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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 1/Metempsychosis

< The Atlantic Monthly‎ | Volume 2‎ | Number 1

METEMPSYCHOSIS.

"The sense of the world is short,—
Long and various the report,—
To love and be beloved:
Men and gods have not outlearned it;
And how oft soe'er they've turned it,
'Tis not to be improved!"—Emerson.

Mr. Vane and Mr. Payne both were eagerly describing to me their arrangements for an excursion to the Lake. I did not doubt it would be charming, but neither of these two gentlemen would be endurable on such a drive, and each was determined to ask me first. I stood pushing apart the crushed flowers of my bouquet, in which all the gardener's art vindicated itself by making the airy grace of Nature into a flat, unmeaning mosaic.

In the next room the passionate melancholy of a waltz was mocked and travestied by the frantic and ungrateful whirl that only Americans are capable of executing; the music lived alone in upper air; of men and dancing it was all unaware; the involved cadences rolled away over the lawn, shook the dew-drooped roses on their stems, and went upward into the boundless moonlight to its home. Through all, Messrs. Vane and Payne harangued me about the splendid bowling-alley at the Lake, the mountain-strawberries, the boats, the gravel-walks! At last it became amusing to see how skilfully they each evaded and extinguished the other; it was a game of chess, and he was to be victor who should first ask me; if one verged upon the question, the other quickly interposed some delightful circumstance about the excursion, and called upon the first to corroborate his testimony; neither, in Alexander's place, would have done anything but assure the other that the Gordian knot was very peculiarly tied, and quite tight.

Presently Harry Tempest stood by my side. I became aware that he had heard the discussion. He took my bouquet from my hand, and stood smelling it, while my two acquaintance went on. I was getting troubled and annoyed; Mr. Tempest's presence was not composing. I played with my fan nervously; at length I dropped it. Harry Tempest picked it up, and, as I stooped, our eyes met; he gave me the fan, and, turning from Messrs. Vane and Payne, said, very coolly,—

"The Lake is really a charming place; I think, Miss Willing, you would find a carriage an easier mode of conveyance, so far, than your pony; shall I bring one for you? or do you still prefer to ride?"

This was so quietly done, that it seemed to me really a settled affair of some standing that I was to go to the Lake with Mr. Tempest. Mr. Vane sauntered off to join the waltzers; Mr. Payne suddenly perceived Professor Rust at his elbow and began to talk chemistry. I said, as calmly as I had been asked,—

"I will send you word some time tomorrow; I cannot tell just now."

Here some of my friends came to say good night; my duties as hostess drew me toward the door; Harry Tempest returned my bouquet and whispered, or rather said in that tone of society that only the person addressed can hear,—

"Clara! let it be a drive!"

My head bent forward as he spoke, for I could not look at him; when I raised it, he was gone.

The music still soared and floated on through the windows into the moonlight; one by one the older part of my guests left me; only a few of the gayest and youngest still persevered in that indefatigable waltz, the oval room looking as if a score of bubbles were playing hop and skip,—for in the crinoline expansions the gentlemen's black pen-and-ink outlines were all lost. At length even these went; the music died; its soul went up with a long, broken cry; its body was put piecemeal into several green bags, shouldered by stout Germans, and carried quite out of sight. The servants gathered and set away such things as were most needful to be arranged, put out the lights, locked the doors and windows, and went to bed. Mrs. Reading, my good housekeeper, begged me to go up stairs.

"You look so tired, Miss Clara!"

"So I am, Delia!" said I. "I will rest. Go to bed you, and I shall come presently."

I heard her heavy steps ascend the stairs; I heard the door of her room close, creaking. How could I sleep? I knew very well what the coming day would bring; I knew why Harry Tempest preferred to drive. I had need of something beside rest, for sleep was impossible; I needed calmness, quiet, enough poise to ask myself a momentous question, and be candidly answered. This quiet was not to be found in my room, I well knew; every bit of its furniture, its drapery, was haunted, and in any hour of emotion the latent ghosts came out upon me in swarms; the quaint mandarins with crooked eyes and fat cheeks had eyed me a thousand times when Elsie's arm was clasped over my neck, and with her head upon my shoulder we lay and laughed, when we should have been dressing, at those Chinese chintz curtains. Elsie was gone; if she had been here, I had been at once counselled. Rest there, dead Past!—I could not go to my bedroom.

The green-house opened from the large parlor by a sash-door. At this season of the year the glazed roof and sides were withdrawn or lowered, but at night the lower sashes were drawn up and fastened, lest incursive cats or dogs should destroy my flowers. The great Newfoundland that was our guard slept on the floor here, since it was the weakest spot for any ill-meaning visitors to enter at.

I drew the long skirt of my lace dress up over my hair, and quietly went into the green-house. The lawn and its black firs tempted me, but there was moonlight on the lawn, and moonlight I cannot bear; it burns my head more fiercely than any noon sun; it scorches my eyelids; it exhausts and fevers me; it excites my brain, and now I looked for calm. This the odor of the flowers and their pure expression promised me. A tall, thick-leaved camellia stood half-way down the border, and before it was a garden-chair. The moonlight shed no ray there, but through the sashes above streamed cool and fair over the blooms that clung to the wall and adorned the parterres and vases; for this house was set after a fashion of my own, a winter-garden under glass; no stages filled the centre. It was laid out with no stiff rule, but here and there in urns of stone, or in pyramidal stands, gorgeous or fragrant plants ran at their own wild will, while over all the wall and along the woodwork of the roof trailed passion-flowers, roses, honeysuckles, fragrant clematis, ivy, and those tropic vines whose long dead names belie their fervid luxuriance and fantastic growth; great trees of lemon and orange interspaced the vines in shallow niches of their own, and the languid drooping tresses of a golden acacia flung themselves over and across the deep glittering mass of a broad-leaved myrtle.

As I sat down in the chair, Pan reared his dusky length from his mat, and came for a recognition. It was wont to be something more positive than caresses; but to-night neither sweet biscuit nor savory bit of confectionery appeared in the hand that welcomed him; yet he was as loving as ever, and, with a grim sense of protection, flung himself at my feet, drew a long breath, and slept. I dared not yet think; I rested my head against the chair, and breathed in the odor of the flowers: the delicate scent of tea-roses; the Southern perfume, fiery and sweet, like Greek wine, of profuse heliotropes,—a perfume that gives you thirst, and longing, and regret. I turned my head toward the orange-trees; Southern, also, but sensuous and tropic, was the breath of those thick white stars,—a tasted odor. Not so the cool air that came to me from a diamond-shaped bed of Parma violets, kept back so long from bloom that I might have a succession of them; these were the last, and their perfume told it, for it was at once a caress and a sigh. I breathed the gale of sweetness till every nerve rested and every pulse was tranquil as the air without.

I heard a little stir. I looked up. A stately calla, that reared one marble cup from its gracious cool leaves, was bending earthward with a slow and voluntary motion; from the cup glided a fair woman's shape; snowy, sandalled feet shone from under the long robe; hair of crisped gold crowned the Greek features. It was Hypatia. A little shiver crept through a white tea-rose beside the calla; its delicate leaves fluttered to the ground; a slight figure, a sweet, sad face, with melancholy blue eyes and fair brown hair, parted the petals. La Vallière! She gazed in my eyes.

"Poor little child!" said she. "Have you a treatise against love, Hypatia?"

The Greek of Egypt smiled and looked at me also. "I have discovered that the steps of the gods are upon wool," answered she; "if love had a beginning to sight, should not we also foresee its end?"

"And when one foresees the end, one dies," murmured La Vallière.

"Bah!" exclaimed Marguerite of Valois, from the heart of a rose-red camellia,—"not at all, my dear; one gets a new lover!"

"Or the new lover gets you," said a dulcet tone, tipped with satire, from the red lips of Mary of Scotland,—lips that were just now the petals of a crimson carnation.

"Philosophy hath a less troubled sea wherein to ride than the stormy fluctuance of mortal passion; Plato is diviner than Ovid," said a puritanic, piping voice from a coif that was fashioned out of the white camellia-blooms behind my chair, and circled the prim beauty of Lady Jane Grey.

"Are you a woman, or one of the Sphinx's children?" said a stormy, thrilling, imperious accent, from the wild purple and scarlet flower of the Strelitzia, that gradually shaped itself into gorgeous Oriental robes, rolled in waves of splendor from the lithe waist and slender arms of a dark woman, no more young,—sallow, thin, but more graceful than any bending bough of the desert acacia, and with eyes like midnight, deep, glowing, flashing, melting into dew, as she looked at the sedate lady of England.

"You do not know love!" resumed she. "It is one draught,—a jewel fused in nectar; drink the pearl and bring the asp!"

Her words brought beauty; the sallow face burnt with living scarlet on lip and cheek; the tiny pearl-grains of teeth flashed across the swarth shade above her curving, passionate mouth; the wide nostrils expanded; the great eyes flamed under her low brow and glittering coils of black hair.

"Poor Octavia!" whispered La Vallière. Lady Jane Grey took up her breviary and read.

"After all, you died!" said Hypatia.

"I lived!" retorted Cleopatra.

"Lived and loved," said a dreamy tone from the hundred leaves of a spotless La Marque rose; and the steady, "unhasting, unresting" soul of Thekla looked out from that centreless flower, in true German guise of brown braided tresses, deep blue eyes like forget-me-nots, sedate lips, and a straight nose.

"I have lived, and loved, and cut bread and butter," solemnly pronounced a mountain-daisy, assuming the broad features of a fräulein.

Cleopatra used an Egyptian oath. Lady Jane Grey put down her breviary and took up Plato. Marguerite of Valois laughed outright. Hypatia put a green leaf over Charlotte, with the air of a high-priestess, and extinguished her.

"Who does not love cannot lose," mused La Vallière.

"Who does not love neither has nor gains," said Hypatia. "The dilemma hath two sides, and both gain and loss are problematic. It is the ideal of love that enthralls us, not the real."

"Hush! you white-faced Greek! It was not an ideal; it was Mark Antony. By Isis! does a dream fight, and swear, and kiss?"

"The Navarrese did; and France dreamed he was my master,—not I!" laughed Marguerite.

"This is most weak stuff for goodly and noble women to foster," grimly uttered a flame-colored hawk's-bill tulip, that directly assumed a ruff and an aquiline nose.

Mary of Scotland passed her hand about her fair throat. "Where is Leicester's ring?" said she.

The Queen did not hear, but went on. "Truly, you make as if it was the intent of women to be trodden under foot of men. She that ruleth herself shall rule both princes and nobles, I wot. Yet I had done well to marry. Love or no love, I would the house of Hanover had waged war with one of mine own blood; I hate those fair, fat Guelphs!"

"Love hath sometimes the thorn alone, the rose being blasted in bud," uttered a sweet and sonorous voice with a little nasal accent, out of the myrtle-boughs that starred with bloom her hair, and swept the hem of her green dress.

"Sweet soul, wast thou not, then, sated upon sonnets?" said Mary of Scotland, in a stage aside.

"Do not the laurels overgrow the thorn?" said La Vallière, with a wistful, inquiring smile.

Laura looked away. "They are very green at Avignon," said she.

Out of two primroses, side by side, Stella and Vanessa put forth pale and anxious faces, with eyes tear-dimmed.

"Love does not feed on laurels," said Stella; "they are fruitless."

"That the clergy should be celibate is mine own desire," broke in Queen Elizabeth. "Shall every curly fool's-pate of a girl be turning after an anointed bishop? I will have this thing ended, certes! and that with speed."

Vanessa was too deep in a brown study to hear. Presently she spoke. "I believe that love is best founded upon a degree of respect and veneration which it is decent in youth to render unto age and learning."

"Ciel!" muttered Marguerite; "is it, then, that in this miserable England one cherishes a grand passion for one's grandfather?"

The heliotrope-clusters melted into a face of plastic contour, rich full lips, soft interfused outlines, intense purple eyes, and heavy waving hair, dark indeed, but harmonized curiously with the narrow gold fillet that bound it. "It is no pain to die for love," said the low, deep voice, with an echo of rolling gerunds in the tone.

"That depends on how sharp the dagger is," returned Mary of Scotland. "If the axe had been dull"——

From the heart of a red rose Juliet looked out; the golden centre crowned her head with yellow tresses; her tender hazel eyes were calm with intact passion; her mouth was scarlet with fresh kisses, and full of consciousness and repose. "Harder it is to live for love," said she; "hardest of all to have ever lived without it."

"How much do you all help the matter?" said a practical Yankee voice from a pink hollyhock. "If the infinite relations of life assert themselves in marriage, and the infinite I merges its individuality in the personality of another, the superincumbent need of a passional relation passes without question. What the soul of the seeker asks from itself and the universe is, whether the ultimate principle of existent life is passional or philosophic."

"Your dialectic is wanting in purity of expression," calmly said Hypatia; "the tongue of Olympus suits gods and their ministers only."

"Plato hath no question of the matter in hand," observed Lady Jane Grey, with a tone of finishing the subject.

"I know nothing of your questions and philosophies," scornfully stormed Cleopatra. "Fire seeks fire, and clay, clay. Isis send me Antony, and every philosopher in Alexandria may go drown in the Nile! Shall I blind my eyes with scrolls of papyrus when there is a goodly Roman to be looked upon?"

From the deep blue petals of a double English violet came a delicate face, pale, serene, sad, but exceeding tender. "Love liveth when the lover dies," said Lady Rachel Russell. "I have well loved my lord in the prison; shall I cease to affect him when he is become one of the court above?"

"You are cautious of speech, Mesdames," carelessly spoke Marguerite. "Women are the fools of men; you all know it. Every one of you has carried cap and bell."

They all turned toward the hawk's-bill tulip; it was not there.

"Gone to Kenilworth," demurely sneered Mary of Scotland.

A pond-lily, floating in a tiny tank, opened its clasped petals; and with one bare pearly foot upon the green island of leaves, and the other touching the edge of the marble basin, clothed with a rippling, lustrous, golden garment of hair, that rolled downward in glittering masses to her slight ankles, and half hid the wide, innocent, blue eyes and infantile, smiling lips, Eve said, "I was made for Adam," and slipped silently again into the closing flower.

"But we have changed all that!" answered Marguerite, tossing her jewel-clasped curls.

"They whom the saints call upon to do battle for king and country have their nature after the manner of their deeds," came a clear voice from the fleur-de-lis, that clothed itself in armor, and flashed from under a helmet the keen, dark eyes and firm, beardless lips of a woman.

"There have been cloistered nuns," timidly breathed La Vallière.

"There is a monk's-hood in that parterre without," said Marguerite.

The white clematis shivered. It was a veiled shape in long robes, that hid face and figure, who clung to the wall and whispered, "Paraclete!"

"There are tales of saints in my breviary," soliloquized Mary of Scotland; and in the streaming moonlight, as she spoke, a faint outline gathered, lips and eyes of solemn peace, a crown of blood-red roses pressing thorns into the wan temples that dripped sanguine streams, and in the halo above the wreath a legend, partially obscured, that ran, "Utque talis Rosa nulli alteri plantæ adhæreret"——

"But the girl there is no saint; I think, rather, she is of mine own land," said a purple passion-flower, that hid itself under a black mantilla, and glowed with dark beauty. The Spanish face bent over me with ardent eyes and lips of sympathetic passion, and murmured, "Do not fear! Pedro was faithful unto and after death; there are some men"——

Pan growled! I rubbed my eyes! Where was I? Mrs. Reading stood by me in very extempore costume, holding a night-lamp:—

"Goodness me, Miss Clara!" said she, "I never was more scared. I happened to wake up, and I thought I see your west window open across the corner; so I roused up to go and see if you was sick; and you wasn't in bed, nor your frock anywhere. I was frighted to pieces; but when I come down and found the greenhouse door open, I went in just for a chance, and, lo and behold! here you are, sound asleep in the chair, and Pan a-lying close onto that beautiful black lace frock! Do get up, Miss Clara! you'll be sick to-morrow, sure as the world!"

I looked round me. All the flowers were cool and still; the calla breathless and quiet; the pond-lily shut; the roses full of dew and perfume; the clematis languid and luxuriant.

"Delia," said I, "what do you think about matrimony?"

Mrs. Reading stared at me with her honest green eyes. I laughed.

"Well," said she, "marriage is a lottery, Miss Clara. Reading was a pretty good feller; but seein' things was as they was, if I'd had means and knowed what I know now, I shouldn't never have married him."

"May-be you'd have married somebody else, though," suggested I.

"Like enough, Miss Clara; girls are unaccountable perverse when they get in love. But do get up and go to bed. A'n't you goin' to the Lake to-morrow?"

That put my speculation to flight. Up I rose and meekly followed Delia to my room; this time she staid to see me fairly disrobed. But I had had sleep enough. I was also quiet; I could think. The future lay at my feet, to be planned and patterned at my will; or so I thought. I had not permitted myself to think much about Harry Tempest, from an instinctive feeling of danger; I did not know then that

"En songeant qu'il faut oublier
On s'en souvient!"

I was young, rich, beautiful, independent; I came and went as I would, without question, and did my own pleasure. If I married, all this power must be given up; possibly I and my husband would tire of each other,—and then what remained but fixed and incurable disgust and pain? I thought over my strange dream. Cleopatra, the enchantress, and the scorn of men: that was not love, it was simple passion of the lowest grade. Lady Jane Grey: she was only proper. Marguerite de Valois: profligate. Elizabeth: a shrewish, selfish old politician. Who of all these had loved? Arria: and Pætus dying, she could not love. Lady Russell: she lived and mourned. I looked but at one side of the argument, and drew my inferences from that, but they satisfied me. Soon I saw the dawn stretch its opal tints over the distant hills, and tinge the tree-tops with bloom. I heard the half-articulate music of birds, stirring in their nests; but before the sounds of higher life began to stir I had gone to sleep, firmly resolved to ride to the Lake, and to give Harry Tempest no opportunity to speak to me alone. But I slept too long; it was noon before I woke, and I had sent no message about my preference of the pony, as I promised, to Mr. Tempest. I had only time to breakfast and dress. At three o'clock he came,—with his carriage, of course. So I rode to the Lake!

It's all very well to make up one's mind to say a certain thing; it is better if you say it; but, somehow or other,—I really was ashamed afterward,—I forgot all my good reasons. I found I had taken a great deal of pains to no purpose. In short, after due time, I married Harry Tempest; and though it is some time since that happened, I am still much of Eve's opinion,—

"I was made for Adam."

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.