CHAPTER XXIII.

By Mark Twain
From American Claimant (1892).


Tracy wrote his father before he sought his bed. He wrote a letter which he believed would get better treatment than his cablegram received, for it contained what ought to be welcome news; namely, that he had tried equality and working for a living;

Tracy wrote his father before he sought his bed. He wrote a letter which he believed would get better treatment than his cablegram received, for it contained what ought to be welcome news; namely, that he had tried equality and working for a living; had made a fight which he could find no reason to be ashamed of, and in the matter of earning a living had proved that he was able to do it; but that on the whole he had arrived at the conclusion that he could not reform the world single-handed, and was willing to retire from the conflict with the fair degree of honor which he had gained, and was also willing to return home and resume his position and be content with it and thankful for it for the future, leaving further experiment of a missionary sort to other young people needing the chastening and quelling persuasions of experience, the only logic sure to convince a diseased imagination and restore it to rugged health. Then he approached the subject of marriage with the daughter of the American Claimant with a good deal of caution and much painstaking art. He said praiseful and appreciative things about the girl, but didn't dwell upon that detail or make it prominent. The thing which he made prominent was the opportunity now so happily afforded, to reconcile York and Lancaster, graft the warring roses upon one stem, and end forever a crying injustice which had already lasted far too long. One could infer that he had thought this thing all out and chosen this way of making all things fair and right because it was sufficiently fair and considerably wiser than the renunciation-scheme which he had brought with him from England. One could infer that, but he didn't say it. In fact the more he read his letter over, the more he got to inferring it himself.

When the old earl received that letter, the first part of it filled him with a grim and snarly satisfaction; but the rest of it brought a snort or two out of him that could be translated differently. He wasted no ink in this emergency, either in cablegrams or letters; he promptly took ship for America to look into the matter himself. He had staunchly held his grip all this long time, and given no sign of the hunger at his heart to see his son; hoping for the cure of his insane dream, and resolute that the process should go through all the necessary stages without assuaging telegrams q other nonsense from home, and here was victory at last. Victory, but stupidly marred by this idiotic marriage project. Yes, he would step over and take a hand in this matter himself.

During the first ten days following the mailing of the letter Tracy's spirits had no idle time; they were always climbing up into the clouds or sliding down into the earth as deep as the law of gravitation reached. He was intensely happy or intensely miserable by turns, according to Miss Sally's moods. He never could tell when the mood was going to change, and when it changed he couldn't tell what it was that had changed it. Sometimes she was so in love with him that her love was tropical, torrid, and she could find no language fervent enough for its expression; then suddenly, and without warning or any apparent reason, the weather would change, and the victim would find himself adrift among the icebergs and feeling as lonesome and friendless as the north pole. It sometimes seemed to him that a man might better be dead than exposed to these devastating varieties of climate.

The case was simple. Sally wanted to believe that Tracy's preference was disinterested; so she was always applying little tests of one sort or another, hoping and expecting that they would bring out evidence which would confirm or fortify her belief. Poor Tracy did not know that these experiments were being made upon him, consequently he walked promptly into all the traps the girl set for him. These traps consisted in apparently casual references to social distinction, aristocratic title and privilege, and such things. Often Tracy responded to these references heedlessly and not much caring what he said provided it kept the talk going and prolonged the seance. He didn't suspect that the girl was watching his face and listening for his words as one who watches the judge's face and listens for the words which will restore him to home and friends and freedom or shut him away from the sun and human companionship forever. He didn't suspect that his careless words were being weighed, and so he often delivered sentence of death when it would have been just as handy and all the same to him to pronounce acquittal. Daily he broke the girl's heart, nightly he sent her to the rack for sleep. He couldn't understand it.

Some people would have put this and that together and perceived that the weather never changed until one particular subject was introduced, and that then it always changed. And they would have looked further, and perceived that that subject was always introduced by the one party, never the other. They would have argued, then, that this was done for a purpose. If they could not find out what that purpose was in any simpler or easier way, they would ask.

But Tracy was not deep enough or suspicious enough to think of these things. He noticed only one particular; that the weather was always sunny when a visit began. No matter how much it might cloud up later, it always began with a clear sky. He couldn't explain this curious fact to himself, he merely knew it to be a fact. The truth of the matter was, that by the time Tracy had been out of Sally's sight six hours she was so famishing for a sight of him that her doubts and suspicions were all consumed away in the fire of that longing, and so always she came into his presence as surprisingly radiant and joyous as she wasn't when she went out of it.

In circumstances like these a growing portrait runs a good many risks. The portrait of Sellers, by Tracy, was fighting along, day by day, through this mixed weather, and daily adding to itself ineradicable signs of the checkered life it was leading. It was the happiest portrait, in spots, that was ever seen; but in other spots a damned soul looked out from it; a soul that was suffering all the different kinds of distress there are, from stomach ache to rabies. But Sellers liked it: He said it was just himself all over--a portrait that sweated moods from every pore, and no two moods alike. He said he had as many different kinds of emotions in him as a jug.

It was a kind of a deadly work of art, maybe, but it was a starchy picture for show; for it was life size, full length, and represented the American earl in a peer's scarlet robe, with the three ermine bars indicative of an earl's rank, and on the gray head an earl's coronet, tilted just a wee bit to one side in a most gallus and winsome way. When Sally's weather was sunny the portrait made Tracy chuckle, but when her weather was overcast it disordered his mind and stopped the circulation of his blood.

Late one night when the sweethearts had been having a flawless visit together, Sally's interior devil began to work his specialty, and soon the conversation was drifting toward the customary rock. Presently, in the midst of Tracy's serene flow of talk, he felt a shudder which he knew was not his shudder, but exterior to his breast although immediately against it. After the shudder came sobs; Sally was crying.

"Oh, my darling, what have I done--what have I said? It has happened again! What have I done to wound you?"

She disengaged herself from his arms and gave him a look of deep reproach.

"What have you done? I will tell you what you have done. You have unwittingly revealed--oh, for the twentieth time, though I could not believe it, would not believe it!--that it is not me you love, but that foolish sham my father's imitation earldom; and you have broken my heart!"

"Oh, my child, what are you saying! I never dreamed of such a thing."

"Oh, Howard, Howard, the things you have uttered when you were forgetting to guard your tongue, have betrayed you."

"Things I have uttered when I was forgetting to guard my tongue? These are hard words. When have I remembered to guard it? Never in one instance. It has no office but to speak the truth. It needs no guarding for that."

"Howard, I have noted your words and weighed them, when you were not thinking of their significance--and they have told me more than you meant they should."

"Do you mean to say you have answered the trust I had in you by using it as an ambuscade from which you could set snares for my unsuspecting tongue and be safe from detection while you did it? You have not done this--surely you have not done this thing. Oh, one's enemy could not do it."

This was an aspect of the girl's conduct which she had not clearly perceived before. Was it treachery? Had she abused a trust? The thought crimsoned her cheeks with shame and remorse.

"Oh, forgive me," she said, " I did not know what I was doing. I have been so tortured--you will forgive me, you must; I have suffered so much, and I am so sorry and so humble; you do forgive me, don't you? --don't turn away, don't refuse me; it is only my love that is at fault, and you know I love you, love you with all my heart; I couldn't bear to--oh, dear, dear, I am so miserable, and I sever meant any harm, and I didn't see where this insanity was carrying me, and how it was wronging and abusing the dearest heart in all the world to me--and--and--oh, take me in your arms again, I have no other refuge, no other home and hope!"

There was reconciliation again-immediate, perfect, all-embracing--and with it utter happiness. This would have been a good time to adjourn. But no, now that the cloud-breeder was revealed at last; now that it was manifest that all the sour weather had come from this girl's dread that Tracy was lured by her rank and not herself, he resolved to lay that ghost immediately and permanently by furnishing the best possible proof that he couldn't have had back of him at any time the suspected motive. So he said:

"Let me whisper a little secret in your ear--a secret which I have kept shut up in my breast all this time. Your rank couldn't ever have been an enticement. I am son and heir to an English earl!"

The girl stared at him-one, two, three moments, maybe a dozen--then her lips parted:

"You?" she said, and moved away from him, still gazing at him in a kind of blank amazement.

"Why--why, certainly I am. Why do you act like this? What have I done now?"

"What have you done?. You have certainly made a most strange statement. You must see that yourself."

"Well," with a timid little laugh, "it may be a strange enough statement; but of what consequence is that, if it is true?"

"If it is true. You are already retiring from it."

"Oh, not for a moment! You should not say that. I have not deserved it. I have spoken the truth; why do you doubt it?"

Her reply was prompt.

"Simply because you didn't speak it earlier!"

"Oh!" It wasn't a groan, exactly, but it was an intelligible enough expression of the fact that he saw the point and recognized that there was reason in it.

"You have seemed to conceal nothing from me that I ought to know concerning yourself, and you were not privileged to keep back such a thing as this from me a moment after--after--well, after you had determined to pay your court to me."

"Its true, it's true, I know it! But there were circumstances--in-- in the way--circumstances which--"

She waved the circumstances aside.

"Well, you see," he said, pleadingly, "you seemed so bent on our traveling the proud path of honest labor and honorable poverty, that I was terrified--that is, I was afraid--of--of--well, you know how you talked."

"Yes, I know how I talked. And I also know that before the talk was finished you inquired how I stood as regards aristocracies, and my answer was calculated to relieve your fears."

He was silent a while. Then he said, in a discouraged way:

"I don't see any way out of it. It was a mistake. That is in truth all it was, just a mistake. No harm was meant, no harm in the world. I didn't see how it might some time look. It is my way. I don't seem to see far."

The girl was almost disarmed, for a moment. Then she flared up again.

"An Earl's son! Do earls' sons go about working in lowly callings for their bread and butter?"

"God knows they don't! I have wished they did."

"Do earls' sons sink their degree in a country like this, and come sober and decent to sue for the hand of a born child of poverty when they can go drunk, profane, and steeped in dishonorable debt and buy the pick and choice of the millionaires' daughters of America? You an earl's son! Show me the signs."

"I thank God I am not able--if those are the signs. But yet I am an earl's son and heir. It is all I can say. I wish you would believe me, but you will not. I know no way to persuade you."

She was about to soften again, but his closing remark made her bring her foot down with smart vexation, and she cried out:

"Oh, you drive all patience out of me! Would you have one believe that you haven't your proofs at hand, and yet are what you say you are? You do not put your hand in your pocket now--for you have nothing there. You make a claim like this, and then venture to travel without credentials. These are simply incredibilities. Don't you see that, yourself?"

He cast about in his mind for a defence of some kind or other--hesitated a little, and then said, with difficulty and diffidence:

"I will tell you just the truth, foolish as it will seem to you-- to anybody, I suppose--but it is the truth. I had an ideal--call it a dream, a folly, if you will--but I wanted to renounce the privileges and unfair advantages enjoyed by the nobility and wrung from the nation by force and fraud, and purge myself of my share of those crimes against right and reason, by thenceforth comrading with the poor and humble on equal terms, earning with my own hands the bread I ate, and rising by my own merit if I rose at all."

The young girl scanned his face narrowly while he spoke; and there was something about his simplicity of manner and statement which touched her --touched her almost to the danger point; but she set her grip on the yielding spirit and choked it to quiescence; it could not be wise to surrender to compassion or any kind of sentiment, yet; she must ask one or two more questions. Tracy was reading her face; and what he read there lifted his drooping hopes a little.

"An earl's son to do that! Why, he were a man! A man to love!--oh, more, a man to worship!"

"Why?"

"But he never lived! He is not born, he will not be born. The self- abnegation that could do that--even in utter folly, and hopeless of conveying benefit to any, beyond the mere example--could be mistaken for greatness; why, it would be greatness in this cold age of sordid ideals! A moment--wait--let me finish; I have one question more. Your father is earl of what?"

"Rossmore--and I am Viscount Berkeley!"

The fat was in the fire again. The girl felt so outraged that it was difficult for her to speak.

"How can you venture such a brazen thing! You know that he is dead, and you know that I know it. Oh, to rob the living of name and honors for a selfish and temporary advantage is crime enough, but to rob the defenceless dead--why it is more than crime, it degrades crime!"

"Oh, listen to me--just a word--don't turn away like that. Don't go-- don't leave me, so--stay one moment. On my honor--"

"Oh, on your honor!"

"On my honor I am what I say! And I will prove it, and you will believe, I know you will. I will bring you a message--a cablegram--"

"When?"

"To-morrow-next day--"

"Signed 'Rossmore'?"

"Yes--signed Rossmore."

"What will that prove?"

"What will it prove? What should it prove?"

"If you force me to say it--possibly the presence of a confederate somewhere."

This was a hard blow, and staggered him. He said, dejectedly:

"It is true. I did not think of it. Oh, my God, I do not know any way to do; I do everything wrong. You are going?--and you won't say even good-night--or good-bye? Ah, we have not parted like this before."

"Oh, I want to run and--no, go, now." A pause--then she said, "You may bring the message when it comes."

"Oh, may I? God bless you."

He was gone; and none too soon; her lips were already quivering, and now she broke down. Through her sobbings her words broke from time to time.

"Oh, he is gone. I have lost him, I shall never see him any more. And he didn't kiss me good-bye; never even offered to force a kiss from me, and he knowing it was the very, very last, and I expecting he would, and never dreaming he would treat me so after all we have been to each other. Oh, oh, oh, oh, what shall I do, what shall I do! He is a dear, poor, miserable, good-hearted, transparent liar and humbug, but oh, I do love him so--!" After a little she broke into speech again. "How dear he is! and I shall miss him so, I shall miss him so! Why won't he ever think to forge a message and fetch it?--but no, he never will, he never thinks of anything; he's so honest and simple it wouldn't ever occur to him. Oh, what did possess him to think he could succeed as a fraud--and he hasn't the first requisite except duplicity that I can see. Oh, dear, I'll go to bed and give it all up. Oh, I wish I had told him to come and tell me whenever he didn't get any telegram--and now it's all my own fault if I never see him again. How my eyes must look!"








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