Assise auprès du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant:
‘Ronsard me célébroit du temps que j’étois belle.’
DUSK quietly entered the room and spread her gray and filmy shadows ever deeper and deeper over all the old, dear, and familiar things; even the figure of the Gentleman in Gray melted slowly into the darkness that hovered around him, and he soon seemed little more than a shadow himself, only somewhat deeper and darker than those in the other corners, ere the Lady in Blue returned from her visit and at once flooded the room with the light of electric lamps. She had been gone quite a long time, — longer than she expected when she asked her friend to wait for her return, — and now her face wore an expression in which amusement and disappointment were strangely mingled. The Gentleman in Gray, as he helped her out of her furs, said with a quizzical smile, ‘Did you enjoy your visit? Have you seen her?’
‘Yes, I have seen her; but enjoy — well, I shall tell you all about it. Let us sit here, please, at the fire, and do turn those glaring lights off. Just leave the lamps on the wall burning,—yes, that’s right, — and now come here and listen.’
The Gentleman in Gray did as he was bidden, and soon was seated beside the Lady in Blue, who gave him a quick and questioning look before she began her tale.
‘ You know,’ she said, ‘I was eager to see her — who would n’t have been? The mistress of a poet, and such a poet! His verses possessed, not only my heart and my soul, but my very blood; there are certain lines of his which I have always felt like a physical caress, and others that made me blush and tremble, they are of a shamelessness so royal, so proud, so insolent, and yet of so surpassing a loveliness that even Swinburne is pale and tame compared with this wild and fiery genius. Swinburne sins more with his intellect, but in his poems there is the dark red light of a supremely sensuous emotion, an emotion that makes you recoil and yet magically charms and draws you as a snake charms the shy, fluttering bird.
‘And she is the woman who has inspired all this passionate splendor! All these verses, thrown to the crowd, were in reality intimate confessions whispered into her ear in hours when other mortals have only the gift of silence. Could I expect her to be less of a wonder than the poems that spoke but of her? What a life she must have lived, this woman! How she must have loved! How he must have loved her! What strange delights must have been hers! Yes, I was eager to see her, doubly eager because she is so very old now. Soon she will be gone, and then nobody can tell me more than his books. And yet I somehow felt that there was something more, that some “wandering air of the unsaid” sang through all his verses, that there was a last revelation he had not made. I wanted to see her, and I dreamed of an hour, as Ronsard pictures in his most beautiful lines, — you know them, “ Quand vous serez bien vieille,” — and I expected to hear from her, with the accents of a defiant bliss that neither time, nor sorrow, nor the judgment of the world could dim, “Ronsard me célébroit du temps que j’étois belle.” And at last I obtained an introduction to her.’
‘I brought about this introduction,’ said the Gentleman in Gray.
‘Yes, and small thanks are due you,’ the Lady in Blue gave back.
‘But why? Was she not amiable? I wras told that she is the most companionable old lady in existence. What has disappointed you so very keenly?’
‘Everything. The house first of all — but then one cannot always choose one’s house according to one’s fate, so I did not let this influence me; but her room! Would you believe it? There was not a single book in that room! Nothing to remind one of him, only a few unfeeling tables and chairs. And at one of these tables she was sitting, and tea was laid, and she welcomed me very graciously, and I had tea with her. First she spoke of the weather, and then she asked me about the marketing-prices in my neighborhood and compared them with the sums her housekeeper spends; and at last, after I had given up every hope, she spoke of him. And that was the worst. She told me how much she paid for a pint of her really excellent cream, because “dear Artie” was most particular so far as cream was concerned, and she had frightful trouble with him when she tried to serve him an inferior sort.
‘It was not quite the opening I had anticipated, and “dear Artie” was not just the way I should have wished her to talk of him; nevertheless, I took my cue and stammered, “You must have been greatly happy with such a man.” And she nodded her head and said complacently, “Well, dear child, I can’t complain. He wasn’t a bad man. Of course I had my hands full with him, and it took time till I got him out of his irregular habits; but altogether I have been quite satisfied. Dear Artie was given to colds in the head, and I always had to make him wear his flannels until May. If I had not taken such good care of him he would not have lived half as long as he did; but his family never appreciated it. I had enough trouble with them, and Artie himself was sometimes as headstrong as a mule; but he was n’t the worst, by any means, and I won’t blame him. I did my duty by him and he knew it, — I told him so every day of my life, — but I had my cross, my dear.” And then she sighed again, and asked where I thought black satin could be got cheapest and best.’
‘Well, I call that quite confidential and companionable,’ said the Gentleman in Gray.
‘Don’t joke, please,’ commanded the Lady in Blue. ‘Explain to me rather this enigma. I am quite bewildered. Is that the woman he wrote about in words of fire and lines of flame? Was it possible that he did not see how commonplace, how uninteresting, how utterly impossible she is? Why, she has not even the charm of age or the wistful wisdom of experience. There is nothing in her, absolutely nothing. How can you account for such blindness? Was “dear Artie” as silly as all this? Oh, I could cry! I think I can never read his songs again; they are utterly spoiled for me. I shall always have to think of his flannels and the cold in his head. Or,’ she added with sudden inspiration, ‘is it all a mistake? Was this not his real love? Did he give his heart to quite another woman? Was she whom I saw not the real bride, but only one of the step-sisters who wanted to take the place of the beloved one? Tell me!’
The Gentleman in Gray smiled sadly and indulgently.
‘The lady whom you saw and who gave you all the information of which she was capable was verily the famous mistress of our famous poet, but I do not think that she was the woman he loved.’
‘Is that a riddle?’
‘Worse, it is the truth. A truth sad and eternal as the vain longings of our lonely hearts; and, with your leave, I will expound this truth to you. You remember, of course, Helen of Troy, her of the fair hands, “white-bosomed, azure-eyed, to whom men forgave all things for her beauty’s sake.” She was not less famous than the lady you have just seen, and her loveliness lives in our memory as fresh and fragrant as on the day when Paris gave her the first forbidden kiss. Forever and a day this sweet wraith haunts our imagination, and all the perfume of femininity is crystallized into the one name, Helen of Troy. Now there was an early lyric poet, Stesichorus, who contended that she who went to Troy and wrought all the havoc in the house of Priam was not Helen at all, but an eidolon, a woman fashioned in her likeness by Zeus, out of mist and light. The real Helen remained safely and with honor in Egypt, and Menelaus had really never the slightest cause for conjugal complaint.
‘Here you have the story of all human love. It is not the real woman we adore, but an eidolon, a phantasm that the god in us fashions out of the mist of our desires and the light of our fancy, and the woman who is, is but a symbol for the cloud-bride, for the woman who is not and never will be. It was an eidolon, a phantasm in the likeness of the woman you have seen, that inspired your poet, and it was of the eidolon he spoke in his often too daring, too violent verses. The eidolon he took with him on his perilous journey to all the heights and depths of passion, whereas the real woman lived safely and unsuspectingly in quite another spiritual latitude, in Philistia, and flannels were the matter of her concern. And whereever you find une grande passion, a love and a passion that; seem more than human, be sure that they were given merely to a dream, a dream seen as in a mirror in the form of the loved one. She who lived in his house and whom you think unworthy of your poet, she was to him as much a stranger as she is to you. The one he pressed to his heart, the one into whose ear he whispered his songs, the one who gave him all that love could give to love, that was the eidolon, and the eidolon died with him. In vain you will go and search for it.’
‘And does one never, never,’ said the Lady in Blue, ‘does one really never love the real woman? Is the real woman never cherished for just what she is? Is there always an eidolon to whom the best gifts of the heart are given? Tell me the truth — are there no exceptions to your rule?’
Her voice was soft and full of temptations, and masculine instinct and dogmatic pride fought in the heart of the Gentleman in Gray, so that he was slow to answer, but dogmatic pride conquered at last.
‘No,’ he said, ‘there are no exceptions. “Shadows we are and shadows we pursue.”’
And then he held his hands quickly over the glow of the fire, as if a sudden chill had struck him to the heart.