A Pessimist in Theory and Practice
"Rather. If you startle the audience with such a speech as that, what will Mr. Hartman think? You must put on your prettiest behavior, Bob. Make a desperate effort, and try to keep it up – for my sake, now."
"For your sake I can be Bayard and Crichton and Brummell and all those dudes rolled into one. I'll order some new clothes when I go down. And you will have to be very gracious to me, you know."
"Am I not gracious enough now, pet? How is this for a rehearsal?"
"Beyond my wildest dreams, Empress. When you treat me thus for an hour, I can bear your ill usage for a year."
"There will be no ill usage at present, if you behave. Now don't forget, and spoil the play. Understand, you are to pair off with me, as Mr. Hartman with Jane. Mabel is mostly occupied with the children; we will all look after her, of course. And there will be mixing and change of partners, but not much. You must watch, and obey my slightest hint – the turn of an eyelid, the flutter of a fan. I'll teach you all that."
"I know a lot of it already: when it comes to watching you, I am a dabster. I'll behave as if I was at school to Plato and Confucius, and in training to succeed them both. Do you know, Princess, if you were to treat a stranger for half a day as you are treating me now, he would want to die for you?"
"He might die for want of me before the day was over, if he grew lackadaisical over his wants. All men are not so chivalrous as you, my poor Robert. You may have to do that sort of dying before long. You must be ready to be dropped when the time comes to change the figures. No growling or moping, mind: you must submit sweetly, and take your place in the background with Jane, while the rest of the play goes on."
"I know: I've been there before. I can find consolation in seeing you carry the leading part. One set of men passes away, and another set comes on; but the Princess goes on conquering, regardless of the moans of her victims as they writhe on the bloody battlefield. O, I'm used to being shoved aside, and feeding on my woes in silent patience. The flowret fades when day is done, and so does every mother's son Who thinks his course is just begun, And knows not that his race is run – How does it go on, Clarice? I forget the rest of it."
"It is a pity you didn't forget the whole of it. I would if I were you, and quickly, lest you horrify some one else with it. You are too big to pose as a flowret, Bob."
"Polestar of my faith, see here. I'll have to be around with Hartman, smoking and so on, nights, after you and the rest have turned in, and often in the daylight. You and Jane can't attend to his case in person all the time, you know, and I'm his host. What shall I say about you?"
"Anything you like. Praise me to the skies, of course. That will be in keeping with your part as my cavalier; and he will see how things are between us – on your side, I mean. Tell him about my few faults, if you can bring yourself to mention them. Yes, you must; they will set off my many virtues. Be perfectly natural about it: you have known and cherished me from infancy, and so forth. Not a word, of course, about our compact, and these rehearsals, and my coaching you – O you great booby, were you capable of blurting that out? If you do, you'll spoil all, and I'll never forgive you. Remember now: you profess to dread my anger, and you have reason; you've felt it before. If you want me ever to trust you again, keep to yourself what is between us; regard it as sacred. O, I know you profess to look at all that belongs to me in that light; but show your faith by your works. Swear it to me now."
I swore. That is a ceremony which has to be gone through rather frequently with the Princess, and somehow I don't mind it. But how the deuce is one to remember all these rules and regulations? I'll have to get Clarice to write them out for me, by chapter and verse, with big headings; then I'll get the thing printed, and carry it about with me, and study it nights and mornings. But Mabel might find it in my clothes: she is welcome to my secrets, but this is not mine. I might have it printed in cipher; but then I should be sure to lose the key. O, confound it all, I'll have to chance it: I'll be sure to slip up somewhere, and then there'll be a row. Well, why borrow trouble? Let's gather the flowers while we may: only there are none just here, and it is too dark to find them. Then a thought suddenly struck me: why not head off the difficulty by improving my position beforehand? "Princess dearest, do you like me better than you used to, or is this only part of the play, the excitement of practicing for a newcomer? Tell me, please – there's a dear."
We were near the house now, and she darted away from me. "If you tells me no questions, I asks you no lies," she sang gaily as she ran in. O shades of Juliet and Cleopatra, what a woman that is – or what an idiot I am: I can't be sure which till I get an outside opinion. I'd give odds that within a fortnight Hartman will be far gone. It will be life or death for him, poor old man. But he's nigh dead now, inwardly speaking, and so has not much to lose. Anyway, he'll see that a world with Clarice in it is not as blank and chilly as he thinks it now – not by several thousand degrees. I fancy his thermometer will begin to go up pretty soon. He needs shaking up and turning inside out and upside down – a general ventilating, in fact, and I rather think Miss Elliston will administer it to him.
I was mighty glad that Clarice felt this way about Hartman's coming; she has not waked up so, or come down from her Olympian clouds of indifference, in a long time. But still I thought it best to go around and make some more preparations. When I have a secret to carry, it oppresses my frank and open nature more than you would think; and I find that I can conceal it best by inquiring concerning the matter of it of persons who know nothing about it. Naturally I began with the head of the house. That is myself, I suppose, nominally; but every decent man allows his wife to fill the position, and get what comfort she can out of it.
"Mabel," I said, "I hope that Hartman will enjoy himself here."
"You told us he was not given to enjoying himself; on the contrary, quite the reverse. No doubt he will take us as he finds us. He will hardly want to go out to dinner every day, and meet the Vanderdeck's and the foreign princess."
"But, Mabel, I trust you are all prepared to meet him in the right spirit."
"What absurd questions you ask, Robert. You talk as if he were a bishop, come to convert us: I thought we were to convert him. I hope I do not need to be instructed how to receive my husband's friends. And Jane is ready to take an interest in him: she can be very nice, you know."
"And Clarice: will she do her part?"
"Nobody knows what Clarice will do on any occasion. She would be more apt to do what you wish if you would not trouble her about Mr. Hartman. We are not three little maids from school, to be taught our manners. Why can you not learn that matters would move just as well, yes, and better, without your continual interference, dear? Your blunders only complicate them, and disturb the harmony."
Now that is a nice way for the wife of one's bosom to talk, isn't it? How often, O how often, would I remove the clouds of care from her placid brow, and smooth her path through life by graceful persiflage and appropriate witticisms: but she does not seem to appreciate them. I fear she must have had some Scottish ancestors. Sometimes I think she does not appreciate me. It is a cold world; a cold, heartless, unfeeling, unresponsive world, in which the sensitive spirit may fly around promiscuously like Noah's dove, and have to stay out in a low temperature. Wisely and beneficently is it arranged that Virtue should be her own reward, since she gets no other. I will try Jane next.
"My dear sister, you know I go to town to-night, and expect to bring Hartman back. You will receive him kindly, for my sake, will you not?"
Jane is a little prim at times, and I have to arrange my sentences carefully, when I am with her.
"I will do that, of course: why so many words about it? Have you not been preparing me, and all of us, for this visit, for the last month? We know what is right, Robert: your behavior is the only doubtful part."
"But Clarice, sister? She is always so doubtful, as Mabel says; so capricious, so haughty, so unapproachable. You have great influence with her. Dear Jane, can you not persuade her to treat my poor friend kindly?"
"Now, brother, why will you be such an unconscionable humbug? We all know that you are in her confidence, when any one is. What were you two talking about all last evening? Hatching some plot, no doubt. But it was not intended to be practiced on me – not on her part; that is your unauthorized addition to her text." And the maiden assumed the part of Pallas, and gazed at me with severity, as if she would read my inmost soul. But she can't beat Clarice at that. See here, young lady, you are too sharp; you are getting dangerously near the truth. I came near saying this out, but did not. Instead I took an injured tone.
"You are a pretty sister, Jane, to go about suspecting me this way, and accusing me of intrigue and hypocrisy, and all kinds of black-hearted wickedness. What would I want to deceive you for? You know we all have to consider Clarice, and humor her: she is an orphan, and we are her nearest friends. She amuses herself with me sometimes, for want of another man at hand, and then throws me aside when the fit is over."
"O yes, we all know that, of course. Well, brother, you can go to town with an easy mind. Leave Mr. Hartman to Clarice and me; when she is not in the humor to attend to him, I will."
Now how does Jane come to know so much? Has the Princess been taking her into the plan too, as well as me? That I don't believe. Clarice would expect Jane to take her cue by intuition, and not bother to coach her as she has me: perhaps she can trust Jane farther. That must be it: one woman can see into another's mind where a man couldn't. I must put a mark on that for future reference. They do beat us at some minor points. Well, I didn't exactly get the best of that encounter: it seems to me I owe Jane one, which I must try and remember to pay.
Hartman arrived on schedule time, and was duly taken home with me. "Old man," I said, "welcome back to the amenities of life; to the tender charities of man and woman; to the ties, too long neglected, which bind your being to the world's glad heart. You are the prodigal returning from sowing his wild oats in the backwoods: the fatted calf shall be killed for you, in moderation, as per contract, and the home brewed ale drawn mild. We are quiet people, and live mostly by ourselves: that will suit your book. The giddy crowd, in its frivolous pursuit of amusement and fashion, surges by in the immediate vicinity, and old Ocean, in his storm-tost fury, dashes his restless waves upon our good back door, or adjacent thereto. But we give small heed to either one of them. The sea views and feminine costumes are supposed to be of the highest order, and there is polo at stated intervals, if you care for such; but these vanities have little to do with the calm current of our daily life. You will shortly have in front of you a christian family, united in bonds of long-tried affection and confidence. The earthly paradise, James, must be sought in the peaceful bosom of one's Home. After tossing on the angry billows of Water Street, how sweet to return to this haven of rest! And you too, world-worn and weary man of woes, shall receive attention. The furrows of care shall be smoothed out of your manly brow: gentle hands will bind up your wounds – even the one you got from that girl a dozen years ago, if it isn't healed yet. The shadows of gloomy and soul-debasing Theory will flit away from your bewildered brain, and in this healthful atmosphere your spirit will regain its long-lost tone, and embrace once more the ethereal images of Hope and Joy and Faith. Probably you will yet find some one to love in this wide world of sorrow; anyway, we hope to send you forth clothed and in your right mind."
"I hope I'm properly clothed now, or will be with what I've got in my trunk; and I need to be in my right mind to take in all this eloquence. I was mistaken about you, Bob; you should have been a preacher. The only drawback is, you don't stick to one key long enough: these sudden changes in your woodnotes wild might confuse a congregation."
"The church lacks vivacity and sense of humor, Jim: she's all for a dull monotone. Old Fuller is dead: his mantle descended on me, but they don't appreciate that style nowadays. To return to our topic, and deal with the duty that lies nearest. In an humble and pottering way, we are a happy family, James. We envy not the rich and great: seek elsewhere their gilded saloons, and tinsel trappings of pride; but you will find things pretty comfortable. I regret to say we'll have to do our smoking out of doors; but it is generally warm enough for that. If we are noted for anything, it is for modest contentment, unassuming virtue, and cheerful candor – just as you see them in me. Each face reflects the genuine emotions and guileless innocence of the heart connected therewith; more than that, they reflect one another, as in a glass. You can look at Mabel, and see all that is passing in my capacious bosom. We share each other's woes, each other's burdens bear, and if we don't drop the sympathizing tear frequently, it is because there is very seldom any call for it. We have no secrets from one another: limpid and pure flows the confidential stream – but it flows no further than the fence. You can say what you like to any of us, and it will not go out of the house – unless the servants overhear it; you'll have to look out for that, of course."
"See here, Bob; judging by you, I had no idea I was coming among such apostolic manners, or I'd have taken a course of À Kempis. Are there any prayer-meetings near by, where I can go to freshen up?"
"Within a mile or two, no doubt. Jane can tell you about them; she can lend you a prayer-book, anyway. But I was not meaning to discourage you: they will make allowances. My wife is an exemplary woman; if you want to get on with her, you'll have to take an interest in Herbert's bruises when he falls over the banisters. He is the only one of the children who will trouble you much; the others are small yet, happily. My sister is a pattern of propriety, but of rather an inquiring mind, and sympathetic if you take her the right way: she can talk with you about philosophy and science and your dried-up old doxies. Not that she knows anything about Schopenhauer, and Darwin, and Diogenes, of course; but she's heard their names, and she'll pretend to be posted – you know how women are. And when you need a mental tonic – the companionship of a robust intellect, the stimulus of wide acquaintance with the great world of men and things, a manly comprehension of any difficulties that you may meet, or sound and wise advice how to steer your way through the pitfalls and intricacies of the female character – in such cases, which will no doubt often arise, you have only to come to me. I know all about these matters, of which you have had no experience. I'll be at home as much as possible while you are there, and I'll stand by you, Jim."
"Thanks, awfully – as I believe they say where we are going. Yes, you will be an invaluable mentor, Bob. Well, I'll try not to disgrace you. It is late: let us turn in."
This important conversation took place on the boat. You see, when I was with Hartman in May, he took the lead; but in my own house, or on the way to it, I like to be cock of the walk. Besides, as I had prepared the women for his coming, so now it was necessary to prepare his mind to meet them. In my picture of our domestic felicity, I may have laid on some tints too heavily, as about our mutual confidence. But he will soon see how that is. You may notice that I said nothing about the Princess. There was a deep design in that omission. When the orb of day in all his glory bursts from his liquid bed upon the astonished gaze of some lonely wanderer on the Andes, or the Alps, – or our own Rockies, say, – the spectacle is all the more effective if the wanderer was not expecting anything of the kind; didn't suppose it was time yet, or, still better, didn't know there was any sun. That is the way Jim will feel when he sees Clarice. If he has forgotten about her wanting to go up there in the woods in May, O. K.; that will meet her views, and he'll be reminded of her existence soon enough.
This is one of those delicate ideas which might not occur to the male mind unassisted: in fact, left to my native nothingness, I should probably have enlarged on her charms most of the evening. But she laid special stress on this point, that I was to say as little as possible about her beforehand, and fortunately I remembered it. Hartman thinks he is going to have a safe and easy time with me and two highly respectable ladies of sedate minds and settled habits. Sleep on, deluded James, while I finish my cigar here on deck: dream of the forest and the trout brooks, and your neighbor Hodge and your old tomcat. By to-morrow night your mental horizon will be enlarged, and when you return to your castle in the wilderness there will be some new sensations tugging at your vitals. It will be a change for you, old man, and you needed one. Well, I've given you enough to think of for now, and you'll get more before you are a week older. I hope he will come through it right: it is like taking one's friend to the surgeon to undergo an operation, when he doesn't know that anything ails him or is going to be done. Poor old Jim, I wouldn't have put up such a job on you if I didn't believe it was for your good. I am not a pessimist like you: I believe in God and the Princess.
The drive from the wharf is too long: I often think that the older part of the town ought to be submerged, or removed to one of the adjacent islands. We met the family at breakfast, and I said, "Ladies, you see before you a wild man of the woods, brought hither to be subdued and civilized by your gentle ministrations. By the way, Mabel, there was a corner in oil yesterday. I made fourteen thousand, and Simpkins went under; so you can have that new gown now." They paid no attention whatever to these pleasantries. Clarice was not there, or the sparkling fount of humor would have flowed less freely.
Hartman has very good manners when he chooses, and in my house he would naturally choose; so he got on well enough. The children took to him at once, and he seemed to take to them. After breakfast I led him out for a walk, to show him the points of interest. Several very creditable cottages have been put up since he was here last: in fact, this is quite a growing place, for the country. As we went back he suddenly said, "Bob, who is this Clarice that your sister mentioned at the table? Fancy name, isn't it?"
"O no," I said as indifferently as I could. He ought not to go springing her on me in that way: it makes a man nervous. "She's an orphan; a sort of cousin of Mrs. T. Got no brothers or sisters, and all that sort of thing; so we look after her a good deal. Sometimes she's with us, sometimes she's not. Was south all winter: got back while I was up there with you."
Now what the deuce did I say that for? It'll brush up his rusty mental machinery, and help him to recall what she wants forgotten. Just so; of course.
"Yes, I remember. She thought of joining you with Miss Jane. I wish you had let them come."
"Well, you see, you don't know what these girls are used to; I do. There were no fit quarters for them at Hodge's. I had gone and written my wife a lot of rot, pretending his place was much better than it is."
"With your usual unassuming virtue and cheerful candor; yes. We have no secrets from one another: the limpid stream of confidence flows unchecked and unpolluted. Just so. But see here, you old hypocrite, if there is another young woman in the family, you ought to have told me about her last night, when you were preparing my mind, you know, and pretending to explain the whole domestic situation. – Great heavens, who's that?"