« ForrigeFortsæt »
at you. So it knows, too. Take our joint advice, my friend, the sooner the better.....
Listen for a moment to the bells. Hear how their beauty and melody is in the rising and falling of their cadences. Especially the bells of San Julio, from there across the bay. Do you pick them out? You can appreciate that; even young people must pause at the sound of bells across the water in the twilight. And now the faint echoes lingering in the hills- Ah, they have died away, but it is this succeeding stillness that teaches us a great many things. You are not too stupid to learn. I don't think that you are really stupid at all, only your soul gets in the way of your vision. You must be at about the age that I was when I saw through all that deceptive business, and laughed at mine. That is the way: laugh at it. Souls never could endure being laughed at, and so one finds them out for impostures, for the real things of life must be laughed at or they refuse to reveal themselves at all. You won't? Not even with the bells to help you? Well, that only signifies that you are still too young. Dreadfully depressing things, young people! But the bells were my salvation. No, not here; halfway across the world from here, but the evening was very much like this one. Except that I was not sitting in a café drinking wine. If I wished to be metaphorical, in properly serious youthful style, I would say that I had been drinking something worse than wine. Though come to think of it, now, it wouldn't be so very far from fact. The stuff was dripping all down my left arm and hand, I remember that very clearly, and my handkerchief was too soaked with it to be of any use, so I tried to lick the wound. I had some sort of an absurd idea that it would get the padré's gown all spotted. One does think of the most outlandish things.....
Oh, so it interests you? In spite of the soul, eh, and the eternal blight on your heart? Perhaps, then, I should tell you about it? If you like, for it is a moral tale, and youth delights in moralizing. I used to do it, especially on grey autumn days in the salt-marshes. Did I tell you that I am an American? You would not believe that? The Americans are very remarkable because of course they are not a people, but a collection, and you must never be surprised at the queer specimens you may come across in the museum. When I was a boy, before the Civil War
or the Union Pacific Railroad, when the volunteers were just coming back from Mexico, we were even less a people than we are to-day, and your American depended altogether upon whether he was a Bostonian, or a New Yorker, or a Philadelphian, or a Charlestonian, like myself. My father had a great rice plantation in the empty Carolina swamps, and we would go out and shoot duck along the winding, twisty little creeks, in behind the marsh grasses and the savannahs where the live-oaks and the palms grew. Often I would go alone, with only a young negro as a boatman. It was very pleasant there, on raw, rainy afternoons in the fall, when everything was so silent that you could hear the ocean surges pounding on the outer beaches a couple of miles away. The gun-shots would echo, too, with a wild and lonely sound-how should I express it?—and there was that vague sense of the beautiful and the ineffable hanging in the air that oppresses one under wide skies. That is, if one is an ordinary hare-brained youth that takes himself with a vast seriousness, because then one does not appreciate that it is just the intangible quality of such days that makes life amusing and bearable and halfway intelligent, which is to say, makes it interesting. Oh, yes, I moralized in the swamps, on the usual nonsense of honor and love and effort that consumes youthful minds.
Very dangerous. Heightens the susceptibilities. One day I winged a bird with a beautiful, long shot, and as it fell behind a clump of cypress trees I heard a little scream. So instead of sending the boy after it, I broke through the scrub myself to the shore of the creek. There was a barge idling down to CharlesIt must have come from some back country plantation, for there was a girl sitting in the stern-sheets whom I had never seen before. The duck was struggling in the water. She pointed to it. "That is a cruel thing to do," she said.
I was a little surprised. The young ladies of South Carolina, at least in that time, generally required an introduction. And besides, I did not believe that she meant what she said, because no one ever minded duck-shooting. So I laughed. "Pick it up for me."
She motioned to the rowers, beautifully imperious. Have you ever tried to be imperious in a wet waterproof, with the rain drizzling in your face? Of course you have, because youth tries
to be imperious under all conditions, but have you ever succeeded? It is not easy.
The negroes lay on their oars, and a great, glistening black fellow leaned over the bows and drew out the bird. It was a picture. The small, white face, very resolute and composed, framed in the dark waterproof cape, gazing calmly at her slaves, was the single patch of white against the dull greys and greens and blacks. The duck fluttered weakly.
"Give it to me," she said, and when it was in her hands, she saw that it was mortally hurt. "Cosmo, you must kill it," and as the man grinned and took it from her, she looked away toward myself. "It is mine, now," she announced, "and you shall not have it. You ought to be ashamed of yourself anyway. It is too pretty a thing."
Of course, I stared like a booby. The negro killed the duck and threw it across among the grasses on the other side of the creek. The girl was extraordinarily pretty. “But, madam, it was my duck!" She did not even look at me again, but signalled to her men to row on. The barge disappeared about the next turning.....
I suppose it was the emptiness of the marshes that did the trick. Anyway, I said nothing about the girl at home; you see, I was already being serious about her, and I was afraid of my mother. She was a remarkable woman. Even when I was growing up, everyone could tell that she had been a famous Charleston beauty. Have you ever wondered why your mother married your father? Then your parents are that way, too? You will understand easily what I mean. She was small and self-contained, but her eyes had been thrown forward ever so little by advancing age, and it was with her eyes that she ruled my father and the great town house on Meeting Street. They divided the domain between them. She left to him the plantation and, as its recognized appanage, the little "office" built on the back of the town house. But in the rest she was supreme. She moved through the wide hall, and in the high, white-wainscotted rooms with their delicate wood-work-I believe they call it "colonial" now-as one who perfectly understands herself, her position, and her inferiors. In that atmosphere of smooth, oldfashioned aristocracy, where wild youngsters lived recklessly in
the bonds of a stiff etiquette, where there were gorgeous routs and balls at which you must flirt just not too desperately, where the boys fought serious duels over girls who kept their black hair smoothed back neatly in spite of their emotions-in that sort of atmosphere, because it was her own, she was superb. In it she had gone through the usual thing of living and loving, and she knew it. We were all afraid of her. A strange world to pass one's life in: romantic and full of color, but a little pale, for all of that.....
I secured my proper introduction to the girl of the barge, without telling my mother of it, and I visited her, and dreamed about her. I was eighteen-why go into details? You can supply them from your own little tragedy. They are the same, and equally dull to everyone else but yourself. You need only fill in the background; the solemn brick houses on Meeting Street and Tradd Street and in Wraggboro, with their white columns and handsome fan-lighted doorways, set back in narrow little gardens overgrown with honeysuckle on the walls, and hydrangias and the heavy-scented jessamine where the bees hum through the hot afternoons while the sun lies sleeping on the wide south piazzas ; or the grand carriages rolling through the narrow streets in the evenings carrying the broad-skirted, fresh young beauties, with their marvellously rounded white shoulders and smooth hair and snapping eyes to the great dances, where some old slave would bow to them as he held open the door for them to pass into the brilliantly illuminated hall.
It was at one of those dances that my story really began to be a story: the dance that my mother gave to me in the late summer of my eighteenth year. She was looking over her list of invitations. In Charleston, even then when it was smaller than it must be now, the invitations had to be carefully seen to.
She fastened her eyes upon me. "Thomas" (it was one of her points never to use nicknames), "I am not quite sure that Miss Chesley is just the person."
I sensed the faint challenge. My heart naturally beat a little faster; it would, you know. Mother's eyes were extraordinarily bright. I had not prepared my tactics, but the decision had to be a quick one. "Miss Chesley?"
"Yes. Have you not met her?"
"No, ma'am; who is she?"
Mother considered for a moment. I don't know whether I was plausible or not. But at any rate she suddenly accepted the statement. "She comes from a back-country plantation. She has been staying here, I believe, for some weeks. Her family are all Savannah people. I am not sure about them."
"But if she is a nice person-?”
"I really never saw her."
“Ask her then, mother. I don't see that it will do any harm.” Mother debated this. "No, perhaps it would be a good thing -I mean, we must not be rude to her."
She was asked.....
Ah, my friend, the everlasting beauty of the moment! See how the colors leave the hills and town, and go trooping into the clouds, turning and settling there as the day fades. Such an instant you will never see again, and you will never afterwards forget..... It was such an instant for me, when I first caught sight of her, coming through our doorway, and just laying off her light cloak. You must know how it was. The wide staircase springs in a sweeping ellipse up from the left side of the hall, with the doorway immediately below it in the center, and the triple window in its white frame just above. The chandelier was glowing with a hundred candles, and the hall and stairs were filled with debonair gallants with their shining buttons, and delicate girls with blossoms in their hair. There were three in particular, all laughing and chattering together right under the window, looking down over the slender turned balustrades at the people in the hall. And then the old butler threw open the door, and she stepped through. I caught my breath. No, that was not because I was imagining myself in love with her. I should do so now for any girl so beautiful. Her dress was white, flowered in a faint pink, and it framed, as it were, her soft shoulders and her small face, more perfect than I had ever dreamed that it could be. She saw me, before her, and her eyes glowed, and she stepped toward me impulsively..... That was a thing worth while.
But I took it too seriously. Quite the wrong thing to do. Leave the moments to themselves, my friend. You cannot con