John Brent/Chapter X
We were turning away from the pretty cage, in order not to frighten the bird, pretty or not, when an oldish man, tending his fire at the farther side of the wagon, gave us “Good evening!”
There is a small but ancient fraternity in the world, known as the Order of Gentlemen. It is a grand old order. A poet has said that Christ founded it; that he was “the first true gentleman that ever lived.”
I cannot but distinguish some personages of far-off antiquity as worthy members of this fellowship. I believe it coeval with man. But Christ stated the precept of the order, when he gave the whole moral law in two clauses, — Love to God, and Love to the neighbor. Whoever has this precept so by heart that it shines through into his life, enters without question into the inner circles of the order.
But to protect itself against pretenders, this brotherhood, like any other, has its formulas, its passwords, its shibboleths, even its uniform. These are external symbols. With some, the symbol is greater than the thing signified. The thing signified, the principle, is so beautiful, that the outward sign is enough to glorify any character. The demeanor of a gentleman — being art, the expression of an idea in form — can become property, like any art. It may be an heirloom in an ancient house, like the portrait of the hero who gave a family name and fame, like the portrait of the maiden martyr or the faithful wife who made that name beloved, that fame poetry, to all ages. This precious inheritance, like anything fine and tender, has sometimes been treated with over care. Guardians have been so solicitous that a neophyte should not lose his inherited rank in the order of gentlemen, that they have forgotten to make a man of him. Culturing the flower, they have not thought to make the stalk sturdy, or even healthy. The demeanor of a gentleman may be possessed by a weakling, or even inherited by one whose heart is not worthy of his manners.
The formulas of this order are not edited; its passwords are not syllabled; its uniform was never pictured in a fashion-plate, or so described that a snob could go to his tailor, and say, “Make me the habit of a gentleman.” But the brothers know each other unerringly wherever they meet; be they of the inner shrine, gentlemen heart and life; be they of the outer court, gentlemen in feeling and demeanor.
No disguise delays this recognition. No strangeness of place and circumstances prevents it. The men meet. The magnetism passes between them. All is said without words. Gentleman knows gentleman by what we name instinct. But observe that this thing, instinct, is character in its finest, keenest, largest, and most concentrated action. It is the spirit’s touch.
John Brent and I, not to be deemed intruders, were walking away from the neat wagon at the upper end of the Mormon camp, when an oldish man beside the wagon gave us “Good evening.”
“Good evening, gentlemen,” said the wan, gray-haired, shadowy man before us.
And that was all. It was enough. We knew each other; we him and he us. Men of the same order, and so brothers and friends.
Here was improbability that made interest at once. Greater to us than to him. We were not out of place. He was, and in the wrong company. Brent and I looked at each other. We had half divined our new brother’s character at the first glance.
How legible are some men! All, indeed, that have had, or are to have, a history, are books in a well-known tongue to trained decipherers. But some tragedies stare at us with such an earnest dreariness from helpless faces, that we read with one look. We turn away sadly. We have comprehended the whole history of past sorrow; we prophesy the coming despair.
I will not now anticipate the unfinished, melancholy story we read in this new face. An Englishman, an unmistakable gentleman, and in a Mormon camp, — there was tragedy enough. Enough to whisper us both to depart, and not grieve ourselves with vain pity; enough to imperatively command us to stay and see whether we, as true knights, foes of wrong, succorers of feebleness, had any business here. The same instinct that revealed to us one of our order where he ought not to be, warned us that he might have claims on us, and we duties toward him.
We returned his salutation.
We were about to continue the conversation, when he opened a fresh page of the tragedy. He called, in a voice too sad to be querulous, — a flickering voice, never to be fed vigorous again by any lusty hope, —
“What, father dear?”
“The water boils. Please bring the tea, my child.”
“Yes, father dear.”
The answers came from within the wagon. They were the song of the bird whose nest we had approved. A sad song. A woman’s voice can tell a long history of sorrow in a single word. This wonderful instrument, our voice, alters its timbre with every note it yields, as the face changes with every look, until at last the dominant emotion is master, and gives quality to tone and character to expression.
It was a sad, sweet voice that answered the old gentleman’s call. A lady’s voice, — the voice of a high-bred woman, delicate, distinct, self-possessed. That sound itself was tragedy in such a spot. No transitory disappointment or distress ever imprinted its mark so deeply upon a heart’s utterance. The sadness here had been life-long, had begun long ago, in the days when childhood should have gone thoughtless, or, if it noted the worth of its moments, should have known them as jubilee every one; — a sadness so habitual that it had become the permanent atmosphere of the life. The voice announced the person, and commanded all the tenderest sympathy brother-man can give to any sorrowful one in the sisterhood of woman.
And yet this voice, that with so subtle a revelation gave us the key of the unseen lady’s history, asked for no pity. There was no moan in it, and no plaint. Not even a murmur, nor any rebel bitterness or sourness for defeat. The undertone was brave. If not hopeful, still resolute. No despair could come within sound of that sweet music of defiance. The tones that challenge Fate were subdued away; but not the tones that calmly answer, “No surrender,” to Fate’s untimely pæan. It was a happy thing to know that, sorrowful as the life might be, here was an impregnable soul.
There was a manner of half command and half dependence in the father’s call to his daughter, — a weak nature, still asserting the control it could not sustain over a stronger. And in her response an indulgence of this feeble attempt at authority.
Does all this seem much to find in the few simple words we had heard? The analysis might be made infinitely more thorough. Every look, tone, gesture of a man is a symbol of his complete nature. If we apply the microscope severely enough, we can discern the fine organism by which the soul sends itself out in every act of the being. And the more perfectly developed the creature, the more significant, and yet the more mysterious, is every habit, and every motion mightier than habit, of body or soul.
In an instant, the lady so sweetly heralded stepped from beneath the hood of the wagon, and sprang to the ground in more busy and cheerful guise than her voice had promised.
Again the same subtle magnetism between her and us. We could not have been more convinced of her right to absolute respect and consideration if she had entered to us in the dusky light of a rich drawing-room, or if we had been presented in due form at a picnic of the grandest world, with far other scenery than this of a “desart idle,” tenanted for the moment by a Mormon caravan. The lady, like her father, felt that we were gentlemen, and therefore would comprehend her. She saluted us quietly. There was in her manner a tacit and involuntary protest against circumstances, just enough for dignity. A vulgar woman would have snatched up and put on clumsily a have-seen-better-days air. This lady knew herself, and knew that she could not be mistaken for other than she was. Her base background only made her nobility more salient.
She did not need any such background, nor the contrast of the drudges and meretricious frights of the caravan. She could have borne full light without any shade. A woman fit to stand peer among the peerless.
We could not be astonished at this apparition. We had divined her father rightly, as it afterward proved. Her voice has already half disclosed her character. Let her face continue the development. We had already heard her called by her Christian name, Ellen. That seemed to bring us, from the beginning, into a certain intimacy with the woman as woman, sister, daughter, and to subordinate the circumstances of the life, to be in future suggested by the social name, to the life itself.
Ellen, then, the unknown lady of the Mormon caravan, was a high-bred beauty. Englishwomen generally lack the fine edge of such beauty as hers. She owed her dark fairness, perhaps, to a Sicilian bride, whom her Norman ancestor had pirated away from some old playground of Proserpine, and brought with him to England when he came there as conqueror. Her nose was not quite aquiline.
Positive aquiline noses should be cut off. They are ugly; they are immoral; they are sensual; they love money; they enjoy others’ misery. The worst birds have hooked beaks; and so the worst men, the eagles and vultures of the race. Cut off the beaks; they betoken a cruel pounce, a greedy clutch, and a propensity to carrion. Save the exceptions, but extirpate the brood.
This lady’s nose was sensitive and proud. It is well when a face has its share of pride in the nose. Then the lips can give themselves solely to sweetness and archness. Besides, pride, or, if the word is dreaded, a conscious and resolute personality, should be the characteristic of a face. The nose should express this quality. Above, the eyes may changefully flash intelligence; below, the mouth may smile affection; the cheeks may give balance and equability; the chin may show the cloven dimple of a tender and many-sided, or the point of a single-hearted and concentrated nature; the brow, a non-committal feature, may look wise or wiseacre; but every one of them is only tributary to the nose, standing royally in the midst, and with dignity presiding over its wayward realm.
Halt! My business is to describe a heroine, — not to discuss physiognomy, with her face for a type.
As I said, her nose was sensitive and proud. There might have once been scorn in the curve of her nostril. Not now. Sorrow and pity had educated away the scorn, as they had the tones of challenge from her voice. Firmness, self-respect, latent indignation, remained untouched. A strong woman, whose power was intense and passionate. Calm, till the time came, and then flame. Beware of arousing her! Not that there was revenge in her face. No; no stab or poison there. But she was a woman to die by an act of will, rather than be wronged. She was one who could hold an insulter by a steady look, while she grew paler, paler, purer, purer, with a more unearthly pureness, until she had crushed the boiling blood back into her heart, and stood before the wretch white and chill as a statue, marble-dead.
What a woman to meet in a Mormon caravan! And yet how able to endure whatever a dastard Fate might send to crush her there!
Her hair was caught back, and severely chided out of its wish to rebel and be as beautiful as it knew was its desert. It was tendril hair, black enough to show blackness against Fulano’s shoulder. Chide her locks as she might, they still insisted upon flinging out here and there a slender curling token of their gracefulness, to prove what it might be if she would but let them have their sweet and wilful will.
Her eyes were gray, with violet touches. Her eyebrows defined and square. If she had had passionate or pleading dark eyes, — the eyes that hardly repress their tears for sorrow or for joy, — and the temperament that such eyes reveal, she would long ago have fevered or wept herself to death. No woman could have looked at the disgusts of that life of hers through tears, and lived. The gray eyes meant steadiness, patience, hope without flinching, and power to master fate, or if not to master, to defy.
She was somewhat pale, thin, and sallow. Plodding wearily and drearily over those dusty wastes toward exile could not make her a merry Nut-Brown Maid. Only her thin, red lips proved that there were still blushes lurking out of sight.
A mature woman; beyond girlhood, body and soul. With all her grave demeanor, she could not keep down the wiles of gracefulness that ever bubbled to the surface. If she could but be her happy self, what a fair world she would suddenly create about her!
She was dressed in rough gray cloth, as any lady might be for a journey. She was evidently one whose resolute neatness repels travel-stains. After the tawdry, draggled silks of the young women we had just seen, her simplicity was charmingly fresh. Could she and they be of the same race of beings? They were apart as far as coarse from fine, as silvern from brazen. To see her here among this horde was a horror in itself. No horror the less, that she could not blind herself to her position and her fate. She could not fail to see what a bane was beauty here. That she had done so was evident. She had essayed by severe plainness of dress to erase the lady from her appearance. A very idle attempt! There she was, do what she would, her beauty triumphing over all the wrong she did to it for duty’s sake.
All these observations I made with one glance. Description seems idle when one remembers how eyes can see at a flash what it took æons to prepare for and a lifetime to form.
Brent and I exchanged looks. This was the result of our fanciful presentiments. Here was visible the woman we had been dreading to find. It still seemed an impossible vision. I almost believed that the old gentleman’s blanket would rise with him and his daughter, like the carpet of Fortunatus, and transport them suddenly away, leaving us beside a Mormon wagon in Sizzum’s camp and in the presence of a frowzy family cooking a supper of pork.
I looked again and again. It was all real There was the neat, comfortable wagon; there was the feeble, timid old gentleman, pottering about; there was this beautiful girl, busy with her tea, and smiling tenderly over her father.