A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1875)/Eugene Pickering/Part 2
Madame Blumenthal seemed, for the time, to have abjured the Kursaal, and I never caught a glimpse of her. Her young friend, apparently, was an interesting study; she wished to pursue it undiverted.
She reappeared, however, at last, one evening at the opera, where from my chair I perceived her in a box, looking extremely pretty. Adelina Patti was singing, and after the rising of the curtain I was occupied with the stage; but on looking round when it fell for the entr' acte, I saw that the authoress of Cleopatra had been joined by her young admirer. He was sitting a little behind her, leaning forward, looking over her shoulder, and listening, while she, slowly moving her fan to and fro and letting her eye wander over the house, was apparently talking of this person and that. No doubt she was saying sharp things; but Pickering was not laughing; his eyes were following her covert indications; his mouth was half open, as it always was when he was interested; he looked intensely serious. I was glad that, having her back to him, she was unable to see how he looked. It seemed the proper moment to present myself and make her my bow; but just as I was about to leave my place, a gentleman, whom in a moment I perceived to be an old acquaintance, came to occupy the next chair. Recognition and mutual greetings followed, and I was forced to postpone my visit to Madame Blumenthal. I was not sorry, for it very soon occurred to me that Niedermeyer would be just the man to give me a fair prose version of Pickering's lyrical tributes to his friend. He was an Austrian by birth, and had formerly lived about Europe a great deal, in a series of small diplomatic posts. England especially he had often visited, and he spoke the language almost without accent. I had once spent three rainy days with him in the house of an English friend in the country. He was a sharp observer and a good deal of a gossip; he knew a little something about every one, and about some people everything. His knowledge on social matters generally had the flavor of all German science; it was copious, minute, exhaustive. "Do tell me," I said, as we stood looking round the house, "who and what is the lady in white, with the young man sitting behind her."
"Who?" he answered, dropping his glass. "Madame Blumenthal! What? It would take long to say. Be introduced; it's easily done; you 'll find her charming. Then, after a week, you 'll tell me what she is."
"Perhaps I should n't. My friend there has known her a week, and I don't think he is yet able to give an accurate account of her."
He raised his glass again, and after looking awhile, "I'm afraid your friend is a little—what do you call it?—a little 'soft.' Poor fellow! he's not the first. I've never known this lady that she had not some eligible youth hovering about in some such attitude as that, undergoing the softening process. She looks wonderfully well, from here. It's extraordinary how those women last!"
"You don't mean, I take it, when you talk about 'those women', that Madame Blumenthal is not embalmed, for duration, in a certain dilution of respect ability?"
"Yes and no. The sort of atmosphere that surrounds her is entirely of her own making. There is no reason, in her antecedents, that people should lower their voice when they speak of her. But some women are never at their ease till they have given some odd twist or other to their position before the world. The attitude of upright virtue is unbecoming, like sitting too straight in a fauteuil. Don't ask me for opinions, however; content yourself with a few facts, and an anecdote. Madame Blumenthal is Prussian, and very well born. I remember her mother, an old Westphalian Gräfin, with principles marshalled out like Frederick the Great's grenadiers. She was poor, however, and her principles were an insufficient dowry for Anastasia, who was married very young to a shabby Jew, twice her own age. He was supposed to have money, but I'm afraid he had less than was nominated in the bond, or else that his pretty young wife spent it very fast. She has been a widow these six or eight years, and living, I imagine, in rather a hand-to-mouth fashion. I suppose she is some thirty-four or five years old. In winter one hears of her in Berlin, giving little suppers to the artistic rabble there; in summer one often sees her across the green table at Ems and Wiesbaden. She's very clever, and her cleverness has spoiled her. A year after her marriage she published a novel, with her views on matrimony, in the George Sand manner, but really out-Heroding Herod. No doubt she was very unhappy; Blumenthal was an old beast. Since then she has published a lot of stuff, novels and poems and pamphlets on every conceivable theme, from the conversion of Lola Montez, to the Hegelian philosophy. Her talk is much better than her writing. Her radical theories on matrimony made people think lightly of her at a time when her rebellion against it was probably only theoretic. She had a taste for spinning fine phrases, she drove her shuttle, and when she came to the end of her yarn, she found that society had turned its back. She tossed her head, declared that at last she could breathe the air of freedom, and formally announced her adhesion to an 'intellectual' life. This meant unlimited camaraderie with scribblers and daubers, Hegelian philosophers and Hungarian pianists waiting for engagements. But she has been admired also by a great many really clever men; there was a time, in fact, when she turned a head as well set on its shoulders as this one!" And Niedermeyer tapped his forehead. "She has a great charm, and, literally, I know no harm of her. Yet for all that, I'm not going to speak to her; I'm not going near her box. I'm going to leave her to say, if she does me the honor to observe the omission, that I too have gone over to the Philistines. It's not that; it is that there is something sinister about the woman. I'm too old to have it frighten me, but I'm good-natured enough to have it pain me. Her quarrel with society has brought her no happiness, and her outward charm is only the mask of a dangerous discontent. Her imagination is lodged where her heart should be! So long as you amuse it, well and good; she's radiant. But the moment you let it flag, she's capable of dropping you without a pang. If you land on your feet, you're so much the wiser, simply; but there have been two or three, I believe, who have almost broken their necks in the fall."
"You're reversing your promise," I said, "and giving me an opinion, but not an anecdote."
"This is my anecdote. A year ago a friend of mine made her acquaintance in Berlin, and though he was no longer a young man and had never been what's called a susceptible one, he took a great fancy to Madame Blumenthal. He's a major in the Prussian artillery,—grizzled, grave, a trifle severe, a man every way firm in the faith of his fathers. It's a proof of Anastasia's charm that such a man should have got into the way of calling on her every day for a month. But the major was in love, or next door to it! Every day that he called he found her scribbling away at a little ormolu table on a lot of half-sheets of note-paper. She used to bid him sit down and hold his tongue for a quarter of an hour, till she had finished her chapter; she was writing a novel, and it was promised to a publisher. Clorinda, she confided to him, was the name of the injured heroine. The major, I imagine, had never read a work of fiction in his life, but he knew by hearsay that Madame Blumenthal's literature, when put forth in pink covers, was subversive of several respectable institutions. Besides, he did n't believe in women knowing how to write at all, and it irritated him to see this inky goddess scribbling away under his nose for the press; irritated him the more that, as I say, he was in love with her and that he ventured to believe she had a kindness for his years and his honors. And yet she was not such a woman as he could easily ask to marry him. The result of all this was that he fell into the way of railing at her intellectual pursuits and saying he should like to run his sword through her pile of papers. A woman was clever enough when she could guess her husband's wishes, and learned enough when she could spell out her prayer-book. At last, one day, Madame Blumenthal flung down her pen and announced in triumph that she had finished her novel. Clorinda had danced her dance. The major, by way of congratulating her, declared that her novel was coquetry and vanity and that she propagated vicious paradoxes on purpose to make a noise in the world and look picturesque and passionate. He added, however, that he loved her in spite of her follies, and that if she would formally abjure them he would as formally offer her his hand. They say that in certain cases women like being frightened and snubbed. I don't know, I'm sure; I don't know how much pleasure, on this occasion, was mingled with Anastasia's wrath. But her wrath was very quiet, and the major assured me it made her look terribly handsome. 'I have told you before', she says, 'that I write from an inner need. I write to unburden my heart, to satisfy my conscience. You call my poor efforts coquetry, vanity, the desire to produce a sensation. I can prove to you that it is the quiet labor itself I care for, and not the world's more or less nattering attention to it! And seizing the manuscript of Clorinda she thrust it into the fire. The major stands staring, and the first thing he knows she is sweeping him a great courtesy and bidding him farewell forever. Left alone and recovering his wits, he fishes out Clorinda from the embers and then proceeds to thump vigorously at the lady's door. But it never opened, and from that day to the day three months ago when he told me the tale, he had not beheld her again.
"By Jove, it's a striking story," I said. "But the question is, what does it prove?"
"Several things. First (what I was careful not to tell my friend), that Madame Blumenthal cared for him a trifle more than he supposed; second, that he cares for her more than ever; third, that the performance was a master stroke, and that her allowing him to force an interview upon her again is only a question of time."
"And last?" I asked.
"This is another anecdote. The other day, Unter den Linden, I saw on a bookseller's counter a little pink-covered romance: Sophronia, by Madame Blumenthal. Glancing through it, I observed an extraordinary abuse of asterisks; every two or three pages the narrative was adorned with a portentous blank, crossed with a row of stars."
"Well, but poor Clorinda?" I objected, as Niedermeyer paused.
"Sophronia, my dear fellow, is simply Clorinda renamed by the baptism of fire. The fair author comes back, of course, and finds Clorinda tumbled upon the floor, a good deal scorched, but on the whole more frightened than hurt. She picks her up, brushes her off, and sends her to the printer. Wherever the flames had burnt a hole, she swings a constellation! But if the major is prepared to drop a penitent tear over the ashes of Clorinda, I sha n't whisper to him that the urn is empty."
Even Adelina Patti's singing, for the next half-hour, but half availed to divert me from my quickened curiosity to behold Madame Blumenthal face to face. As soon as the curtain had fallen again, I repaired to her box and was ushered in by Pickering with zealous hospitality. His glowing smile seemed to say to me, "Ay, look for yourself, and adore!" Nothing could have been more gracious than the lady's greeting, and I found, somewhat to my surprise, that her prettiness lost nothing on a nearer view. Her eyes indeed were the finest I have ever seen,—the softest, the deepest, the most intensely responsive. In spite of something faded and jaded in her physiognomy, her movements, her smile, and the tone of her voice, especially when she laughed, had an almost girlish frankness and spontaneity. She looked at you very hard with her radiant gray eyes, and she indulged in talking in a superabundance of restless, zealous gestures, as if to make you take her meaning in a certain very particular and rather superfine sense. I wondered whether after a while this might not fatigue one's attention; then, meeting her charming eyes, I said, No! not for ages, at least. She was very clever, and, as Pickering had said, she spoke English admirably. I told her, as I took my seat beside her, of the fine things I had heard about her from my friend, and she listened, letting me run on some time, and exaggerate a little, with her fine eyes fixed full upon me. "Really?" she suddenly said, turning short round upon Pickering, who stood behind us, and looking at him in the same way, "is that the way you talk about me?"
He blushed to his eyes, and I repented. She suddenly began to laugh; it was then I observed how sweet her voice was in laughter. We talked after this of various matters, and in a little while I complimented her on her excellent English, and asked if she had learned it in England.
"Heaven forbid!" she cried. "I've never been there and wish never to go. I should never get on with the—" I wondered what she was going to say; the fogs, the smoke, or whist with six-penny stakes?—"I should never get on," she said, "with the Aristocracy! I'm a fierce democrat, I'm not ashamed of it. I hold opinions which would make my ancestors turn in their graves. I was born in the lap of feudalism. I'm a daughter of the crusaders. But I'm a revolutionist! I have a passion for freedom, boundless, infinite, ineffable freedom. It's to your great country I should like to go. I should like to see the wonderful spectacle of a great people free to do everything it chooses, and yet never doing anything wrong!"
I replied, modestly, that, after all, both our freedom and our virtue had their limits, and she turned quickly about and shook her fan with a dramatic gesture at Pickering. "No matter, no matter!" she cried, "I should like to see the country which produced that wonderful young man. I think of it as a sort of Arcadia, a land of the golden age. He's so delightfully innocent! In this stupid old Germany, if a young man is innocent, he's a fool; he has no brains; he's not a bit interesting. But Mr. Pickering says the most naïf things, and after I have laughed five minutes at their simplicity, it suddenly occurs to me that they are very wise, and I think them over for a week. True!" she went on, nodding at him. "I call them inspired solecisms, and I treasure them up. Remember that when I next laugh at you!"
Glancing at Pickering, I was prompted to believe that he was in a state of beatific exaltation which weighed Madame Blumenthal's smiles and frowns in an equal balance. They were equally hers; they were links alike in the golden chain. He looked at me with eyes that seemed to say, "Did you ever hear such wit? Did you ever see such grace?" I imagine he was but vaguely conscious of the meaning of her words; her gestures, her voice and glance, made an irresistible harmony. There is something painful in the spectacle of absolute inthralment, even to an excellent cause. I gave no response to Pickering's challenge, but embarked upon some formal tribute to the merits of Adelina Patti's singing. Madame Blumenthal, as became a "revolutionist," was obliged to confess that she could see no charm in it; it was meagre, it was trivial, it lacked soul. "You must know that in music, too," she said, "I think for myself!" And she began with a great many flourishes of her fan to expound what it was she thought. Remarkable things, doubtless; but I cannot answer for it, for in the midst of the exposition, the curtain rose again. "You can't be a great artist without a great passion!" Madame Blumenthal was affirming. Before I had time to assent, Madame Patti's voice rose wheeling like a skylark, and rained down its silver notes. "Ah, give me that art," I whispered, "and I 'll leave you your passion!" And I departed for my own place in the orchestra. I wondered afterwards whether the speech had seemed rude, and inferred that it had not, on receiving a friendly nod from the lady, in the lobby, as the theatre was emptying itself. She was on Pickering's arm, and he was taking her to her carriage. Distances are short in Homburg, but the night was rainy, and Madame Blumenthal exhibited a very pretty satin-shod foot as a reason why, though but a penniless creature, she should not walk home. Pickering left us together a moment while he went to hail the vehicle, and my companion seized the opportunity, as she said, to beg me to be so very kind as to come and see her. It was for a particular reason! It was reason enough for me, of course I answered, that I could grasp at the shadow of a permission. She looked at me a moment with that extraordinary gaze of hers, which seemed so absolutely audacious in its candor, and answered that I paid more compliments than our young friend there, but that she was sure I was not half so sincere. "But it's about him I want to talk," she said. "I want to ask you many things: I want you to tell me all about him. He interests me, but you see my sympathies are so intense, my imagination is so lively, that I don't trust my own impressions. They have misled me more than once!" And she gave a little tragic shudder.
I promised to come and compare notes with her, and we bade her farewell at her carriage door. Pickering and I remained awhile, walking up and down the long glazed gallery of the Kursaal. I had not taken many steps before I became aware that I was beside a man in the very extremity of love. "Is n't she wonderful?" he asked, with an implicit confidence in my sympathy which it cost me some ingenuity to elude. If he was really in love, well and good! For although, now that I had seen her, I stood ready to confess to large possibilities of fascination on Madame Blumenthal's part, and even to certain possibilities of sincerity of which I reserved the precise admeasurement, yet it seemed to me less ominous to have him give the reins to his imagination than it would have been to see him stand off and cultivate an "admiration" which should pique itself on being discriminating. It was on his fundamental simplicity that I counted for a happy termination of his experiment, and the former of these alternatives seemed to me to prove most in its favor. I resolved to hold my tongue and let him run his course. He had a great deal to say about his happiness, about the days passing like hours, the hours like minutes, and about Madame Blumenthal being a " revelation." "She was nothing to-night!" he said; "nothing to what she sometimes is in the way of brilliancy,—in the way of repartee. If you could only hear her when she tells her adventures!"
"Adventures?" I inquired. "Has she had adventures?"
"Of the most wonderful sort!" cried Pickering, with rapture. "She has n't vegetated, like me! She has lived in the tumult of life. When I listen to her reminiscences, it's like hearing the opening tumult of one of Beethoven's symphonies, as it loses itself in a triumphant harmony of beauty and faith!"
I could only bow, but I desired to know before we separated what he had done with that troublesome conscience of his. "I suppose you know, my dear fellow," I said, "that you're simply in love. That's what they call your state of mind."
He replied with a brightening eye, as if he were delighted to hear it. "So Madame Blumenthal told me," he cried, "only this morning!" And seeing, I suppose, that I was slightly puzzled, "I went to drive with her," he continued; "we drove to Königstein, to see the old castle. We scrambled up into the heart of the ruin and sat for an hour in one of the crumbling old courts. Something in the solemn stillness of the place unloosed my tongue; and while she sat on an ivied stone, on the edge of the plunging wall, I stood there and made a speech. She listened to me, looking at me. breaking off little bits of stone and letting them drop down into the valley. At last she got up and nodded at me two or three times silently, with a smile, as if she were applauding me for a solo on the violin. 'You're in love,' she said. 'It's a perfect case!' And for some time she said nothing more. But before we left the place she told me that she owed me an answer to my speech. She thanked me heartily, but she was afraid that if she took me at my word she would be taking advantage of my inexperience. I had known few women, I was too easily pleased, I thought her better than she really was. She had great faults; I must know her longer and find them out; I must compare her with other women,—women younger, simpler, more innocent, more ignorant; and then if I still did her the honor to think well of her, she would listen to me again. I told her that I was not afraid of preferring any woman in the world to her, and then she repeated, 'Happy man, happy man! you're in love, you're in love!'"
I called upon Madame Blumenthal a couple of days later, in some agitation of thought. It has been proved that there are, here and there, in the world, such people as sincere attitudinizers; certain characters cultivate fictitious emotions in perfect good faith. Even if this clever lady enjoyed poor Pickering's bedazzlement, it was conceivable that, taking vanity and charity together, she should care more for his welfare than for her own entertainment; and her offer to abide by the result of hazardous comparison with other women was a finer stroke than her fame—and indeed than probability—had seemed to foreshadow. She received me in a shabby little sitting-room, littered with uncut books and newspapers, many of which I saw at a glance were French. One side of it was occupied by an open piano, surmounted by a jar full of white roses. They perfumed the air; they seemed to me to exhale the pure aroma of Pickering's devotion. Buried in an arm-chair, the object of this devotion was reading the Revue des Deux Mondes. The purpose of my visit was not to admire Madame Blumenthal on my own account, but to ascertain how far I might safely leave her to work her will upon my friend. She had impugned my sincerity the evening of the opera, and I was careful on this occasion to abstain from compliments and not to place her on her guard against my penetration. It is needless to narrate our interview in detail; indeed, to tell the perfect truth, I was punished for my ambition to read her too clearly by a temporary eclipse of my own perspicacity. She sat there so questioning, so perceptive, so genial, so generous, and so pretty withal, that I was quite ready at the end of half an hour to shake hands with Pickering on her being a wonderful woman. I have never liked to linger, in memory, on that half-hour. The result of it was to prove that there were many more things in the composition of a woman who, as Niedermeyer said, had lodged her imagination in the place of her heart, than were dreamt of in my philosophy. Yet, as I sat there stroking my hat and balancing the account between nature and art in my affable hostess, I felt like a very competent philosopher. She had said she wished me to tell her everything about our friend, and she questioned me, categorically, as to his family, his fortune, his antecedents, and his character. All this was natural in a woman who had received a passionate declaration of love, and it was expressed with an air of charmed solicitude, a radiant confidence that there was really no mistake about his being a supremely fine fellow, and that if I chose to be explicit, I might deepen her conviction to disinterested ecstasy, which might have almost inspired me to invent a good opinion, if I had not had one at hand. I told her that she really knew Pickering better than I did, and that until we met at Homburg, I had not seen him since he was a boy.
"But he talks to you freely," she answered; "I know you're his confidant. He has told me certainly a great many things, but I always feel as if he were keeping something back; as if he were holding something behind him, and showing me only one hand at once. He seems often to be hovering on the edge of a secret. I have had several friendships in my life,—thank Heaven! but I have had none more dear to me than this one. Yet in the midst of it I have the painful sense of my friend being half afraid of me; of his thinking me terrible, strange, perhaps a trifle out of my wits. Poor me! If he only knew what a plain good soul I am, and how I only want to know him and befriend him!"
These words were full of a plaintive magnanimity which made mistrust seem cruel. How much better I might play providence over Pickering's experiments with life, if I could engage the fine instincts of this charming woman on the providential side! Pickering's secret was, of course, his engagement to Miss Vernor; it was natural enough that he should have been unable to bring himself to talk of it to Madame Blumenthal. The simple sweetness of this young girl's face had not faded from my memory; I could n't rid myself of the fancy that in going further Pickering might fare much worse. Madame Blumenthal's professions seemed a virtual promise to agree with me, and after a momentary hesitation I said that my friend had, in fact, a substantial secret, and that it appeared to me enlightened friendship to put her into possession of it. In as few words as possible I told her that Pickering stood pledged by filial piety to marry a young lady at Smyrna. She listened intently to my story; when I had finished it there was a faint flush of excitement in each of her cheeks. She broke out into a dozen exclamations of admiration and compassion. "What a wonderful tale—what a romantic situation! No wonder poor Mr. Pickering seemed restless and unsatisfied; no wonder he wished to put off the day of submission. And the poor little girl at Smyrna, waiting there for the young Western prince like the heroine of an Eastern tale! She would give the world to see her photograph; did I think Mr. Pickering would show it to her? But never fear; she would ask nothing indiscreet! Yes, it was a marvellous story, and if she had invented it herself, people would have said it was absurdly improbable." She left her seat and took several turns about the room, smiling to herself and uttering little German cries of wonderment. Suddenly she stopped before the piano and broke into a little laugh; the next moment she buried her face in the great bouquet of roses. It was time I should go, but I was indisposed to leave her without obtaining some definite assurance that, as far as pity was concerned, she pitied the young girl at Smyrna more than the young man at Homburg. "Of course you appreciate," I said, rising, "my hopes in telling you all this."
She had taken one of the roses from the vase and was arranging it in the front of her dress. Suddenly, looking up, "Leave it to me, leave it to me!" she cried. "I'm interested!" And with her little blue-gemmed hand she tapped her forehead. "I'm interested,—don't interfere!"
And with this I had to content myself. But more than once, for the day following, I repented of my zeal, and wondered whether a providence with a white rose in her bosom might not turn out a trifle too human. In the evening, at the Kursaal, I looked for Pickering, but he was not visible, and I reflected that my revelation had not as yet, at any rate, seemed to Madame Blumenthal a reason for prescribing a cooling-term to his passion. Very late, as I was turning away, I saw him arrive,—with no small satisfaction, for I had determined to let him know immediately in what way I had attempted to serve him. But he straightway passed his arm through my own and led me off toward the gardens. I saw that he was too excited to allow me prior speech.
"I've burnt my ships!" he cried, when we were out of earshot of the crowd. "I've told her everything. I've insisted that it's simple torture for me to wait, with this idle view of loving her less. It's well enough for her to ask it, but I feel strong enough now to override her reluctance. I 've cast off the millstone from round my neck. I care for nothing, I know nothing but that I love her with every pulse of my being,—and that everything else has been a hideous dream, from which she may wake me into blissful morning with a single word!"
I held him off at arm's-length and looked at him gravely. "You have told her, you mean, of your engagement to Miss Vernor?"
"The whole story! I've given it up,—I 've thrown it to the winds. I 've broken utterly with the past. It may rise in its grave and give me its curse, but it can't frighten me now. I 've a right to be happy. I 've a right to be free, I 've a right not to bury myself alive. It was n't I who promised! I was n't born then. I myself, my soul, my mind, my option,—all this is but a month old! Ah," he went on, "if you knew the difference it makes,—this having chosen and broken and spoken! I'm twice the man I was yesterday! Yesterday I was afraid of her; there was a kind of mocking mystery of knowledge and cleverness about her, which oppressed me in the midst of my love. But now I'm afraid of nothing but of being too happy."
I stood silent, to let him spend his eloquence. But he paused a moment, and took off his hat and fanned himself. "Let me perfectly understand," I said at last. "You've asked Madame Blumenthal to be your wife?"
"The wife of my intelligent choice."
"And does she consent?"
"She asks three days to decide."
"Call it four! She has known your secret since this morning. I 'm bound to let you know I told her."
"So much the better!" cried Pickering, without apparent resentment or surprise. "It's not a brilliant offer for such a woman, and in spite of what I have at stake I feel that it would be brutal to press her."
"What does she say," I asked in a moment, "to your breaking your promise?"
Pickering was too much in love for false shame. "She tells me," he answered bravely, "that she loves me too much to find courage to condemn me. She agrees with me that I have a right to be happy. I ask no exemption from the common law. What I claim is simply freedom to try to be!"
Of course I was puzzled; it was not in that fashion that I had expected Madame Blumenthal to make use of my information. But the matter now was quite out of my hands, and all I could do was to bid my companion not work himself into a fever over either fortune.
The next day I had a visit from Niedermeyer, on whom, after our talk at the opera, I had left a card. We gossiped awhile, and at last he said suddenly: "By the way, I have a sequel to the history of Clorinda. The major is in Homburg!"
"Indeed!" said I. "Since when?"
"These three days."
"And what is he doing?"
"He seems," said Niedermeyer with a laugh, "to be chiefly occupied in sending flowers to Madame Blumenthal. That is, I went with him the morning of his arrival to choose a nosegay, and nothing would suit him but a small haystack of white roses. I hope it was received."
"I can assure you it was," I cried. "I saw the lady fairly nestling her head in it. But I advise the major not to build upon that. He has a rival."
"Do you mean the soft young man of the other night?"
"Pickering is soft, if you will, but his softness, seems to have served him. He has offered her everything, and she has not yet refused it." I had handed my visitor a cigar and he was puffing it in silence. At last he abruptly asked if I had been introduced to Madame Blumenthal; and, on my affirmative, inquired what I thought of her. "I'll not tell you," I said, "or you'll call me soft."
He knocked away his ashes, eying me askance. "I've noticed your friend about," he said, "and even if you had not told me, I should have known he was in love. After he has left his adored, his face wears for the rest of the day the expression with which he has risen from her feet, and more than once I 've felt like touching his elbow, as you would that of a man who has inadvertently come into a drawing-room in his overshoes. You say he has offered our friend everything; but, my dear fellow, he has n't everything to offer her. He's as amiable, evidently, as the morning, but madame has no taste for daylight."
"I assure you," said I, "Pickering is a very interesting fellow."
"Ah, there it is! Has n't he some story or other? is n't he an orphan, or natural child, or consumptive, or contingent heir to great estates? She 'll read his little story to the end, and close the book very tenderly and smooth down the cover, and then, when he least expects it, she 'll toss it into the dusty limbo of all her old romances. She 'll let him dangle, but she 'll let him drop!"
"Upon my word," I cried with heat, "if she does, she 'll be a very unprincipled little creature!"
Niedermeyer shrugged his shoulders. "I never said she was a saint!"
Shrewd as I felt Niedermeyer to be, I was not prepared to take his simple word for this consummation, and in the evening I received a communication which fortified my doubts. It was a note from Pickering, and it ran as follows:
"My Dear Friend,—I have every hope of being happy, but I am to go to Wiesbaden to learn my fate. Madame Blumenthal goes thither this afternoon to spend a few days, and she allows me to accompany her. Give me your good wishes; you shall hear of the event."E. P."
One of the diversions of Homburg for new-comers is to dine in rotation at the different tables d'hôtes. It so happened that, a couple of days later, Niedermeyer took pot-luck at my hotel and secured a seat beside my own. As we took our places I found a letter on my plate, and, as it was postmarked Wiesbaden, I lost no time in opening it. It contained but three lines:—
"I'm happy—I'm accepted—an hour ago. I can hardly believe it's your poor old"E. P."
I placed the note before Niedermeyer: not exactly in triumph, but with the alacrity of all privileged confutation. He looked at it much longer than was needful to read it, stroking down his beard gravely, and I felt it was not so easy to confute a pupil of the school of Metternich. At last, folding the note and handing it back, "Has your friend mentioned," he asked, "Madame Blumenthal's errand at Wiesbaden?"
"You look very wise. I give it up!" said I.
"She's gone there to make the major follow her. He went by the next train."
"And has the major, on his side, dropped you a line?"
"He's not a letter-writer."
"Well," said I, pocketing my letter, "with this document in my hand I'm bound to reserve my judgment. We 'll have a bottle of Johannisberg, and drink to the triumph of virtue."
For a whole week more I heard nothing from Pickering,—somewhat to my surprise, and, as the days went by, not a little to my discomposure. I had expected that his bliss would continue to overflow in an occasional brief bulletin, and his silence was possibly an indication that it had been clouded. At last I wrote to his hotel at Wiesbaden, but received no answer; whereupon, as my next resource, I repaired to his former lodging at Homburg, where I thought it possible he had left property which he would sooner or later send for. There I learned that he had indeed just telegraphed from Cologne for his baggage. To Cologne I immediately despatched a line of inquiry as to his prosperity and the cause of his silence. The next day I received three words in answer,—a simple, uncommented request that I would come to him. I lost no time, and reached him in the course of a few hours. It was dark when I arrived, and the city was sheeted in a cold, autumnal rain. Pickering had stumbled, with an indifference which was itself a symptom of distress, on a certain musty old Mainzerhof, and I found him sitting over a smouldering fire in a vast, dingy chamber, which looked as if it had grown gray with watching the ennui of ten generations of travellers. Looking at him, as he rose on my entrance, I saw that he was in extreme tribulation. He was pale and haggard; his face was five years older. Now, at least, in all conscience, he had tasted of the cup of life. I was anxious to know what had turned it so suddenly to bitterness; but I spared him all importunate curiosity, and let him take his time. I assented, tacitly, to the symptoms of his trouble, and we made for a while a feeble effort to discuss the picturesqueness of Cologne. At last he rose and stood a long time looking into the fire, while I slowly paced the length of the dusky room.
"Well!" he said as I came back; "I wanted knowledge, and I certainly know something I did n't a month ago." And herewith, calmly, and succinctly enough, as if dismay had worn itself out, he related the history of the foregoing days. He touched lightly on details; he evidently never was to gush as freely again as he had done during the prosperity of his suit. He had been accepted one evening, as explicitly as his imagination could desire, and had gone forth in his rapture and roamed about till nearly morning in the gardens of the Conversation House, taking the stars and the perfumes of the summer night into his confidence. "It's worth it all, almost," he said, "to have been wound up for an hour to that celestial pitch. No man, I'm sure, can ever know it but once." The next morning he had repaired to Madame Blumenthal's lodging and had been met, to his amazement, by a naked refusal to see him. He had strode about for a couple of hours—in another mood—and then had returned to the charge. The servant handed him a three-cornered note; it contained these words: "Leave me alone to-day; I 'll give you ten minutes to-morrow evening." Of the next thirty-six hours he could give no coherent account, but at the appointed time Madame Blumenthal had received him. Almost before she spoke there had come to him a sense of the depth of his folly in supposing he knew her. "One has heard all one's days," he said, "of people removing the mask; it's one of the stock phrases of romance. Well, there she stood with her mask in her hand. Her face," he went on gravely, after a pause,—"her face was horrible!" "I give you ten minutes," she had said, pointing to the clock. "Make your scene, tear your hair, brandish your dagger!" And she had sat down and folded her arms. "It's not a joke," she cried, "it's dead earnest; let's get through with it. You're dismissed! Have you nothing to say?" He had stammered some frantic demand for an explanation; and she had risen and come near him, looking at him from head to feet, very pale, and evidently more excited than she wished to have him see. "I've done with you!" she said with a smile; "you ought to have done with me! It has all been delightful, but there are excellent reasons why it should come to an end." "You've been playing a part, then," he had gasped out; "you never cared for me?" "Yes; till I knew you; till I saw how far you 'd go. But now the story's finished; we 've reached the denouement. We 'll close the book and be good friends." "To see how far I would go?" he had repeated. "You led me on, meaning all the while to do this?" "I led you on, if you will I received your visits in season and out! Sometimes they were very entertaining; sometimes they bored me fearfully. But you were such a very curious case of—what shall I call it?—of enthusiasm, that I determined to take good and bad together. I wanted to make you commit yourself unmistakably. I should have preferred not to bring you to this place: but that too was necessary. Of course I can't marry you; I can do better. Thank your fate for it. You've thought wonders of me for a month, but your good-humor would n't last. I'm too old and too wise; you're too young and too foolish. It seems to me that I 've been very good to you; I 've entertained you to the top of your bent, and, except perhaps that I'm a little brusque just now, you 've nothing to complain of. I would have let you down more gently if I could have taken another month to it; but circumstances have forced my hand. Abuse me, revile me, if you like. I'll make every allowance!" Pickering listened to all this intently enough to perceive that, as if by some sudden natural cataclysm, the ground had broken away at his feet, and that he must recoil. He turned away in dumb amazement. "I don't know how I seemed to be taking it," he said, "but she seemed really to desire—I don't know why—something in the way of reproach and vituperation. But I could n't, in that way, have uttered a syllable. I was sickened; I wanted to get away into the air,—to shake her off and come to my senses. 'Have you nothing, nothing, nothing to say?' she cried, as I stood with my hand on the door. 'Have n't I treated you to talk enough?' I believe I answered. 'You 'll write to me then, when you get home?' 'I think not.' said I. 'Six months hence, I fancy, you 'll come and see me!' 'Never!' said I. 'That's a confession of stupidity,' she answered. 'It means that, even on reflection, you 'll never understand the philosophy of my conduct.' The word 'philosophy' seemed so strange that I verily believe I smiled. 'I 've given you,' she went on, 'all that you gave me. Your passion was an affair of the head.' 'I only wish you had told me sooner,' I exclaimed, 'that you considered it so!' And I went my way. The next day I came down the Rhine. I sat all day on the boat, not knowing where I was going, where to get off. I was in a kind of ague of terror; it seemed to me I had seen something infernal. At last I saw the cathedral towers here looming over the city. They seemed to say something to me, and when the boat stopped, I came ashore. I've been here a week: I have n't slept at night,—and yet it has been a week of rest!"
It seemed to me that he was in a fair way to recover, and that his own philosophy, if left to take its time, was adequate to the occasion. After his story was told I recurred to his grievance but once,—that evening, later, as we were about to separate for the night. "Suffer me to say," I said, "that there was some truth in her account of your relations. You were using her, intellectually, and all the while, without your knowing it, she was using you. It was diamond cut diamond. Her needs were the more superficial and she came to an end first." He frowned and turned uneasily away, but he offered no denial. I waited a few moments, to see if he would remember, before we parted, that he had a claim to make upon me. But he seemed to have forgotten it.
The next day we strolled about the picturesque old city, and of course, before long, went into the cathedral. Pickering said little; he seemed intent upon his own thoughts. He sat down beside a pillar near a chapel, in front of a gorgeous window, and, leaving him to his meditations, I wandered through the church. When I came back I saw he had something to say. But before he had spoken, I laid my hand on his shoulder and looked at him with a significant smile. He slowly bent his head and dropped his eyes, with a mixture of assent and humility. I drew forth his letter from where it had lain untouched for a month, placed it silently on his knee, and left him to deal with it alone.
Half an hour later I returned to the same place, but he had gone, and one of the sacristans, hovering about and seeing me looking for Pickering, said he thought he had left the church. I found him in his gloomy chamber at the inn, pacing slowly up and down. I should doubtless have been at a loss to say just what effect I expected his letter to produce; but his actual aspect surprised me. He was flushed, excited, a trifle irritated.
"Evidently," I said, "you 've read your letter."
"I owe you a report of it," he answered. "When I gave it to you a month ago, I did my friends injustice."
"You called it a 'summons', I remember."
"I was a great fool! It's a release!"
"From your engagement?"
"From everything! The letter, of course, is from Mr. Vernor. He desires to let me know at the earliest moment, that his daughter, informed for the first time a week before of what was expected of her, positively refuses to be bound by the contract or to assent to my being bound. She had been given a week to reflect and had spent it in inconsolable tears. She had resisted every form of persuasion; from compulsion, writes Mr. Vernor, he naturally shrinks. The young lady considers the arrangement 'horrible.' After accepting her duties cut and dried all her life, she presumes at last to have a taste of her own. I confess I'm surprised; I had been given to believe that she was idiotically passive and would remain so to the end of the chapter. Not a bit! She has insisted on my being formally dismissed, and her father intimates that in case of non-compliance she threatens him with an attack of brain fever. Mr. Vernor condoles with me handsomely, and lets me know that the young lady's attitude has been a great shock to his own nerves. He adds that he will not aggravate such regret as I may do him the honor to entertain, by any allusion to his daughter's charms and to the magnitude of my loss, and he concludes with the hope that, for the comfort of all concerned, I may already have amused my fancy with other 'views.' He reminds me in a postscript that, in spite of this painful occurrence, the son of his most valued friend will always be a welcome visitor at his house. I am free, he observes; I have my life before me; he recommends an extensive course of travel. Should my wanderings lead me to the East, he hopes that no false embarrassment will deter me from presenting myself at Smyrna. He will insure me at least a friendly reception. It's a very polite letter."
Polite as the letter was, Pickering seemed to find no great exhilaration in having this famous burden so handsomely lifted from his conscience. He fell a-brooding over his liberation in a manner which you might have deemed proper to a renewed sense of bondage. "Bad news" he had called his letter originally; and yet, now that its contents proved to be in flat contradiction to his foreboding, there was no impulsive voice to reverse the formula and declare the news was good. The wings of impulse in the poor fellow had of late been terribly clipped. It was an obvious reflection, of course, that if he had not been so doggedly sure of the matter a month before, and had gone through the form of breaking Mr. Vernor's seal, he might have escaped the purgatory of Madame Blumenthal's blandishments. But I left him to moralize in private; I had no desire, as the phrase is, to rub it in. My thoughts, moreover, were following another train; I was saying to myself that if to those gentle graces of which her young visage had offered to my fancy the blooming promise, Miss Vernor added in this striking measure the capacity for magnanimous action, the amendment to my friend's career had been less happy than the rough draught. Presently, turning about, I saw him looking at the young lady's photograph. "Of course, now," he said, "I have no right to keep it!" And before I could ask for another glimpse of it, he had thrust it into the fire.
"I am sorry to be saying it just now," I observed after a while, "but I should n't wonder if Miss Vernor were a lovely creature."
"Go and find out," he answered gloomily. "The coast is clear. My part," he presently added, "is to forget her. It oughtn't to be hard. But don't you think," he went on suddenly, "that for a poor fellow who asked nothing of fortune but leave to sit down in a quiet corner, it has been rather a cruel pushing about?"
Cruel indeed, I declared, and he certainly had the right to demand a clean page on the book of fate, and a fresh start. Mr. Vernor's advice was sound; he should seek diversion in the grand tour of Europe. If he would allow it to the zeal of my sympathy, I would go with him on his way. Pickering assented without enthusiasm; he had the discomfited look of a man who, having gone to some cost to make a good appearance in a drawing-room, should find the door suddenly slammed in his face. We started on our journey, however, and little by little his enthusiasm returned. He was too capable of enjoying fine things to remain permanently irresponsive, and after a fortnight spent among pictures and monuments and antiquities, I felt that I was seeing him for the first time in his best and healthiest mood. He had had a fever and then he had had a chill; the pendulum had swung right and left in a manner rather trying to the machine; but now, at last, it was working back to an even, natural beat. He recovered in a measure the generous eloquence with which he had fanned his flame at Homburg, and talked about things with something of the same passionate freshness. One day when I was laid up at the inn at Bruges with a lame foot, he came home and treated me to a rhapsody about a certain meek-faced virgin of Hans Memling, which seemed to me sounder sense than his compliments to Madame Blumenthal. He had his dull days and his sombre moods,—hours of irresistible retrospect; but I let them come and go without remonstrance, because I fancied they always left him a trifle more alert and resolute. One evening, however, he sat hanging his head in so doleful a fashion that I took the bull by the horns and told him he had by this time surely paid his debt to penitence, and owed it to himself to banish that woman forever from his thoughts.
He looked up, staring; and then with a deep blush: "That woman?" he said. "I was not thinking of Madame Blumenthal!"
After this I gave another construction to his melancholy. Taking him with his hopes and fears, at the end of six weeks of active observation and keen sensation, Pickering was as fine a fellow as need be. We made our way down to Italy and spent a fortnight at Venice. There something happened which I had been confidently expecting; I had said to my self that it was merely a question of time. We had passed the day at Torcello, and came floating back in the glow of the sunset, with measured oar-strokes. "I'm well on the way," Pickering said; "I think I 'll go!"
We had not spoken for an hour, and I naturally asked him, Where? His answer was delayed by our getting in to the Piazzetta. I stepped ashore first and then turned to help him. As he took my hand he met my eyes, consciously, and it came: "To Smyrna!"
A couple of days later he started. I had risked the conjecture that Miss Vernor was a lovely creature, and six months afterwards he wrote me that I was right.