly in a lounging-chair,
neither smoking, nor talking, nor drinking punch, when a chum came to
see him. Indeed, after the first effervescence of our meeting, natural
after a separation of four years, had subsided, I found such a different
Tom Callender from the one who had wrung my hand in parting on the deck
of the Marius, that I had indulged in sundry speculations, and I
studied him attentively beneath half-closed lids, as I apparently
watched the white rings from my cigar melt into the air.
Where, precisely, was the change? It was hard to say. The long, thin
figure was nerveless in its poses; the slender brown hand that had had
a characteristic vigor, lying listlessly open on the arm of his chair,
no longer looked capable of a tense, muscular grasp of life; the
slightly elongated oval of the face, with its complexion and hair like
the Japanese, was scarcely more hollowed or lined than before, but it
had lost that expression of expectation, which is one of the distinctive
marks of youth in the face. He had been politely attentive to my
experiences in Rio Janeiro, with which I have no doubt I bored him
unutterably, but when I asked about old friends, or social life, he
lapsed into the indifference of the man for whom such things no longer
exist: reminiscence did not interest him. I asked him about the plays
now on at the leading theatres—he had not seen them; about the new
prima donna—he had not heard her. Finally I broke a long silence by
picking up a book from the table at my side. "Worth reading?" I asked,
nibbling at it here and there. (It was a novel, with "Thirty-fifth
thousand" in larger letters than the title on the top of its yellow
cover.) As I spoke, a peculiar name, the name of a character on the leaf
I was just turning, brought suddenly to my mind one of the few women I
had known who bore it.
"By the way, Callender," I said animatedly, striking down the page that
had recalled her with my finger, "What has become of your little
blue-stocking friend? Don't you know—her book was just out when I
sailed,—'On Mount Latmos,'—'On Latmos Top,'—what was it?"
A dark flush burnt its way up to the black, straight hair.
"She is—dead," Callender replied, with a hopeless pause before the
"Dead!" I echoed, unable to associate the idea of death with the
incarnation of life that I remembered.
Callender did not reply. He rose, with the slight limp so familiar to me
in the past, but which I noticed now as if I had never seen it before,
and went to a desk at the far end of the spacious room. I smoked on
meditatively. It was odd, I thought, that chance had guided me straight
as an arrow, to the cause of the change in my friend. One might have
known, though, that he, the misogynist of our class, would have come to
grief, sooner or later, over a woman. They always end by that.
I heard him unlocking a drawer, turning over some papers, and presently
he limped back to his chair, bringing a heavy envelope. He took from it
a photograph, which he gave to me in silence. Yes, that was she, yet not
the same—oh! not the same—as when I had seen her the few times four
years ago. These solemn eyes were looking into the eyes of death, and
the face, frightfully emaciated, yet so young and brave, sunk in the
rich masses of hair. It was too pitiful.
Callender had taken a package of manuscript from the envelope; the long
supple fingers were busy among the leaves, and he bent his head to see
the numbered pages. At last, having arranged them in order, he leaned
back again in his chair, holding the papers tenderly in his hand. There
was nothing of the poseur in Callender; his childlike simplicity of
manner invested him with a touching dignity even though he owned himself
vanquished, where another man would have faced life more bravely, nor
have held it entirely worthless because of one narrow grave which shut
forever from the light a woman who had never loved him.
"I think you would like to read this," he said at length. "And I would
like to have you. To her, it cannot matter. I wanted to marry her,
toward the end, so I could take care of her.—She was poor, you
know—but she would not consent. She left me this, without any message.
I knew her so well, she thought it would be easier for me to forget
her; but now I shall never forget her."
He gave me the little package of leaves, whose rough edges showed that
they had been hurriedly cut from a binding, and then he fell again into
his old lethargic attitude. I am not an imaginative man, but a faint
odor from the paper brought like a flash to my mind the brilliant,
mutinous face, radiant with color and life, that I had seen last across
a sea of white shoulders and black coats at a reception a few weeks
before I went to South America. The writing was the hurried, illegible
hand of an author. I thought grimly that I had probably chanced upon a
much weakened and Americanized Marie Bashkirtseff, for though I had only
been home a few weeks, it goes without saying that I had read a part at
least of the ill-fated young Russian's dairy. Yet in the presence of the
grief-stricken face, outlined against the dark leather chair-back, I
felt a pang of shame at a thought bordering on levity. There was indeed
one likeness: both were the unexpurgated records of hearts laid
ruthlessly bare; both were instinct with life: in every line one could
feel the warm blood throbbing.
A few of the pages of this journal, which I copy word for word from the
manuscript lying before me, I give the reader. Call the dead writer an
egotist, if you will: wonder at Callender's love for this self-centred
nature; I think she was an artist, and as an artist, her experience is
of value to art.
"I have just torn out some pages written a year or so ago. A diary of
the introspective type is doubtless a pandering to egotism, but I have
always detested that affectation which ignores the fact that each person
is to him or herself the most interesting soul—yes, and body—in the
universe, and now there is nothing of such infinite importance to me as
this. I fear I shall never write again. All thought or plan, in prose
or verse, seems dead in me: broken images and pictures that are wildly
disconnected float through my tired mind. I have driven myself all day.
I have been seated at my desk, with my pen in my hand, looking blankly
at the paper. No words, no words! Just before my first book went to
press, I overworked. I was in a fever; poems, similes, ran through my
excited hours. I could not write fast enough. In that mental debauch I
believe that I squandered the energy of years, and now I can conceive no
more. If I could only sleep, perhaps I could write. Oh! long, long
nights, crowded with the fearful acceleration of trival thoughts crushed
one upon another, crowding so fast. 'My God,' I pray, 'Let me sleep,
only sleep,' and conquered by this abject need, this weariness
unutterable, I am fain to believe that this gift, common to the brute
and slave, is better than anything my mind can gain for me, and there
is nothing so entirely desirable in all the world as a few hours'
What a dream came to me this Autumn! The doctor had given me an opiate.
At first it had no effect. I tossed as restlessly as before on my hard
bed, sighing vainly for the sleep that refused to come. The noises in
the street vexed me. The light from an opposite window disturbed my
tired eyes. At last, I slept. Oh! the glow, the radiance unspeakable of
that dream! I was in a long, low room. A fire leaped on the hearth, as
though it bore a charmed life. Upon the floor was laid a crimson carpet.
There were great piles of crimson mattresses and cushions about the
room, the ceiling was covered with a canopy of red silk, drawn to a
centre, whence depended a lantern, filling the room with a soft rosy
twilight. The mantel was a bank of blood-red roses, and they also
bloomed and died a fragant death in great bowls set here and there about
the floor. And in the centre of this glowing, amorous room was a great
couch of red cushions, and I saw myself there, in the scented warmth,
one elbow plunged in the cushions, with a certain expectation in my
face. It was very quiet. Far down an echoing, distant corridor I heard
footsteps, and I smiled and pushed the roses about with my foot, for I
was waiting, and I knew that soft foot-fall drawing nearer, nearer. My
heart filled the silence with its beating. I looked about the room. Was
it ready? Yes, all was ready. The very flowers were waiting to be
crushed by his careless feet. The fire had died to a steady ardent glow.
How close the steps were drawing! A moment more—
I opened my eyes suddenly. I heard a door shut loudly, the sounds of
boots and clothing flung hurriedly down came through the thin partition,
and I knew that the lodger in the next room had tramped heavily up the
stairs, and was hastening to throw his clumsy body on the bed.
Elsie was breathing softly by my side, and my incredulous, disappointed
eyes saw only the reflection on the ceiling, like two great tears of
light, and I slept no more until the morning.
I read this, and it sounds coherent. Perhaps I have been needlessly
alarmed, perhaps the fear that is so terrible that I have not written it
lest it seems to grow real, is only a foolish fear. I must write, I must
make myself a name. To bring him that, in lieu of dower, would be
something; but poor, unknown, and of an obscure birth.—Will I not have
earned a short lease of happiness, if I achieve fame for his sake?
I will barter all for one week,—no, one day—of happiness. I do not
wish to grow old, to outlive my illusions. Only a short respite from
cares and sorrow, a brief time of flowers, and music, and love, and
laughter, and ecstatic tears, and intense emotion. I can so well
understand the slave in the glorious "Un nuit de Cléopatre," who
resolved a life-time into twelve hours, and having no more left to
desire, drank death as calmly as it were a draught of wine.
January, 9, 18—.
"Elsie, my poor little sister, is ill. Only a childish ailment, but I
have not written for three days, and she has lain, feeble and languid,
in my arms, and I have told her stories. We have moved again, and here,
thank God! the furniture, and the carpets and the paper do not swear at
each other so violently. I say, thank God! with due reverence. I am
truly and devoutly grateful for the release from that sense of unrest
caused by the twisted red and green arabesques on the floor. Here all is
sombre. The walls are a dull shade, the carpet neutral, the furniture
the faded brocatelle dedicate to boarding-houses; but it is not so bad.
The golden light lies along the floor, and is reflected on my 'Birth of
Venus' on the wall. Above my desk is a small shelf of my best-loved
books,—loved now; perhaps I shall destroy them next year, having
absorbed all their nutriment, even as now, 'I burn all I used to
worship. I worship all I used to burn.' Under the bookrack is a copy of
Severn's last sketch of Keats, the vanquished, dying head of the slain
poet, more brutally killed than the world counts. The eyes are closed
and sunken; the mouth, once so prone to kiss, droops pitifully at the
corners; the beautiful temples are hollow. Underneath I have written the
words of de Vigny, the words as true as death, if as bitter: 'Hope is
the greatest of all our follies.' I need no other curb to my mad dreams
"It has been cold, so cold to-day. I left Elsie asleep, and went to the
office of the —— Magazine with an article I wrote a month or so ago.
The truth is, Elsie should have a doctor, and I have no money to pay
him. I was almost sure Mr. —— would take this. He was out, and I
waited a long time in vain, and finally walked back in the wind and
blowing dust, chilled to the heart. I wished to write in the afternoon,
but I was so beaten with the weather that I threw myself on the bed by
Elsie to try to collect my thoughts. It was no use. I found my eyes and
mind wandering vaguely about the room. I was staring at the paper frieze
of garlanded roses, and the ugly, dingy paper below it of a hideous
lilac. What fiend ever suggested to my landlady the combination of
crimson roses and purplish paper? How I hate my environments! Poverty
and sybaritism go as ill together as roses and purple paper, but I have
always been too much given up to the gratification of the eyes and of
the senses. How well I remember in my first girlhood, how I used to fill
bowls with roses, lilacs and heliotrope, in the country June, and
putting beneath my cheek a little pillow, whose crimson silk gave me
delight, shut my eyes in my rough, unfinished little room, and the vales
of Persia and the scented glades of the tropics were mine to wander
through. Yes, a dreamer's Paradise, for I was only sixteen then, and
untroubled by any thoughts of Love; yet sometimes Its shadow would enter
and vaguely perplex me, a strange shape, waiting always beyond, in the
midst of my glowing gardens, and I sighed with a prescient pain. How
have I known Love since those days? As yet it has brought me but two
things—Sorrow and Expectation. In that fragmentary love-time that was
mine, I well remember one evening after he left me, that I threw myself
on the floor, and kissing the place where his dear foot had been set, I
prayed, still prostrate, the prayer I have so often prayed since. I
begged of God to let me barter for seven perfect days of love, all the
years that He had, perhaps, allotted to me. But my hot lips plead in
vain against the dusty floor, and it was to be that instead; he was to
leave me while love was still incomplete. But I know we shall meet
again, and I wait. He loved me, and does not that make waiting easy?
"My book must, it shall succeed. It shall wipe out the stain on my
birth, it shall be enough to the world that I am what I am. To-night I
shall write half the night. No, there is Elsie. To-morrow, then, all
day. I shall not move from the desk. Oh! I have pierced my heart, to
write with its blood. It is an ink that ought to survive through the
centuries. Yet if it achieve my purpose for me, I care not if it is
forgotten in ten years.
"February 12, 18—.
"I have seen him to-day, the only man I have ever loved. He loves me no
more. It is ended. What did I say? I do not remember. I knew it all,
the moment he entered the room. When he went, I said: 'We shall never
meet again, I think. Kiss me on the lips once, as in the old days.'
"He looked down at me curiously. He hesitated a moment—then he bent and
kissed my mouth. The room whirled about me. Strange sounds were in my
ears; for one moment he loved me again. I threw myself in a chair, and
buried my face in my hands. I cried out to God in my desperate misery.
It was over, and he was gone—he who begged once for a kiss, as a slave
might beg for bread!
"And now in all this world are but two good things left me, my Art and
little Elsie. Oh! my book, I clung to it in that bitter moment, as the
work which should save my reason to live for the child."
"February 18, 18—
"I have written continuously. I drugged myself with writing as if it
were chloral, against the stabs of memory that assaulted me. There will
be chapters I shall never read, those that I wrote as I sat by my desk
the day after the 12th, the cold, gray light pouring in on me, sometimes
holding my pen suspended while I was having a mortal struggle with my
will, forcing back thoughts, driving my mind to work as though it were
a brute. I conquered through the day. My work did not suffer; as I read
it over I saw that I had never written better, in spite of certain pains
that almost stopped my heart. But at night! ah! if I had had a room to
myself, would I have given myself one moment of rest that night? Would I
not have written on until I slept from fatigue?
"But that could not be. Elsie moved restlessly; the light disturbed her.
For a moment I almost hated her plaintive little voice, God forgive me!
and then I undressed and slipped into bed, and so quietly I lay beside
her, that she thought I slept. I breathed evenly and lightly—I ought to
be able to countefeit sleep by this, I have done it times enough.
"Well, it is of no avail to re-live that night. I thought there was no
hope left in me, but I have been cheating myself, it seems, for it
fought hard, every inch of the ground, for survival that night, though
now I am sure it will never lift its head again.
"And now, as I said, there is nothing left in all earth for me but my
sister and my Art. "Poëte, prends ton luth."
"May 10, 18—.
"My book is a success, that is, the world calls it a success; but in all
the years to come he will never love me again, therefore to me it is a
failure, having failed of its purpose, its reason for being. What does
he care for the fame it has brought me, since he no longer loves me?
"Had it only come a year ago!
"I went to see Mrs. —— to-day, and I started to hear his voice in the
hall, as I sat waiting in the dim drawing-room. He was just going out,
having been upstairs, Mrs. —— said, to look at the children's fernery;
and I, as I heard that voice, I could have gone out and thrown myself at
his feet across the threshold, those cadences so stole into my heart and
head, bringing the old madness back. I had one of the sharp attacks of
pain at the heart, and Mrs —— sent me home in the carriage. Elsie is
in the country, well and strong. I am so glad. These illnesses frighten
her sorely. I am perhaps growing thin and weak, but I cannot die, alas!
Let the beauty go. I no longer care to preserve it.
"When I reached home, I lay in the twilight for some time on the sofa,
not having strength to get up to my room. There is, there can be, no
possible help or hope in my trouble, no fruition shall follow the
promises Spring time held for me.
"Oh, God! if there be a God! but why do I wish to pray? Have I not
prayed before, and not only no answer was vouchsafed, but no sensation
of a listening Power, a loving Presence, assuaged my pain. Yet, human or
brute, we must make our groans, though futile, when we are in the grasp
of a mortal agony.
"June 20, 18—.
"I have been thankless. I have been faithless. Let me bless God's name,
for He has heard my prayer at last, and he will let me die—very soon.
"It was so cool in the doctor's office this morning. The vines about the
window made lovely shadows on the white curtains and the floor. The
light was soft. His round, ruddy German face was almost pale as he
stammered out technical terms, in reply to my questions.
"'Oh, Mees!' he said, throwing up his fat hands. 'You ask so mooch! Den,
if I frighten you, you faints, you gets worse. No, no, I will not have
"But at last, reassured by my calmness, he told me, as I leaned on the
back of his high office chair. A month more, or perhaps two. Not very
much pain, he thought. But certain. And I, faithless, have believed the
good God did not listen when I prayed!
"Little Elsie is safe and happy with our aunt. Already she seldom talks
of me. Yet I have had her, my care, my charge, for almost six years.
Children soon forget. There will be a little money for her education,
and Aunt wishes to adopt her. There is nothing that I need grieve to
"If he had still loved me, if it were circumstance that kept our lives
apart, I could send for him then; but to die in arms that held me only
out of compassion—glad to relinquish their burden as soon as might
be—no, I must go without seeing his face again.
"And to-night I can only feel the great gladness that it is to be.
Suppose I knew that there were twenty-five more such years as these!
Suppose it should be a mistake, and I had to live!
* * * * *
I looked from these last written words to the photograph. My eyes were
blurred, but Tom only leaned back, motionless as before, apathetic as
"How long—" I began, tentatively.
"She lived a week after that," Callender replied, in his dry,
"And the man?"
"He was my brother," replied Callender. "She never saw him again. He
married Miss Stockweis about a month after."
I thought of Ralph Callender, cold, correct, slightly bored, as I have
always known him, of Miss Stockweis, a dull, purse-proud blonde.
I seized the poor little photograph and raised it reverently to my lips.
"Forgive me, Tom," I said, slightly abashed. (I never could control my
impulses.) "The best thing you can do is to thank God for her death.
Think of a woman like that—"
"Thank you," said Tom wearily. "Yes, I am glad."
And then I grasped the thin brown hand in my own for a moment, and felt
it respond faintly to my clasp.
We sat as quietly as before in the cheerful, smoke-filled room, I
puffing slightly at my Ajar, and Tom's sleepless eyes fixed absently on
the wall; and then presently I went to the window and watched the dull
gray dawn creep over the still sleeping city.
"Well, here's another day," I said with a sigh, turning back to the
room. "I must go, old fellow."
There was no reply. Startled, I bent over the chair, and looked in the
face, scarcely more ivory-white than before. And then I saw that for
Callender there would be no more days.