The Cords of Vanity
James Branch Cabell et al
Part 6 out of 6
event, I have been thinking for a whole two hours of my wife, and of how
from the very beginning I have utilised her, and of how good and
credulous she is, and of how happy I have made her--! For I have made
her happy. That is the preposterous part of it--"
"Why, yes; Anne loves you very dearly. Oh, I think that everybody is
irrationally fond of you, John. No, that is not a compliment, it is
rather the reverse. It is simply an instance of what I have been
brooding over all this afternoon,--that we like people on account of
their good qualities and love them on account of their defects. I
honestly believe that the cornerstone of affection is the agreeable
perception of our superiority in some one point, at least, to the
beloved. And that is why so many people are fond of you, I think."
He laughed a little. "And _de te fabula_--Yet I would distinguish. You
think me a futile person and not, as we will put it, a disastrously
truthful person, and so on through the entire list of all those
so-called vices which are really just a habit of not doing this or that
particular thing. Well! it is no longer _a la mode_ to talk about
God,--yet I must confess to an old-fashioned faith in our Author's
existence and even in His amiability. I believe He placed me in this
colourful world, and that He is not displeased because I have spent
therein some forty-odd years pleasurably. Then too I have not wasted
that pleasure, I have philanthropically passed it on. I have bequeathed
posterity the chance to spend an enjoyable half-hour or so over one or
two little books. That is not much to claim, but it is something."
John Charteris was talking to himself now.
"Had I instead the daily prayers of seven orphans, or the proud
consciousness of having always been afraid to do what I wanted
to,--which I take to be the universally accredited insurance of a
blissful eternity,--or even a whole half-column with portrait in the New
York papers to indicate what a loss my premature demise had been to
America,--or actually all three together, say, to exhibit as the
increment of this period, I honestly cannot imagine any of the more
intelligent archangels lining up to cheer my entry into Paradise. I
believe, however, that to be contented, to partake of the world's
amenities with moderation as a sauce, and to aggrieve no fellow-being,
except in self-protection, and to make other people happy as often as
you find it possible, is a recipe for living that will pass muster even
in heaven. There you have my creed; and it may not be impeccable, but I
believe in it."
"You have forgotten something," I said, with a grin. "'One must not
think too despondently nor too often of the grim Sheriff who arrives
anon to dispossess you, no less than all the others, nor of any
subsequent and unpredictable legal adjustments.' See, here it is, your
own words printed in the book."
"Dear me, did I say that? How nicely phrased it is! Well! you and I have
defiantly preserved the gallant attitude in an era not very favorable
thereto. And we seem to prosper--as yet--"
"But certainly! We are the highly exceptional round pegs that flourish
like green bay-trees in a square hole," I summed it up. "Presently of
course our place knoweth us not. But in the mean while--well, as it
happens, I was recalling to-day how adroitly I scaled the summit of
human wisdom when I was only fourteen. For I said then, 'You can have a
right good time first, any way, if you keep away from ugly things and
fussy people.' And at twenty-five I stick to it."
"I wonder now if it is not at a price?" said Charteris, rather
mirthlessly. "Either way, you have as yet the courage of the
unconvicted. And you have managed, out of it all, to get together the
makings of an honest book. I do not generally believe in heaping
flattery upon young authors, but if I had written that last book of
yours it would not grieve me. Even so, I wonder--? But it is dreary
here, in this old house, with all my wife's high-minded ancestors
chilling the air. Come, let us concoct some curious sort of drink."
I looked at him compassionately. "And have Bettie staying up to let me
in and smelling it on me! You must be out of your head."
And then Charteris laughed and derided me, and afterward we chatted for
a good two hours,--quite at random, and disposing of the most important
subjects, as was our usage when in argument, in a half-sentence.
It was excellent to have Charteris to talk against, and I enjoyed it.
Taking him by and large, I loved the little fellow as I have loved no
_He Gilds the Weather-Vane_
But I would not go along with Charteris the next morning when he came by
the Hamlyns' on his way to King's College. I could not, because I was
labouring over a batch of proof-sheets; and as I laboured my admiration
for the very clever young man who had concocted this new book augmented
comfortably; so that I told Charteris he was a public nuisance, and
please to go to Tillietudlem.
He had procured the key to the Library,--for the College had not opened
as yet,--and meant to borrow an odd volume or so of Lucian. Charteris
had evolved the fantastic notion of treating Lucian's Zeus as a tragic
figure. He sketched a sympathetic picture of the fallen despot, and of
the smokeless altars, girdled by a jeering rabble of so-called
philosophers, and of how irritating it must be to anybody to have your
actual existence denied. Did I not see the pathos of poor Zeus's
situation with the god business practically "cornered," and the Jews
getting all the trade?
I informed him that the only pathos in life just at present was my
inability to disprove, in default of abolishing, the existence of people
who bothered me when I was busy. So Charteris went away, just as Byam
brought the mail from the post-office.
There were two cheques from magazines. Life was very pleasant, in a
quiet uneventful world. The _Fairhaven Gazette_ for the week had come,
too, to indicate that, as usual, nothing of grave import was happening
in an agreeably monotonous world. True, the Bulgarians were issuing an
appeal to civilization on the ground that they objected to being
massacred, and cyclones were wrecking towns and killing quite a number
of persons in Florida, and the strikes in Colorado were leading to
divers homicides; but in Fairhaven these things did not seem to matter.
And so the front page of the _Gazette_ was, rightfully, reserved for
Plans of the College for the Session of 1903-4....
I looked again. The President was explaining that he had intended no
discourtesy to Sir Thomas Lipton by declining to attend the
Seawanhaka-Corinthian Yacht Club dinner; Major Delmar had failed to beat
Lou Dillon's time, on the same track; the National Dressmakers'
Association had declared that the kangaroo walk and Gibson shoulders
would shortly be eschewed by all really fashionable women; and these
matters were more interesting, of course, but certainly no cause for
excitement. Well, I reflected, no news was good news proverbially; and I
was content to let the axiom pass.
In fine, there was nothing to worry over anywhere. And the book was
going to be good, quite astonishingly good....
And yonder Bettie waited for me, and I could hear the piano that
proclaimed she was not idle. I was ineffably content; and at ease within
a rather kindly universe, taking it by and large....
"Quite a nice Setebos, after all! a big, fine generous-hearted fellow,
who doesn't bother to keep accounts to the last penny. I heartily
approve of Setebos, and Bettie ought not to rag Him so. She would think
it tremendously nice and boyish of me if I were to go impulsively and
tell her something like that--"
So I decided I had worked quite long enough.
But as I reached out toward the portieres, a man came into the room,
entering from the hall-way. And I gave a little whistling sound of
astonishment and hastened to him with extended hand.
"My dear fellow," I began; "why, have you dropped from the moon?"
"They--they told me you were here," said Jasper Hardress, and paused to
moisten his lips. "My wife died, yonder in Montana, ten days ago last
Thursday,--yes, it was on a Tuesday she died, I think."
And I was silent for a breathing-space. "Yes?" I said, at last; for I
had seen the shining thing in Jasper Hardress's hand, and I was
wondering now why he had pocketed the toy, and for how long.
"It was of a fever she died. She was delirious,--oh, quite three days.
And she talked in her delirium."
I began to smile; it was like witnessing a play. "Yonder is Bettie and
my one chance of manhood; and blind chance, just the machination of a
tiny microbe, entraps me as I tread toward all this. I was wrong about
Setebos. Heine was right; there is an Aristophanes in heaven."
I said, aloud: "Well, Hardress, you wouldn't have me dispute the
veracity of a lady?"
But the man did not appear to hear me. "Oh, it was very horrible," he
said. "Oh, I would like you, first of all, to comprehend how horrible it
was. She was always calling--no, not calling exactly, but just moaning
one name, and over and over again. He had been so cruel, she said. He
didn't really care for anything, she said, except to write his hateful
books. And I had loved her, you understand. And for three whole days I
must sit there and hear her tell of what another man had meant to her! I
have not been wholly sane, I think, since then, for I had loved her for
a long time. And her throat was so little that I often thought how easy
it would be to stop the moaning and talking, but somehow I did not like
to do it. And it isn't my honour that I mean to avenge. It is Gillian
that I must avenge,--Gillian who died because a coward had robbed her of
the will to live. For it was that in chief. Why, even you must
understand that," he said, as though he pleaded with me.
And yonder Bettie played,--with lithe fingers which caressed the keys
rather than struck them, I remembered. And always at the back of my mind
some being that was not I was taking notes as to how unruffled the man
was; and I smiled a little, in recognition of the air, as Bettie began
_The Funeral March of a Marionette_....
"Yes," I said; "I think I understand. There is something to be advanced
upon the other side perhaps; but that scarcely matters. You act within
your rights; and, besides, you have a pistol, and I haven't. I am
getting afraid, though, Jasper. I can't stand this much longer. So for
God's sake, make an end of this!"
Jasper Hardress said: "I mean to. But they told me he was here? Yes, I
am sure that someone told me he was here."
I think I must have reeled a little. I know my brain was working
automatically. Gillian Hardress had always called me Jack; and Jasper
Hardress was past reason; and yonder was Bettie, who had made life too
fine and dear a thing to be relinquished....
"Jasper," someone was saying, and that someone seemed to laugh, "we
aren't living in the Middle Ages, remember. No, just as I said, I cannot
stand this nonsense any longer, and you must make an end of this
foolishness. Just on a bare suspicion--just on the ravings of a
delirious woman--! Why, she used to call _me_ Jack,--and I write
books--Why, you might just as logically murder _me_!"
"I thought at first it was you. Oh, only for a moment, boy. I was not
quite sane, I think, for at first I suspected you of such treachery as
in my sober senses I know you never dreamed of. And I had forgotten you
were just a child--But she was conscious at the end," said Jasper
Hardress, "and when I--talked with her about what she had said in
delirium, she told me it was Charteris whose son we christened Jasper
Hardress some two years ago--"
I said: "I never knew there was a child." But I was thinking of a
hitherto unaccounted-for photograph.
"He only lived three months. I had always wanted a son. You cannot fancy
how proud I was of him." Hardress laughed here.
"And she told you it was Charteris! in the moment of death when--when
you were threatening me, she told you it was Charteris!"
"It is different when you are dying. You see--Gillian knew that eternity
depended on what she said to me then--" He spoke as with difficulty, and
he kept licking at restless lips.
"Yes,--she did believe that. And she told you--!" I comprehended how
Gillian Hardress had loved me, and my shame was such that now it was the
mere brute will to live which held me. But it held me, none the less.
Besides, I saw the least unpleasant solution.
"I suppose I can't blame you," I said,--"for if she told you, why, of
course--" Then I barked out: "He was here a moment ago. You must have
come around one corner, in fact, just as he turned the other. You will
find him at Willoughby Hall, I suppose. He said he was going
For I knew that Charteris was at King's College, a mile away from
Willoughby Hall; and, I assured myself, there would be ample time to
warn him. Only how much must now depend upon the diverting qualities of
Lucian! For should the Samosatan flag in interest, John would be leaving
the College presently; and there is but one street in Fairhaven.
I had my hand upon the garden-gate, and Hardress had just turned the
corner below, going toward Cambridge Street, when Bettie came upon
"Well," she said, "and who's your fat friend, Mr. Sheridan?"
"I can't stop now, dear. I forgot to tell John about something which is
"Gracious!" Bettie Hamlyn said; "that sounds like shooting. Why, it is
shooting, isn't it?"
"Yes," said I.
"--Quite as though the Monnachins and the Massawomeks and all the other
jaw-breakers were attacking Fairhaven as they used to do on alternate
Thursdays, and affording both of us an excellent opportunity to get
nicely scalped in time for dinner. So I don't mind confessing that it
was against precisely such an emergency I declined to turn out an
elaborate suite of hair; and now I expect the world at large to
acknowledge that I acted very sensibly."
"It is much more likely to be some drunken country-man on his monthly
spree--" I was reflecting while Bettie talked nonsense that there had
been no less than four shots. I was wondering whom the last was for. It
would be much pleasanter, all around, if Hardress had sent it into his
own disordered brain. Yes, certainly, three bullets ought amply to
account for an unprepared and unarmed and puny Charteris....
So I said: "Well, I suppose my business with John must wait for a while.
Besides, Bettie, you are such a dear in that get-up. And if you will
come down into the garden at once, I will explain a few of my reasons
for advancing the assertion."
Standing upon the porch, she patted me ever so lightly upon the head.
"What a child it is!" she said. "I don't think that, after all, I shall
put twenty-six candles on your cake next week. The fat and lazy literary
gent is not really old enough, not really more than ten."
"--And besides, apart from the proposed discussion of your physical
charms, I have something else quite equally important to tell
"Oh, drat the pertinacious infant, then I'll come for half an hour. Just
wait until I get a hat. Still, what a worthless child it is! to be
quitting work before noon."
And she would have gone, but I detained her. "Yes, what a worthless
child it is,--or rather, what an unproverbial sort of busy bee it has
been, Bettie dear. For his has been the summer air, and the sunshine,
and the flowers; and gentle ears have listened to him, and gentle eyes
have been upon him. Now it is autumn. And he has let others eat his
honey-which I take to include all that he actually made, all that wasn't
in the world before he came, as Stella used to say,--so that he might
have his morsel and his song. And sometimes it has been Sardinian honey,
very bitter in the mouth,--and even then he has let others eat it--"
"You are a most irrelevant infant," said Miss Hamlyn, "with these
insectean divagations--Dear me, what lovely words! And of course if you
really want to drag me into that baking-hot garden, and have the only
fiancee you just at present possess laid up by a sunstroke--"
_The Epilogue: Which Suggests that Second Thoughts--_
So I waited there alone. Whatever the four shots implied, I must tell
Bettie everything, because she was Bettie, and it was not fair I should
have any secrets from her. "Oh, just be honest with me," she had said,
in this same garden, "and I don't care what you do!" And I had never
lied to Bettie: at worst, I simply had not told her anything concerning
matters about which I was glad she had not happened to ask any
questions. But this was different....
Dimly I knew that everything must pivot on my telling Bettie. John was
done for, the Hardress woman was done for, and whether or no Jasper had
done for himself, there was no danger, now, that anyone would ever know
how that infernal Gillian had badgered me into, probably, three
homicides. There might be some sort of supernal bookkeeping, somewhere,
but very certainly it was not conformable to any human mathematics....
And therefore I must tell Bettie.
I must tell Bettie, and abide what followed. She had pardoned much. It
might be she would pardon even this, "because I had been honest with her
when I didn't want to be." And in any event--even in her loathing,--
Bettie would understand, and know I had at least kept faith with her....
I must tell Bettie, and abide what followed. For living seemed somehow
to have raised barriers about me a little by a little, so that I must
view and talk with all my fellows more and more remotely, and could not,
as it were, quite touch anybody save Bettie. At all other persons I was
but grimacing falsely across an impalpable barrier. And now just such a
barrier was arising between Bettie and me, as I perceived in a sort of
panic. Yes, it was rising resistlessly, like an augmenting mist not ever
to be put aside, except by plunging forthwith into hours, or days, or
even into months perhaps, of ugliness and discomfort....
It was the season of harvest. The leaves were not yet turned, and upon
my face the heatless, sun-steeped air was like a caress. The whole world
was at full-tide, ineffably sweet and just a little languorous: and bees
were audible, as in a humorous pretence of vexation....
The world was very beautiful. I must tell Bettie presently, of course;
only the world was such a comfortable place precisely as it was; and I
began to wonder if I need tell Bettie after all?
For, after all, to tell the truth could resurrect nobody; and to know
the truth would certainly make Bettie very unhappy; and never in my life
have I been able to endure the contact of unhappiness.
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