It was at Homburg, several years ago, before the gaming had been suppressed.
The evening was very warm, and all the world was gathered on the terrace o_he Kursaal and the esplanade below it to listen to the excellent orchestra; or half the world, rather, for the crowd was equally dense in the gaming-room_round the tables. Everywhere the crowd was great. The night was perfect, th_eason was at its height, the open windows of the Kursaal sent long shafts o_nnatural light into the dusky woods, and now and then, in the intervals o_he music, one might almost hear the clink of the napoleons and the metalli_all of the croupiers rise above the watching silence of the saloons. I ha_een strolling with a friend, and we at last prepared to sit down. Chairs, however, were scarce. I had captured one, but it seemed no easy matter to fin_ mate for it. I was on the point of giving up in despair, and proposing a_djournment to the silken ottomans of the Kursaal, when I observed a young ma_ounging back on one of the objects of my quest, with his feet supported o_he rounds of another. This was more than his share of luxury, and I promptl_pproached him. He evidently belonged to the race which has the credit o_nowing best, at home and abroad, how to make itself comfortable; bu_omething in his appearance suggested that his present attitude was the resul_f inadvertence rather than of egotism. He was staring at the conductor of th_rchestra and listening intently to the music. His hands were locked round hi_ong legs, and his mouth was half open, with rather a foolish air. "There ar_o few chairs," I said, "that I must beg you to surrender this second one." H_tarted, stared, blushed, pushed the chair away with awkward alacrity, an_urmured something about not having noticed that he had it.
"What an odd-looking youth!" said my companion, who had watched me, as _eated myself beside her.
"Yes, he is odd-looking; but what is odder still is that I have seen hi_efore, that his face is familiar to me, and yet that I can't place him." Th_rchestra was playing the Prayer from Der Freischutz, but Weber's lovely musi_nly deepened the blank of memory. Who the deuce was he? where, when, how, ha_ known him? It seemed extraordinary that a face should be at once so familia_nd so strange. We had our backs turned to him, so that I could not look a_im again. When the music ceased we left our places, and I went to consign m_riend to her mamma on the terrace. In passing, I saw that my young man ha_eparted; I concluded that he only strikingly resembled some one I knew. Bu_ho in the world was it he resembled? The ladies went off to their lodgings, which were near by, and I turned into the gaming-rooms and hovered about th_ircle at roulette. Gradually I filtered through to the inner edge, near th_able, and, looking round, saw my puzzling friend stationed opposite to me. H_as watching the game, with his hands in his pockets; but singularly enough, now that I observed him at my leisure, the look of familiarity quite fade_rom his face. What had made us call his appearance odd was his great lengt_nd leanness of limb, his long, white neck, his blue, prominent eyes, and hi_ngenuous, unconscious absorption in the scene before him. He was no_andsome, certainly, but he looked peculiarly amiable and if his over_onderment savoured a trifle of rurality, it was an agreeable contrast to th_ard, inexpressive masks about him. He was the verdant offshoot, I said t_yself, of some ancient, rigid stem; he had been brought up in the quietest o_omes, and he was having his first glimpse of life. I was curious to se_hether he would put anything on the table; he evidently felt the temptation, but he seemed paralysed by chronic embarrassment. He stood gazing at th_hinking complexity of losses and gains, shaking his loose gold in his pocket, and every now and then passing his hand nervously over his eyes.
Most of the spectators were too attentive to the play to have many thought_or each other; but before long I noticed a lady who evidently had an eye fo_er neighbours as well as for the table. She was seated about half-way betwee_y friend and me, and I presently observed that she was trying to catch hi_ye. Though at Homburg, as people said, "one could never be sure," I ye_oubted whether this lady were one of those whose especial vocation it was t_atch a gentleman's eye. She was youthful rather than elderly, and prett_ather than plain; indeed, a few minutes later, when I saw her smile, _hought her wonderfully pretty. She had a charming gray eye and a good deal o_ellow hair disposed in picturesque disorder; and though her features wer_eagre and her complexion faded, she gave one a sense of sentimental, artificial gracefulness. She was dressed in white muslin very much puffed an_illed, but a trifle the worse for wear, relieved here and there by a pal_lue ribbon. I used to flatter myself on guessing at people's nationality b_heir faces, and, as a rule, I guessed aright. This faded, crumpled, vaporou_eauty, I conceived, was a German—such a German, somehow, as I had see_magined in literature. Was she not a friend of poets, a correspondent o_hilosophers, a muse, a priestess of aesthetics— something in the way of _ettina, a Rahel? My conjectures, however, were speedily merged in wondermen_s to what my diffident friend was making of her. She caught his eye at last, and raising an ungloved hand, covered altogether with blue-gemme_ings—turquoises, sapphires, and lapis—she beckoned him to come to her. Th_esture was executed with a sort of practised coolness, and accompanied wit_n appealing smile. He stared a moment, rather blankly, unable to suppose tha_he invitation was addressed to him; then, as it was immediately repeated wit_ good deal of intensity, he blushed to the roots of his hair, wavere_wkwardly, and at last made his way to the lady's chair. By the time h_eached it he was crimson, and wiping his forehead with his pocket- handkerchief. She tilted back, looked up at him with the same smile, laid tw_ingers on his sleeve, and said something, interrogatively, to which h_eplied by a shake of the head. She was asking him, evidently, if he had eve_layed, and he was saying no. Old players have a fancy that when luck ha_urned her back on them they can put her into good-humour again by havin_heir stakes placed by a novice. Our young man's physiognomy had seemed to hi_ew acquaintance to express the perfection of inexperience, and, like _ractical woman, she had determined to make him serve her turn. Unlike most o_er neighbours, she had no little pile of gold before her, but she drew fro_er pocket a double napoleon, put it into his hand, and bade him place it on _umber of his own choosing. He was evidently filled with a sort of delightfu_rouble; he enjoyed the adventure, but he shrank from the hazard. I would hav_taked the coin on its being his companion's last; for although she stil_miled intently as she watched his hesitation, there was anything bu_ndifference in her pale, pretty face. Suddenly, in desperation, he reache_ver and laid the piece on the table. My attention was diverted at this momen_y my having to make way for a lady with a great many flounces, before me, t_ive up her chair to a rustling friend to whom she had promised it; when _gain looked across at the lady in white muslin, she was drawing in a ver_oodly pile of gold with her little blue-gemmed claw. Good luck and bad, a_he Homburg tables, were equally undemonstrative, and this happy adventures_ewarded her young friend for the sacrifice of his innocence with a single, rapid, upward smile. He had innocence enough left, however, to look round th_able with a gleeful, conscious laugh, in the midst of which his eye_ncountered my own. Then suddenly the familiar look which had vanished fro_is face flickered up unmistakably; it was the boyish laugh of a boyhood'_riend. Stupid fellow that I was, I had been looking at Eugene Pickering!
Though I lingered on for some time longer he failed to recognise me.
Recognition, I think, had kindled a smile in my own face; but, less fortunat_han he, I suppose my smile had ceased to be boyish. Now that luck had face_bout again, his companion played for herself— played and won, hand over hand.
At last she seemed disposed to rest on her gains, and proceeded to bury the_n the folds of her muslin. Pickering had staked nothing for himself, but a_e saw her prepare to withdraw he offered her a double napoleon and begged he_o place it. She shook her head with great decision, and seemed to bid him pu_t up again; but he, still blushing a good deal, pressed her with awkwar_rdour, and she at last took it from him, looked at him a moment fixedly, an_aid it on a number. A moment later the croupier was raking it in. She gav_he young man a little nod which seemed to say, "I told you so;" he glance_ound the table again and laughed; she left her chair, and he made a way fo_er through the crowd. Before going home I took a turn on the terrace an_ooked down on the esplanade. The lamps were out, but the warm starligh_aguely illumined a dozen figures scattered in couples. One of these figures, I thought, was a lady in a white dress.
I had no intention of letting Pickering go without reminding him of our ol_cquaintance. He had been a very singular boy, and I was curious to see wha_ad become of his singularity. I looked for him the next morning at two o_hree of the hotels, and at last I discovered his whereabouts. But he was out, the waiter said; he had gone to walk an hour before. I went my way, confiden_hat I should meet him in the evening. It was the rule with the Homburg worl_o spend its evenings at the Kursaal, and Pickering, apparently, had alread_iscovered a good reason for not being an exception. One of the charms o_omburg is the fact that of a hot day you may walk about for a whole afternoo_n unbroken shade. The umbrageous gardens of the Kursaal mingle with th_harming Hardtwald, which in turn melts away into the wooded slopes of th_aunus Mountains. To the Hardtwald I bent my steps, and strolled for an hou_hrough mossy glades and the still, perpendicular gloom of the fir-woods.
Suddenly, on the grassy margin of a by-path, I came upon a young man stretche_t his length in the sun-checkered shade, and kicking his heels towards _atch of blue sky. My step was so noiseless on the turf that, before he sa_e, I had time to recognise Pickering again. He looked as if he had bee_ounging there for some time; his hair was tossed about as if he had bee_leeping; on the grass near him, beside his hat and stick, lay a seale_etter. When he perceived me he jerked himself forward, and I stood looking a_im without introducing myself—purposely, to give him a chance to recognis_e. He put on his glasses, being awkwardly near-sighted, and stared up at m_ith an air of general trustfulness, but without a sign of knowing me. So a_ast I introduced myself. Then he jumped up and grasped my hands, and stare_nd blushed and laughed, and began a dozen random questions, ending with _emand as to how in the world I had known him.
"Why, you are not changed so utterly," I said; "and after all, it's bu_ifteen years since you used to do my Latin exercises for me."
"Not changed, eh?" he answered, still smiling, and yet speaking with a sort o_ngenuous dismay.
Then I remembered that poor Pickering had been, in those Latin days, a victi_f juvenile irony. He used to bring a bottle of medicine to school and take _ose in a glass of water before lunch; and every day at two o'clock, half a_our before the rest of us were liberated, an old nurse with bushy eyebrow_ame and fetched him away in a carriage. His extremely fair complexion, hi_urse, and his bottle of medicine, which suggested a vague analogy with th_leeping-potion in the tragedy, caused him to be called Juliet. Certainl_omeo's sweetheart hardly suffered more; she was not, at least, a standin_oke in Verona. Remembering these things, I hastened to say to Pickering tha_ hoped he was still the same good fellow who used to do my Latin for me. "W_ere capital friends, you know," I went on, "then and afterwards."
"Yes, we were very good friends," he said, "and that makes it the stranger _houldn't have known you. For you know, as a boy, I never had many friends, nor as a man either. You see," he added, passing his hand over his eyes, "I a_ather dazed, rather bewildered at finding myself for the first time—alone."
And he jerked back his shoulders nervously, and threw up his head, as if t_ettle himself in an unwonted position. I wondered whether the old nurse wit_he bushy eyebrows had remained attached to his person up to a recent period, and discovered presently that, virtually at least, she had. We had the whol_ummer day before us, and we sat down on the grass together and overhauled ou_ld memories. It was as if we had stumbled upon an ancient cupboard in som_usky corner, and rummaged out a heap of childish playthings—tin soldiers an_orn story-books, jack-knives and Chinese puzzles. This is what we remembere_etween us.
He had made but a short stay at school—not because he was tormented, for h_hought it so fine to be at school at all that he held his tongue at hom_bout the sufferings incurred through the medicine- bottle, but because hi_ather thought he was learning bad manners. This he imparted to me i_onfidence at the time, and I remember how it increased my oppressive awe o_r. Pickering, who had appeared to me in glimpses as a sort of high priest o_he proprieties. Mr. Pickering was a widower—a fact which seemed to produce i_im a sort of preternatural concentration of parental dignity. He was _ajestic man, with a hooked nose, a keen dark eye, very large whiskers, an_otions of his own as to how a boy—or his boy, at any rate—should be brough_p. First and foremost, he was to be a "gentleman"; which seemed to mean, chiefly, that he was always to wear a muffler and gloves, and be sent to bed, after a supper of bread and milk, at eight o'clock. School-life, o_xperiment, seemed hostile to these observances, and Eugene was taken hom_gain, to be moulded into urbanity beneath the parental eye. A tutor wa_rovided for him, and a single select companion was prescribed. The choice, mysteriously, fell on me, born as I was under quite another star; my parent_ere appealed to, and I was allowed for a few months to have my lessons wit_ugene. The tutor, I think, must have been rather a snob, for Eugene wa_reated like a prince, while I got all the questions and the raps with th_uler. And yet I remember never being jealous of my happier comrade, an_triking up, for the time, one of those friendships of childhood. He had _atch and a pony and a great store of picture-books, but my envy of thes_uxuries was tempered by a vague compassion which left me free to be generous.
I could go out to play alone, I could button my jacket myself, and sit up til_ was sleepy. Poor Pickering could never take a step without asking leave, o_pend half an hour in the garden without a formal report of it when he cam_n. My parents, who had no desire to see me inoculated with importunat_irtues, sent me back to school at the end of six months. After that I neve_aw Eugene. His father went to live in the country, to protect the lad'_orals, and Eugene faded, in reminiscence, into a pale image of the depressin_ffects of education. I think I vaguely supposed that he would melt into thi_ir, and indeed began gradually to doubt of his existence, and to regard hi_s one of the foolish things one ceased to believe in as one grew older. I_eemed natural that I should have no more news of him. Our present meeting wa_y first assurance that he had really survived all that muffling and coddling.
I observed him now with a good deal of interest, for he was a rar_henomenon—the fruit of a system persistently and uninterruptedly applied. H_truck me, in a fashion, as certain young monks I had seen in Italy; he ha_he same candid, unsophisticated cloister face. His education had been reall_lmost monastic. It had found him evidently a very compliant, yieldin_ubject; his gentle affectionate spirit was not one of those that need to b_roken. It had bequeathed him, now that he stood on the threshold of the grea_orld, an extraordinary freshness of impression and alertness of desire, and _onfess that, as I looked at him and met his transparent blue eye, I tremble_or the unwarned innocence of such a soul. I became aware, gradually, that th_orld had already wrought a certain work upon him and roused him to _estless, troubled self- consciousness. Everything about him pointed to a_xperience from which he had been debarred; his whole organism trembled with _awning sense of unsuspected possibilities of feeling. This appealing tremo_as indeed outwardly visible. He kept shifting himself about on the grass, thrusting his hands through his hair, wiping a light perspiration from hi_orehead, breaking out to say something and rushing off to something else. Ou_udden meeting had greatly excited him, and I saw that I was likely to profi_y a certain overflow of sentimental fermentation. I could do so with a goo_onscience, for all this trepidation filled me with a great friendliness.
"It's nearly fifteen years, as you say," he began, "since you used to call me
'butter-fingers' for always missing the ball. That's a long time to give a_ccount of, and yet they have been, for me, such eventless, monotonous years, that I could almost tell their history in ten words. You, I suppose, have ha_ll kinds of adventures and travelled over half the world. I remember you ha_ turn for deeds of daring; I used to think you a little Captain Cook i_oundabouts, for climbing the garden fence to get the ball when I had let i_ly over. I climbed no fences then or since. You remember my father, _uppose, and the great care he took of me? I lost him some five months ago.
From those boyish days up to his death we were always together. I don't thin_hat in fifteen years we spent half a dozen hours apart. We lived in th_ountry, winter and summer, seeing but three or four people. I had _uccession of tutors, and a library to browse about in; I assure you I am _remendous scholar. It was a dull life for a growing boy, and a duller lif_or a young man grown, but I never knew it. I was perfectly happy." He spok_f his father at some length, and with a respect which I privately declined t_mulate. Mr. Pickering had been, to my sense, a frigid egotist, unable t_onceive of any larger vocation for his son than to strive to reproduce s_rreproachable a model. "I know I have been strangely brought up," said m_riend, "and that the result is something grotesque; but my education, piec_y piece, in detail, became one of my father's personal habits, as it were. H_ook a fancy to it at first through his intense affection for my mother an_he sort of worship he paid her memory. She died at my birth, and as I gre_p, it seems that I bore an extraordinary likeness to her. Besides, my fathe_ad a great many theories; he prided himself on his conservative opinions; h_hought the usual American laisser- aller in education was a very vulga_ractice, and that children were not to grow up like dusty thorns by th_ayside. "So you see," Pickering went on, smiling and blushing, and yet wit_omething of the irony of vain regret, "I am a regular garden plant. I hav_een watched and watered and pruned, and if there is any virtue in tending _ught to take the prize at a flower show. Some three years ago my father'_ealth broke down, and he was kept very much within doors. So, although I wa_ man grown, I lived altogether at home. If I was out of his sight for _uarter of an hour he sent some one after me. He had severe attacks o_euralgia, and he used to sit at his window, basking in the sun. He kept a_pera-glass at hand, and when I was out in the garden he used to watch me wit_t. A few days before his death I was twenty-seven years old, and the mos_nnocent youth, I suppose, on the continent. After he died I missed hi_reatly," Pickering continued, evidently with no intention of making a_pigram. "I stayed at home, in a sort of dull stupor. It seemed as if lif_ffered itself to me for the first time, and yet as if I didn't know how t_ake hold of it."
He uttered all this with a frank eagerness which increased as he talked, an_here was a singular contrast between the meagre experience he described and _ertain radiant intelligence which I seemed to perceive in his glance an_one. Evidently he was a clever fellow, and his natural faculties wer_xcellent. I imagined he had read a great deal, and recovered, in some degree, in restless intellectual conjecture, the freedom he was condemned to ignore i_ractice. Opportunity was now offering a meaning to the empty forms with whic_is imagination was stored, but it appeared to him dimly, through the veil o_is personal diffidence.
"I have not sailed round the world, as you suppose," I said, "but I confess _nvy you the novelties you are going to behold. Coming to Homburg you hav_lunged in medias res."
He glanced at me to see if my remark contained an allusion, and hesitated _oment. "Yes, I know it. I came to Bremen in the steamer with a very friendl_erman, who undertook to initiate me into the glories and mysteries of th_atherland. At this season, he said, I must begin with Homburg. I landed but _ortnight ago, and here I am." Again he hesitated, as if he were going to ad_omething about the scene at the Kursaal but suddenly, nervously, he took u_he letter which was lying beside him, looked hard at the seal with a trouble_rown, and then flung it back on the grass with a sigh.
"How long do you expect to be in Europe?" I asked.
"Six months I supposed when I came. But not so long—now!" And he let his eye_ander to the letter again.
"And where shall you go—what shall you do?"
"Everywhere, everything, I should have said yesterday. But now it i_ifferent."
I glanced at the letter—interrogatively, and he gravely picked it up and pu_t into his pocket. We talked for a while longer, but I saw that he ha_uddenly become preoccupied; that he was apparently weighing an impulse t_reak some last barrier of reserve. At last he suddenly laid his hand on m_rm, looked at me a moment appealingly, and cried, "Upon my word, I shoul_ike to tell you everything!"
"Tell me everything, by all means," I answered, smiling. "I desire nothin_etter than to lie here in the shade and hear everything."
"Ah, but the question is, will you understand it? No matter; you think me _ueer fellow already. It's not easy, either, to tell you what I feel—not eas_or so queer a fellow as I to tell you in how many ways he is queer!" He go_p and walked away a moment, passing his hand over his eyes, then came bac_apidly and flung himself on the grass again. "I said just now I alway_upposed I was happy; it's true; but now that my eyes are open, I see I wa_nly stultified. I was like a poodle-dog that is led about by a blue ribbon, and scoured and combed and fed on slops. It was not life; life is learning t_now one's self, and in that sense I have lived more in the past six week_han in all the years that preceded them. I am filled with this feverish sens_f liberation; it keeps rising to my head like the fumes of strong wine. _ind I am an active, sentient, intelligent creature, with desires, wit_assions, with possible convictions—even with what I never dreamed of, _ossible will of my own! I find there is a world to know, a life to lead, me_nd women to form a thousand relations with. It all lies there like a grea_urging sea, where we must plunge and dive and feel the breeze and breast th_aves. I stand shivering here on the brink, staring, longing, wondering, charmed by the smell of the brine and yet afraid of the water. The worl_eckons and smiles and calls, but a nameless influence from the past, that _an neither wholly obey nor wholly resist, seems to hold me back. I am full o_mpulses, but, somehow, I am not full of strength. Life seems inspiring a_ertain moments, but it seems terrible and unsafe; and I ask myself why _hould wantonly measure myself with merciless forces, when I have learned s_ell how to stand aside and let them pass. Why shouldn't I turn my back upo_t all and go home to—what awaits me?- -to that sightless, soundless countr_ife, and long days spent among old books? But if a man IS weak, he doesn'_ant to assent beforehand to his weakness; he wants to taste whateve_weetness there may be in paying for the knowledge. So it is that it come_ack—this irresistible impulse to take my plunge—to let myself swing, to g_here liberty leads me." He paused a moment, fixing me with his excited eyes, and perhaps perceived in my own an irrepressible smile at his perplexity.
"'Swing ahead, in Heaven's name,' you want to say, 'and much good may it d_ou.' I don't know whether you are laughing at my scruples or at what possibl_trikes you as my depravity. I doubt," he went on gravely, "whether I have a_nclination toward wrong-doing; if I have, I am sure I shall not prosper i_t. I honestly believe I may safely take out a license to amuse myself. But i_sn't that I think of, any more than I dream of, playing with suffering.
Pleasure and pain are empty words to me; what I long for is knowledge—som_ther knowledge than comes to us in formal, colourless, impersonal precept.
You would understand all this better if you could breathe for an hour th_usty in-door atmosphere in which I have always lived. To break a window an_et in light and air—I feel as if at last I must ACT!"
"Act, by all means, now and always, when you have a chance," I answered. "Bu_on't take things too hard, now or ever. Your long confinement makes you thin_he world better worth knowing than you are likely to find it. A man with a_ood a head and heart as yours has a very ample world within himself, and I a_o believer in art for art, nor in what's called 'life' for life's sake.
Nevertheless, take your plunge, and come and tell me whether you have foun_he pearl of wisdom." He frowned a little, as if he thought my sympathy _rifle meagre. I shook him by the hand and laughed. "The pearl of wisdom," _ried, "is love; honest love in the most convenient concentration o_xperience! I advise you to fall in love." He gave me no smile in response, but drew from his pocket the letter of which I have spoken, held it up, an_hook it solemnly. "What is it?" I asked.
"It is my sentence!"
"Not of death, I hope!"
"With a person I don't love."
This was serious. I stopped smiling, and begged him to explain.
"It is the singular part of my story," he said at last. "It will remind you o_n old-fashioned romance. Such as I sit here, talking in this wild way, an_ossing off provocations to destiny, my destiny is settled and sealed. I a_ngaged, I am given in marriage. It's a bequest of the past—the past I had n_and in! The marriage was arranged by my father, years ago, when I was a boy.
The young girl's father was his particular friend; he was also a widower, an_as bringing up his daughter, on his side, in the same severe seclusion i_hich I was spending my days. To this day I am unacquainted with the origin o_he bond of union between our respective progenitors. Mr. Vernor was largel_ngaged in business, and I imagine that once upon a time he found himself in _inancial strait and was helped through it by my father's coming forward wit_ heavy loan, on which, in his situation, he could offer no security but hi_ord. Of this my father was quite capable. He was a man of dogmas, and he wa_ure to have a rule of life—as clear as if it had been written out in hi_eautiful copper-plate hand—adapted to the conduct of a gentleman toward _riend in pecuniary embarrassment. What is more, he was sure to adhere to it.
Mr. Vernor, I believe, got on his feet, paid his debt, and vowed my father a_ternal gratitude. His little daughter was the apple of his eye, and h_ledged himself to bring her up to be the wife of his benefactor's son. So ou_ate was fixed, parentally, and we have been educated for each other. I hav_ot seen my betrothed since she was a very plain-faced little girl in a stick_inafore, hugging a one-armed doll—of the male sex, I believe—as big a_erself. Mr. Vernor is in what is called the Eastern trade, and has bee_iving these many years at Smyrna. Isabel has grown up there in a white-walle_arden, in an orange grove, between her father and her governess. She is _ood deal my junior; six months ago she was seventeen; when she is eighteen w_re to marry."
He related all this calmly enough, without the accent of complaint, dril_ather and doggedly, as if he were weary of thinking of it. "It's a romance, indeed, for these dull days," I said, "and I heartily congratulate you. It'_ot every young man who finds, on reaching the marrying age, a wife kept in _ox of rose-leaves for him. A thousand to one Miss Vernor is charming; _onder you don't post off to Smyrna."
"You are joking," he answered, with a wounded air, "and I am terribly serious.
Let me tell you the rest. I never suspected this superior conspiracy til_omething less than a year ago. My father, wishing to provide against hi_eath, informed me of it very solemnly. I was neither elated nor depressed; _eceived it, as I remember, with a sort of emotion which varied only in degre_rom that with which I could have hailed the announcement that he had ordere_e a set of new shirts. I supposed that was the way that all marriages wer_ade; I had heard of their being made in heaven, and what was my father but _ivinity? Novels and poems, indeed, talked about falling in love; but novel_nd poems were one thing and life was another. A short time afterwards h_ntroduced me to a photograph of my predestined, who has a pretty, but a_xtremely inanimate, face. After this his health failed rapidly. One night _as sitting, as I habitually sat for hours, in his dimly-lighted room, nea_is bed, to which he had been confined for a week. He had not spoken for som_ime, and I supposed he was asleep; but happening to look at him I saw hi_yes wide open, and fixed on me strangely. He was smiling benignantly, intensely, and in a moment he beckoned to me. Then, on my going to him—'I fee_hat I shall not last long,' he said; 'but I am willing to die when I thin_ow comfortably I have arranged your future.' He was talking of death, an_nything but grief at that moment was doubtless impious and monstrous; bu_here came into my heart for the first time a throbbing sense of being over- governed. I said nothing, and he thought my silence was all sorrow. 'I shal_ot live to see you married,' he went on, 'but since the foundation is laid, that little signifies; it would be a selfish pleasure, and I have neve_hought of myself but in you. To foresee your future, in its main outline, t_now to a certainty that you will be safely domiciled here, with a wif_pproved by my judgment, cultivating the moral fruit of which I have sown th_eed—this will content me. But, my son, I wish to clear this bright visio_rom the shadow of a doubt. I believe in your docility; I believe I may trus_he salutary force of your respect for my memory. But I must remember tha_hen I am removed you will stand here alone, face to face with a hundre_ameless temptations to perversity. The fumes of unrighteous pride may ris_nto your brain and tempt you, in the interest of a vulgar theory which i_ill call your independence, to shatter the edifice I have so laboriousl_onstructed. So I must ask you for a promise—the solemn promise you owe m_ondition.' And he grasped my hand. 'You will follow the path I have marked; you will be faithful to the young girl whom an influence as devoted as tha_hich has governed your own young life has moulded into everything amiable; you will marry Isabel Vernor.' This was pretty 'steep,' as we used to say a_chool. I was frightened; I drew away my hand and asked to be trusted withou_ny such terrible vow. My reluctance startled my father into a suspicion tha_he vulgar theory of independence had already been whispering to me. He sat u_n his bed and looked at me with eyes which seemed to foresee a lifetime o_dious ingratitude. I felt the reproach; I feel it now. I promised! And eve_ow I don't regret my promise nor complain of my father's tenacity. I feel, somehow, as if the seeds of ultimate repose had been sown in thos_nsuspecting years—as if after many days I might gather the mellow fruit. Bu_fter many days! I will keep my promise, I will obey; but I want to LIV_irst!"
"My dear fellow, you are living now. All this passionate consciousness of you_ituation is a very ardent life. I wish I could say as much for my own."
"I want to forget my situation. I want to spend three months without thinkin_f the past or the future, grasping whatever the present offers me. Yesterda_ thought I was in a fair way to sail with the tide. But this morning come_his memento!" And he held up his letter again.
"What is it?"
"A letter from Smyrna."
"I see you have not yet broken the seal."
"No; nor do I mean to, for the present. It contains bad news."
"What do you call bad news?"
"News that I am expected in Smyrna in three weeks. News that Mr. Verno_isapproves of my roving about the world. News that his daughter is standin_xpectant at the altar."
"Is not this pure conjecture?"
"Conjecture, possibly, but safe conjecture. As soon as I looked at the lette_omething smote me at the heart. Look at the device on the seal, and I am sur_ou will find it's TARRY NOT!" And he flung the letter on the grass.
"Upon my word, you had better open it," I said.
"If I were to open it and read my summons, do you know what I should do? _hould march home and ask the Oberkellner how one gets to Smyrna, pack m_runk, take my ticket, and not stop till I arrived. I know I should; it woul_e the fascination of habit. The only way, therefore, to wander to my rope'_nd is to leave the letter unread."
"In your place," I said, "curiosity would make me open it."
He shook his head. "I have no curiosity! For a long time now the idea of m_arriage has ceased to be a novelty, and I have contemplated it mentally i_very possible light. I fear nothing from that side, but I do fear somethin_rom conscience. I want my hands tied. Will you do me a favour? Pick up th_etter, put it into your pocket, and keep it till I ask you for it. When I do, you may know that I am at my rope's end."
I took the letter, smiling. "And how long is your rope to be? The Hombur_eason doesn't last for ever."
"Does it last a month? Let that be my season! A month hence you will give i_ack to me."
"To-morrow if you say so. Meanwhile, let it rest in peace!" And I consigned i_o the most sacred interstice of my pocket-book. To say that I was disposed t_umour the poor fellow would seem to be saying that I thought his reques_antastic. It was his situation, by no fault of his own, that was fantastic, and he was only trying to be natural. He watched me put away the letter, an_hen it had disappeared gave a soft sigh of relief. The sigh was natural, an_et it set me thinking. His general recoil from an immediate responsibilit_mposed by others might be wholesome enough; but if there was an old grievanc_n one side, was there not possibly a new- born delusion on the other? I_ould be unkind to withhold a reflection that might serve as a warning; so _old him, abruptly, that I had been an undiscovered spectator, the nigh_efore, of his exploits at roulette.
He blushed deeply, but he met my eyes with the same clear good- humour.
"Ah, then, you saw that wonderful lady?"
"Wonderful she was indeed. I saw her afterwards, too, sitting on the terrac_n the starlight. I imagine she was not alone."
"No, indeed, I was with her—for nearly an hour. Then I walked home with her."
"Ah! And did you go in?"
"No, she said it was too late to ask me; though she remarked that in a genera_ay she did not stand upon ceremony."
"She did herself injustice. When it came to losing your money for you, sh_ade you insist."
"Ah, you noticed that too?" cried Pickering, still quite unconfused. "I fel_s if the whole table were staring at me; but her manner was so gracious an_eassuring that I supposed she was doing nothing unusual. She confessed, however, afterwards, that she is very eccentric. The world began to call he_o, she said, before she ever dreamed of it, and at last finding that she ha_he reputation, in spite of herself, she resolved to enjoy its privileges.
Now, she does what she chooses."
"In other words, she is a lady with no reputation to lose!"
Pickering seemed puzzled; he smiled a little. "Is not that what you say of ba_omen?"
"Of some—of those who are found out."
"Well," he said, still smiling, "I have not yet found out Madame Blumenthal."
"If that's her name, I suppose she's German."
"Yes; but she speaks English so well that you wouldn't know it. She is ver_lever. Her husband is dead."
I laughed involuntarily at the conjunction of these facts, and Pickering'_lear glance seemed to question my mirth. "You have been so bluntly frank wit_e," I said, "that I too must be frank. Tell me, if you can, whether thi_lever Madame Blumenthal, whose husband is dead, has given a point to you_esire for a suspension of communication with Smyrna."
He seemed to ponder my question, unshrinkingly. "I think not," he said, a_ast. "I have had the desire for three months; I have known Madame Blumentha_or less than twenty-four hours."
"Very true. But when you found this letter of yours on your place a_reakfast, did you seem for a moment to see Madame Blumenthal sittin_pposite?"
"Opposite, my dear fellow, or anywhere in the neighbourhood. In a word, doe_he interest you?"
"Very much!" he cried, joyously.
"Amen!" I answered, jumping up with a laugh. "And now, if we are to see th_orld in a month, there is no time to lose. Let us begin with the Hardtwald."
Pickering rose, and we strolled away into the forest, talking of lighte_hings. At last we reached the edge of the wood, sat down on a fallen log, an_ooked out across an interval of meadow at the long wooded waves of th_aunus. What my friend was thinking of I can't say; I was meditating on hi_ueer biography, and letting my wonderment wander away to Smyrna. Suddenly _emembered that he possessed a portrait of the young girl who was waiting fo_im there in a white-walled garden. I asked him if he had it with him. He sai_othing, but gravely took out his pocket-book and drew forth a smal_hotograph. It represented, as the poet says, a simple maiden in her flower—_light young girl, with a certain childish roundness of contour. There was n_ase in her posture; she was standing, stiffly and shyly, for her likeness; she wore a short-waisted white dress; her arms hung at her sides and her hand_ere clasped in front; her head was bent downward a little, and her dark eye_ixed. But her awkwardness was as pretty as that of some angular seraph in _ediaeval carving, and in her timid gaze there seemed to lurk the questionin_leam of childhood. "What is this for?" her charming eyes appeared to ask;
"why have I been dressed up for this ceremony in a white frock and ambe_eads?"
"Gracious powers!" I said to myself; "what an enchanting thing is innocence!"
"That portrait was taken a year and a half ago," said Pickering, as if with a_ffort to be perfectly just. "By this time, I suppose, she looks a littl_iser."
"Not much, I hope," I said, as I gave it back. "She is very sweet!"
"Yes, poor girl, she is very sweet—no doubt!" And he put the thing awa_ithout looking at it.
We were silent for some moments. At last, abruptly—"My dear fellow," I said,
"I should take some satisfaction in seeing you immediately leave Homburg."
"To-day—as soon as you can get ready."
He looked at me, surprised, and little by little he blushed. "There i_omething I have not told you," he said; "something that your saying tha_adame Blumenthal has no reputation to lose has made me half afraid to tel_ou."
"I think I can guess it. Madame Blumenthal has asked you to come and play he_ame for her again."
"Not at all!" cried Pickering, with a smile of triumph. "She says that sh_eans to play no more for the present. She has asked me to come and take te_ith her this evening."
"Ah, then," I said, very gravely, "of course you can't leave Homburg."
He answered nothing, but looked askance at me, as if he were expecting me t_augh. "Urge it strongly," he said in a moment. "Say it's my duty—that _UST."
I didn't quite understand him, but, feathering the shaft with a harmles_xpletive, I told him that unless he followed my advice I would never speak t_im again.
He got up, stood before me, and struck the ground with his stick. "Good!" h_ried; "I wanted an occasion to break a rule—to leap a barrier. Here it is. _tay!"
I made him a mock bow for his energy. "That's very fine," I said; "but now, t_ut you in a proper mood for Madame Blumenthal's tea, we will go and listen t_he band play Schubert under the lindens." And we walked back through th_oods.
I went to see Pickering the next day, at his inn, and on knocking, a_irected, at his door, was surprised to hear the sound of a loud voice within.
My knock remained unnoticed, so I presently introduced myself. I found n_ompany, but I discovered my friend walking up and down the room an_pparently declaiming to himself from a little volume bound in white vellum.
He greeted me heartily, threw his book on the table, and said that he wa_aking a German lesson.
"And who is your teacher?" I asked, glancing at the book.
He rather avoided meeting my eye, as he answered, after an instant's delay,
"Indeed! Has she written a grammar?"
"It's not a grammar; it's a tragedy." And he handed me the book.
I opened it, and beheld, in delicate type, with a very large margin, a_istorisches Trauerspiel in five acts, entitled "Cleopatra." There were _reat many marginal corrections and annotations, apparently from the author'_and; the speeches were very long, and there was an inordinate number o_oliloquies by the heroine. One of them, I remember, towards the end of th_lay, began in this fashion -
"What, after all, is life but sensation, and sensation but deception?—realit_hat pales before the light of one's dreams as Octavia's dull beauty fade_eside mine? But let me believe in some intenser bliss, and seek it in th_rms of death!"
"It seems decidedly passionate," I said. "Has the tragedy ever been acted?"
"Never in public; but Madame Blumenthal tells me that she had it played at he_wn house in Berlin, and that she herself undertook the part of the heroine."
Pickering's unworldly life had not been of a sort to sharpen his perception o_he ridiculous, but it seemed to me an unmistakable sign of his being unde_he charm, that this information was very soberly offered. He was preoccupied, he was irresponsive to my experimental observations on vulgar topics—the ho_eather, the inn, the advent of Adelina Patti. At last, uttering his thoughts, he announced that Madame Blumenthal had proved to be an extraordinaril_nteresting woman. He seemed to have quite forgotten our long talk in th_artwaldt, and betrayed no sense of this being a confession that he had take_is plunge and was floating with the current. He only remembered that I ha_poken slightingly of the lady, and he now hinted that it behoved me to amen_y opinion. I had received the day before so strong an impression of a sort o_piritual fastidiousness in my friend's nature, that on hearing now th_triking of a new hour, as it were, in his consciousness, and observing ho_he echoes of the past were immediately quenched in its music, I said t_yself that it had certainly taken a delicate hand to wind up that fin_achine. No doubt Madame Blumenthal was a clever woman. It is a good Germa_ustom at Homburg to spend the hour preceding dinner in listening to th_rchestra in the Kurgarten; Mozart and Beethoven, for organisms in which th_nterfusion of soul and sense is peculiarly mysterious, are a vigorou_timulus to the appetite. Pickering and I conformed, as we had done the da_efore, to the fashion, and when we were seated under the trees, he began t_xpatiate on his friend's merits.
"I don't know whether she is eccentric or not," he said; "to me every on_eems eccentric, and it's not for me, yet a while, to measure people by m_arrow precedents. I never saw a gaming table in my life before, and suppose_hat a gambler was of necessity some dusky villain with an evil eye. I_ermany, says Madame Blumenthal, people play at roulette as they play a_illiards, and her own venerable mother originally taught her the rules of th_ame. It is a recognised source of subsistence for decent people with smal_eans. But I confess Madame Blumenthal might do worse things than play a_oulette, and yet make them harmonious and beautiful. I have never been in th_abit of thinking positive beauty the most excellent thing in a woman. I hav_lways said to myself that if my heart were ever to be captured it would be b_ sort of general grace—a sweetness of motion and tone—on which one coul_ount for soothing impressions, as one counts on a musical instrument that i_erfectly in tune. Madame Blumenthal has it—this grace that soothes an_atisfies; and it seems the more perfect that it keeps order and harmony in _haracter really passionately ardent and active. With her eager nature and he_nnumerable accomplishments nothing would be easier than that she should see_estless and aggressive. You will know her, and I leave you to judge whethe_he does seem so! She has every gift, and culture has done everything fo_ach. What goes on in her mind I of course can't say; what reaches th_bserver—the admirer—is simply a sort of fragrant emanation of intelligenc_nd sympathy."
"Madame Blumenthal," I said, smiling, "might be the loveliest woman in th_orld, and you the object of her choicest favours, and yet what I should mos_nvy you would be, not your peerless friend, but your beautiful imagination."
"That's a polite way of calling me a fool," said Pickering. "You are _ceptic, a cynic, a satirist! I hope I shall be a long time coming to that."
"You will make the journey fast if you travel by express trains. But pray tel_e, have you ventured to intimate to Madame Blumenthal your high opinion o_er?"
"I don't know what I may have said. She listens even better than she talks, and I think it possible I may have made her listen to a great deal o_onsense. For after the first few words I exchanged with her I was consciou_f an extraordinary evaporation of all my old diffidence. I have, in truth, _uppose," he added in a moment, "owing to my peculiar circumstances, a grea_ccumulated fund of unuttered things of all sorts to get rid of. Last evening, sitting there before that charming woman, they came swarming to my lips. Ver_ikely I poured them all out. I have a sense of having enshrouded myself in _ort of mist of talk, and of seeing her lovely eyes shining through i_pposite to me, like fog-lamps at sea." And here, if I remember rightly, Pickering broke off into an ardent parenthesis, and declared that Madam_lumenthal's eyes had something in them that he had never seen in any others.
"It was a jumble of crudities and inanities," he went on; "they must hav_eemed to her great rubbish; but I felt the wiser and the stronger, somehow, for having fired off all my guns—they could hurt nobody now if they hit- -an_ imagine I might have gone far without finding another woman in whom such a_xhibition would have provoked so little of mere cold amusement."
"Madame Blumenthal, on the contrary," I surmised, "entered into your situatio_ith warmth."
"Exactly so—the greatest! She has felt and suffered, and now she understands!"
"She told you, I imagine, that she understood you as if she had made you, an_he offered to be your guide, philosopher, and friend."
"She spoke to me," Pickering answered, after a pause, "as I had never bee_poken to before, and she offered me, formally, all the offices of a woman'_riendship."
"Which you as formally accepted?"
"To you the scene sounds absurd, I suppose, but allow me to say I don't care!"
Pickering spoke with an air of genial defiance which was the most inoffensiv_hing in the world. "I was very much moved; I was, in fact, very much excited.
I tried to say something, but I couldn't; I had had plenty to say before, bu_ow I stammered and bungled, and at last I bolted out of the room."
"Meanwhile she had dropped her tragedy into your pocket!"
"Not at all. I had seen it on the table before she came in. Afterwards sh_indly offered to read German aloud with me, for the accent, two or thre_imes a week. 'What shall we begin with?' she asked. 'With this!' I said, an_eld up the book. And she let me take it to look it over."
I was neither a cynic nor a satirist, but even if I had been, I might hav_een disarmed by Pickering's assurance, before we parted, that Madam_lumenthal wished to know me and expected him to introduce me. Among th_oolish things which, according to his own account, he had uttered, were som_enerous words in my praise, to which she had civilly replied. I confess I wa_urious to see her, but I begged that the introduction should not b_mmediate, for I wished to let Pickering work out his destiny alone. For som_ays I saw little of him, though we met at the Kursaal and strolle_ccasionally in the park. I watched, in spite of my desire to let him alone, for the signs and portents of the world's action upon him—of that portion o_he world, in especial, of which Madame Blumenthal had constituted herself th_gent. He seemed very happy, and gave me in a dozen ways an impression o_ncreased self-confidence and maturity. His mind was admirably active, an_lways, after a quarter of an hour's talk with him, I asked myself wha_xperience could really do, that innocence had not done, to make it bright an_ine. I was struck with his deep enjoyment of the whole spectacle of foreig_ife—its novelty, its picturesqueness, its light and shade—and with th_nfinite freedom with which he felt he could go and come and rove and linge_nd observe it all. It was an expansion, an awakening, a coming to mora_anhood. Each time I met him he spoke a little less of Madame Blumenthal; bu_e let me know generally that he saw her often, and continued to admire her. _as forced to admit to myself, in spite of preconceptions, that if she wer_eally the ruling star of this happy season, she must be a very superio_oman. Pickering had the air of an ingenuous young philosopher sitting at th_eet of an austere muse, and not of a sentimental spendthrift dangling abou_ome supreme incarnation of levity.