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