Текст книги

Frederic Bird
A Pessimist in Theory and Practice


I thought I had him at last. His surface lightness was all gone: he looked intent and solemn. "No doubt of it, Bob; not the least in life. I am human, and the worst is yet to come. But do you think me such a cad as to go back on my principles in search of so poor a shadow as happiness? Shall I, in base hope of easing my own burden, throw it on somebody else who but for me might go through existence lightly? Should I call sentient beings out of the blessed gulf of nothingness, that they may pay a duty to my weakness by and by, and curse me in their hearts? That would be somewhat too high a price to pay for broth when I am toothless, and the coddling comforts of one who has lived too long."

I am not thin-skinned, but his tone shocked me. "Dear boy," I said, "they wouldn't look at it in that light. They would be your wife and your children."

"Yes," he said, still savagely, "they would be my wife and children – supposing your unsupposable case. Grant that my notions are as false and monstrous as you think them: a pleasant lot for my wife, wouldn't it, to be in constant contact with them? And my children would have my blood in them – the taint of eccentricity, perhaps of madness: O, I've seen it in your eye. Others would think so too – most, no doubt. No, Bob; better let it die out with me."

"Jim, you make me tired. I'll go back to the tavern." I was disappointed, and he saw it.

"Don't make yourself wretched about me, old man. Let this thing go – you can't mend it. Follow your own doctrine, and take what you find. We have the May weather, good legs, and our tackle, and the brooks are full of trout. I kill nothing bigger than fish, but if you want a change I'll show you where you can have a chance for deer. And for the evenings, there are other topics besides ourselves – or rather myself. You can tell me about your children; they are likely to be healthier than mine would be. Good night, my boy: sound sleep, and no dreams of me."

III.

COMPLICATIONS

After that I found it best to do as Hartman had said. The sport was good, but I failed to enjoy it. I suppose I was a fool, for each of us makes or mars his own life, and it is no use moping over your neighbor's blunders; but I could not get that poor devil out of my mind. He talks as well on one subject as on another: it was I, not he, had brought him under discussion; but the evenings dragged. Then came a letter from home: the distance is considerable, and the mails slow. "Dear Robert," my wife wrote, "I am glad to know you are so comfortable. Keep your flannels on, and change your clothing when you have been in the wet. The children are well: Herbert fell over the banisters yesterday, but fortunately without injury. Bring your friend Mr. H. back with you; he seems to be presentable, and evidently all he needs is a little cheering feminine society." [Hum: feminine society puts a higher estimate on its own powers than I do, then.] "Clarice has returned. You know how enterprising she is, not to say wilful, and how fond she is of you. She has taken a fancy to try your retreat, and learn to catch trout." [She has, eh? Well, let's get on with this.] "Jane will go with her, of course: they start on Thursday. Secure rooms for them, and have a vehicle to meet them."

Here was a nice situation. To make Mabel easy about me, I had enlarged too much on the accommodations here; they are a long way from what she supposes. I called the landlord. "Hodge, here are two ladies coming from the city. Where can you put them?"

"Wall, I d'no, Square. Ain't much used to city gals. Hope they don't bring no sarrytogys. There ain't nothin but your room, an mine, an old Poll's, and the gerrit. Me and you might go out in the hayloft like, or sleep on the pyazzer if the nights is warm."

While he was maundering on, the whole truth flashed upon me. Why can't I see things at once, like Hartman? If I had his sharpness, and he my slow common sense, there would be two men fit for this world's uses – which neither of us appears to be, as the case stands. I had rashly said too much about Jim and his attractions. Mabel is a born manager and matchmaker – can't endure to see an eligible man uncaught. She has put the girls up to this game: 'cheering feminine society,' indeed! My sister Jane is a sensible woman enough, and not much younger than I; but Clarice is a beauty with six years' experience, and irresistible, some think. 'Enterprising' – well, I should say so: cheeky, you might call it. Women do take such stunning liberties nowadays. My wife would reprove me for slang; but weaker words fail to express the fact, and my feelings about it. I might stand these girls coming up here after me – Clarice is a sort of eighth cousin of Mabel's and looks on me as a brother. But Jim – no. She must be pining for more worlds to conquer, and it would just suit her book to bring a romantic hermit to her feet. I should like well enough to see her try it, when I was not responsible, but not under present circumstances. Great Cæsar! Jim will think I have put up this job on him, and never forgive me: nor would I, in his place. This field is getting too thick with missionaries. – "Hodge, it won't do. Harness your old nag, and drive me to the station. I must telegraph. And while I'm there, I may as well put for home. We can catch the night train if you hurry."

"Wall, Square, I don't cotton to suddint changes: like to move when I git a good ready. Ye put a man off his base, Darn – ."

I checked his incipient profanity. "My friend, whether you like it or not is in this case immaterial. I'll pay you for the time I meant to stay, and all you like for the fifteen miles. But be quick, now."

While he was hunting strings for his broken buckboard, I threw my traps together, and scratched a line to Jim: called home by sudden press of business, I said – and so it was, in a way. It is a long ride, but I had enough to think of. At the depot I wired, "Hold the girls. I am coming back." As I straightened up from this exercise, there was the old sinner grinning malignantly over my shoulder. "Hodge," I said, "not a word about the ladies to Mr. Hartman, mind," and I gave him an extra dollar. This was another mistake, I suppose.

"Never you mind, Square: tain't me as goes back on my friends." What could the old fool be thinking of? I would have given him some more cautions, but the train came, and I was off.

You may imagine the reception at home. I tried to take a high hand, but what can a man do against three women? "I really think, Robert," said Mabel, "that since the girls had set their hearts on this excursion, you might have indulged them." "The conceit of men!" cried Clarice; "what had our coming to do with Mr. Hartman? Is he lord of the manor, that no one may trespass on his demesne?" Jane too turned on me. "It was not very kind of you, brother, to prefer a mere acquaintance above your own sister, and suspect her motives in order to save his peace, forsooth!" I knew it was humbug; but I had to eat no end of humble pie, all the same. You may believe me or not – if you are a family man you will, without difficulty – but I had to get those women apart, and explain things to them one at a time, before I could have peace in the house. My own flesh and blood were soon mollified; but Clarice has not forgiven me yet. I have been on my knees to her, so to speak – most men do it, and she expects it – but it is of no use. "My dear Clarice," said I, "you know I would do anything in the world for you." "Yes," said she contemptuously, "I've just had experience of it." "But you don't know Hartman." "Then why couldn't you let me know him?" "But it wouldn't have done, under these circumstances. He – I – ." "Unhappy man," she said, with her tragedy queen air, "is it possible you imagined that you were a better judge of the proprieties than I?" And that's the way it goes. I am coming to believe Hartman was right about the fate of philanthropic efforts, at least.

In the midst of all this came a note from Jim himself. "Dear Bob, I enclose something which Hodge says you left behind." [O thrice-accursed idiot, did I leave Mabel's letter lying around loose?] "Of course I have not looked into it, but I fear he has." [You may bet on that: the only chance was that he could not read her fine Italian hand.] "He says one of your children fell down stairs: I trust the results were not serious. Sorry you left in such haste, and hindered the ladies from coming. Hodge's quarters are not palatial, but you could bunk with me, as I at first proposed; and since they were willing to rough it, we would have managed somehow. You could surely rely on my humble aid toward making their sojourn in the wilderness endurable. And per contra, a little cheering feminine society might have assisted your benevolent efforts toward my reclamation. Was it not selfish to leave me thus unconsoled and unconverted?"

Well, the business is done now, with neatness and dispatch. That beast Hodge has told Jim all he knew or suspected, even to that fatal phrase of my wife's: so there's an end of his faith in me, and of any chance I might have had to set him straight. That was a fortnight ago, and I have not the face to answer him. When I have any more doctrinaire anchorites to convert, I shall not call a family council. But alas, poor Hartman!

IV.

A WILFUL PRINCESS

I was wrong about Hartman after all. He has written me again, and this is what he says:

"Do you want to confirm the heretical opinions you argued against so manfully? You had revived my faith in friendship, Bob: I believed, and would like still to believe, that one man can be true and kind to another. And perhaps in general you had stirred and shaken me up more than you knew. Socrates outranks Pyrrho, and I am open to conviction. Possibly I have been too sweeping; I don't wish to dogmatize. It may be that I have lived alone too long, shut up in a narrow space, where light could enter only through my perversely colored glasses. At any rate, your coming was like opening a door and letting in a wholesome breeze. Have I offended you? I thought I was past asking favors from my kind: but do let me hear from you."

Of course I had to answer that, and worse, to show it to the girls. Some men, now, would keep it to themselves, and preserve their dignity; but such is not my style. Let them crow over me if they must.

They did. "Well, Robert," said Mabel, "you see now how absurdly mistaken you were. Perhaps hereafter you will allow us to manage our own affairs, and not complicate them with your bungling masculine attempts at superior wisdom." "I am glad to know, brother," said Jane, "that your friend is a gentleman, incapable of the base suspicions you would have attributed to him. You did your best to prevent our knowing him and carrying out your ideas for his improvement: now we shall be able to meet him cordially, and try to cheer him a little. But probably he is not at all as dark as you have painted him."

Clarice would say nothing: she was in one of her high and mighty moods. Her soul is like a star, and sits up aloft; sometimes it twinkles, but more generally it does not. I often want to tell her that she is a creature too bright and good to come to breakfast like other folks; but somehow she has a way of keeping people at a distance, and even of repressing my pleasantries. We call her the Princess: She has to be approached with bated breath, and you must whisper your compliments if you want to fire them off at her; rear them as gently as a sucking child, in fact – and then they are very seldom appreciated.

"Clarice," I said, "I want to get Hartman down here. Do treat him kindly, please; won't you, now?"

She looked at me with her Juno air. "Why should I treat him kindly?"

"O well, I won't say for my sake, because you wouldn't care for that. But the poor devil has lived in the woods so long."

"He might have been well enough in his woods; but why should you bring your poor devils into civilized society, and expect me to bear with their gaucheries, in addition to your own?"

There it is: she'll not forgive me in a year for upsetting her fine plan of going up there to beard the hermit in his den. She rarely takes these fancies, I must own; and when she does, she is not accustomed to be balked of them. As it has turned out, I might as well have let her have her way that time; there was no harm in it. "Princess, haven't you trampled on me enough? I was wrong, and I'm very sorry: what more can a man say? But Hartman had no hand in that."

"Yes, that is clear now, no thanks to you. Small merit in confessing after you are proved guilty."

"Well, you are pretty hard on a fellow. But you needn't punish Hartman for my fault. Thrash me all you like, but give him a chance. I give you my word of honor, Clarice, he is a finished gentleman, and very different from me. You needn't fear awkwardness in him. I knew you would like him."

"How do you know what I would like? If this Mr. Hartman wants to see a little of the world, I have no desire to prevent his being reclaimed from barbarism. Mabel and Jane can do that, without my aid. To tell you the truth, Robert, I don't care to meet the man, after the disgusting complications which you have introduced."

I groaned – I couldn't help it. "Princess, please God, I will never interfere with you again. You shall be safe from any meddling of mine. If you will kindly say what you want, and say it slow, so that my limited faculties can take it in, I will try to act accordingly. But, if I may make so bold as to inquire, what are you up to now?"

"I shall go away. O, you need not feel so badly about it, Bob: I am not tied to you and Mabel. I was in the South all winter, you know, and only returned while you were at your fishing. I have a dozen invitations for the summer: I think I will join Constance."

"Not if I can help it, you won't. This is your natural home, Clarice, and you shall not be driven from it. Nobody shall enter here who is not acceptable to you: if anything about the house don't suit you, name it and it shall be corrected. You know Jane and Mabel worship you; so do the children, if you count them. I'll not have Hartman; or I can entertain him at the club while you are all at Newport."

"That will be hospitality indeed. Would you desert your friend for me?"

"I would not desert you for all the friends under the canopy. You have always ruled the house when you deigned to be in it, and you always will. I may be low in your books, but it does not follow that you are not high in mine. We can't do without you, Princess; you must stay. Name your price, and I'll pay it if it breaks me."

"Very well then; I will remain, and meet your Mr. Hartman. But one thing must be distinctly understood: there must be no more crossing of my will. I must be absolutely free and unhampered, to plan and carry out what I see fit. I may possibly be wrong at times; but you will not know when, and it is not for you to judge. No more interference or opposition, remember. Do the terms suit you?"

"O Lord, yes. I'll have a throne set up in the drawing-room, and everybody shall approach you Siamese fashion. And perhaps I had better come to you to see if my tie is right before dinner, and to practice what I shall say when we have company."

"It might improve you. But Mabel should be competent to attend to those trifles. On one point I must instruct you, though. I shall doubtless do things that appear to you strange, perverse, incomprehensible. In such cases it will be best for you to walk by faith. No meddling nor espionage, mind."

"Clarice, you don't think me capable of playing the spy on you?"

"Not that exactly, but you sometimes indulge in little tricks and stratagems: you like to think that you hoodwink your wife – not that it ever succeeds – in small unimportant matters. Mabel and Jane may endure your attempts, if they like; but don't try them on me. They would never deceive me for a moment, of course; but I can't waste time in explaining that to you in detail. Besides, your fancied success would unsettle your mind, and so tend to disturb the domestic equilibrium."

"Good heavens, Clarice! would I lie to you?"

"No: you dare not. But let me have no subterfuges, no concealments, and no criticisms. What I may do you cannot expect to understand, nor is it necessary that you should."

"Well, thought has been hitherto supposed to be free. When I see you at those little games of which you are to enjoy a monopoly, can't I have an opinion of them?"

"O yes. The opinion will be of small value, but your poor mind must be amused and occupied somehow, I suppose. But you will be carrying your opinions about the house, and introducing an element of confusion. If you could keep your own counsel, now – but that is hopeless."

"When you are operating on Hartman, for instance, it might confuse the programme if I were to say anything to him, eh?"

"When I take Mr. Hartman up, it will be very much better for his welfare and yours for you to leave him in my hands."

"O, he would rather be left there, no doubt, though they grind him to powder. But what the deuce am I to do? If I mayn't talk to anybody else, can't I come to you with my opinions – in odd moments, when your serene highness has nothing better on hand?"