30,000 Dollar Bequest and Other Stories
Bringing together 38 tales and sketches, "The 30 000 Dollar Bequest and Other Stories" provides a rare long view of Twain's work, covering virtually his entire career, from "Advice to Young Girls" (a spoof that appeared in 1865, just months before he achieved national acclaim for his "Jumping Frog" tale), to the title story, written in 1904.
The 30 000 Dollar Bequest and Other Stories
by Mark Twain
Lakeside was a pleasant little town of five or six thousand inhabitants, and a rather pretty one, too, as towns go in the Far West. It had church accommodations for thirty-five thousand, which is the way of the Far West and the South, where everybody is religious, and where each of the Protestant sects is represented and has a plant of its own. Rank was unknown in Lakeside – unconfessed, anyway; everybody knew everybody and his dog, and a sociable friendliness was the prevailing atmosphere.
Saladin Foster was book-keeper in the principal store, and the only high-salaried man of his profession in Lakeside. He was thirty-five years old, now; he had served that store for fourteen years; he had begun in his marriage-week at four hundred dollars a year, and had climbed steadily up, a hundred dollars a year, for four years; from that time forth his wage had remained eight hundred – a handsome figure indeed, and everybody conceded that he was worth it.
His wife, Electra, was a capable helpmeet, although – like himself – a dreamer of dreams and a private dabbler in romance. The first thing she did, after her marriage – child as she was, aged only nineteen – was to buy an acre of ground on the edge of the town, and pay down the cash for it – twenty-five dollars, all her fortune. Saladin had less, by fifteen. She instituted a vegetable garden there, got it farmed on shares by the nearest neighbor, and made it pay her a hundred per cent a year. Out of Saladin’s first year’s wage she put thirty dollars in the savings-bank, sixty out of his second, a hundred out of his third, a hundred and fifty out of his fourth. His wage went to eight hundred a year, then, and meantime two children had arrived and increased the expenses, but she banked two hundred a year from the salary, nevertheless, thenceforth. When she had been married seven years she built and furnished a pretty and comfortable two-thousand-dollar house in the midst of her garden-acre, paid half of the money down and moved her family in. Seven years later she was out of debt and had several hundred dollars out earning its living.
Earning it by the rise in landed estate; for she had long ago bought another acre or two and sold the most of it at a profit to pleasant people who were willing to build, and would be good neighbors and furnish a general comradeship for herself and her growing family. She had an independent income from safe investments of about a hundred dollars a year; her children were growing in years and grace; and she was a pleased and happy woman. Happy in her husband, happy in her children, and the husband and the children were happy in her. It is at this point that this history begins.
The youngest girl, Clytemnestra – called Clytie for short – was eleven; her sister, Gwendolen – called Gwen for short – was thirteen; nice girls, and comely. The names betray the latent romance-tinge in the parental blood, the parents’ names indicate that the tinge was an inheritance. It was an affectionate family, hence all four of its members had pet names, Saladin’s was a curious and unsexing one – Sally; and so was Electra’s – Aleck. All day long Sally was a good and diligent book-keeper and salesman; all day long Aleck was a good and faithful mother and housewife, and thoughtful and calculating business woman; but in the cozy living-room at night they put the plodding world away, and lived in another and a fairer, reading romances to each other, dreaming dreams, comrading with kings and princes and stately lords and ladies in the flash and stir and splendor of noble palaces and grim and ancient castles.
Now came great news! Stunning news – joyous news, in fact. It came from a neighboring state, where the family’s only surviving relative lived. It was Sally’s relative – a sort of vague and indefinite uncle or second or third cousin by the name of Tilbury Foster, seventy and a bachelor, reputed well off and corresponding sour and crusty. Sally had tried to make up to him once, by letter, in a bygone time, and had not made that mistake again. Tilbury now wrote to Sally, saying he should shortly die, and should leave him thirty thousand dollars, cash; not for love, but because money had given him most of his troubles and exasperations, and he wished to place it where there was good hope that it would continue its malignant work. The bequest would be found in his will, and would be paid over. Provided, that Sally should be able to prove to the executors that he had taken no notice of the gift by spoken word or by letter, had made no inquiries concerning the MORIBUND’S progress toward the everlasting tropics, and had not attended the funeral.
As soon as Aleck had partially recovered from the tremendous emotions created by the letter, she sent to the relative’s habitat and subscribed for the local paper.
Man and wife entered into a solemn compact, now, to never mention the great news to any one while the relative lived, lest some ignorant person carry the fact to the death-bed and distort it and make it appear that they were disobediently thankful for the bequest, and just the same as confessing it and publishing it, right in the face of the prohibition.
For the rest of the day Sally made havoc and confusion with his books, and Aleck could not keep her mind on her affairs, not even take up a flower-pot or book or a stick of wood without forgetting what she had intended to do with it. For both were dreaming.
“Thir-ty thousand dollars!”
All day long the music of those inspiring words sang through those people’s heads.
From his marriage-day forth, Aleck’s grip had been upon the purse, and Sally had seldom known what it was to be privileged to squander a dime on non-necessities.
“Thir-ty thousand dollars!” the song went on and on. A vast sum, an unthinkable sum!
All day long Aleck was absorbed in planning how to invest it, Sally in planning how to spend it.
There was no romance-reading that night. The children took themselves away early, for their parents were silent, distraught, and strangely unentertaining. The good-night kisses might as well have been impressed upon vacancy, for all the response they got; the parents were not aware of the kisses, and the children had been gone an hour before their absence was noticed. Two pencils had been busy during that hour – note-making; in the way of plans. It was Sally who broke the stillness at last. He said, with exultation:
“Ah, it’ll be grand, Aleck! Out of the first thousand we’ll have a horse and a buggy for summer, and a cutter and a skin lap-robe for winter.”
Aleck responded with decision and composure—
“Out of the capital? Nothing of the kind. Not if it was a million!”
Sally was deeply disappointed; the glow went out of his face.
“Oh, Aleck!” he said, reproachfully. “We’ve always worked so hard and been so scrimped: and now that we are rich, it does seem—”
He did not finish, for he saw her eye soften; his supplication had touched her. She said, with gentle persuasiveness:
“We must not spend the capital, dear, it would not be wise. Out of the income from it—”
“That will answer, that will answer, Aleck! How dear and good you are! There will be a noble income and if we can spend that—”
“Not all of it, dear, not all of it, but you can spend a part of it. That is, a reasonable part. But the whole of the capital – every penny of it – must be put right to work, and kept at it. You see the reasonableness of that, don’t you?”
“Why, ye-s. Yes, of course. But we’ll have to wait so long. Six months before the first interest falls due.”
“Yes – maybe longer.”
“Longer, Aleck? Why? Don’t they pay half-yearly?”
“That kind of an investment – yes; but I sha’n’t invest in that way.”
“What way, then?”
“For big returns.”
“Big. That’s good. Go on, Aleck. What is it?”
“Coal. The new mines. Cannel. I mean to put in ten thousand. Ground floor. When we organize, we’ll get three shares for one.”
“By George, but it sounds good, Aleck! Then the shares will be worth – how much? And when?”
“About a year. They’ll pay ten per cent half yearly, and be worth thirty thousand. I know all about it; the advertisement is in the Cincinnati paper here.”
“Land, thirty thousand for ten – in a year! Let’s jam in the whole capital and pull out ninety! I’ll write and subscribe right now – tomorrow it maybe too late.”
He was flying to the writing-desk, but Aleck stopped him and put him back in his chair. She said:
“Don’t lose your head so. We mustn’t subscribe till we’ve got the money; don’t you know that?”
Sally’s excitement went down a degree or two, but he was not wholly appeased.
“Why, Aleck, we’ll have it, you know – and so soon, too. He’s probably out of his troubles before this; it’s a hundred to nothing he’s selecting his brimstone-shovel this very minute. Now, I think—”
Aleck shuddered, and said:
“How can you, Sally! Don’t talk in that way, it is perfectly scandalous.”
“Oh, well, make it a halo, if you like, I don’t care for his outfit, I was only just talking. Can’t you let a person talk?”
“But why should you want to talk in that dreadful way? How would you like to have people talk so about you, and you not cold yet?”
“Not likely to be, for one while, I reckon, if my last act was giving away money for the sake of doing somebody a harm with it. But never mind about Tilbury, Aleck, let’s talk about something worldly. It does seem to me that that mine is the place for the whole thirty. What’s the objection?”
“All the eggs in one basket – that’s the objection.”
“All right, if you say so. What about the other twenty? What do you mean to do with that?”
“There is no hurry; I am going to look around before I do anything with it.”
“All right, if your mind’s made up,” signed Sally. He was deep in thought awhile, then he said:
“There’ll be twenty thousand profit coming from the ten a year from now. We can spend that, can we, Aleck?”
Aleck shook her head.
“No, dear,” she said, “it won’t sell high till we’ve had the first semi-annual dividend. You can spend part of that.”
“Shucks, only that—and a whole year to wait! Confound it, I—”
“Oh, do be patient! It might even be declared in three months – it’s quite within the possibilities.”
“Oh, jolly! oh, thanks!” and Sally jumped up and kissed his wife in gratitude. “It’ll be three thousand – three whole thousand! how much of it can we spend, Aleck? Make it liberal! – do, dear, that’s a good fellow.”
Aleck was pleased; so pleased that she yielded to the pressure and conceded a sum which her judgment told her was a foolish extravagance – a thousand dollars. Sally kissed her half a dozen times and even in that way could not express all his joy and thankfulness. This new access of gratitude and affection carried Aleck quite beyond the bounds of prudence, and before she could restrain herself she had made her darling another grant – a couple of thousand out of the fifty or sixty which she meant to clear within a year of the twenty which still remained of the bequest. The happy tears sprang to Sally’s eyes, and he said:
“Oh, I want to hug you!” And he did it. Then he got his notes and sat down and began to check off, for first purchase, the luxuries which he should earliest wish to secure. “Horse – buggy – cutter – lap-robe – patent-leathers – dog – plug-hat– church-pew – stem-winder – new teeth—say, Aleck!”
“Ciphering away, aren’t you? That’s right. Have you got the twenty thousand invested yet?”
“No, there’s no hurry about that; I must look around first, and think.”
“But you are ciphering; what’s it about?”
“Why, I have to find work for the thirty thousand that comes out of the coal, haven’t I?”
“Scott, what a head! I never thought of that. How are you getting along? Where have you arrived?”
“Not very far – two years or three. I’ve turned it over twice; once in oil and once in wheat.”
“Why, Aleck, it’s splendid! How does it aggregate?”
“I think – well, to be on the safe side, about a hundred and eighty thousand clear, though it will probably be more.”
“My! isn’t it wonderful? By gracious! luck has come our way at last, after all the hard sledding, Aleck!”
“I’m going to cash in a whole three hundred on the missionaries – what real right have we care for expenses!”
“You couldn’t do a nobler thing, dear; and it’s just like your generous nature, you unselfish boy.”
The praise made Sally poignantly happy, but he was fair and just enough to say it was rightfully due to Aleck rather than to himself, since but for her he should never have had the money.
Then they went up to bed, and in their delirium of bliss they forgot and left the candle burning in the parlor. They did not remember until they were undressed; then Sally was for letting it burn; he said they could afford it, if it was a thousand. But Aleck went down and put it out.
A good job, too; for on her way back she hit on a scheme that would turn the hundred and eighty thousand into half a million before it had had time to get cold.
The little newspaper which Aleck had subscribed for was a Thursday sheet; it would make the trip of five hundred miles from Tilbury’s village and arrive on Saturday. Tilbury’s letter had started on Friday, more than a day too late for the benefactor to die and get into that week’s issue, but in plenty of time to make connection for the next output. Thus the Fosters had to wait almost a complete week to find out whether anything of a satisfactory nature had happened to him or not. It was a long, long week, and the strain was a heavy one. The pair could hardly have borne it if their minds had not had the relief of wholesome diversion. We have seen that they had that. The woman was piling up fortunes right along, the man was spending them – spending all his wife would give him a chance at, at any rate.
At last the Saturday came, and the Weekly Sagamore arrived. Mrs. Eversly Bennett was present. She was the Presbyterian parson’s wife, and was working the Fosters for a charity. Talk now died a sudden death – on the Foster side. Mrs. Bennett presently discovered that her hosts were not hearing a word she was saying; so she got up, wondering and indignant, and went away. The moment she was out of the house, Aleck eagerly tore the wrapper from the paper, and her eyes and Sally’s swept the columns for the death-notices. Disappointment! Tilbury was not anywhere mentioned. Aleck was a Christian from the cradle, and duty and the force of habit required her to go through the motions. She pulled herself together and said, with a pious two-per-cent trade joyousness:
“Let us be humbly thankful that he has been spared; and—”
“Damn his treacherous hide, I wish—”
“Sally! For shame!”
“I don’t care!” retorted the angry man. “It’s the way you feel, and if you weren’t so immorally pious you’d be honest and say so.”
Aleck said, with wounded dignity:
“I do not see how you can say such unkind and unjust things. There is no such thing as immoral piety.”
Sally felt a pang, but tried to conceal it under a shuffling attempt to save his case by changing the form of it – as if changing the form while retaining the juice could deceive the expert he was trying to placate. He said:
“I didn’t mean so bad as that, Aleck; I didn’t really mean immoral piety, I only meant – meant – well, conventional piety, you know; er – shop piety; the – the – why, you know what I mean. Aleck – the – well, where you put up that plated article and play it for solid, you know, without intending anything improper, but just out of trade habit, ancient policy, petrified custom, loyalty to – to – hang it, I can’t find the right words, but you know what I mean, Aleck, and that there isn’t any harm in it. I’ll try again. You see, it’s this way. If a person—”
“You have said quite enough,” said Aleck, coldly; “let the subject be dropped.”
“I’m willing,” fervently responded Sally, wiping the sweat from his forehead and looking the thankfulness he had no words for. Then, musingly, he apologized to himself. “I certainly held threes – I know it – but I drew and didn’t fill. That’s where I’m so often weak in the game. If I had stood pat – but I didn’t. I never do. I don’t know enough.”
Confessedly defeated, he was properly tame now and subdued. Aleck forgave him with her eyes.
The grand interest, the supreme interest, came instantly to the front again; nothing could keep it in the background many minutes on a stretch. The couple took up the puzzle of the absence of Tilbury’s death-notice. They discussed it every which way, more or less hopefully, but they had to finish where they began, and concede that the only really sane explanation of the absence of the notice must be – and without doubt was – that Tilbury was not dead. There was something sad about it, something even a little unfair, maybe, but there it was, and had to be put up with. They were agreed as to that. To Sally it seemed a strangely inscrutable dispensation; more inscrutable than usual, he thought; one of the most unnecessary inscrutable he could call to mind, in fact – and said so, with some feeling; but if he was hoping to draw Aleck he failed; she reserved her opinion, if she had one; she had not the habit of taking injudicious risks in any market, worldly or other.
The pair must wait for next week’s paper – Tilbury had evidently postponed. That was their thought and their decision. So they put the subject away and went about their affairs again with as good heart as they could.
Now, if they had but known it, they had been wronging Tilbury all the time. Tilbury had kept faith, kept it to the letter; he was dead, he had died to schedule. He was dead more than four days now and used to it; entirely dead, perfectly dead, as dead as any other new person in the cemetery; dead in abundant time to get into that week’s Sagamore, too, and only shut out by an accident; an accident which could not happen to a metropolitan journal, but which happens easily to a poor little village rag like the Sagamore. On this occasion, just as the editorial page was being locked up, a gratis quart of strawberry ice-water arrived from Hostetter’s Ladies and Gents Ice-Cream Parlors, and the stickful of rather chilly regret over Tilbury’s translation got crowded out to make room for the editor’s frantic gratitude.
On its way to the standing-galley Tilbury’s notice got pied. Otherwise it would have gone into some future edition, for Weekly SAGAMORES do not waste “live” matter, and in their galleys “live” matter is immortal, unless a pi accident intervenes. But a thing that gets pied is dead, and for such there is no resurrection; its chance of seeing print is gone, forever and ever. And so, let Tilbury like it or not, let him rave in his grave to his fill, no matter – no mention of his death would ever see the light in the Weekly Sagamore.
Five weeks drifted tediously along. The Sagamore arrived regularly on the Saturdays, but never once contained a mention of Tilbury Foster. Sally’s patience broke down at this point, and he said, resentfully:
“Damn his livers, he’s immortal!”
Aleck give him a very severe rebuke, and added with icy solemnity:
“How would you feel if you were suddenly cut out just after such an awful remark had escaped out of you?”
Without sufficient reflection Sally responded:
“I’d feel I was lucky I hadn’t got caught with it in me.”
Pride had forced him to say something, and as he could not think of any rational thing to say he flung that out. Then he stole a base – as he called it – that is, slipped from the presence, to keep from being brayed in his wife’s discussion-mortar.
Six months came and went. The Sagamore was still silent about Tilbury. Meantime, Sally had several times thrown out a feeler – that is, a hint that he would like to know. Aleck had ignored the hints. Sally now resolved to brace up and risk a frontal attack. So he squarely proposed to disguise himself and go to Tilbury’s village and surreptitiously find out as to the prospects. Aleck put her foot on the dangerous project with energy and decision. She said:
“What can you be thinking of? You do keep my hands full! You have to be watched all the time, like a little child, to keep you from walking into the fire. You’ll stay right where you are!”
“Why, Aleck, I could do it and not be found out – I’m certain of it.”
“Sally Foster, don’t you know you would have to inquire around?”
“Of course, but what of it? Nobody would suspect who I was.”
“Oh, listen to the man! Some day you’ve got to prove to the executors that you never inquired. What then?”
He had forgotten that detail. He didn’t reply; there wasn’t anything to say. Aleck added:
“Now then, drop that notion out of your mind, and don’t ever meddle with it again. Tilbury set that trap for you. Don’t you know it’s a trap? He is on the watch, and fully expecting you to blunder into it. Well, he is going to be disappointed – at least while I am on deck. Sally!”
“As long as you live, if it’s a hundred years, don’t you ever make an inquiry. Promise!”
“All right,” with a sigh and reluctantly.
Then Aleck softened and said:
“Don’t be impatient. We are prospering; we can wait; there is no hurry. Our small dead-certain income increases all the time; and as to futures, I have not made a mistake yet – they are piling up by the thousands and tens of thousands. There is not another family in the state with such prospects as ours. Already we are beginning to roll in eventual wealth. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Aleck, it’s certainly so.”
“Then be grateful for what God is doing for us and stop worrying. You do not believe we could have achieved these prodigious results without His special help and guidance, do you?”
Hesitatingly, “N-no, I suppose not.” Then, with feeling and admiration, “And yet, when it comes to judiciousness in watering a stock or putting up a hand to skin Wall Street I don’t give in that you need any outside amateur help, if I do wish I—”
“Oh, do shut up! I know you do not mean any harm or any irreverence, poor boy, but you can’t seem to open your mouth without letting out things to make a person shudder. You keep me in constant dread. For you and for all of us. Once I had no fear of the thunder, but now when I hear it I—”
Her voice broke, and she began to cry, and could not finish. The sight of this smote Sally to the heart and he took her in his arms and petted her and comforted her and promised better conduct, and upbraided himself and remorsefully pleaded for forgiveness. And he was in earnest, and sorry for what he had done and ready for any sacrifice that could make up for it.
And so, in privacy, he thought long and deeply over the matter, resolving to do what should seem best. It was easy to promise reform; indeed he had already promised it. But would that do any real good, any permanent good? No, it would be but temporary – he knew his weakness, and confessed it to himself with sorrow – he could not keep the promise. Something surer and better must be devised; and he devised it. At cost of precious money which he had long been saving up, shilling by shilling, he put a lightning-rod on the house.
At a subsequent time he relapsed.
What miracles habit can do! and how quickly and how easily habits are acquired – both trifling habits and habits which profoundly change us. If by accident we wake at two in the morning a couple of nights in succession, we have need to be uneasy, for another repetition can turn the accident into a habit; and a month’s dallying with whiskey – but we all know these commonplace facts.
The castle-building habit, the day-dreaming habit – how it grows! what a luxury it becomes; how we fly to its enchantments at every idle moment, how we revel in them, steep our souls in them, intoxicate ourselves with their beguiling fantasies – oh yes, and how soon and how easily our dream life and our material life become so intermingled and so fused together that we can’t quite tell which is which, any more.
By and by Aleck subscribed to a Chicago daily and for the wall street Pointer. With an eye single to finance she studied these as diligently all the week as she studied her Bible Sundays. Sally was lost in admiration, to note with what swift and sure strides her genius and judgment developed and expanded in the forecasting and handling of the securities of both the material and spiritual markets. He was proud of her nerve and daring in exploiting worldly stocks, and just as proud of her conservative caution in working her spiritual deals. He noted that she never lost her head in either case; that with a splendid courage she often went short on worldly futures, but heedfully drew the line there – she was always long on the others. Her policy was quite sane and simple, as she explained it to him: what she put into earthly futures was for speculation, what she put into spiritual futures was for investment; she was willing to go into the one on a margin, and take chances, but in the case of the other, “margin her no margins”—she wanted to cash in a hundred cents per dollar’s worth, and have the stock transferred on the books.
It took but a very few months to educate Aleck’s imagination and Sally’s. Each day’s training added something to the spread and effectiveness of the two machines. As a consequence, Aleck made imaginary money much faster than at first she had dreamed of making it, and Sally’s competency in spending the overflow of it kept pace with the strain put upon it, right along. In the beginning, Aleck had given the coal speculation a twelvemonth in which to materialize, and had been loath to grant that this term might possibly be shortened by nine months. But that was the feeble work, the nursery work, of a financial fancy that had had no teaching, no experience, no practice. These aids soon came, then that nine months vanished, and the imaginary ten-thousand-dollar investment came marching home with three hundred per cent profit on its back!
It was a great day for the pair of Fosters. They were speechless for joy. Also speechless for another reason: after much watching of the market, Aleck had lately, with fear and trembling, made her first flyer on a “margin,” using the remaining twenty thousand of the bequest in this risk. In her mind’s eye she had seen it climb, point by point – always with a chance that the market would break – until at last her anxieties were too great for further endurance – she being new to the margin business and unhardened, as yet – and she gave her imaginary broker an imaginary order by imaginary telegraph to sell. She said forty thousand dollars’ profit was enough. The sale was made on the very day that the coal venture had returned with its rich freight. As I have said, the couple were speechless, they sat dazed and blissful that night, trying to realize that they were actually worth a hundred thousand dollars in clean, imaginary cash. Yet so it was.
It was the last time that ever Aleck was afraid of a margin; at least afraid enough to let it break her sleep and pale her cheek to the extent that this first experience in that line had done.
Indeed it was a memorable night. Gradually the realization that they were rich sank securely home into the souls of the pair, then they began to place the money. If we could have looked out through the eyes of these dreamers, we should have seen their tidy little wooden house disappear, and two-story brick with a cast-iron fence in front of it take its place; we should have seen a three-globed gas-chandelier grow down from the parlor ceiling; we should have seen the homely rag carpet turn to noble Brussels, a dollar and a half a yard; we should have seen the plebeian fireplace vanish away and a recherche, big base-burner with isinglass windows take position and spread awe around. And we should have seen other things, too; among them the buggy, the lap-robe, the stove-pipe hat, and so on.
From that time forth, although the daughters and the neighbors saw only the same old wooden house there, it was a two-story brick to Aleck and Sally and not a night went by that Aleck did not worry about the imaginary gas-bills, and get for all comfort Sally’s reckless retort: “What of it? We can afford it.”
Before the couple went to bed, that first night that they were rich, they had decided that they must celebrate. They must give a party – that was the idea. But how to explain it – to the daughters and the neighbors? They could not expose the fact that they were rich. Sally was willing, even anxious, to do it; but Aleck kept her head and would not allow it. She said that although the money was as good as in, it would be as well to wait until it was actually in. On that policy she took her stand, and would not budge. The great secret must be kept, she said – kept from the daughters and everybody else.
The pair were puzzled. They must celebrate, they were determined to celebrate, but since the secret must be kept, what could they celebrate? No birthdays were due for three months. Tilbury wasn’t available, evidently he was going to live forever; what the nation could they celebrate? That was Sally’s way of putting it; and he was getting impatient, too, and harassed. But at last he hit it – just by sheer inspiration, as it seemed to him – and all their troubles were gone in a moment; they would celebrate the Discovery of America. A splendid idea!
Aleck was almost too proud of Sally for words – she said she never would have thought of it. But Sally, although he was bursting with delight in the compliment and with wonder at himself, tried not to let on, and said it wasn’t really anything, anybody could have done it. Whereat Aleck, with a prideful toss of her happy head, said:
“Oh, certainly! Anybody could – oh, anybody! Hosannah Dilkins, for instance! Or maybe Adelbert Peanut – oh, dear—yes! Well, I’d like to see them try it, that’s all. Dear-me-suz, if they could think of the discovery of a forty-acre island it’s more than I believe they could; and as for the whole continent, why, Sally Foster, you know perfectly well it would strain the livers and lights out of them and then they couldn’t!”
The dear woman, she knew he had talent; and if affection made her over-estimate the size of it a little, surely it was a sweet and gentle crime, and forgivable for its source’s sake.
The celebration went off well. The friends were all present, both the young and the old. Among the young were Flossie and Gracie Peanut and their brother Adelbert, who was a rising young journeyman tinner, also Hosannah Dilkins, Jr., journeyman plasterer, just out of his apprenticeship. For many months Adelbert and Hosannah had been showing interest in Gwendolen and Clytemnestra Foster, and the parents of the girls had noticed this with private satisfaction. But they suddenly realized now that that feeling had passed. They recognized that the changed financial conditions had raised up a social bar between their daughters and the young mechanics. The daughters could now look higher – and must. Yes, must. They need marry nothing below the grade of lawyer or merchant; poppa and momma would take care of this; there must be no mésalliances.
However, these thinkings and projects of their were private, and did not show on the surface, and therefore threw no shadow upon the celebration. What showed upon the surface was a serene and lofty contentment and a dignity of carriage and gravity of deportment which compelled the admiration and likewise the wonder of the company. All noticed it and all commented upon it, but none was able to divine the secret of it. It was a marvel and a mystery. Three several persons remarked, without suspecting what clever shots they were making:
“It’s as if they’d come into property.”
That was just it, indeed.
Most mothers would have taken hold of the matrimonial matter in the old regulation way; they would have given the girls a talking to, of a solemn sort and untactful – a lecture calculated to defeat its own purpose, by producing tears and secret rebellion; and the said mothers would have further damaged the business by requesting the young mechanics to discontinue their attentions. But this mother was different. She was practical. She said nothing to any of the young people concerned, nor to any one else except Sally. He listened to her and understood; understood and admired. He said:
“I get the idea. Instead of finding fault with the samples on view, thus hurting feelings and obstructing trade without occasion, you merely offer a higher class of goods for the money, and leave nature to take her course. It’s wisdom, Aleck, solid wisdom, and sound as a nut. Who’s your fish? Have you nominated him yet?”
No, she hadn’t. They must look the market over – which they did. To start with, they considered and discussed Brandish, rising young lawyer, and Fulton, rising young dentist. Sally must invite them to dinner. But not right away; there was no hurry, Aleck said. Keep an eye on the pair, and wait; nothing would be lost by going slowly in so important a matter.
It turned out that this was wisdom, too; for inside of three weeks Aleck made a wonderful strike which swelled her imaginary hundred thousand to four hundred thousand of the same quality. She and Sally were in the clouds that evening. For the first time they introduced champagne at dinner. Not real champagne, but plenty real enough for the amount of imagination expended on it. It was Sally that did it, and Aleck weakly submitted. At bottom both were troubled and ashamed, for he was a high-up Son of Temperance, and at funerals wore an apron which no dog could look upon and retain his reason and his opinion; and she was a W. C. T. U., with all that that implies of boiler-iron virtue and unendurable holiness. But there is was; the pride of riches was beginning its disintegrating work. They had lived to prove, once more, a sad truth which had been proven many times before in the world: that whereas principle is a great and noble protection against showy and degrading vanities and vices, poverty is worth six of it. More than four hundred thousand dollars to the good. They took up the matrimonial matter again. Neither the dentist nor the lawyer was mentioned; there was no occasion, they were out of the running. Disqualified. They discussed the son of the pork-packer and the son of the village banker. But finally, as in the previous case, they concluded to wait and think, and go cautiously and sure.
Luck came their way again. Aleck, ever watchful saw a great and risky chance, and took a daring flyer. A time of trembling, of doubt, of awful uneasiness followed, for non-success meant absolute ruin and nothing short of it. Then came the result, and Aleck, faint with joy, could hardly control her voice when she said:
“The suspense is over, Sally – and we are worth a cold million!”
Sally wept for gratitude, and said:
“Oh, Electra, jewel of women, darling of my heart, we are free at last, we roll in wealth, we need never scrimp again. It’s a case for Veuve Cliquot!” and he got out a pint of spruce-beer and made sacrifice, he saying “Damn the expense,” and she rebuking him gently with reproachful but humid and happy eyes.
They shelved the pork-packer’s son and the banker’s son, and sat down to consider the Governor’s son and the son of the Congressman.
It were a weariness to follow in detail the leaps and bounds the Foster fictitious finances took from this time forth. It was marvelous, it was dizzying, it was dazzling. Everything Aleck touched turned to fairy gold, and heaped itself glittering toward the firmament. Millions upon millions poured in, and still the mighty stream flowed thundering along, still its vast volume increased. Five millions – ten millions – twenty – thirty – was there never to be an end?
Two years swept by in a splendid delirium, the intoxicated Fosters scarcely noticing the flight of time. They were now worth three hundred million dollars; they were in every board of directors of every prodigious combine in the country; and still as time drifted along, the millions went on piling up, five at a time, ten at a time, as fast as they could tally them off, almost. The three hundred double itself – then doubled again – and yet again – and yet once more.
Twenty-four hundred millions!
The business was getting a little confused. It was necessary to take an account of stock, and straighten it out. The Fosters knew it, they felt it, they realized that it was imperative; but they also knew that to do it properly and perfectly the task must be carried to a finish without a break when once it was begun. A ten-hours’ job; and where could they find ten leisure hours in a bunch? Sally was selling pins and sugar and calico all day and every day; Aleck was cooking and washing dishes and sweeping and making beds all day and every day, with none to help, for the daughters were being saved up for high society. The Fosters knew there was one way to get the ten hours, and only one. Both were ashamed to name it; each waited for the other to do it. Finally Sally said:
“Somebody’s got to give in. It’s up to me. Consider that I’ve named it – never mind pronouncing it out aloud.”
Aleck colored, but was grateful. Without further remark, they fell. Fell, and – broke the Sabbath. For that was their only free ten-hour stretch. It was but another step in the downward path. Others would follow. Vast wealth has temptations which fatally and surely undermine the moral structure of persons not habituated to its possession.
They pulled down the shades and broke the Sabbath. With hard and patient labor they overhauled their holdings and listed them. And a long-drawn procession of formidable names it was! Starting with the Railway Systems, Steamer Lines, Standard Oil, Ocean Cables, Diluted Telegraph, and all the rest, and winding up with Klondike, De Beers, Tammany Graft, and Shady Privileges in the Post-office Department.
Twenty-four hundred millions, and all safely planted in Good Things, gilt-edged and interest-bearing. Income, 0,000,000 a year. Aleck fetched a long purr of soft delight, and said:
“Is it enough?”
“It is, Aleck.”
“What shall we do?”
“Retire from business?”
“I am agreed. The good work is finished; we will take a long rest and enjoy the money.”
“How much of the income can we spend?”
“The whole of it.”
It seemed to her husband that a ton of chains fell from his limbs. He did not say a word; he was happy beyond the power of speech.
After that, they broke the Sabbaths right along as fast as they turned up. It is the first wrong step that counts. Every Sunday they put in the whole day, after morning service, on inventions – inventions of ways to spend the money. They got to continuing this delicious dissipation until past midnight; and at every séance Aleck lavished millions upon great charities and religious enterprises, and Sally lavished like sums upon matters to which (at first) he gave definite names. Only at first. Later the names gradually lost sharpness of outline, and eventually faded into “sundries,” thus becoming entirely – but safely – undescriptive. For Sally was crumbling. The placing of these millions added seriously and most uncomfortably to the family expenses – in tallow candles. For a while Aleck was worried. Then, after a little, she ceased to worry, for the occasion of it was gone. She was pained, she was grieved, she was ashamed; but she said nothing, and so became an accessory. Sally was taking candles; he was robbing the store. It is ever thus. Vast wealth, to the person unaccustomed to it, is a bane; it eats into the flesh and bone of his morals. When the Fosters were poor, they could have been trusted with untold candles. But now they – but let us not dwell upon it. From candles to apples is but a step: Sally got to taking apples; then soap; then maple-sugar; then canned goods; then crockery. How easy it is to go from bad to worse, when once we have started upon a downward course!
Meantime, other effects had been milestoning the course of the Fosters’ splendid financial march. The fictitious brick dwelling had given place to an imaginary granite one with a checker-board mansard roof; in time this one disappeared and gave place to a still grander home – and so on and so on. Mansion after mansion, made of air, rose, higher, broader, finer, and each in its turn vanished away; until now in these latter great days, our dreamers were in fancy housed, in a distant region, in a sumptuous vast palace which looked out from a leafy summit upon a noble prospect of vale and river and receding hills steeped in tinted mists – and all private, all the property of the dreamers; a palace swarming with liveried servants, and populous with guests of fame and power, hailing from all the world’s capitals, foreign and domestic.
This palace was far, far away toward the rising sun, immeasurably remote, astronomically remote, in Newport, Rhode Island, Holy Land of High Society, ineffable Domain of the American Aristocracy. As a rule they spent a part of every Sabbath – after morning service – in this sumptuous home, the rest of it they spent in Europe, or in dawdling around in their private yacht. Six days of sordid and plodding fact life at home on the ragged edge of Lakeside and straitened means, the seventh in Fairyland – such had been their program and their habit.
In their sternly restricted fact life they remained as of old – plodding, diligent, careful, practical, economical. They stuck loyally to the little Presbyterian Church, and labored faithfully in its interests and stood by its high and tough doctrines with all their mental and spiritual energies. But in their dream life they obeyed the invitations of their fancies, whatever they might be, and howsoever the fancies might change. Aleck’s fancies were not very capricious, and not frequent, but Sally’s scattered a good deal. Aleck, in her dream life, went over to the Episcopal camp, on account of its large official titles; next she became High-church on account of the candles and shows; and next she naturally changed to Rome, where there were cardinals and more candles. But these excursions were a nothing to Sally’s. His dream life was a glowing and continuous and persistent excitement, and he kept every part of it fresh and sparkling by frequent changes, the religious part along with the rest. He worked his religions hard, and changed them with his shirt.
The liberal spendings of the Fosters upon their fancies began early in their prosperities, and grew in prodigality step by step with their advancing fortunes. In time they became truly enormous. Aleck built a university or two per Sunday; also a hospital or two; also a Rowton hotel or so; also a batch of churches; now and then a cathedral; and once, with untimely and ill-chosen playfulness, Sally said, “It was a cold day when she didn’t ship a cargo of missionaries to persuade unreflecting Chinamen to trade off twenty-four carat Confucianism for counterfeit Christianity.”
This rude and unfeeling language hurt Aleck to the heart, and she went from the presence crying. That spectacle went to his own heart, and in his pain and shame he would have given worlds to have those unkind words back. She had uttered no syllable of reproach – and that cut him. Not one suggestion that he look at his own record – and she could have made, oh, so many, and such blistering ones! Her generous silence brought a swift revenge, for it turned his thoughts upon himself, it summoned before him a spectral procession, a moving vision of his life as he had been leading it these past few years of limitless prosperity, and as he sat there reviewing it his cheeks burned and his soul was steeped in humiliation. Look at her life – how fair it was, and tending ever upward; and look at his own – how frivolous, how charged with mean vanities, how selfish, how empty, how ignoble! And its trend – never upward, but downward, ever downward!
He instituted comparisons between her record and his own. He had found fault with her – so he mused—he! And what could he say for himself? When she built her first church what was he doing? Gathering other blase multimillionaires into a Poker Club; defiling his own palace with it; losing hundreds of thousands to it at every sitting, and sillily vain of the admiring notoriety it made for him. When she was building her first university, what was he doing? Polluting himself with a gay and dissipated secret life in the company of other fast bloods, multimillionaires in money and paupers in character. When she was building her first foundling asylum, what was he doing? Alas! When she was projecting her noble Society for the Purifying of the Sex, what was he doing? Ah, what, indeed! When she and the W. C. T. U. and the Woman with the Hatchet, moving with resistless march, were sweeping the fatal bottle from the land, what was he doing? Getting drunk three times a day. When she, builder of a hundred cathedrals, was being gratefully welcomed and blest in papal Rome and decorated with the Golden Rose which she had so honorably earned, what was he doing? Breaking the bank at Monte Carlo.
He stopped. He could go no farther; he could not bear the rest. He rose up, with a great resolution upon his lips: this secret life should be revealing, and confessed; no longer would he live it clandestinely, he would go and tell her All.
And that is what he did. He told her All; and wept upon her bosom; wept, and moaned, and begged for her forgiveness. It was a profound shock, and she staggered under the blow, but he was her own, the core of her heart, the blessing of her eyes, her all in all, she could deny him nothing, and she forgave him. She felt that he could never again be quite to her what he had been before; she knew that he could only repent, and not reform; yet all morally defaced and decayed as he was, was he not her own, her very own, the idol of her deathless worship? She said she was his serf, his slave, and she opened her yearning heart and took him in.
One Sunday afternoon some time after this they were sailing the summer seas in their dream yacht, and reclining in lazy luxury under the awning of the after-deck. There was silence, for each was busy with his own thoughts. These seasons of silence had insensibly been growing more and more frequent of late; the old nearness and cordiality were waning. Sally’s terrible revelation had done its work; Aleck had tried hard to drive the memory of it out of her mind, but it would not go, and the shame and bitterness of it were poisoning her gracious dream life. She could see now (on Sundays) that her husband was becoming a bloated and repulsive Thing. She could not close her eyes to this, and in these days she no longer looked at him, Sundays, when she could help it.
But she – was she herself without blemish? Alas, she knew she was not. She was keeping a secret from him, she was acting dishonorably toward him, and many a pang it was costing her. She was breaking the compact, and concealing it from him. Under strong temptation she had gone into business again; she had risked their whole fortune in a purchase of all the railway systems and coal and steel companies in the country on a margin, and she was now trembling, every Sabbath hour, lest through some chance word of hers he find it out. In her misery and remorse for this treachery she could not keep her heart from going out to him in pity; she was filled with compunctions to see him lying there, drunk and contented, and ever suspecting. Never suspecting – trusting her with a perfect and pathetic trust, and she holding over him by a thread a possible calamity of so devastating a—
The interrupting words brought her suddenly to herself. She was grateful to have that persecuting subject from her thoughts, and she answered, with much of the old-time tenderness in her tone:
“Do you know, Aleck, I think we are making a mistake – that is, you are. I mean about the marriage business.” He sat up, fat and froggy and benevolent, like a bronze Buddha, and grew earnest. “Consider – it’s more than five years. You’ve continued the same policy from the start: with every rise, always holding on for five points higher. Always when I think we are going to have some weddings, you see a bigger thing ahead, and I undergo another disappointment. I think you are too hard to please. Some day we’ll get left. First, we turned down the dentist and the lawyer. That was all right – it was sound. Next, we turned down the banker’s son and the pork-butcher’s heir – right again, and sound. Next, we turned down the Congressman’s son and the Governor’s – right as a trivet, I confess it. Next the Senator’s son and the son of the Vice-President of the United States – perfectly right, there’s no permanency about those little distinctions. Then you went for the aristocracy; and I thought we had struck oil at last – yes. We would make a plunge at the Four Hundred, and pull in some ancient lineage, venerable, holy, ineffable, mellow with the antiquity of a hundred and fifty years, disinfected of the ancestral odors of salt-cod and pelts all of a century ago, and unsmirched by a day’s work since, and then! why, then the marriages, of course. But no, along comes a pair a real aristocrats from Europe, and straightway you throw over the half-breeds. It was awfully discouraging, Aleck! Since then, what a procession! You turned down the baronets for a pair of barons; you turned down the barons for a pair of viscounts; the viscounts for a pair of earls; the earls for a pair of marquises; the marquises for a brace of dukes. Now, Aleck, cash in! – you’ve played the limit. You’ve got a job lot of four dukes under the hammer; of four nationalities; all sound in the wind and limb and pedigree, all bankrupt and in debt up to the ears. They come high, but we can afford it. Come, Aleck, don’t delay any longer, don’t keep up the suspense: take the whole lay-out, and leave the girls to choose!”
Aleck had been smiling blandly and contentedly all through this arraignment of her marriage policy, a pleasant light, as of triumph with perhaps a nice surprise peeping out through it, rose in her eyes, and she said, as calmly as she could:
“Sally, what would you say to—royalty?”
Prodigious! Poor man, it knocked him silly, and he fell over the garboard-strake and barked his shin on the cat-heads. He was dizzy for a moment, then he gathered himself up and limped over and sat down by his wife and beamed his old-time admiration and affection upon her in floods, out of his bleary eyes.
“By George!” he said, fervently, “Aleck, you are great – the greatest woman in the whole earth! I can’t ever learn the whole size of you. I can’t ever learn the immeasurable deeps of you. Here I’ve been considering myself qualified to criticize your game. I! Why, if I had stopped to think, I’d have known you had a lone hand up your sleeve. Now, dear heart, I’m all red-hot impatience – tell me about it!”
The flattered and happy woman put her lips to his ear and whispered a princely name. It made him catch his breath, it lit his face with exultation.
“Land!” he said, “it’s a stunning catch! He’s got a gambling-hall, and a graveyard, and a bishop, and a cathedral – all his very own. And all gilt-edged five-hundred-per-cent stock, every detail of it; the tidiest little property in Europe; and that graveyard – it’s the selectest in the world: none but suicides admitted; yes, sir, and the free-list suspended, too, all the time. There isn’t much land in the principality, but there’s enough: eight hundred acres in the graveyard and forty-two outside. It’s a sovereignty—that’s the main thing; LAND’S nothing. There’s plenty land, Sahara’s drugged with it.”
Aleck glowed; she was profoundly happy. She said:
“Think of it, Sally – it is a family that has never married outside the Royal and Imperial Houses of Europe: our grandchildren will sit upon thrones!”
“True as you live, Aleck – and bear scepters, too; and handle them as naturally and nonchantly as I handle a yardstick. It’s a grand catch, Aleck. He’s corralled, is he? Can’t get away? You didn’t take him on a margin?”
“No. Trust me for that. He’s not a liability, he’s an asset. So is the other one.”
“Who is it, Aleck?”
“His Royal Highness Sigismund-Siegfriend-Lauenfeld-Dinkelspiel-Schwartzenberg Blutwurst, Hereditary Grant Duke of Katzenyammer.”
“No! You can’t mean it!”
“It’s as true as I’m sitting here, I give you my word,” she answered.
His cup was full, and he hugged her to his heart with rapture, saying:
“How wonderful it all seems, and how beautiful! It’s one of the oldest and noblest of the three hundred and sixty-four ancient German principalities, and one of the few that was allowed to retain its royal estate when Bismarck got done trimming them. I know that farm, I’ve been there. It’s got a rope-walk and a candle-factory and an army. Standing army. Infantry and cavalry. Three soldier and a horse. Aleck, it’s been a long wait, and full of heartbreak and hope deferred, but God knows I am happy now. Happy, and grateful to you, my own, who have done it all. When is it to be?”
“Good. And we’ll want to do these weddings up in the very regalest style that’s going. It’s properly due to the royal quality of the parties of the first part. Now as I understand it, there is only one kind of marriage that is sacred to royalty, exclusive to royalty: it’s the morganatic.”
“What do they call it that for, Sally?”
“I don’t know; but anyway it’s royal, and royal only.”
“Then we will insist upon it. More – I will compel it. It is morganatic marriage or none.”
“That settles it!” said Sally, rubbing his hands with delight. “And it will be the very first in America. Aleck, it will make Newport sick.”
Then they fell silent, and drifted away upon their dream wings to the far regions of the earth to invite all the crowned heads and their families and provide gratis transportation to them.
During three days the couple walked upon air, with their heads in the clouds. They were but vaguely conscious of their surroundings; they saw all things dimly, as through a veil; they were steeped in dreams, often they did not hear when they were spoken to; they often did not understand when they heard; they answered confusedly or at random; Sally sold molasses by weight, sugar by the yard, and furnished soap when asked for candles, and Aleck put the cat in the wash and fed milk to the soiled linen. Everybody was stunned and amazed, and went about muttering, “What can be the matter with the Fosters?”
Three days. Then came events! Things had taken a happy turn, and for forty-eight hours Aleck’s imaginary corner had been booming. Up – up – still up! Cost point was passed. Still up – and up – and up! Cost point was passed. STill up – and up – and up! Five points above cost – then ten – fifteen – twenty! Twenty points cold profit on the vast venture, now, and Aleck’s imaginary brokers were shouting frantically by imaginary long-distance, “Sell! sell! for Heaven’s sake sell!”
She broke the splendid news to Sally, and he, too, said, “Sell! sell – oh, don’t make a blunder, now, you own the earth! – sell, sell!” But she set her iron will and lashed it amidships, and said she would hold on for five points more if she died for it.
It was a fatal resolve. The very next day came the historic crash, the record crash, the devastating crash, when the bottom fell out of Wall Street, and the whole body of gilt-edged stocks dropped ninety-five points in five hours, and the multimillionaire was seen begging his bread in the Bowery. Aleck sternly held her grip and “put up” as long as she could, but at last there came a call which she was powerless to meet, and her imaginary brokers sold her out. Then, and not till then, the man in her was vanished, and the woman in her resumed sway. She put her arms about her husband’s neck and wept, saying:
“I am to blame, do not forgive me, I cannot bear it. We are paupers! Paupers, and I am so miserable. The weddings will never come off; all that is past; we could not even buy the dentist, now.”
A bitter reproach was on Sally’s tongue: “I begged you to sell, but you—” He did not say it; he had not the heart to add a hurt to that broken and repentant spirit. A nobler thought came to him and he said:
“Bear up, my Aleck, all is not lost! You really never invested a penny of my uncle’s bequest, but only its unmaterialized future; what we have lost was only the incremented harvest from that future by your incomparable financial judgment and sagacity. Cheer up, banish these griefs; we still have the thirty thousand untouched; and with the experience which you have acquired, think what you will be able to do with it in a couple years! The marriages are not off, they are only postponed.”
These are blessed words. Aleck saw how true they were, and their influence was electric; her tears ceased to flow, and her great spirit rose to its full stature again. With flashing eye and grateful heart, and with hand uplifted in pledge and prophecy, she said:
“Now and here I proclaim—”
But she was interrupted by a visitor. It was the editor and proprietor of the Sagamore. He had happened into Lakeside to pay a duty-call upon an obscure grandmother of his who was nearing the end of her pilgrimage, and with the idea of combining business with grief he had looked up the Fosters, who had been so absorbed in other things for the past four years that they neglected to pay up their subscription. Six dollars due. No visitor could have been more welcome. He would know all about Uncle Tilbury and what his chances might be getting to be, cemeterywards. They could, of course, ask no questions, for that would squelch the bequest, but they could nibble around on the edge of the subject and hope for results. The scheme did not work. The obtuse editor did not know he was being nibbled at; but at last, chance accomplished what art had failed in. In illustration of something under discussion which required the help of metaphor, the editor said:
“Land, it’s a tough as Tilbury Foster! – as we say.”
It was sudden, and it made the Fosters jump. The editor noticed, and said, apologetically:
“No harm intended, I assure you. It’s just a saying; just a joke, you know – nothing of it. Relation of yours?”
Sally crowded his burning eagerness down, and answered with all the indifference he could assume:
“I – well, not that I know of, but we’ve heard of him.” The editor was thankful, and resumed his composure. Sally added: “Is he – is he – well?”
“Is he well? Why, bless you he’s in Sheol these five years!”
The Fosters were trembling with grief, though it felt like joy. Sally said, non-committally – and tentatively:
“Ah, well, such is life, and none can escape – not even the rich are spared.”
The editor laughed.
“If you are including Tilbury,” said he, “it don’t apply. He hadn’t a cent; the town had to bury him.”
The Fosters sat petrified for two minutes; petrified and cold. Then, white-faced and weak-voiced, Sally asked:
“Is it true? Do you know it to be true?”
“Well, I should say! I was one of the executors. He hadn’t anything to leave but a wheelbarrow, and he left that to me. It hadn’t any wheel, and wasn’t any good. Still, it was something, and so, to square up, I scribbled off a sort of a little obituarial send-off for him, but it got crowded out.”
The Fosters were not listening – their cup was full, it could contain no more. They sat with bowed heads, dead to all things but the ache at their hearts.
An hour later. Still they sat there, bowed, motionless, silent, the visitor long ago gone, they unaware.
Then they stirred, and lifted their heads wearily, and gazed at each other wistfully, dreamily, dazed; then presently began to twaddle to each other in a wandering and childish way. At intervals they lapsed into silences, leaving a sentence unfinished, seemingly either unaware of it or losing their way. Sometimes, when they woke out of these silences they had a dim and transient consciousness that something had happened to their minds; then with a dumb and yearning solicitude they would softly caress each other’s hands in mutual compassion and support, as if they would say: “I am near you, I will not forsake you, we will bear it together; somewhere there is release and forgetfulness, somewhere there is a grave and peace; be patient, it will not be long.”
They lived yet two years, in mental night, always brooding, steeped in vague regrets and melancholy dreams, never speaking; then release came to both on the same day.
Toward the end the darkness lifted from Sally’s ruined mind for a moment, and he said:
“Vast wealth, acquired by sudden and unwholesome means, is a snare. It did us no good, transient were its feverish pleasures; yet for its sake we threw away our sweet and simple and happy life – let others take warning by us.”
He lay silent awhile, with closed eyes; then as the chill of death crept upward toward his heart, and consciousness was fading from his brain, he muttered:
“Money had brought him misery, and he took his revenge upon us, who had done him no harm. He had his desire: with base and cunning calculation he left us but thirty thousand, knowing we would try to increase it, and ruin our life and break our hearts. Without added expense he could have left us far above desire of increase, far above the temptation to speculate, and a kinder soul would have done it; but in him was no generous spirit, no pity, no—”
A Dog’s Tale
My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me, I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised and envious, as wondering how she got so much education. But, indeed, it was not real education; it was only show: she got the words by listening in the dining-room and drawing-room when there was company, and by going with the children to Sunday-school and listening there; and whenever she heard a large word she said it over to herself many times, and so was able to keep it until there was a dogmatic gathering in the neighborhood, then she would get it off, and surprise and distress them all, from pocket-pup to mastiff, which rewarded her for all her trouble. If there was a stranger he was nearly sure to be suspicious, and when he got his breath again he would ask her what it meant. And she always told him. He was never expecting this but thought he would catch her; so when she told him, he was the one that looked ashamed, whereas he had thought it was going to be she. The others were always waiting for this, and glad of it and proud of her, for they knew what was going to happen, because they had had experience. When she told the meaning of a big word they were all so taken up with admiration that it never occurred to any dog to doubt if it was the right one; and that was natural, because, for one thing, she answered up so promptly that it seemed like a dictionary speaking, and for another thing, where could they find out whether it was right or not? for she was the only cultivated dog there was. By and by, when I was older, she brought home the word Unintellectual, one time, and worked it pretty hard all the week at different gatherings, making much unhappiness and despondency; and it was at this time that I noticed that during that week she was asked for the meaning at eight different assemblages, and flashed out a fresh definition every time, which showed me that she had more presence of mind than culture, though I said nothing, of course. She had one word which she always kept on hand, and ready, like a life-preserver, a kind of emergency word to strap on when she was likely to get washed overboard in a sudden way – that was the word Synonymous. When she happened to fetch out a long word which had had its day weeks before and its prepared meanings gone to her dump-pile, if there was a stranger there of course it knocked him groggy for a couple of minutes, then he would come to, and by that time she would be away down wind on another tack, and not expecting anything; so when he’d hail and ask her to cash in, I (the only dog on the inside of her game) could see her canvas flicker a moment – but only just a moment – then it would belly out taut and full, and she would say, as calm as a summer’s day, “It’s synonymous with supererogation,” or some godless long reptile of a word like that, and go placidly about and skim away on the next tack, perfectly comfortable, you know, and leave that stranger looking profane and embarrassed, and the initiated slatting the floor with their tails in unison and their faces transfigured with a holy joy.
And it was the same with phrases. She would drag home a whole phrase, if it had a grand sound, and play it six nights and two matinées, and explain it a new way every time – which she had to, for all she cared for was the phrase; she wasn’t interested in what it meant, and knew those dogs hadn’t wit enough to catch her, anyway. Yes, she was a daisy! She got so she wasn’t afraid of anything, she had such confidence in the ignorance of those creatures. She even brought anecdotes that she had heard the family and the dinner-guests laugh and shout over; and as a rule she got the nub of one chestnut hitched onto another chestnut, where, of course, it didn’t fit and hadn’t any point; and when she delivered the nub she fell over and rolled on the floor and laughed and barked in the most insane way, while I could see that she was wondering to herself why it didn’t seem as funny as it did when she first heard it. But no harm was done; the others rolled and barked too, privately ashamed of themselves for not seeing the point, and never suspecting that the fault was not with them and there wasn’t any to see.
You can see by these things that she was of a rather vain and frivolous character; still, she had virtues, and enough to make up, I think. She had a kind heart and gentle ways, and never harbored resentments for injuries done her, but put them easily out of her mind and forgot them; and she taught her children her kindly way, and from her we learned also to be brave and prompt in time of danger, and not to run away, but face the peril that threatened friend or stranger, and help him the best we could without stopping to think what the cost might be to us. And she taught us not by words only, but by example, and that is the best way and the surest and the most lasting. Why, the brave things she did, the splendid things! she was just a soldier; and so modest about it – well, you couldn’t help admiring her, and you couldn’t help imitating her; not even a King Charles spaniel could remain entirely despicable in her society. So, as you see, there was more to her than her education.
When I was well grown, at last, I was sold and taken away, and I never saw her again. She was broken-hearted, and so was I, and we cried; but she comforted me as well as she could, and said we were sent into this world for a wise and good purpose, and must do our duties without repining, take our life as we might find it, live it for the best good of others, and never mind about the results; they were not our affair. She said men who did like this would have a noble and beautiful reward by and by in another world, and although we animals would not go there, to do well and right without reward would give to our brief lives a worthiness and dignity which in itself would be a reward. She had gathered these things from time to time when she had gone to the Sunday-school with the children, and had laid them up in her memory more carefully than she had done with those other words and phrases; and she had studied them deeply, for her good and ours. One may see by this that she had a wise and thoughtful head, for all there was so much lightness and vanity in it.
So we said our farewells, and looked our last upon each other through our tears; and the last thing she said – keeping it for the last to make me remember it the better, I think – was, “In memory of me, when there is a time of danger to another do not think of yourself, think of your mother, and do as she would do.”
Do you think I could forget that? No.
It was such a charming home! – my new one; a fine great house, with pictures, and delicate decorations, and rich furniture, and no gloom anywhere, but all the wilderness of dainty colors lit up with flooding sunshine; and the spacious grounds around it, and the great garden – oh, greensward, and noble trees, and flowers, no end! And I was the same as a member of the family; and they loved me, and petted me, and did not give me a new name, but called me by my old one that was dear to me because my mother had given it me – Aileen Mavoureen. She got it out of a song; and the Grays knew that song, and said it was a beautiful name.
Mrs. Gray was thirty, and so sweet and so lovely, you cannot imagine it; and Sadie was ten, and just like her mother, just a darling slender little copy of her, with auburn tails down her back, and short frocks; and the baby was a year old, and plump and dimpled, and fond of me, and never could get enough of hauling on my tail, and hugging me, and laughing out its innocent happiness; and Mr. Gray was thirty-eight, and tall and slender and handsome, a little bald in front, alert, quick in his movements, business-like, prompt, decided, unsentimental, and with that kind of trim-chiseled face that just seems to glint and sparkle with frosty intellectuality! He was a renowned scientist. I do not know what the word means, but my mother would know how to use it and get effects. She would know how to depress a rat-terrier with it and make a lap-dog look sorry he came. But that is not the best one; the best one was Laboratory. My mother could organize a Trust on that one that would skin the tax-collars off the whole herd. The laboratory was not a book, or a picture, or a place to wash your hands in, as the college president’s dog said – no, that is the lavatory; the laboratory is quite different, and is filled with jars, and bottles, and electrics, and wires, and strange machines; and every week other scientists came there and sat in the place, and used the machines, and discussed, and made what they called experiments and discoveries; and often I came, too, and stood around and listened, and tried to learn, for the sake of my mother, and in loving memory of her, although it was a pain to me, as realizing what she was losing out of her life and I gaining nothing at all; for try as I might, I was never able to make anything out of it at all.
Other times I lay on the floor in the mistress’s work-room and slept, she gently using me for a foot-stool, knowing it pleased me, for it was a caress; other times I spent an hour in the nursery, and got well tousled and made happy; other times I watched by the crib there, when the baby was asleep and the nurse out for a few minutes on the baby’s affairs; other times I romped and raced through the grounds and the garden with Sadie till we were tired out, then slumbered on the grass in the shade of a tree while she read her book; other times I went visiting among the neighbor dogs – for there were some most pleasant ones not far away, and one very handsome and courteous and graceful one, a curly-haired Irish setter by the name of Robin Adair, who was a Presbyterian like me, and belonged to the Scotch minister.
The servants in our house were all kind to me and were fond of me, and so, as you see, mine was a pleasant life. There could not be a happier dog that I was, nor a gratefuler one. I will say this for myself, for it is only the truth: I tried in all ways to do well and right, and honor my mother’s memory and her teachings, and earn the happiness that had come to me, as best I could.
By and by came my little puppy, and then my cup was full, my happiness was perfect. It was the dearest little waddling thing, and so smooth and soft and velvety, and had such cunning little awkward paws, and such affectionate eyes, and such a sweet and innocent face; and it made me so proud to see how the children and their mother adored it, and fondled it, and exclaimed over every little wonderful thing it did. It did seem to me that life was just too lovely to—
Then came the winter. One day I was standing a watch in the nursery. That is to say, I was asleep on the bed. The baby was asleep in the crib, which was alongside the bed, on the side next the fireplace. It was the kind of crib that has a lofty tent over it made of gauzy stuff that you can see through. The nurse was out, and we two sleepers were alone. A spark from the wood-fire was shot out, and it lit on the slope of the tent. I suppose a quiet interval followed, then a scream from the baby awoke me, and there was that tent flaming up toward the ceiling! Before I could think, I sprang to the floor in my fright, and in a second was half-way to the door; but in the next half-second my mother’s farewell was sounding in my ears, and I was back on the bed again., I reached my head through the flames and dragged the baby out by the waist-band, and tugged it along, and we fell to the floor together in a cloud of smoke; I snatched a new hold, and dragged the screaming little creature along and out at the door and around the bend of the hall, and was still tugging away, all excited and happy and proud, when the master’s voice shouted:
“Begone you cursed beast!” and I jumped to save myself; but he was furiously quick, and chased me up, striking furiously at me with his cane, I dodging this way and that, in terror, and at last a strong blow fell upon my left foreleg, which made me shriek and fall, for the moment, helpless; the cane went up for another blow, but never descended, for the nurse’s voice rang wildly out, “The nursery’s on fire!” and the master rushed away in that direction, and my other bones were saved.
The pain was cruel, but, no matter, I must not lose any time; he might come back at any moment; so I limped on three legs to the other end of the hall, where there was a dark little stairway leading up into a garret where old boxes and such things were kept, as I had heard say, and where people seldom went. I managed to climb up there, then I searched my way through the dark among the piles of things, and hid in the secretest place I could find. It was foolish to be afraid there, yet still I was; so afraid that I held in and hardly even whimpered, though it would have been such a comfort to whimper, because that eases the pain, you know. But I could lick my leg, and that did some good.
For half an hour there was a commotion downstairs, and shoutings, and rushing footsteps, and then there was quiet again. Quiet for some minutes, and that was grateful to my spirit, for then my fears began to go down; and fears are worse than pains – oh, much worse. Then came a sound that froze me. They were calling me – calling me by name – hunting for me!
It was muffled by distance, but that could not take the terror out of it, and it was the most dreadful sound to me that I had ever heard. It went all about, everywhere, down there: along the halls, through all the rooms, in both stories, and in the basement and the cellar; then outside, and farther and farther away – then back, and all about the house again, and I thought it would never, never stop. But at last it did, hours and hours after the vague twilight of the garret had long ago been blotted out by black darkness.
Then in that blessed stillness my terrors fell little by little away, and I was at peace and slept. It was a good rest I had, but I woke before the twilight had come again. I was feeling fairly comfortable, and I could think out a plan now. I made a very good one; which was, to creep down, all the way down the back stairs, and hide behind the cellar door, and slip out and escape when the iceman came at dawn, while he was inside filling the refrigerator; then I would hide all day, and start on my journey when night came; my journey to – well, anywhere where they would not know me and betray me to the master. I was feeling almost cheerful now; then suddenly I thought: Why, what would life be without my puppy!
That was despair. There was no plan for me; I saw that; I must say where I was; stay, and wait, and take what might come – it was not my affair; that was what life is – my mother had said it. Then – well, then the calling began again! All my sorrows came back. I said to myself, the master will never forgive. I did not know what I had done to make him so bitter and so unforgiving, yet I judged it was something a dog could not understand, but which was clear to a man and dreadful.
They called and called – days and nights, it seemed to me. So long that the hunger and thirst near drove me mad, and I recognized that I was getting very weak. When you are this way you sleep a great deal, and I did. Once I woke in an awful fright – it seemed to me that the calling was right there in the garret! And so it was: it was Sadie’s voice, and she was crying; my name was falling from her lips all broken, poor thing, and I could not believe my ears for the joy of it when I heard her say:
“Come back to us – oh, come back to us, and forgive – it is all so sad without our—”
I broke in with such a grateful little yelp, and the next moment Sadie was plunging and stumbling through the darkness and the lumber and shouting for the family to hear, “She’s found, she’s found!”
The days that followed – well, they were wonderful. The mother and Sadie and the servants – why, they just seemed to worship me. They couldn’t seem to make me a bed that was fine enough; and as for food, they couldn’t be satisfied with anything but game and delicacies that were out of season; and every day the friends and neighbors flocked in to hear about my heroism – that was the name they called it by, and it means agriculture. I remember my mother pulling it on a kennel once, and explaining it in that way, but didn’t say what agriculture was, except that it was synonymous with intramural incandescence; and a dozen times a day Mrs. Gray and Sadie would tell the tale to new-comers, and say I risked my life to say the baby’s, and both of us had burns to prove it, and then the company would pass me around and pet me and exclaim about me, and you could see the pride in the eyes of Sadie and her mother; and when the people wanted to know what made me limp, they looked ashamed and changed the subject, and sometimes when people hunted them this way and that way with questions about it, it looked to me as if they were going to cry.
And this was not all the glory; no, the master’s friends came, a whole twenty of the most distinguished people, and had me in the laboratory, and discussed me as if I was a kind of discovery; and some of them said it was wonderful in a dumb beast, the finest exhibition of instinct they could call to mind; but the master said, with vehemence, “It’s far above instinct; it’s reason, and many a man, privileged to be saved and go with you and me to a better world by right of its possession, has less of it that this poor silly quadruped that’s foreordained to perish”; and then he laughed, and said: “Why, look at me – I’m a sarcasm! bless you, with all my grand intelligence, the only think I inferred was that the dog had gone mad and was destroying the child, whereas but for the beast’s intelligence – it’s reason, I tell you! – the child would have perished!”
They disputed and disputed, and I was the very center of subject of it all, and I wished my mother could know that this grand honor had come to me; it would have made her proud.
Then they discussed optics, as they called it, and whether a certain injury to the brain would produce blindness or not, but they could not agree about it, and said they must test it by experiment by and by; and next they discussed plants, and that interested me, because in the summer Sadie and I had planted seeds – I helped her dig the holes, you know – and after days and days a little shrub or a flower came up there, and it was a wonder how that could happen; but it did, and I wished I could talk – I would have told those people about it and shown then how much I knew, and been all alive with the subject; but I didn’t care for the optics; it was dull, and when they came back to it again it bored me, and I went to sleep.
Pretty soon it was spring, and sunny and pleasant and lovely, and the sweet mother and the children patted me and the puppy good-by, and went away on a journey and a visit to their kin, and the master wasn’t any company for us, but we played together and had good times, and the servants were kind and friendly, so we got along quite happily and counted the days and waited for the family.
And one day those men came again, and said, now for the test, and they took the puppy to the laboratory, and I limped three-leggedly along, too, feeling proud, for any attention shown to the puppy was a pleasure to me, of course. They discussed and experimented, and then suddenly the puppy shrieked, and they set him on the floor, and he went staggering around, with his head all bloody, and the master clapped his hands and shouted:
“There, I’ve won – confess it! He’s a blind as a bat!”
And they all said:
“It’s so – you’ve proved your theory, and suffering humanity owes you a great debt from henceforth,” and they crowded around him, and wrung his hand cordially and thankfully, and praised him.
But I hardly saw or heard these things, for I ran at once to my little darling, and snuggled close to it where it lay, and licked the blood, and it put its head against mine, whimpering softly, and I knew in my heart it was a comfort to it in its pain and trouble to feel its mother’s touch, though it could not see me. Then it dropped down, presently, and its little velvet nose rested upon the floor, and it was still, and did not move any more.
Soon the master stopped discussing a moment, and rang in the footman, and said, “Bury it in the far corner of the garden,” and then went on with the discussion, and I trotted after the footman, very happy and grateful, for I knew the puppy was out of its pain now, because it was asleep. We went far down the garden to the farthest end, where the children and the nurse and the puppy and I used to play in the summer in the shade of a great elm, and there the footman dug a hole, and I saw he was going to plant the puppy, and I was glad, because it would grow and come up a fine handsome dog, like Robin Adair, and be a beautiful surprise for the family when they came home; so I tried to help him dig, but my lame leg was no good, being stiff, you know, and you have to have two, or it is no use. When the footman had finished and covered little Robin up, he patted my head, and there were tears in his eyes, and he said: “Poor little doggie, you saved his child!”
I have watched two whole weeks, and he doesn’t come up! This last week a fright has been stealing upon me. I think there is something terrible about this. I do not know what it is, but the fear makes me sick, and I cannot eat, though the servants bring me the best of food; and they pet me so, and even come in the night, and cry, and say, “Poor doggie – do give it up and come home; don’t break our hearts!” and all this terrifies me the more, and makes me sure something has happened. And I am so weak; since yesterday I cannot stand on my feet anymore. And within this hour the servants, looking toward the sun where it was sinking out of sight and the night chill coming on, said things I could not understand, but they carried something cold to my heart.
“Those poor creatures! They do not suspect. They will come home in the morning, and eagerly ask for the little doggie that did the brave deed, and who of us will be strong enough to say the truth to them: ’The humble little friend is gone where go the beasts that perish.’”
Was It Heaven? Or Hell?
“You told a lie?”
“You confess it – you actually confess it – you told a lie!”
The family consisted of four persons: Margaret Lester, widow, aged thirty six; Helen Lester, her daughter, aged sixteen; Mrs. Lester’s maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester Gray, twins, aged sixty-seven. Waking and sleeping, the three women spent their days and night in adoring the young girl; in watching the movements of her sweet spirit in the mirror of her face; in refreshing their souls with the vision of her bloom and beauty; in listening to the music of her voice; in gratefully recognizing how rich and fair for them was the world with this presence in it; in shuddering to think how desolate it would be with this light gone out of it.
By nature – and inside – the aged aunts were utterly dear and lovable and good, but in the matter of morals and conduct their training had been so uncompromisingly strict that it had made them exteriorly austere, not to say stern. Their influence was effective in the house; so effective that the mother and the daughter conformed to its moral and religious requirements cheerfully, contentedly, happily, unquestionably. To do this was become second nature to them. And so in this peaceful heaven there were no clashings, no irritations, no fault-finding, no heart-burnings.
In it a lie had no place. In it a lie was unthinkable. In it speech was restricted to absolute truth, iron-bound truth, implacable and uncompromising truth, let the resulting consequences be what they might. At last, one day, under stress of circumstances, the darling of the house sullied her lips with a lie – and confessed it, with tears and self-upbraidings. There are not any words that can paint the consternation of the aunts. It was as if the sky had crumpled up and collapsed and the earth had tumbled to ruin with a crash. They sat side by side, white and stern, gazing speechless upon the culprit, who was on her knees before them with her face buried first in one lap and then the other, moaning and sobbing, and appealing for sympathy and forgiveness and getting no response, humbly kissing the hand of the one, then of the other, only to see it withdrawn as suffering defilement by those soiled lips.
Twice, at intervals, Aunt Hester said, in frozen amazement:
“You told a lie?”
Twice, at intervals, Aunt Hannah followed with the muttered and amazed ejaculation:
“You confess it – you actually confess it – you told a lie!”
It was all they could say. The situation was new, unheard of, incredible; they could not understand it, they did not know how to take hold of it, it approximately paralyzed speech.
At length it was decided that the erring child must be taken to her mother, who was ill, and who ought to know what had happened. Helen begged, besought, implored that she might be spared this further disgrace, and that her mother might be spared the grief and pain of it; but this could not be: duty required this sacrifice, duty takes precedence of all things, nothing can absolve one from a duty, with a duty no compromise is possible.
Helen still begged, and said the sin was her own, her mother had had no hand in it – why must she be made to suffer for it?
But the aunts were obdurate in their righteousness, and said the law that visited the sins of the parent upon the child was by all right and reason reversible; and therefore it was but just that the innocent mother of a sinning child should suffer her rightful share of the grief and pain and shame which were the allotted wages of the sin.
The three moved toward the sick-room.
At this time the doctor was approaching the house. He was still a good distance away, however. He was a good doctor and a good man, and he had a good heart, but one had to know him a year to get over hating him, two years to learn to endure him, three to learn to like him, and four and five to learn to love him. It was a slow and trying education, but it paid. He was of great stature; he had a leonine head, a leonine face, a rough voice, and an eye which was sometimes a pirate’s and sometimes a woman’s, according to the mood. He knew nothing about etiquette, and cared nothing about it; in speech, manner, carriage, and conduct he was the reverse of conventional. He was frank, to the limit; he had opinions on all subjects; they were always on tap and ready for delivery, and he cared not a farthing whether his listener liked them or didn’t. Whom he loved he loved, and manifested it; whom he didn’t love he hated, and published it from the housetops. In his young days he had been a sailor, and the salt-airs of all the seas blew from him yet. He was a sturdy and loyal Christian, and believed he was the best one in the land, and the only one whose Christianity was perfectly sound, healthy, full-charged with common sense, and had no decayed places in it. People who had an ax to grind, or people who for any reason wanted wanted to get on the soft side of him, called him The Christian – a phrase whose delicate flattery was music to his ears, and whose capital T was such an enchanting and vivid object to him that he could see it when it fell out of a person’s mouth even in the dark. Many who were fond of him stood on their consciences with both feet and brazenly called him by that large title habitually, because it was a pleasure to them to do anything that would please him; and with eager and cordial malice his extensive and diligently cultivated crop of enemies gilded it, beflowered it, expanded it to “The only Christian.” Of these two titles, the latter had the wider currency; the enemy, being greatly in the majority, attended to that. Whatever the doctor believed, he believed with all his heart, and would fight for it whenever he got the chance; and if the intervals between chances grew to be irksomely wide, he would invent ways of shortening them himself. He was severely conscientious, according to his rather independent lights, and whatever he took to be a duty he performed, no matter whether the judgment of the professional moralists agreed with his own or not. At sea, in his young days, he had used profanity freely, but as soon as he was converted he made a rule, which he rigidly stuck to ever afterward, never to use it except on the rarest occasions, and then only when duty commanded. He had been a hard drinker at sea, but after his conversion he became a firm and outspoken teetotaler, in order to be an example to the young, and from that time forth he seldom drank; never, indeed, except when it seemed to him to be a duty – a condition which sometimes occurred a couple of times a year, but never as many as five times.
Necessarily, such a man is impressionable, impulsive, emotional. This one was, and had no gift at hiding his feelings; or if he had it he took no trouble to exercise it. He carried his soul’s prevailing weather in his face, and when he entered a room the parasols or the umbrellas went up – figuratively speaking – according to the indications. When the soft light was in his eye it meant approval, and delivered a benediction; when he came with a frown he lowered the temperature ten degrees. He was a well-beloved man in the house of his friends, but sometimes a dreaded one.
He had a deep affection for the Lester household and its several members returned this feeling with interest. They mourned over his kind of Christianity, and he frankly scoffed at theirs; but both parties went on loving each other just the same.
He was approaching the house – out of the distance; the aunts and the culprit were moving toward the sick-chamber.
The three last named stood by the bed; the aunts austere, the transgressor softly sobbing. The mother turned her head on the pillow; her tired eyes flamed up instantly with sympathy and passionate mother-love when they fell upon her child, and she opened the refuge and shelter of her arms.
“Wait!” said Aunt Hannah, and put out her hand and stayed the girl from leaping into them.
“Helen,” said the other aunt, impressively, “tell your mother all. Purge your soul; leave nothing unconfessed.”
Standing stricken and forlorn before her judges, the young girl mourned her sorrowful tale through the end, then in a passion of appeal cried out:
“Oh, mother, can’t you forgive me? won’t you forgive me? – I am so desolate!”
“Forgive you, my darling? Oh, come to my arms! – there, lay your head upon my breast, and be at peace. If you had told a thousand lies—”
There was a sound – a warning – the clearing of a throat. The aunts glanced up, and withered in their clothes – there stood the doctor, his face a thunder-cloud. Mother and child knew nothing of his presence; they lay locked together, heart to heart, steeped in immeasurable content, dead to all things else. The physician stood many moments glaring and glooming upon the scene before him; studying it, analyzing it, searching out its genesis; then he put up his hand and beckoned to the aunts. They came trembling to him, and stood humbly before him and waited. He bent down and whispered:
“Didn’t I tell you this patient must be protected from all excitement? What the hell have you been doing? Clear out of the place!”
They obeyed. Half an hour later he appeared in the parlor, serene, cheery, clothed in sunshine, conducting Helen, with his arm about her waist, petting her, and saying gentle and playful things to her; and she also was her sunny and happy self again.
“Now, then;” he said, “good-by, dear. Go to your room, and keep away from your mother, and behave yourself. But wait – put out your tongue. There, that will do – you’re as sound as a nut!” He patted her cheek and added, “Run along now; I want to talk to these aunts.”
She went from the presence. His face clouded over again at once; and as he sat down he said:
“You too have been doing a lot of damage – and maybe some good. Some good, yes – such as it is. That woman’s disease is typhoid! You’ve brought it to a show-up, I think, with your insanities, and that’s a service – such as it is. I hadn’t been able to determine what it was before.”
With one impulse the old ladies sprang to their feet, quaking with terror.
“Sit down! What are you proposing to do?”
“Do? We must fly to her. We—”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind; you’ve done enough harm for one day. Do you want to squander all your capital of crimes and follies on a single deal? Sit down, I tell you. I have arranged for her to sleep; she needs it; if you disturb her without my orders, I’ll brain you – if you’ve got the materials for it.”
They sat down, distressed and indignant, but obedient, under compulsion. He proceeded:
“Now, then, I want this case explained. They wanted to explain it to me – as if there hadn’t been emotion or excitement enough already. You knew my orders; how did you dare to go in there and get up that riot?”
Hester looked appealing at Hannah; Hannah returned a beseeching look at Hester – neither wanted to dance to this unsympathetic orchestra. The doctor came to their help. He said:
Fingering at the fringes of her shawl, and with lowered eyes, Hester said, timidly:
“We should not have disobeyed for any ordinary cause, but this was vital. This was a duty. With a duty one has no choice; one must put all lighter considerations aside and perform it. We were obliged to arraign her before her mother. She had told a lie.”
The doctor glowered upon the woman a moment, and seemed to be trying to work up in his mind an understand of a wholly incomprehensible proposition; then he stormed out:
“She told a lie! Did she? God bless my soul! I tell a million a day! And so does every doctor. And so does everybody – including you – for that matter. And that was the important thing that authorized you to venture to disobey my orders and imperil that woman’s life! Look here, Hester Gray, this is pure lunacy; that girl couldn’t tell a lie that was intended to injure a person. The thing is impossible – absolutely impossible. You know it yourselves – both of you; you know it perfectly well.”
Hannah came to her sister’s rescue:
“Hester didn’t mean that it was that kind of a lie, and it wasn’t. But it was a lie.”
“Well, upon my word, I never heard such nonsense! Haven’t you got sense enough to discriminate between lies! Don’t you know the difference between a lie that helps and a lie that hurts?”
“All lies are sinful,” said Hannah, setting her lips together like a vise; “all lies are forbidden.”
The Only Christian fidgeted impatiently in his chair. He went to attack this proposition, but he did not quite know how or where to begin. Finally he made a venture:
“Hester, wouldn’t you tell a lie to shield a person from an undeserved injury or shame?”
“Not even a friend?”
“Not even your dearest friend?”
“No. I would not.”
The doctor struggled in silence awhile with this situation; then he asked:
“Not even to save him from bitter pain and misery and grief?”
“No. Not even to save his life.”
Another pause. Then:
“Nor his soul?”
There was a hush – a silence which endured a measurable interval – then Hester answered, in a low voice, but with decision:
“Nor his soul?”
No one spoke for a while; then the doctor said:
“Is it with you the same, Hannah?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“I ask you both – why?”
“Because to tell such a lie, or any lie, is a sin, and could cost us the loss of our own souls—would, indeed, if we died without time to repent.”
“Strange… strange… it is past belief.” Then he asked, roughly: “Is such a soul as that worth saving?” He rose up, mumbling and grumbling, and started for the door, stumping vigorously along. At the threshold he turned and rasped out an admonition: “Reform! Drop this mean and sordid and selfish devotion to the saving of your shabby little souls, and hunt up something to do that’s got some dignity to it! Risk your souls! risk them in good causes; then if you lose them, why should you care? Reform!”
The good old gentlewomen sat paralyzed, pulverized, outraged, insulted, and brooded in bitterness and indignation over these blasphemies. They were hurt to the heart, poor old ladies, and said they could never forgive these injuries.
They kept repeating that word resentfully. “Reform – and learn to tell lies!”
Time slipped along, and in due course a change came over their spirits. They had completed the human being’s first duty – which is to think about himself until he has exhausted the subject, then he is in a condition to take up minor interests and think of other people. This changes the complexion of his spirits – generally wholesomely. The minds of the two old ladies reverted to their beloved niece and the fearful disease which had smitten her; instantly they forgot the hurts their self-love had received, and a passionate desire rose in their hearts to go to the help of the sufferer and comfort her with their love, and minister to her, and labor for her the best they could with their weak hands, and joyfully and affectionately wear out their poor old bodies in her dear service if only they might have the privilege.
“And we shall have it!” said Hester, with the tears running down her face. “There are no nurses comparable to us, for there are no others that will stand their watch by that bed till they drop and die, and God knows we would do that.”
“Amen,” said Hannah, smiling approval and endorsement through the mist of moisture that blurred her glasses. “The doctor knows us, and knows we will not disobey again; and he will call no others. He will not dare!”
“Dare?” said Hester, with temper, and dashing the water from her eyes; “he will dare anything – that Christian devil! But it will do no good for him to try it this time – but, laws! Hannah! after all’s said and done, he is gifted and wise and good, and he would not think of such a thing…. It is surely time for one of us to go to that room. What is keeping him? Why doesn’t he come and say so?”
They caught the sound of his approaching step. He entered, sat down, and began to talk.
“Margaret is a sick woman,” he said. “She is still sleeping, but she will wake presently; then one of you must go to her. She will be worse before she is better. Pretty soon a night-and-day watch must be set. How much of it can you two undertake?”
“All of it!” burst from both ladies at once.
The doctor’s eyes flashed, and he said, with energy:
“You do ring true, you brave old relics! And you shall do all of the nursing you can, for there’s none to match you in that divine office in this town; but you can’t do all of it, and it would be a crime to let you.” It was grand praise, golden praise, coming from such a source, and it took nearly all the resentment out of the aged twin’s hearts. “Your Tilly and my old Nancy shall do the rest – good nurses both, white souls with black skins, watchful, loving, tender – just perfect nurses! – and competent liars from the cradle…. Look you! keep a little watch on Helen; she is sick, and is going to be sicker.”
The ladies looked a little surprised, and not credulous; and Hester said:
“How is that? It isn’t an hour since you said she was as sound as a nut.”
The doctor answered, tranquilly:
“It was a lie.”
The ladies turned upon him indignantly, and Hannah said:
“How can you make an odious confession like that, in so indifferent a tone, when you know how we feel about all forms of—”
“Hush! You are as ignorant as cats, both of you, and you don’t know what you are talking about. You are like all the rest of the moral moles; you lie from morning till night, but because you don’t do it with your mouths, but only with your lying eyes, your lying inflections, your deceptively misplaced emphasis, and your misleading gestures, you turn up your complacent noses and parade before God and the world as saintly and unsmirched Truth-Speakers, in whose cold-storage souls a lie would freeze to death if it got there! Why will you humbug yourselves with that foolish notion that no lie is a lie except a spoken one? What is the difference between lying with your eyes and lying with your mouth? There is none; and if you would reflect a moment you would see that it is so. There isn’t a human being that doesn’t tell a gross of lies every day of his life; and you – why, between you, you tell thirty thousand; yet you flare up here in a lurid hypocritical horror because I tell that child a benevolent and sinless lie to protect her from her imagination, which would get to work and warm up her blood to a fever in an hour, if I were disloyal enough to my duty to let it. Which I should probably do if I were interested in saving my soul by such disreputable means.
“Come, let us reason together. Let us examine details. When you two were in the sick-room raising that riot, what would you have done if you had known I was coming?”
“You would have slipped out and carried Helen with you – wouldn’t you?”
The ladies were silent.
“What would be your object and intention?”
“To keep me from finding out your guilt; to beguile me to infer that Margaret’s excitement proceeded from some cause not known to you. In a word, to tell me a lie – a silent lie. Moreover, a possibly harmful one.”
The twins colored, but did not speak.
“You not only tell myriads of silent lies, but you tell lies with your mouths – you two.”
“That is not so!”
“It is so. But only harmless ones. You never dream of uttering a harmful one. Do you know that that is a concession – and a confession?”
“How do you mean?”
“It is an unconscious concession that harmless lies are not criminal; it is a confession that you constantly make that discrimination. For instance, you declined old Mrs. Foster’s invitation last week to meet those odious Higbies at supper – in a polite note in which you expressed regret and said you were very sorry you could not go. It was a lie. It was as unmitigated a lie as was ever uttered. Deny it, Hester – with another lie.”
Hester replied with a toss of her head.
“That will not do. Answer. Was it a lie, or wasn’t it?”
The color stole into the cheeks of both women, and with a struggle and an effort they got out their confession:
“It was a lie.”
“Good – the reform is beginning; there is hope for you yet; you will not tell a lie to save your dearest friend’s soul, but you will spew out one without a scruple to save yourself the discomfort of telling an unpleasant truth.”
He rose. Hester, speaking for both, said; coldly:
“We have lied; we perceive it; it will occur no more. To lie is a sin. We shall never tell another one of any kind whatsoever, even lies of courtesy or benevolence, to save any one a pang or a sorrow decreed for him by God.”
“Ah, how soon you will fall! In fact, you have fallen already; for what you have just uttered is a lie. Good-by. Reform! One of you go to the sick-room now.”
Twelve days later.
Mother and child were lingering in the grip of the hideous disease. Of hope for either there was little. The aged sisters looked white and worn, but they would not give up their posts. Their hearts were breaking, poor old things, but their grit was steadfast and indestructible. All the twelve days the mother had pined for the child, and the child for the mother, but both knew that the prayer of these longings could not be granted. When the mother was told – on the first day – that her disease was typhoid, she was frightened, and asked if there was danger that Helen could have contracted it the day before, when she was in the sick-chamber on that confession visit. Hester told her the doctor had poo-pooed the idea. It troubled Hester to say it, although it was true, for she had not believed the doctor; but when she saw the mother’s joy in the news, the pain in her conscience lost something of its force – a result which made her ashamed of the constructive deception which she had practiced, though not ashamed enough to make her distinctly and definitely wish she had refrained from it. From that moment the sick woman understood that her daughter must remain away, and she said she would reconcile herself to the separation the best she could, for she would rather suffer death than have her child’s health imperiled. That afternoon Helen had to take to her bed, ill. She grew worse during the night. In the morning her mother asked after her:
“Is she well?”
Hester turned cold; she opened her lips, but the words refused to come. The mother lay languidly looking, musing, waiting; suddenly she turned white and gasped out:
“Oh, my God! what is it? is she sick?”
Then the poor aunt’s tortured heart rose in rebellion, and words came:
“No – be comforted; she is well.”
The sick woman put all her happy heart in her gratitude:
“Thank God for those dear words! Kiss me. How I worship you for saying them!”
Hester told this incident to Hannah, who received it with a rebuking look, and said, coldly:
“Sister, it was a lie.”
Hester’s lips trembled piteously; she choked down a sob, and said:
“Oh, Hannah, it was a sin, but I could not help it. I could not endure the fright and the misery that were in her face.”
“No matter. It was a lie. God will hold you to account for it.”
“Oh, I know it, I know it,” cried Hester, wringing her hands, “but even if it were now, I could not help it. I know I should do it again.”
“Then take my place with Helen in the morning. I will make the report myself.”
Hester clung to her sister, begging and imploring.
“Don’t, Hannah, oh, don’t – you will kill her.”
“I will at least speak the truth.”
In the morning she had a cruel report to bear to the mother, and she braced herself for the trial. When she returned from her mission, Hester was waiting, pale and trembling, in the hall. She whispered:
“Oh, how did she take it – that poor, desolate mother?”
Hannah’s eyes were swimming in tears. She said:
“God forgive me, I told her the child was well!”
Hester gathered her to her heart, with a grateful “God bless you, Hannah!” and poured out her thankfulness in an inundation of worshiping praises.
After that, the two knew the limit of their strength, and accepted their fate. They surrendered humbly, and abandoned themselves to the hard requirements of the situation. Daily they told the morning lie, and confessed their sin in prayer; not asking forgiveness, as not being worthy of it, but only wishing to make record that they realized their wickedness and were not desiring to hide it or excuse it.
Daily, as the fair young idol of the house sank lower and lower, the sorrowful old aunts painted her glowing bloom and her fresh young beauty to the wan mother, and winced under the stabs her ecstasies of joy and gratitude gave them.
In the first days, while the child had strength to hold a pencil, she wrote fond little love-notes to her mother, in which she concealed her illness; and these the mother read and reread through happy eyes wet with thankful tears, and kissed them over and over again, and treasured them as precious things under her pillow.
Then came a day when the strength was gone from the hand, and the mind wandered, and the tongue babbled pathetic incoherences. This was a sore dilemma for the poor aunts. There were no love-notes for the mother. They did not know what to do. Hester began a carefully studied and plausible explanation, but lost the track of it and grew confused; suspicion began to show in the mother’s face, then alarm. Hester saw it, recognized the imminence of the danger, and descended to the emergency, pulling herself resolutely together and plucking victor from the open jaws of defeat. In a placid and convincing voice she said:
“I thought it might distress you to know it, but Helen spent the night at the Sloanes’. There was a little party there, and, although she did not want to go, and you so sick, we persuaded her, she being young and needing the innocent pastimes of youth, and we believing you would approve. Be sure she will write the moment she comes.”
“How good you are, and how dear and thoughtful for us both! Approve? Why, I thank you with all my heart. My poor little exile! Tell her I want her to have every pleasure she can – I would not rob her of one. Only let her keep her health, that is all I ask. Don’t let that suffer; I could not bear it. How thankful I am that she escaped this infection – and what a narrow risk she ran, Aunt Hester! Think of that lovely face all dulled and burned with fever. I can’t bear the thought of it. Keep her health. Keep her bloom! I can see her now, the dainty creature – with the big, blue, earnest eyes; and sweet, oh, so sweet and gentle and winning! Is she as beautiful as ever, dear Aunt Hester?”
“Oh, more beautiful and bright and charming than ever she was before, if such a thing can be”—and Hester turned away and fumbled with the medicine-bottles, to hide her shame and grief.
After a little, both aunts were laboring upon a difficult and baffling work in Helen’s chamber. Patiently and earnestly, with their stiff old fingers, they were trying to forge the required note. They made failure after failure, but they improved little by little all the time. The pity of it all, the pathetic humor of it, there was none to see; they themselves were unconscious of it. Often their tears fell upon the notes and spoiled them; sometimes a single misformed word made a note risky which could have been ventured but for that; but at last Hannah produced one whose script was a good enough imitation of Helen’s to pass any but a suspicious eye, and bountifully enriched it with the petting phrases and loving nicknames that had been familiar on the child’s lips from her nursery days. She carried it to the mother, who took it with avidity, and kissed it, and fondled it, reading its precious words over and over again, and dwelling with deep contentment upon its closing paragraph:
“Mousie darling, if I could only see you, and kiss your eyes, and feel your arms about me! I am so glad my practicing does not disturb you. Get well soon. Everybody is good to me, but I am so lonesome without you, dear mamma.”
“The poor child, I know just how she feels. She cannot be quite happy without me; and I – oh, I live in the light of her eyes! Tell her she must practice all she pleases; and, Aunt Hannah – tell her I can’t hear the piano this far, nor hear dear voice when she sings: God knows I wish I could. No one knows how sweet that voice is to me; and to think – some day it will be silent! What are you crying for?”
“Only because – because – it was just a memory. When I came away she was singing, ‘Loch Lomond.’ The pathos of it! It always moves me so when she sings that.”
“And me, too. How heartbreakingly beautiful it is when some youthful sorrow is brooding in her breast and she sings it for the mystic healing it brings…. Aunt Hannah?”
“I am very ill. Sometimes it comes over me that I shall never hear that dear voice again.”
“Oh, don’t – don’t, Margaret! I can’t bear it!”
Margaret was moved and distressed, and said, gently:
“There – there – let me put my arms around you. Don’t cry. There – put your cheek to mine. Be comforted. I wish to live. I will live if I can. Ah, what could she do without me!.. Does she often speak of me? – but I know she does.”
“Oh, all the time – all the time!”
“My sweet child! She wrote the note the moment she came home?”
“Yes – the first moment. She would not wait to take off her things.”
“I knew it. It is her dear, impulsive, affectionate way. I knew it without asking, but I wanted to hear you say it. The petted wife knows she is loved, but she makes her husband tell her so every day, just for the joy of hearing it…. She used the pen this time. That is better; the pencil-marks could rub out, and I should grieve for that. Did you suggest that she use the pen?”
“Y – no – she – it was her own idea.”
The mother looked her pleasure, and said:
“I was hoping you would say that. There was never such a dear and thoughtful child!.. Aunt Hannah?”
“Go and tell her I think of her all the time, and worship her. Why – you are crying again. Don’t be so worried about me, dear; I think there is nothing to fear, yet.”
The grieving messenger carried her message, and piously delivered it to unheeding ears. The girl babbled on unaware; looking up at her with wondering and startled eyes flaming with fever, eyes in which was no light of recognition:
“Are you – no, you are not my mother. I want her – oh, I want her! She was here a minute ago – I did not see her go. Will she come? will she come quickly? will she come now?… There are so many houses… and they oppress me so… and everything whirls and turns and whirls… oh, my head, my head!”—and so she wandered on and on, in her pain, flitting from one torturing fancy to another, and tossing her arms about in a weary and ceaseless persecution of unrest.
Poor old Hannah wetted the parched lips and softly stroked the hot brow, murmuring endearing and pitying words, and thanking the Father of all that the mother was happy and did not know.
Daily the child sank lower and steadily lower towards the grave, and daily the sorrowing old watchers carried gilded tidings of her radiant health and loveliness to the happy mother, whose pilgrimage was also now nearing its end. And daily they forged loving and cheery notes in the child’s hand, and stood by with remorseful consciences and bleeding hearts, and wept to see the grateful mother devour them and adore them and treasure them away as things beyond price, because of their sweet source, and sacred because her child’s hand had touched them.
At last came that kindly friend who brings healing and peace to all. The lights were burning low. In the solemn hush which precedes the dawn vague figures flitted soundless along the dim hall and gathered silent and awed in Helen’s chamber, and grouped themselves about her bed, for a warning had gone forth, and they knew. The dying girl lay with closed lids, and unconscious, the drapery upon her breast faintly rising and falling as her wasting life ebbed away. At intervals a sigh or a muffled sob broke upon the stillness. The same haunting thought was in all minds there: the pity of this death, the going out into the great darkness, and the mother not here to help and hearten and bless.
Helen stirred; her hands began to grope wistfully about as if they sought something – she had been blind some hours. The end was come; all knew it. With a great sob Hester gathered her to her breast, crying, “Oh, my child, my darling!” A rapturous light broke in the dying girl’s face, for it was mercifully vouchsafed her to mistake those sheltering arms for another’s; and she went to her rest murmuring, “Oh, mamma, I am so happy – I longed for you – now I can die.”
Two hours later Hester made her report. The mother asked:
“How is it with the child?”
“She is well.”
A sheaf of white crape and black was hung upon the door of the house, and there it swayed and rustled in the wind and whispered its tidings. At noon the preparation of the dead was finished, and in the coffin lay the fair young form, beautiful, and in the sweet face a great peace. Two mourners sat by it, grieving and worshipping – Hannah and the black woman Tilly. Hester came, and she was trembling, for a great trouble was upon her spirit. She said:
“She asks for a note.”
Hannah’s face blanched. She had not thought of this; it had seemed that that pathetic service was ended. But she realized now that that could not be. For a little while the two women stood looking into each other’s face, with vacant eyes; then Hannah said:
“There is no way out of it – she must have it; she will suspect, else.”
“And she would find out.”
“Yes. It would break her heart.” She looked at the dead face, and her eyes filled. “I will write it,” she said.
Hester carried it. The closing line said:
“Darling Mousie, dear sweet mother, we shall soon be together again. Is not that good news? And it is true; they all say it is true.”
The mother mourned, saying:
“Poor child, how will she bear it when she knows? I shall never see her again in life. It is hard, so hard. She does not suspect? You guard her from that?”
“She thinks you will soon be well.”
“How good you are, and careful, dear Aunt Hester! None goes near herr who could carry the infection?”
“It would be a crime.”
“But you see her?”
“With a distance between – yes.”
“That is so good. Others one could not trust; but you two guardian angels – steel is not so true as you. Others would be unfaithful; and many would deceive, and lie.”
Hester’s eyes fell, and her poor old lips trembled.
“Let me kiss you for her, Aunt Hester; and when I am gone, and the danger is past, place the kiss upon her dear lips some day, and say her mother sent it, and all her mother’s broken heart is in it.”
Within the hour, Hester, raining tears upon the dead face, performed her pathetic mission.
Another day dawned, and grew, and spread its sunshine in the earth. Aunt Hannah brought comforting news to the failing mother, and a happy note, which said again, “We have but a little time to wait, darling mother, then we shall be together.”
The deep note of a bell came moaning down the wind.
“Aunt Hannah, it is tolling. Some poor soul is at rest. As I shall be soon. You will not let her forget me?”
“Oh, God knows she never will!”
“Do not you hear strange noises, Aunt Hannah? It sounds like the shuffling of many feet.”
“We hoped you would not hear it, dear. It is a little company gathering, for – for Helen’s sake, poor little prisoner. There will be music – and she loves it so. We thought you would not mind.”
“Mind? Oh no, no – oh, give her everything her dear heart can desire. How good you two are to her, and how good to me! God bless you both always!”
After a listening pause:
“How lovely! It is her organ. Is she playing it herself, do you think?” Faint and rich and inspiring the chords floating to her ears on the still air. “Yes, it is her touch, dear heart, I recognize it. They are singing. Why – it is a hymn! and the sacredest of all, the most touching, the most consoling…. It seems to open the gates of paradise to me…. If I could die now….”
Faint and far the words rose out of the stillness:
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee,
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.
With the closing of the hymn another soul passed to its rest, and they that had been one in life were not sundered in death. The sisters, mourning and rejoicing, said:
“How blessed it was that she never knew!”
At midnight they sat together, grieving, and the angel of the Lord appeared in the midst transfigured with a radiance not of earth; and speaking, said:
“For liars a place is appointed. There they burn in the fires of hell from everlasting unto everlasting. Repent!”
The bereaved fell upon their knees before him and clasped their hands and bowed their gray heads, adoring. But their tongues clove to the roof of their mouths, and they were dumb.
“Speak! that I may bear the message to the chancery of heaven and bring again the decree from which there is no appeal.”
Then they bowed their heads yet lower, and one said:
“Our sin is great, and we suffer shame; but only perfect and final repentance can make us whole; and we are poor creatures who have learned our human weakness, and we know that if we were in those hard straits again our hearts would fail again, and we should sin as before. The strong could prevail, and so be saved, but we are lost.”
They lifted their heads in supplication. The angel was gone. While they marveled and wept he came again; and bending low, he whispered the decree.
Was it Heaven? Or Hell?
A Cure For The Blues
By courtesy of Mr. Cable I came into possession of a singular book eight or ten years ago. It is likely that mine is now the only copy in existence. Its title-page, unabbreviated, reads as follows:
“The Enemy Conquered; or, Love Triumphant. By G. Ragsdale McClintock, (1) author of ‘An Address,’ etc., delivered at Sunflower Hill, South Carolina, and member of the Yale Law School. New Haven: published by T. H. Pease, 83 Chapel Street, 1845.”
No one can take up this book and lay it down again unread. Whoever reads one line of it is caught, is chained; he has become the contented slave of its fascinations; and he will read and read, devour and devour, and will not let it go out of his hand till it is finished to the last line, though the house be on fire over his head. And after a first reading he will not throw it aside, but will keep it by him, with his Shakespeare and his Homer, and will take it up many and many a time, when the world is dark and his spirits are low, and be straightway cheered and refreshed. Yet this work has been allowed to lie wholly neglected, unmentioned, and apparently unregretted, for nearly half a century.
The reader must not imagine that he is to find in it wisdom, brilliancy, fertility of invention, ingenuity of construction, excellence of form, purity of style, perfection of imagery, truth to nature, clearness of statement, humanly possible situations, humanly possible people, fluent narrative, connected sequence of events – or philosophy, or logic, or sense. No; the rich, deep, beguiling charm of the book lies in the total and miraculous absence from it of all these qualities – a charm which is completed and perfected by the evident fact that the author, whose naïve innocence easily and surely wins our regard, and almost our worship, does not know that they are absent, does not even suspect that they are absent. When read by the light of these helps to an understanding of the situation, the book is delicious – profoundly and satisfyingly delicious.
I call it a book because the author calls it a book, I call it a work because he calls it a work; but, in truth, it is merely a duodecimo pamphlet of thirty-one pages. It was written for fame and money, as the author very frankly – yes, and very hopefully, too, poor fellow – says in his preface. The money never came – no penny of it ever came; and how long, how pathetically long, the fame has been deferred – forty-seven years! He was young then, it would have been so much to him then; but will he care for it now?
As time is measured in America, McClintock’s epoch is antiquity. In his long-vanished day the Southern author had a passion for “eloquence”; it was his pet, his darling. He would be eloquent, or perish. And he recognized only one kind of eloquence – the lurid, the tempestuous, the volcanic. He liked words – big words, fine words, grand words, rumbling, thundering, reverberating words; with sense attaching if it could be got in without marring the sound, but not otherwise. He loved to stand up before a dazed world, and pour forth flame and smoke and lava and pumice-stone into the skies, and work his subterranean thunders, and shake himself with earthquakes, and stench himself with sulphur fumes. If he consumed his own fields and vineyards, that was a pity, yes; but he would have his eruption at any cost. Mr. McClintock’s eloquence – and he is always eloquent, his crater is always spouting – is of the pattern common to his day, but he departs from the custom of the time in one respect: his brethren allowed sense to intrude when it did not mar the sound, but he does not allow it to intrude at all. For example, consider this figure, which he used in the village “Address” referred to with such candid complacency in the title-page above quoted—“like the topmost topaz of an ancient tower.” Please read it again; contemplate it; measure it; walk around it; climb up it; try to get at an approximate realization of the size of it. Is the fellow to that to be found in literature, ancient or modern, foreign or domestic, living or dead, drunk or sober? One notices how fine and grand it sounds. We know that if it was loftily uttered, it got a noble burst of applause from the villagers; yet there isn’t a ray of sense in it, or meaning to it.