IN a city of frame houses and brownstone houses, each with its twenty-fifth of an acre of grass-plot in front and its sixth of an acre of yard in back, a high wall of gray stone inclosing whole acres of lawn and plantation was unusual enough to excite anybody’s interest. As for me, I was quite sure that its blocks of granite were about as big as the sandstone blocks of the Great Pyramid. I used to walk down of an evening just to run my fingers over them and to scratch with my nails the scum of green lichen that spread over the mortar after a rain. There was a gate, too, of cyclopean planks banded with wrought iron, swung between square stone columns. On top of these were globes of granite big as prize pumpkins. When I applied my eye to the crack of the gate, my nose caught whiffs of lilac and syringa mingled with the smell of hay and stables, and my ears detected often, faintly, the stamping of horses; but, beyond the edge of a dunghill and the gray side of a shed, my eyes were unrewarded. The gate was never opened.
The street on that block was as a rule singularly quiet. Few vehicles went by, perhaps because the cobbles diverted traffic into smoother avenues. Grass and chickweed grew among the stones near the curb and between the flags of the sidewalk. The few maples that, last of their clan, carried on a losing struggle with dust and gas, were honeycombed with the tunnels of black ants; and, in August, their leaves were decimated by legions of tussock caterpillars which amused themselves between meals by dangling in the face of the passer-by. As for the human inhabitants, I knew ‘all their tricks and their ways.’ I knew them for humdrum citizens, to whom a wall was merely a wall, and a cat looking oxer in the dark never by any possibility an owlyheaded monster. The smell of soapsuds exhaled by their front windows on a Monday morning was no less familiar than the odor of pies and cakes on a Saturday. I knew perfectly well that they all dressed up on Sunday and proceeded demurely to the Methodist church at one end of the block or the Baptist church at the other. I knew that they shot off fire-crackers on the Fourth of July with all the solemn industry of true patriots, bobbed for apples religiously on Hallowe’en, gorged themselves more or less thankfully at Thanksgiving, and scrupulously performed all the stocking, Christmas tree, and Santa Claus rites at Christmas. In short, I knew that they were just such people as I was myself in my social capacity. Whether they ever had hours such as mine between seven and eight of an evening, when I was completely unsocial, and therefore original, it never occurred to me to ask. I felt all the scorn of them that childhood can feel for steady-going age, never understanding—until later — that the smallest hall-bedroom in any one of their houses might contain more of mystery and romance than even my wilderness over the wall, however ‘spacious’ it might be ‘in dirt,’ however peopled with rocs, unicorns, and hippogriff’s.
It would sound very silly to narrate what I did there on spring evenings between seven and eight. It may be that I rode winged steeds with Astolpho, and swam Hellesponts with Leander, slew dragons on Glittering Heaths with Siegfried, and fought, knee-deep in the ford, side by side with Cuchulain against the hosts of Queen Maeve. Perhaps so, perhaps not. I luckily had a speaking acquaintance with the policeman on that beat, and he was indulgent.
It had never before been my custom thus to moon about of an evening. Dick, my chum, had been the sharer of all my adventures; but even him, during this one hour, I now assiduously avoided, picturing him as at home studying his lessons, while I was encountering gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire; but I little guessed the truth till one evening my attention was attracted by the odd deportment of a boy across the street. For three successive nights I had seen him go past, but, intent upon perilous quests, had not looked at him closely. I scanned him carefully now, however, and, to my surprise, recognized him as Dick.
Dimly to be discerned in the penumbra of the street-lamp light, with the utter gloom of a weedy vacant lot for a background, he was standing on the curb with his back to me, gazing up sidewise at a second-story window within which, behind a drawn shade of yellow holland, was burning a lone gasjet. His position was a difficult one to maintain, but was necessitated by the cornice of the front stoop, which shut off all view of second-story windows to people on that side of the street. I reasoned that, wishing to be as near to the window as possible, he had foregone the less neck-breaking position of vantage that I held; but, unable to guess why he was so intent upon that particular window, I withdrew into the murky corner behind one of the gate-posts and watched him as he teetered precariously. The window presented only a canary-colored rectangle innocent of shadow.
For perhaps five minutes he continued his scrutiny, and then turned and peered cautiously up and down the street and across. As the light fell on his face I was startled. He had pulled his hair down on his forehead until it hung below his cap in two long curved locks like the claws of a crab, his cap being the crab; and the solemnity of his expression and the stealthy discretion of his demeanor made my flesh creep. Evidently satisfied that he was unobserved, however, he turned again toward the window and, after another glance hither and thither, stretched out his arms toward it, ‘front oblique, hands supine,’ as our declamation teacher used to say; then, gallantly, with the passionate grace of a Malvolio, he wafted a kiss upward; and then, stricken with sudden bashful panic, he turned and fled up the street toward home.
I was by this time convulsed with derisive merriment. I saw it all! Now at last I understood. Many a time I had noticed, without really looking at it, silhouetted against that shade, a trim head from which stuck out stiffly an attenuated pig-tail, motionless, slightly inclining as if over a book. Many a time, toward the end of my hour, I had seen the pig-tail grow restive and bob up and down on the shade and grow longer and shorter with the turning of the head to which it was attached. Many a time I had seen the shade fly suddenly upward and the window-sash follow and the trim little head thrust itself through the aperture. All this I had observed, negligently, without emotion, docketing the head in my mind as belonging merely to a girl.
Dick was in love! As in a flash I understood many other things, too: why, for instance, he had suddenly taken to blacking his shoes and washing his hands and going regularly to Sunday School. It was exceedingly funny. I laughed. I had at last a thorn to prick him with when he grew supercilious; material for waggish innuendos such as I had heard facetious elders use for purposes of torture. I gloated in anticipation.
When I came into his presence next day, however, I found myself suddenly bashful. Try as I would to be funny at his expense, my words were stifled. I found myself covertly looking at him with a touch of awe as at one who had drunk deep the cup of experience. His shiny shoes and face seemed the outward badge of an inward mysterious condition which I was unable to share.
I set out on my adventures that night in a thoughtful mood. The head showed very black and impudent upon the shade, but Dick did not appear. I knew why. He had refused to eat his potatoes at supper and had been condemned to sit at table until he ate them. The peculiar stubbornness of Dick’s disposition can be gauged by what he sacrificed for a principle on this occasion. While he sat at home malevolently regarding two large cold potatoes, I was feasting my eyes upon the effigy in jet of his lady-love.
But this is not to be a confession of treachery. I did not scheme to supplant my friend. I did not like the tilt of the effigy’s nose. Yet to be standing there in the dark quiet street watching the unconscious shadow-play on the curtain gave me a new kind of thrill.
I had planned for that evening a deed of daring far on the ringing plains of windy Troy, — some such small matter as assuming the part of Deiphobus and rescuing Hector from the wrath of Achilles during their famous circumambulation of the walls; but, somehow, although the stage was set and the lights suitable, I could not act with my usual absorption. I tried to pretend that the young lady at the window was Andromache, but her impertinent nose and quivering pigtail were hopelessly out of character. I started Hector and Achilles on their rounds, and stood ready to sally forth at the proper moment. Their shadowy forms flashed by once, twice, — and disappeared. I had forgotten all about them. I was in a brown study.
The silhouette was growing restless. It flounced about, it yawned and stretched, it threw its book on the floor in a spasm of vindictiveness; and then the shade flew up and the head appeared, craning to see up the street. It seemed very nice to be in love. I decided to be in love, too.
When I came, however, to think over the eligible little girls of my acquaintance, I rejected them all in scorn. They were mere infants, given to hoops and jacks. But next Sunday in church I found that not impossible She sitting in the choir. She had just joined. She sang soprano. She was dark, — black hair and eyes and gipsy complexion. She sat very straight and never smiled. She sang easily, without making faces. As to her age, I indulged in no vain speculations about that.
The choir sat at the front of the church behind the minister. During the preliminary service they were hidden from view by a green curtain except when they were singing; but when the minister rose to preach, the curtain was pulled aside with a loud rasping of rings. I had the object of my devotion at my mercy, then, for an hour, morning and evening, to gaze at as I chose. From that day I became a confirmed church-goer. If my worship was misdirected, it was probably of as high a quality as that of many of the rest of the congregation.
I now set myself to study the gentle art of being in love, and, I must confess, put myself to a good deal of trouble. I tried to lose appetite and sleep, according to the books, but did not succeed very well. However, when it comes to pretending, it is as easy to pretend to be wasting away as anything else; and I took a sombre satisfaction in pushing aside my plate when I was not very hungry.
With considerable difficulty I learned where the fair incognita lived, — a few blocks off,—and my evening walks took a new direction. A small frame house on a quiet side-street became the shrine of my pilgrimage, and I fixed upon a second-story front window as probably hers. For several weeks, rain or shine, I went there every evening, to mope dramatically with a curious pleasurable sadness; only to discover at last that I had expended my sighs over the wrong house, because she lived next door. By this time, however, I was too far gone to see any humor in the blunder. From making believe that I was in love, I had come really to believe that I was; and when one is in that condition of mind, a difference of one street-number is a small matter. The aura of the beloved fills the whole street.
Now for the first time I began to think of my clothes and to yearn for long trousers. From rebelling against the barber, I became his best youthful customer, and the family were thrown into transports of astonishment over my neckties and my ablutions. They thought, of course, that I was ill, and I took no pains to enlighten them. I made a confidant of no one, not even of Dick, looking upon his affair as the merest calf-love.
Throughout I was fortified by the illustrious example of Dante, whose love, I still imagine, may have begun very much as mine. I had often pored over the horrific pictures of Doré in a great flat folio of the Inferno which, with another of Paradise Lost, formed one of the ornaments of the parlor. From shuddering over the talking trees and the sinners carrying their heads under their arms, I naturally became curious to know more of the author. Johnson’s Encyclopædia and Beeton’s Dictionary of Universal Knowledge, tried friends and true, served only to whet a hunger which sent me off to the circulating library.
A friend of mine maintains that in a thousand of those who read the Inferno not one hundred read the Purgatorio, and that not ten of the hundred read the Paradiso; and probably he is right. When I told him, therefore, a while ago, that I had read all three with great relish at the age of thirteen, I could see that his politeness was having a hard struggle with his incredulity. He knew nothing of my incentive, and in such matters the incentive is everything. I once found a little cash-girl in a department-store reading Jakob Böhme. What her incentive was, I could not prevail upon her to say: perhaps the old theosopher had for her some of the fascination of a puzzle; perhaps she was suffering from religious doubt; at any rate, she said that she ‘enjoyed him very much.’ I imagine that there are some astonished immortals in Elysium if they know to what strange uses their books are put.
I read the New Life and the Purgatory and the Paradise, and bought a plaster bust of the Father of Tuscan song for my room, and cut from a magazine a picture of a dark beauty who, I thought, looked like my inamorata. The original painting from which that print was made I discovered recently — with what tender memories can be imagined — in the waiting-room of a New York Hotel. I used to sit on the edge of my bed before I turned in for the night, and study the picture and the bust.
A lover in that anchorite, —
or in me? I used (in effect) to ask myself. Still, it was something to love even hopelessly in such company. Across the gulf of six centuries the sad old Florentine, however stern of lineament and grim, stretched a sympathetic hand to a little moon-struck boy who sat dreaming and dreaming; and from beside the shiny little yellow bust gazed down the cold dark beauty; and to me as that other to him, but with how different meaning, she said (again in effect),—
Guardami ben: ben son, ben son Beatrice!
Ah, well, as Alighieri himself has said, ‘ love and the gentle heart are one same thing’; and my love was so far from being fiery that I purposely neglected opportunities to meet my Beatrice. On one occasion Fate literally threw us at each other’s head and I, if I may use so vulgar a figure of so fair an object, dodged.
In the silent fervor of my passion, as I have said, I haunted church and Sunday school and fed my flame by bashfully ogling. The extent of my surrender to the little blind god is shown by the fact that I permitted myself to be inveigled into participating in a Christmas entertainment merely because She was to recite a piece.
Faithfully I went to each rehearsal, bravely I mounted the platform and recited the silly stanza that fell to me, meekly I submitted to the jibes of the Philistines, and all to listen to a voice that spoke to others, to treasure up smiles that were not for me. Strange as it may seem, however, this was quite enough. I had no grudge against fate. I was content to sit and gaze.
It was at the last rehearsal, however, that She entered the chapel to find all the seats near the platform occupied except the one next to mine.
O my heart, how didst thou palpitate then! O feet and hands, how excessively large did ye suddenly become as, graceful and self-possessed, She came tripping toward ye! O ears, how did ye then incarnadine yourselves, and what a roaring was in ye louder than the
Of Jacob camp’d in Midiam put to rout!
She draws near, she pauses, she speaks. ‘May I sit beside you?’ she asks, with gracious condescension.
Here is my opportunity. Here at last are ‘the time and the place and the loved one all together!’ A thousand golden witty sayings have I coined for this juncture; but do I deliver them with all the composure that I have displayed when practicing them before her putative picture at home? I do not. I forget my cues. I fumble, I stammer, I swallow, and fall into silence. She bends her gaze upon me and inclines her ear, but in vain. I achieve no intelligible articulation.
As soon as I could escape I fled into the night and walked around the block rapidly six times. As I was passing the church for the seventh time, the others were coming out and some boys hailed me. They were going to the drug-store for soda-water; but I shook my head darkly. No fleshly enticements had power to lure me tonight. I stood in the shadow of a tree and watched the girls come out. As She passed under the light in the lobby, she was talking happily with a youth several years older than I. Together they descended the church steps and made their way slowly toward the drug-store.
The next evening I went back to the wall; but not to play at potting dragons and unicorns. I had aged. It was time to put away childish things. I went to meditate, to school my spirit, to fortify my soul. It was very pleasant to feel so old, so sophisticated, and I practiced all the poses of dejection; but in time the quiet of the familiar street shed its balm upon me. I reflected that Dante had been true to Beatrice, even after he had married and she had died, for some thirty years. Should I grow discouraged in scarce as many days?
Suddenly I looked up. Over the wall were peering two large round yellow-green eyes.
‘It’s an ore!’ I whispered to myself.
Now, I had long since devised a method of dealing with ores. It consisted in whirling round and round on the pavement immediately beneath them until they became dizzy and fell off the wall, when they could be easily dispatched with a sword; and so I began whirling on my heel. So intent was I on this exercise, looking up meanwhile into the scared eyes of the cat above, that I was unaware that some one was approaching. Any one who has ever tried spinning like a whirligig while looking upward has probably fared as I did. I turned giddy much sooner than the orc and sat suddenly down directly in front of a young lady who, vibrating above me, gave voice to a musical little shriek, half of laughter, half of terror. It was my Beatrice.
There is no more to tell. I had no precedent for any such exigency as this. Dante could not help me. My love-affair ended there and then.
A few weeks ago I saw the wall again after many years. There was a cat sitting on top in the sun. She could hardly have been the orc. I put my hands on the coping and pulled myself up and looked over. I wish I had not done so.