A Singular Life by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

A Singular Life by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

I.

There were seven of them at the table that day, and they were talking about heredity. At least they were talking about whatever stood for heredity at the date of our history. The word had penetrated to religious circles at the time; but it was still interpreted with a free personal translation.

Perhaps there is no greater curiosity of its kind than that of a group of theological students (chiefly in their junior year) discussing science. It is not certain that the tendencies of the Seminary club dinner are not in themselves materialistic. The great law of denial belongs to the powerful forces of life, whether the case be one of coolish baked beans, or an unrequited affection. That the thing we have not is the thing we would have, neither you nor I nor the junior may deny; and it is quite probable that these young men set an undue value upon a game dinner and entrées, which was not without its reactionary effect upon their philosophy.

Jaynes, for instance, had been reading Huxley. Jaynes was a stout man, and short, with those[2] round eyeglasses by which oculists delight in deforming round people. He confessed that he was impressed by the argument. He said:—

“Varieties arise, we do not know why; and if it should be probable that the majority of varieties have arisen in a spontaneous manner”—

“A little vinegar, Jaynes, if you please,” interrupted Tompkinton gently. Tompkinton was long and lean. His hair was thin, and scraggled about his ears, which were not small. His hands were thin. His clear blue eye had an absent look. In cold weather he wore an old army cape of his father’s. He studied much without a fire, for the club board at the “short price” cost him two dollars and seventy-five cents a week. His boots were old, and he had no gloves and a cough. He came from the State of New Hampshire.

Then there was Fenton: a snug little fellow, who took honors at Amherst; a man who never spent more than five hundred a year in his life, yet always wore clean linen and a tolerable coat, had a stylish cut to his hair, and went to Boston occasionally to a concert. It was even reported that he had been to see Booth. But the Faculty discredited the report. Besides, he had what was known as “a gift at prayer.”

Fenton was rather a popular man, and when he spoke in answer to Holt (who observed that he considered Huxley’s Descent of Man an infidel book) he was listened to with marked attention.

Holt was in the Special Course. He was a converted[3] brakeman from the Hecla and St. Mary’s, a flourishing Western railway. Holt, being the only student present who had not received any undue measure of collegiate culture, was treated with marked courtesy by his more liberally educated fellow-students.

“We are reading Darwin up at my room, two or three of us, after dinner,” observed Fenton kindly. “We should be happy to have you join us sometimes, Holt.”

Holt blinked at the speaker with that uncertain motion of the eyelids which means half intellectual confusion, and half personal embarrassment. Not a man of these young Christians had smiled; yet the Special Course student, being no natural fool, vaguely perceived that something had gone wrong.

But Fenton was vivaciously discussing last November’s ball games with his vis-à-vis, a middler whose name is unknown to history. It was some time before he said, looking far down the long table:—

“Bayard, who is it that says it takes three generations to make a gentleman?”

“Why, Holmes, I suppose,” answered he who was addressed. “Who else would be likely to say it?”

“Any of the Avonsons might have said it,” observed a gentlemanly fellow from the extreme end of the table; he returned his spoon to his saucer as he spoke. There were several students at the club who did not drink with their spoons in their teacups, and even laid the knife and fork in parallels[4] upon the plate, and this was one of the men. He had an effective and tenderly cherished mustache. He was, on the whole, a handsome man. It was thought that he would settle over a city parish.

“I doubt if there was ever an Avonson who could have said it, Bent,” replied Bayard. The Avonsons were a prominent New England family, not unknown to diplomacy and letters, nor even to Holt of the Hecla and St. Mary’s.

“But why, then?” persisted Bent.

“They have believed it too thoroughly and too long to say anything so fine.”

Bent raised an interrogative eyebrow.

“You won’t understand,” returned Bayard, smiling. All the fellows turned towards Bayard when he smiled; it was a habit they had. “You aren’t expected to. You are destined for the Episcopal Church.”

“I see the connection less than ever,” Bent maintained. “But I scent heresy somewhere. You are doomed to the stake, Bayard. That is clear as—as the Latin fathers. Have an apple,—do. It’s sour, but sound. It’s Baldwin year, or we shouldn’t get them except Sundays.”

Bayard mechanically took the apple, and laid it down untouched. His eye wandered up the cold length of the long table decorated with stone china. Somehow, few aspects of the theological life struck his imagination so typically as a big vegetable dish piled with cold, unrelieved Baldwins,[5] to be served for after-dinner fruit on a winter day. In the kind of mental chill which the smallest of causes may throw over a nature like his, Bayard did not exert himself to reply to his classmate, but fell into one of the sudden silences for which he was marked.

“My father,” observed the New Hampshire man quietly, “was a farmer. He dug his own potatoes the day before he enlisted. Perhaps I am no judge, but I always thought he was a gentleman—when I was a little boy.”

Tompkinton shouldered himself out of the conversation, asked one of the fellows what hour the Professor had decided on for eternal punishment, and went out into the wintry air, taking long strides to the lecture-room, with his notebook under the old blue army cape, of which the northwest wind flung up the scarlet side.

“Has the Professor tea’d you yet, Bent?” asked Bayard, rousing, perhaps a little too obviously anxious to turn the channels of conversation. Genealogical problems at best, and in picked company, are unsafe topics; hence peculiarly dangerous at a club table of poor theologues, half of whom must, in the nature of things, be forcing their way into social conditions wholly unknown to their past. Bayard was quicker than the other men to think of such things.

“Oh yes,” said Bent, with a slightly twitching mustache.[6] “Ten of us at a time in alphabetical order. I came the first night, being a B. Madam his wife and Mademoiselle his daughter were present, the only ladies against such a lot of us. I pitied them. But Miss Carruth seemed to pity us. She showed me her photograph book, and some Swiss pickle forks—carved. Then she asked me if I read Comte. And then her mother asked me how many of the class had received calls. Then the Professor told some stories about a Baptist minister. And so by and by we came away. It was an abandoned hour—for Cesarea. It was ten o’clock.”

“I was in town that night,” observed Bayard. “I had to send my regrets.”

“If you were in town, why couldn’t you go?” asked the middler.

“I mean that I was out of town. I was in Boston. I had gone home,” explained Bayard pleasantly.

“You won’t come in now till after the Z’s,” suggested Fenton quickly; “or else you’ll be left over till the postgraduates take turn, and the B’s come on again.”

The Baldwin apples were all eaten now, and the stone china was disappearing from the long table in detachments. Jaynes and the Special Course man had followed Tompkinton, and the middler and Bent now pushed back their chairs. Bayard remained a moment to ask after the landlady’s neuralgia,—he was one of the men who do not economize sympathy without more effort than its repression is usually worth,—and Fenton waited[7] for him in the cold hall. The two young men shoved their shoulders into their overcoats sturdily, and walked across the Seminary green together to their rooms.

Strictly speaking, one should say the Seminary “white.” It was midwinter, and on top of Cesarea Hill. From the four corners of the earth the winds of heaven blew, and beat against that spot; to it the first snowflake flew, and on it the last blizzard fell. Were the winters longer and the summers hotter in Cesarea than in other places? So thought the theologues in the old draughty, shaking Seminary dormitories dignified by time and native talent with the name of “halls.”

Young Bayard trod the icy path to his own particular hall (Galilee was its name) with the chronic homesickness of a city-bred man forced through a New England country winter under circumstances which forbade him to find fault with it. His profession and his seminary were his own choice; he had never been conscious of wavering in it, or caught in grumbling about it, but sometimes he felt that if he had been brought up differently,—like Tompkinton, for instance, not to say Holt,—he should have expended less of that vitality necessary to any kind of success in the simple process of enduring the unfamiliar.

“How was the gale round your room last night?” inquired young Fenton, as the two climbed the frozen terraces, and leaped over the chains that hung between rows of stunted posts set[8] at regular intervals in front of the Seminary buildings. For what purpose these stone dwarfs staggered there, no one but the founders of the institution knew; and they had been in their graves too long to tell.

“It made me think of my uncle’s house,” observed Bayard.

“By force of contrast? Yes. I never lived in Beacon Street. But I can guess. I pity you in that northwest corner. My mother sent me a soapstone by express last week. I should have been dead, I should have been frozen stark, without it. You heat it, you know, on top of the base-burner, and tuck it in the sheets. Then you forget and kick it out when you’re asleep, and it thumps on the fellow’s head in the room below, and he blackguards you for it through the ceiling. Better get one.”

“Are you really comfortable—all night?” asked Bayard wistfully. “I haven’t thought about being warm or any of those luxuries since I came here. I expected to rough it. I mean to toughen myself.”

In his heart he was repeating certain old words which ran like this: Endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. But they did not come to his lips. He was as afraid of cant as too many young theologues are of sincere simplicity.

“Oh, come, Bayard!” urged the other.[9] “There’s where you miss it. Why not be comfortable? I don’t see that Christianity and misery need be identical. You are certain to have a tough time if you go on as you begin. Talk about election, foreordination, predestination! You take the whole set of condemnatory doctrines into your hands and settle your own fate beforehand. A man doesn’t leave Providence any free will who sets out in life as you do.”

“Do I strike you that way?” asked the young man anxiously. “If there is anything I abhor, it is a gloomy clergyman!”

“There you are again! Now I’m not finding fault with you,” began Fenton, settling his chin in his comfortable way. “Your soul is all nerves, man. It is a ganglion. You need more tissue round it—like me.”

The two young men stood at the foot of the bare, wooden stairs in the cold entry of Galilee Hall, at the dividing of their ways. It was the usual luck of the other that he should have a southwest room, first floor. But Bayard climbed to his northwest third-story corner uncomplainingly. It occurred to him to say that there were objects in life as important, on the whole, as being comfortable. But he did not. He only asked if the lectures on the Nicene Creed were to be continued at four, and went on, shivering, to his room.

It was a bitter February afternoon, and the wind blew the wrong way for northwest corners. Bayard had spent the day in coddling his big base-burner, which now rewarded him by a decent glow as he entered his study. He had no chum, and[10] thanked God for it; he curled into the shell of his solitude contentedly, and turned to his books at once, plunging headlong into the gulf of the Nicene Creed. At the end of two hours he got up, shivering. The subject was colder than the climate, and he felt congealed to the soul. He flung open his bedroom door. An icy breath came from that monastic cell. He thought, “I really must get some double windows.” He had purposely refrained all winter from this luxury lest he should seem to have more comforts than his poorer classmates.

The early winter sunset was coming on, and Cesarea Hill was wrapping herself in gold and purple and in silver sheen to meet it. Bayard went to his window, and stood, with his hands locked behind him, looking abroad.

The Seminary lawns (old Cesareans spoke of them as the Seminary “yard”), encrusted in two feet of snow, took on the evening colors in great sweeps, as if made by one or two strokes of a mighty brush. The transverse paths that cut across the snow, under rows of ancient elm-trees, had the shape of a cross. The delicate, bare branches of the elms were etched against a blazing west. Above, the metallic sky hung cold and clear. A few students were crossing the lawns, tripping and slipping on the paths of gray and glittering ice. In the wide street beyond, a number of people were breasting the blast, valiantly prepared for a mile’s walk to the evening mail.[11]The night threatened to be very cold. Across the street, the Professors’ houses stood in a serious row. Beyond them, the horizon line ran to Wachusett, undisturbed; and the hill and valley view melted into noble outlines under snow and sun.

Emanuel Bayard stood at his window looking across to the hills. The setting sun shone full in his face. I see no reason why one should hesitate to give a man full credit for personal beauty because one chances to be his biographer, and do not hesitate to say that the attractiveness of this young man was extraordinary.

He was of slender build, but tall, and with good square shoulders that sturdily supported his head. He had the forehead of a student, the carriage of a man of society, and the beauty of a myth, or a saint, which may be the same thing. His complexion was a trifle fair for a man; his brown hair, shot with gold, curled defiantly all over his head; when he first decided to study theology, he used to try to brush it straight, but he might as well have tried to brush Antinous out of fable. He had bright, human, healthy color, and, as has been intimated, a remarkable smile. His lips were delicately cut; they curved and trembled with almost pitiful responsiveness to impressions. Thought and feeling chased over his face like the tints of a vibrating prism cast on a white surface. It was in his eyes that the extreme sensitiveness of his nature seemed to concentrate[12] and strengthen into repose. His nearest friend might have said of Bayard’s eyes, They are hazel, and said no more. Some stranger in the street, to whom the perception of the unusual was given, might have passed him, and said, That man’s eyes are living light. Indeed, strangers often moved back and looked again at him; while people who knew him best sometimes turned away from him uncomfortably, as if he blinded them. This power to dazzle, which we often see in merely clear-minded persons with a well-painted iris, may not be associated in the least with the higher nature, but even the contrary. It was the peculiarity about Bayard that his eye seemed to be the highest as well as the brightest fact in any given personal situation. Neither a prophet nor a cut-throat would for an instant have questioned the spiritual supremacy of the man.

In Paris, once, he was thrown in the way of a celebrated adventuress, and she confessed to him, sobbing, as if he had been her priest, within an hour. Rank is of the soul, and Bayard’s was unmistakable. Beauty like his is as candid, in its way, as certain forms of vice. It is impossible for him to conceal his descent who is born a spiritual prince.

But the young man was thinking nothing of this as he faced the cold and gleaming sky, to see the sun drop just to the north of Wachusett, as he had done so many winter nights since he took possession of the northwest corner of Galilee[13] Hall. If his musing had been strictly translated into words, “I must prove my rank,” he would have said.

As he stood mute and rapt, seeming to bestow more brilliance than he took from it on the afterglow that filled the grim old room, his eye rested on the line of Professors’ houses that stood between him and his sunset, and musingly traveled from ancient roof to roof till it reached the house behind which the sun had dropped. This house was not built by the pious founders, and had a certain impertinent, worldly air as of a Professor with property, or a committee of the Trustees who conceded more than was expected by the Westminster Catechism to contemporaneous ease and architecture. It was in fact a fashionable modern building, a Queen Anne country house, neither more nor less.

As Bayard’s glance reached the home of his theological Professor it idly fell upon the second-story front window, where signs of motion chanced to arrest his attention. In this window the drawn shade was slowly raised, and the lace drapery curtains parted. A woman’s figure stood for a moment between the curtains. There were western windows, also, to the room, and the still burning light shot through from side to side of the wing. In it she could be seen clearly: she stood with raised arm and hand; there was something so warm and womanly and rich in the outlines of that remote figure that the young man[14] would have been no young man if his glance had not rested upon it.

After a moment’s perceptible hesitation he turned away; then stepped back and drew down his old white cotton shade.

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Categories: English Literature

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