Young Cramer's Choice

His name was Cramer, and we had become acquainted at one of those garden-restaurants that dot the Carlsbad landscape. You walk out to them of a morning after taking the waters, and there you have a sort of breakfast — coffee and rolls and other trifles — and usually find the same waitress and the same table and the same guests sitting there. It was thus that we had found one another, and presently we continued, I looking out for Cramer, and he looking out for me. Mrs. Cramer was a stout blonde, and carried that air of importance which so often goes with a generous configuration. They were Americans, from Indianapolis, but resident in New York.

I liked his dry and shrewd humor — to me, coming from England, it was fresh and attractive. He possessed a kind of secular detachment, a smiling irreverence; he would laugh at himself and his compatriots as often as he laughed at us. But I really think my open admiration dated from a morning when he decreed that Anna, our waitress, must be given another chance. She had been dismissed for some slight breach of discipline, and she showed the marks of tears. Cramer got it out of her; discovered, too, that if she were dismissed with the season half over, her family, who expected her to return with a full season’s money, would curse her and thrust her out-of-doors. The girl was desperate and pitiably helpless.

‘All right, Anna,’ said Cramer, ‘you leave it to me.’

He fought that miniature battle and won it and rejoiced in it. Anna was reinstated and thanked him, thanked even me with an extraordinary outburst of emotion. He had done it all, quite largely, quite simply, without a trace of European self-consciousness. Where I, for instance, might have been wondering whether I looked a fool, or perhaps a knave, he had gone straight ahead. After this episode we drew nearer; somehow it had humanized our usual intercourse. Mrs. Cramer had encouraged the attempt and was proud of him; and even the proprietor, the bald and bland proprietor, came round to Cramer’s side and admitted there might be ‘exceptions.’

Perhaps it was this same morning that we first approached whatever views we had about America, and equally about Europe, always a delicate topic, as such comparisons will be. What had actually set us going was the sight of a certain countess, née Matthews, and hailing from Philadelphia. She and her count were here as well, and Cramer frankly enjoyed the spectacle. He did not know the lady, but she interested him. ‘Our women seem to manage it,”he said; ‘these mixed marriages, I mean; but it won’t do for us men,’ was how he saw the matter. ‘You’ve remarked,’ he pursued, ‘that there are American women in every European aristocracy; but did you ever hear of an American man who married into their ranks?’

I admitted that I had never heard of such an one.

‘Of course, there are American men with European wives; but not of that class — not of that class,’ he repeated.

The subject dropped. A few days later, however, it rose again; on an afternoon when, caught by a thunderstorm, we had taken refuge in a hut from which, under normal circumstances, one obtained a view. We had strolled up hill through the pine woods, mounting steadily, and reaching at last a summit that commanded open country. It was fortunate for us that the authorities had built a shelter here. The storm burst, the heavens opened; we were just in time. Half an hour earlier we had surprised the Count and Countess, descending, and to judge by certain symptoms, enjoying an extension of their honeymoon.

‘My, they’ll get wet!’ cried Cramer suddenly, watching the downpour and the riven skies. ‘I suppose countesses get wet same as other people,’ he added; and I knew then to whom he was referring, and what was exercising that original headpiece of his.

‘They’re half an hour nearer home than they were, and it’s all down-hill,’ said I.

He lit a cigar and gazed out on the storm.

‘Do you know,’ he pursued, ‘ I came near marrying a countess once; as near as any American can get to it, without losing his self-respect and playing at being something different from what the Almighty made him?’

‘I should n’t be Surprised,’ I said.

‘I’m not joking. She was a girl I met in Italy and sailed with on the Mediterranean — badly chaperoned, I suppose; and, they being English and I American, they did n’t seem to mind so much. Have you noticed that an American dry-goods merchant or realestate broker can get in lots of places in Europe where the native has to slay outside? For the time being, anyway, he’s a gentleman, while the native’s got his offices round the corner.’

I did not interrupt, and presently Cramer continued: —

‘When I left college and before I settled down to work, my father gave me a holiday. “That’s all I’m going to give you,”he said, “ make a year of it, and take a look at Europe before you get chained up like I am. Maybe you’ll never get the chance again. I’ve been wanting to do it all my life, and I’ve never made it. I guess you’d better go instead of me.”

He had a kind heart, a big heart, inside of him. Outside, he was pretty tough. He gave me a wad of money, and off I started. Culture? No, I was n’t out for culture. I just liked loafing round with my eyes open. I liked watching ’em get culture; they used to make me laugh. I laughed all the way from London to Paris, to Berlin; and there was Dresden and Munich and Vienna; and I took a look at Moscow and Constantinople, and Athens for old acquaintance’ sake. I enjoyed every mile of it, every hour of it, day and night. The languages I heard and the signs I made! I could talk better with my hands and feet than I could with my tongue.

‘And I wound up with Italy, because it was winter and because I wanted to speak English again and take a look at Rome — for old acquaintance’ sake, same as Athens. You hear such a lot of them at school and college. I used to sit in the Colosseum picturing to myself the circus and the games and putting my thumbs down like a Roman or giving the dying gladiator another chance. And one morning she came there with her chaperon and tried to catch a lizard, and, she not getting it, I sailed in and caught it in my hat. I handed it to her with a bow. She laughed and took it home with her, and I laughed and we said good-morning and both spoke English, and rather liked doing that. She was staying at my hotel. I had n’t noticed her, but she’d noticed me. It was because I dressed for dinner every evening, unlike most of the people. She told me that later, when we had grown more confidential, and so did the chaperon, who seemed to think it very important. The fact was I had nothing else to do of an evening and it sort of freshens you up, and while that year lasted I was making the most of it and amusing myself in every way; and the truth is that if you gave a car conductor lots of money and nothing to do for it, he’d begin to dress for dinner, just to pass away the time. It does n’t bore you, does it?’ asked Cramer, dropping his story and taking a look at me.

‘It certainly does n’t,’ I protested.

‘I’m rather enjoying it as well,’ said he. ‘I was twenty-three, and here was this girl, perhaps turned eighteen — in fact, I know she was — and fresh as spring flowers on an April morning. “How’s the lizard?” I asked, meeting her again at the hotel. “ It’s in its box; would you like to see it? I’m sure aunt won’t mind.”

‘ Aunt did n’t mind. On the contrary, she was rather glad to have some conversation. She was a talkative woman by nature, and a single niece was n’t enough to satisfy her cravings. She asked me upstairs into their sittingroom, and I was shown the lizard in its new home. It had refused bread, because “it lives on insects,” the girl explained; while her aunt said, “Nonsense, child, everything eats bread.” The lizard wouldn’t budge. “I shall have to take it back to the Colosseum,” cried the girl; and we planned the expedition there and then, the aunt assenting.

‘But it wasn’t exactly the lizard that really brought us together; it was an enamored Italiano who became a pest. He did n’t do anything. He simply glared, and followed Lady Isabel like a shadow. Lady Isabel was the girl, and her aunt was Lady Pollexfen. This Italian used to wait for them in the street outside the hotel, and look and glower and follow them about. He meant, of course, to imply that he was madly in love with Lady Isabel. Really he was a nuisance, and the two ladies were almost afraid. They asked me to speak to him, and I spoke. He replied that he was in love with the young lady, that his name was So-and-so, that he had very little ready money, and could n’t help it. I said, “Please go away! You annoy these ladies.” He repeated that he could n’t help it. It was his fate, his misfortune. “You’ll have to help it,” I said; “now please go away.” Would I fight a duel? he asked. “So that you can show off?” said I. “Coward — traitor,” he answered, “Yankee adventurer!”— “All right, Signor Michael Angelo, you’ve had a fair warning, and I won’t be answerable for the consequences,” was how I closed the conversation.

‘I took Lady Isabel into my confidence. My room, I pointed out, was on a half-floor and overlooked the street where Signor Rinaldo used to wait for them. Often I had been tempted to throw something at him; and it would have been difficult to miss. Sometimes he actually leaned against the wall under my window. By reaching out I could almost have touched the top of his hat. We agreed that he deserved no mercy, and that, while I operated, the ladies should stand in the street and jeer. That would settle him and, at t he same time, teach him a lesson; and, besides, the ladies were leaving for Naples presently—he would hardly be recovered by then.

’It was I suppose, a foolish trick and a cruel one, but she was eighteen and I was twenty-three, and the man had only himself to blame. I emptied a big jug of violet ink over him one morning when he was glaring his hardest, and the two ladies had just come out of the hotel. I shall never forget it. I used to start laughing about it suddenly, and often in bed of a night. And so did she. He stood there with his arms folded, looking like a love-sick goat. The ink ran over his face, his hands, and probably down his neck; it dyed his hat, his clothes, his boots. He looked — his appearance is indescribable. And his inamorata was a witness, was actually present. It was a good job we left for Naples on the Monday.

‘I went, too. There was nothing to detain me. And after t hat I sailed with them, to Sicily, to Malta, to Tunis, Algiers, and Tangier. — “Father did enjoy our description of the way you punished that Italian,” she said one day. “ I wrote four pages.” It was the first time I had connected her with a home, a family.

‘“What’s he like?” I asked.

‘She tried to tell me. She thought no end of him. American girls don’t speak of their fathers in quite that way. It was a difference, subtle and far-reaching; perhaps an American girl would have rebelled at that kind of paternity. He was the head of their house, I gathered; a great man, even with them who stood so near and dear. But kind and generous — she had no words of praise sufficient. It was sweet to hear her speak of him, to hear anybody so spoken of, with such devotion. Centuries go to make such people, to establish such relationships. I grasp that now; at the time I only felt my youth and hers. The blue skies were over us; smiling lands, blue seas below. If Lady Pollexfen could only talk a lot in the evening, she did n’t care much what happened during the day. Of course, we fell in love; first looked it, then confessed it. That time comes once, perhaps twice, if one has the leisure, the vitality, the abounding hope.

‘Everything seemed possible — of that we never had a doubt. I was to see her father in England, present myself, and win his consent. That was the process — the immemorial process. I don’t suppose it ever occurred to her there might be others. She went on ahead to prepare the way. I followed.

‘The Earl received me in his London house, a large place, stuccoed and formal, and overlooking a green patch of square. I saw him first, and afterward, when he had made his bargain, — her turn had come earlier,—we went over to another room, where Isabel waited, and where her mother was ready to give us tea. A stately woman, moving curiously, was my impression as she rose, with a pathetic, seeking look in her fine face. I remembered then that Isabel had told me she was blind. I had not realized what it meant till now, when she stood offering me a hand, conquering this late infirmity, unyielding, by the will in her. I could have kissed her hand instead of taking it. That woman moved me — and she was Isabel’s mother.

‘They were kind to me; but here in England was another way, different from the lax rule of Lady Pollexfen. “ I ought to have known,” the Earl had said, “Louisa is careless — talks a lot, does n’t she?” He was gaining time, measuring me; and when he had heard my story, “I’d like you and Isabel to be friends,” he said; “but an engagement—you’re rather young. You can write to her if you keep it at that

— at friendship. And you must come and stay with us at Wyvern, if Isabel will ask you — she’s allowed to ask her friends. I’ve nothing against you —on the contrary; but it does seem rather

— rather impossible.” He was smiling; there was no offense in what he said. He knew the world — his world and hers; he had not made it; it was like that, he seemed to imply. “You’re a man of honor — you’ve behaved like one,” he ended, “but my girl’s far too young, and, if you’ll allow me, so are you.”

‘It sounded reasonable; it was reasonable. Heaven knows whether in my saner moments I had expected as much from him. For they were big people, important people; and I — I was a college graduate who might or might not make some kind of a position.’

Cramer had paused. ‘It comes out clear,’ he said at last, ‘just like that landscape after the blur of the storm. Then it was fogged and painful, and we felt lost in it.’

I followed his eyes across the leagues of open country, now revealed; clear, clean, new-washed, and radiant in the sunlight.

‘The old Earl saw it right out,’ he pursued, ‘just as we, sitting here, can see it now. He was n’t fogged; he was n’t lost in it. He knew us both; he knew the way of things. Life was n’t all travel and spending our father’s money and drifting in the sunlight and hearing the music of harps; and marriage was something more definite than falling in love. He asked me down to Wyvern, their country-seat, where they really were at home, where I would get to know them, and to know myself, a good deal better. It was n’t a trick; it was sheer white wisdom; and, though my year was up and ended, I went.

‘That house, that park, those scores of quiet servants, the feudal village beyond — all seemed to be in league and questioning me. “ Can you give her this?” they seemed to ask. “ What can you give her in exchange for this? Here’s her world, and yours is a different one. Yours may be as good, but it’s different; and if you threw it up and came to live here, could you stand it, could you lead this life? would n’t it sap you, chafe you, madden you?”

‘ She did her best to make me feel at ease here; she prompted me, she guided me, and no doubt stood up for me to her brothers and cousins, who were inclined to scoff. I’ve never known which to admire most, her loyalty to her father or her loyalty to me. It was sweet to watch her thoughtfulness; but it could n’t last. “I don’t belong to this world,” I said to her one day, “I’m different stuff, and there’s no changing.”

‘And then I found a simile for it all, an illustration. In the park were thousands of birds, reared there for shooting; they came of a stock that had once been wild, but was now “preserved.” We used to go down to them and watch them and feed them. The grown birds, left from last autumn’s shooting, had a sleekness, a fineness, that reminded me of the men of her circle; those men who commanded always what accident had given me for a single year. They, too, had this air of a world, a life, a career, all ready made for them; of parks to dwell in, and abundant food. I was bound to make my own career; whatever it might be, it would be mine. And so, “ I ’m only a wild bird,” I said to her that day. “All of you have grown up here and been ‘ preserved.’ ”

‘ She grasped it, yet denied it.

‘I put it to the Earl one evening. He saw it, and admitted it. “The wild birds have more fun,” he said, “but sometimes even we escape — to Italy.”

’I liked him; I admired him. He had never opposed us. He had shown me her world, what she expected of life, the only world she was at home in — and let it talk. Could I give it to her? Yes, I might give it to her by destroying myself, by destroying the American in me. That was too much to ask of any man; nor would it have made her happy. The old Earl made this clear — yet not in words. He had asked me to stay with them — it was all that was needed. When I went back, Lady Isabel and I were friends as we had promised. So was the Earl, and so was her mother. I wrote to her for years afterwards; and for years afterwards a face that recalled hers, or even the soft, shy look of her, would make me weaker than a child; and even the colors that belonged to her, in which I had known her. When she married, she told me. I dare say if I walked in on her to-day her face would lighten and she’d welcome me.

’I’d stayed weeks beyond my year when I went home to my father. “What was it, a girl?” he asked, “or was it—” I was too quick for him. “A girl,” I said. “Would n’t she have you?” It was difficult. “She was at that lord’s you’ve been staying with? ” I nodded. “How much?” said he, “I might do something handsome.” “Money’s no good — it’s something metre than money.” He never quite understood that. I made my way and succeeded.’ And then, reverting to his starting-point, ‘Yes,’he concluded, ‘I might have married a countess — or the equivalent of a countess — if the sky had n’t cleared, if the landscape had n’t come out, and the sun, and that castle over yonder.’

We looked out on the view again. It spread for miles now and included a river.

‘Let’s go down to Mamie,’ he said: ‘she’ll be missing me, and I’m missing her.’

Mamie, of course, was Mrs. Cramer.