The Lady of All Our Dreams by James Branch Cabell
"In JOHN CHARTERIS appeared a man with an inborn sense of the supreme interest and the overwhelming emotional and spiritual relevancy of human life as it is actually and obscurely lived; a man with unmistakable creative impulses and potentialities; a man who, had he lived in a more mature and less self-deluding community--a community that did not so rigorously confine its interest in facts to business, and limit its demands upon art to the supplying of illusions--might humbly and patiently have schooled his gifts to the service of his vision. . . . As it was, he accepted defeat and compromised half-heartedly with commercialism."
And men unborn will read of Heloise, And Ruth, and Rosamond, and Semele, When none remembers your name's melody Or rhymes your name, enregistered with these.
And will my name wake moods as amorous As that of Abelard or Launcelot Arouses? be recalled when Pyramus And Tristram are unrhymed of and forgot?-- Time's laughter answers, who accords to us More gracious fields, wherein we harvest--what?
JOHN CHARTERIS. Torrismond's Envoi, in Ashtaroth's Lackey.
"Our distinguished alumnus," after being duly presented as such, had with vivacity delivered much the usual sort of Commencement Address. Yet John Charteris was in reality a trifle fagged.
The afternoon train had been vexatiously late. The little novelist had found it tedious to interchange inanities with the committee awaiting him at the Pullman steps. Nor had it amused him to huddle into evening-dress, and hasten through a perfunctory supper in order to reassure his audience at half-past eight precisely as to the unmitigated delight of which he was now conscious.
Nevertheless, he alluded with enthusiasm to the arena of life, to the dependence of America's destiny upon the younger generation, to the enviable part King's College had without exception played in history, and he depicted to Fairhaven the many glories of Fairhaven--past, present and approaching--in superlatives that would hardly have seemed inadequate if applied to Paradise. His oration, in short, was of a piece with the amiable bombast that the college students and Fairhaven at large were accustomed to applaud at every Finals--the sort of linguistic debauch that John Charteris himself remembered to have applauded as an undergraduate more years ago than he cared to acknowledge.
Pauline Romeyne had sat beside him then--yonder, upon the fourth bench from the front, where now another boy with painstakingly plastered hair was clapping hands. There was a girl on the right of this boy, too. There naturally would be. Mr. Charteris as he sat down was wondering if Pauline was within reach of his voice? and if she were, what was her surname nowadays?
Then presently the exercises were concluded, and the released auditors arose with an outwelling noise of multitudinous chatter, of shuffling feet, of rustling programs. Many of Mr. Charteris' audience, though, were contending against the general human outflow and pushing toward the platform, for Fairhaven was proud of John Charteris now that his colorful tales had risen, from the semi-oblivion of being cherished merely by people who cared seriously for beautiful things, to the distinction of being purchasable in railway stations; so that, in consequence, Fairhaven wished both to congratulate him and to renew acquaintanceship.
He, standing there, alert and quizzical, found it odd to note how unfamiliar beaming faces climbed out of the hurly-burly of retreating backs, to say, "Don't you remember me? I'm so-and-so." These were the people whom he had lived among once, and some of these had once been people whom he loved. Now there was hardly any one whom at a glance he would have recognized.
Nobody guessed as much. He was adjudged to be delightful, cordial, "and not a bit stuck-up, not spoiled at all, you know." To appear this was the talisman with which he banteringly encountered the universe.
But John Charteris, as has been said, was in reality a trifle fagged. When everybody had removed to the Gymnasium, where the dancing was to be, and he had been delightful there, too, for a whole half-hour, he grasped with avidity at his first chance to slip away, and did so under cover of a riotous two-step.
He went out upon the Campus.
He found this lawn untenanted, unless you chose to count the marble figure of Lord Penniston, made aerial and fantastic by the moonlight, standing as it it were on guard over the College. Mr. Charteris chose to count him. Whimsically, Mr. Charteris reflected that this battered nobleman's was the one familiar face he had exhumed in all Fairhaven. And what a deal of mirth and folly, too, the old fellow must have witnessed during his two hundred and odd years of sentry-duty! On warm, clear nights like this, in particular, when by ordinary there were only couples on the Campus, each couple discreetly remote from any of the others. Then Penniston would be aware of most portentous pauses (which a delectable and lazy conference of leaves made eloquent) because of many unfinished sentences. "Oh, YOU know what I mean, dear!" one would say as a last resort. And she-why, bless her heart! of course, she always did. . . . Heigho, youth's was a pleasant lunacy. . . .
Thus Charteris reflected, growing drowsy. She said, "You spoke very well to-night. Is it too late for congratulations?"
Turning, Mr. Charteris remarked, "As you are perfectly aware, all that I vented was just a deal of skimble-scamble stuff, a verbal syllabub of balderdash. No, upon reflection, I think I should rather describe it as a conglomeration of piffle, patriotism and pyrotechnics. Well, Madam Do-as-you-would-be-done-by, what would you have? You must give people what they want."
It was characteristic that he faced Pauline Romeyne--or was it still Romeyne? he wondered--precisely as if it had been fifteen minutes, rather than as many years, since they had last spoken together.
"Must one?" she asked. "Oh, yes, I know you have always thought that, but I do not quite see the necessity of it."
She sat upon the bench beside Lord Penniston's square marble pedestal. "And all the while you spoke I was thinking of those Saturday nights when your name was up for an oration or a debate before the Eclectics, and you would stay away and pay the fine rather than brave an audience."
"The tooth of Time," he reminded her, "has since then written wrinkles on my azure brow. The years slip away fugacious, and Time that brings forth her children only to devour them grins most hellishly, for Time changes all things and cultivates even in herself an appreciation of irony,--and, therefore, why shouldn't I have changed a trifle? You wouldn't have me put on exhibition as a lusus naturae?"
"Oh, but I wish you had not altered so entirely!" Pauline sighed.
"At least, you haven't," he declared. "Of course, I would be compelled to say so, anyhow. But in this happy instance courtesy and veracity come skipping arm-in-arm from my elated lips." And, indeed, it seemed to him that Pauline was marvelously little altered. "I wonder now," he said, and cocked his head, "I wonder now whose wife I am talking to?"
"No, Jack, I never married," she said quietly.
"It is selfish of me," he said, in the same tone, "but I am glad of that."
And so they sat a while, each thinking.
"I wonder," said Pauline, with that small plaintive voice which Charteris so poignantly remembered, "whether it is always like this? Oh, do the Overlords of Life and Death ALWAYS provide some obstacle to prevent what all of us have known in youth was possible from ever coming true?"
And again there was a pause which a delectable and lazy conference of leaves made eloquent.
"I suppose it is because they know that if it ever did come true, we would be gods like them." The ordinary associates of John Charteris, most certainly, would not have suspected him to be the speaker. "So they contrive the obstacle, or else they send false dreams--out of the gates of horn--and make the path smooth, very smooth, so that two dreamers may not be hindered on their way to the divorce-courts."
"Yes, they are jealous gods! oh, and ironical gods also! They grant the Dream, and chuckle while they grant it, I think, because they know that later they will be bringing their playthings face to face--each married, fat, inclined to optimism, very careful of decorum, and perfectly indifferent to each other. And then they get their fore-planned mirth, these Overlords of Life and Death. 'We gave you,' they chuckle, 'the loveliest and greatest thing infinity contains. And you bartered it because of a clerkship or a lying maxim or perhaps a finger-ring.' I suppose that they must laugh a great deal."
"Eh, what? But then you never married?" For masculinity in argument starts with the word it has found distasteful.
"Nor I." And his tone implied that the two facts conjoined proved much.
"Miss Willoughby----?" she inquired.
Now, how in heaven's name, could a cloistered Fairhaven have surmised his intention of proposing on the first convenient opportunity to handsome, well-to-do Anne Willoughby? He shrugged his wonder off. "Oh, people will talk, you know. Let any man once find a woman has a tongue in her head, and the stage-direction is always 'Enter Rumor, painted full of tongues.'"
Pauline did not appear to have remarked his protest. "Yes,--in the end you will marry her. And her money will help, just as you have contrived to make everything else help, toward making John Charteris comfortable. She is not very clever, but she will always worship you, and so you two will not prove uncongenial. That is your real tragedy, if I could make you comprehend."
"So I am going to develop into a pig," he said, with relish,--"a lovable, contented, unambitious porcine, who is alike indifferent to the Tariff, the importance of Equal Suffrage and the market-price of hams, for all that he really cares about is to have his sty as comfortable as may be possible. That is exactly what I am going to develop into,--now, isn't it?" And John Charteris, sitting, as was his habitual fashion, with one foot tucked under him, laughed cheerily. Oh, just to be alive (he thought) was ample cause for rejoicing! and how deliciously her eyes, alert with slumbering fires, were peering through the moon-made shadows of her brows!
"Well----! something of the sort." Pauline was smiling, but restrainedly, and much as a woman does in condoning the naughtiness of her child. "And, oh, if only----"
"Why, precisely. 'If only!' quotha. Why, there you word the key-note, you touch the cornerstone, you ruthlessly illuminate the mainspring, of an intractable unfeeling universe. For instance, if only
You were the Empress of Ayre and Skye, And I were Ahkond of Kong, We could dine every day on apple-pie, And peddle potatoes, and sleep in a sty, And people would say when we came to die, 'They never did anything wrong.'
But, as it is, our epitaphs will probably be nothing of the sort. So that there lurks, you see, much virtue in this 'if only.'"
Impervious to nonsense, she asked, "And have I not earned the right to lament that you are changed?"
"I haven't robbed more than six churches up to date," he grumbled. "What would you have?"
The answer came, downright, and, as he knew, entirely truthful: "I would have had you do all that you might have done."
But he must needs refine. "Why, no--you would have made me do it, wrung out the last drop. You would have bullied me and shamed me into being all that I might have been. I see that now." He spoke as if in wonder, with quickening speech. "Pauline, I haven't been entirely not worth while. Oh, yes, I know! I know I haven't written five-act tragedies which would be immortal, as you probably expected me to do. My books are not quite the books I was to write when you and I were young. But I have made at worst some neat, precise and joyous little tales which prevaricate tenderly about the universe and veil the pettiness of human nature with screens of verbal jewelwork. It is not the actual world they tell about, but a vastly superior place where the Dream is realized and everything which in youth we knew was possible comes true. It is a world we have all glimpsed, just once, and have not ever entered, and have not ever forgotten. So people like my little tales. . . . Do they induce delusions? Oh, well, you must give people what they want, and literature is a vast bazaar where customers come to purchase everything except mirrors."
She said soberly, "You need not make a jest of it. It is not ridiculous that you write of beautiful and joyous things because there was a time when living was really all one wonderful adventure, and you remember it."
"But, oh, my dear, my dear! such glum discussions are so sadly out-of-place on such a night as this," he lamented. "For it is a night of pearl-like radiancies and velvet shadows and delicate odors and big friendly stars that promise not to gossip, whatever happens. It is a night that hungers, and all its undistinguishable little sounds are voicing the night's hunger for masks and mandolins, for rope-ladders and balconies and serenades. It is a night . . . a night wherein I gratefully remember so many beautiful sad things that never happened . . . to John Charteris, yet surely happened once upon a time to me . . ."
"I think that I know what it is to remember--better than you do, Jack. But what do you remember?"
"In faith, my dear, the most Bedlamitish occurrences! It is a night that breeds deplorable insanities, I warn you. For I seem to remember how I sat somewhere, under a peach-tree, in clear autumn weather, and was content; but the importance had all gone out of things; and even you did not seem very important, hardly worth lying to, as I spoke lightly of my wasted love for you, half in hatred, and--yes, still half in adoration. For you were there, of course. And I remember how I came to you, in a sinister and brightly lighted place, where a horrible, staring frail old man lay dead at your feet; and you had murdered him; and heaven did not care, and we were old, and all our lives seemed just to end in futile tangle-work. And, again, I remember how we stood alone, with visible death crawling lazily toward us, as a big sullen sea rose higher and higher; and we little tinseled creatures waited, helpless, trapped and yearning. . . . There is a boat in that picture; I suppose it was deeply laden with pirates coming to slit our throats from ear to ear. I have forgotten that part, but I remember the tiny spot of courtplaster just above your painted lips. . . . Such are the jumbled pictures. They are bred of brain-fag, no doubt; yet, whatever be their lineage," said Charteris, happily, "they render glum discussion and platitudinous moralizing quite out of the question. So, let's pretend, Pauline, that we are not a bit more worldly-wise than those youngsters who are frisking yonder in the Gymnasium--for, upon my word, I dispute if we have ever done anything to suggest that we are. Don't let's be cowed a moment longer by those bits of paper with figures on them which our too-credulous fellow-idiots consider to be the only almanacs. Let's have back yesterday, let's tweak the nose of Time intrepidly." Then Charteris caroled:
"For Yesterday! for Yesterday! I cry a reward for a Yesterday Now lost or stolen or gone astray, With all the laughter of Yesterday!"
"And how slight a loss was laughter," she murmured--still with the vague and gentle eyes of a day-dreamer--"as set against all that we never earned in youth, and so will never earn."
He inadequately answered "Bosh!" and later, "Do you remember----?" he began.
Yes, she remembered that, it developed. And "Do you remember----?" she in turn was asking later. It was to seem to him in retrospection that neither for the next half-hour began a sentence without this formula. It was as if they sought to use it as a master-word wherewith to reanimate the happinesses and sorrows of their common past, and as if they found the charm was potent to awaken the thin, powerless ghosts of emotions that were once despotic. For it was as if frail shadows and half-caught echoes were all they could evoke, it seemed to Charteris; and yet these shadows trooped with a wild grace, and the echoes thrilled him with the sweet and piercing surprise of a bird's call at midnight or of a bugle heard in prison.
Then twelve o'clock was heralded by the College bell, and Pauline arose as though this equable deep-throated interruption of the music's levity had been a signal. John Charteris saw her clearly now; and she was beautiful.
"I must go. You will not ever quite forget me, Jack. Such is my sorry comfort." It seemed to Charteris that she smiled as in mockery, and yet it was a very tender sort of derision. "Yes, you have made your books. You have done what you most desired to do. You have got all from life that you have asked of life. Oh, yes, you have got much from life. One prize, though, Jack, you missed."
He, too, had risen, quiet and perfectly sure of himself. "I haven't missed it. For you love me."
This widened her eyes. "Did I not always love you, Jack? Yes, even when you went away forever, and there were no letters, and the days were long. Yes, even knowing you, I loved you, John Charteris."
"Oh, I was wrong, all wrong," he cried; "and yet there is something to be said upon the other side, as always. . . ." Now Charteris was still for a while. The little man's chin was uplifted so that it was toward the stars he looked rather than at Pauline Romeyne, and when he spoke he seemed to meditate aloud. "I was born, I think, with the desire to make beautiful books--brave books that would preserve the glories of the Dream untarnished, and would re-create them for battered people, and re-awaken joy and magnanimity." Here he laughed, a little ruefully. "No, I do not think I can explain this obsession to any one who has never suffered from it. But I have never in my life permitted anything to stand in the way of my fulfilling this desire to serve the Dream by re-creating it for others with picked words, and that has cost me something. Yes, the Dream is an exacting master. My books, such as they are, have been made what they are at the dear price of never permitting myself to care seriously for anything else. I might not dare to dissipate my energies by taking any part in the drama I was attempting to re-write, because I must so jealously conserve all the force that was in me for the perfection of my lovelier version. That may not be the best way of making books, but it is the only one that was possible for me. I had so little natural talent, you see," said Charteris, wistfully, "and I was anxious to do so much with it. So I had always to be careful. It has been rather lonely, my dear. Now, looking back, it seems to me that the part I have played in all other people's lives has been the role of a tourist who enters a cafe chantant, a fortress, or a cathedral, with much the same forlorn sense of detachment, and observes what there is to see that may be worth remembering, and takes a note or two, perhaps, and then leaves the place forever. Yes, that is how I served the Dream and that is how I got my books. They are very beautiful books, I think, but they cost me fifteen years of human living and human intimacy, and they are hardly worth so much."
He turned to her, and his voice changed. "Oh, I was wrong, all wrong, and chance is kindlier than I deserve. For I have wandered after unprofitable gods, like a man blundering through a day of mist and fog, and I win home now in its golden sunset. I have laughed very much, my dear, but I was never happy until to-night. The Dream, as I now know, is not best served by making parodies of it, and it does not greatly matter after all whether a book be an epic or a directory. What really matters is that there is so much faith and love and kindliness which we can share with and provoke in others, and that by cleanly, simple, generous living we approach perfection in the highest and most lovely of all arts. . . . But you, I think, have always comprehended this. My dear, if I were worthy to kneel and kiss the dust you tread in I would do it. As it happens, I am not worthy. Pauline, there was a time when you and I were young together, when we aspired, when life passed as if it were to the measures of a noble music--a heart-wringing, an obdurate, an intolerable music, it might be, but always a lofty music. One strutted, no doubt--it was because one knew oneself to be indomitable. Eh, it is true I have won all I asked of life, very horribly true. All that I asked, poor fool! oh, I am weary of loneliness, and I know now that all the phantoms I have raised are only colorless shadows which belie the Dream, and they are hateful to me. I want just to recapture that old time we know of, and we two alone. I want to know the Dream again, Pauline,--the Dream which I had lost, had half forgotten, and have so pitifully parodied. I want to know the Dream again, Pauline, and you alone can help me."
"Oh, if I could! if even I could now, my dear!" Pauline Romeyne left him upon a sudden, crying this. And "So!" said Mr. Charteris.
He had been deeply shaken and very much in earnest; but he was never the man to give for any lengthy while too slack a rein to emotion; and so he now sat down upon the bench and lighted a cigarette and smiled. Yet he fully recognized himself to be the most enviable of men and an inhabitant of the most glorious world imaginable--a world wherein he very assuredly meant to marry Pauline Romeyne say, in the ensuing September. Yes, that would fit in well enough, although, of course, he would have to cancel the engagement to lecture in Milwaukee. . . . How lucky, too, it was that he had never actually committed himself with Anne Willoughby! for while money was an excellent thing to have, how infinitely less desirable it was to live perked up in golden sorrow than to feed flocks upon the Grampian Hills, where Freedom from the mountain height cried, "I go on forever, a prince can make a belted knight, and let who will be clever. . . ."
"--and besides, you'll catch your death of cold," lamented Rudolph Musgrave, who was now shaking Mr. Charteris' shoulder.
"Eh, what? Oh, yes, I daresay I was napping," the other mumbled. He stood and stretched himself luxuriously. "Well, anyhow, don't be such an unmitigated grandmother. You see, I have a bit of rather important business to attend to. Which way is Miss Romeyne?"
"Pauline Romeyne? why, but she married old General Ashmeade, you know. She was the gray-haired woman in purple who carried out her squalling brat when Taylor was introducing you, if you remember. She told me, while the General was getting the horses around, how sorry she was to miss your address, but they live three miles out, and Mrs. Ashmeade is simply a slave to the children. . . . Why, what in the world have you been dreaming about?"
"Eh, what? Oh, yes, I daresay I was only napping," Mr. Charteris observed. He was aware that within they were still playing a riotous two-step.