Mental suggestion, imagination, pure humbug—call it what you will
C. F. LLOYD
I SAW him at Rome, first, in the Vatican gallery, standing before that most lovely fragment of old Greek sculpture, proof, I think, if proof were needed, that the Greeks were sometimes divinely inspired, the winged Psyche. In those half opened lips, those drowsy eyes, not yet quite awakened, to the fact that they are mortal flesh illuminated by an immortal spirit, there is surely something not altogether of this dull earth.
In, and for, himself the man would not have attracted anybody’s notice. He had a commonplace exterior if ever a man had. Rather below the medium height, with thin legs and arms, a little dry shell of a body and a small, pinched face, redeemed from positive ugliness only by a certain childlike softness of the mouth and eyes, you would have said he was not worth even the casual glance we all accord the stranger in the street. He was, probably, a clerk in some small establishment. One instinctively glanced at his fingers to see whether they bore inkstains or not. A slight outward inclination of the upper lobe of the right ear might have been caused by long carrying of a too heavy pen. He was of common earth unmistakably. Then, suddenly, I noticed his amazing conduct and stopped dead in my tracks to stare at him, dumbfounded.
I had almost walked past the man before I noticed what he was doing. He was violently excited, enthusiastic. He wore gray gloves and carried a rattan cane with which he waved and pointed like an orator delivering an impassioned speech. He was talking rapidly to
himself; and yet, no', it was not to himself, but to someone beside him in the crowd; at first I could not make out to whom.
The gallery was as crowded as always it is on a holiday. People were passing the little man and me in a continuous stream. There were all sorts and conditions of men; English visitors, American tourists, small tradesmen and their wives, an occasional priest, a constant succession of artists and art students, native and foreign, in various degrees of picturesque and professional untidiness. To whom, among all these people, was the little man speaking and gesticulating, pointing out, with that absurd cane of his, what I suppose he took to be the merits of the particular piece before which he had paused.
I noticed that he was not attracted by grand or stupendous objects, but by delicately beautiful and dainty things, the winged Psyche, the pictures of Fra Angelico, certain medals and vases. Then I lost sight of him.
A LITTLE later, almost overcome by the heat and wearied by the throngs of people, I left the gallery and sought the cool restfulness of the lovely Borghese gardens. I had barely taken my seat, on one of the iron
benches, when I noticed the silent orator of the Vatican' gallery walking toward me.
I was seized with a curious conviction that the strange little man was going to speak to me. I was not, therefore, completely taken by surprise when he walked straight over to me, and, seating himself, commenced talking in a curiously quiet, level tone.
“If you will permit me, I should like to tell you a story he said. “I don’t know what right I have to ask you, a. total stranger, to listen to me. But there is something I must tell to someone and in some curious way, I feel I should tell it to you. I have carried it round, locked in my breast, for years. I have never told a soul before. The thing has become unbearable. May I ask you to listen? It will not take long.”
“Certainly,” I answered, sympathetically ; “if you can derive any pleasure or comfort from telling me your story by all means do so. I am all attention.”
“You are kind,” began the little man. His tone suggested that he felt under a sort of moral obligation to apologize for his existence. He continued.
“I have no claim upon your patience, but since you have been good enough to signify a willingness, even, I think, a certain desire to hear my story, I will tell you why I go from one picture gallery to another looking at things and talking under my breath to myself, as it must seem to you and others, about the things I see. People think, if they notice me in the galleries, that I am mad. Perhaps I am. I talk, it is true, under my breath, pointing
at certain things that I have taken a fancy to, but, I want you to believe me, when I tell you I am not talking to myself or making strange gestures for my own amusement.
“My name, it is really of no consequence, but perhaps you would like to know it, is Jones, John Jones. A common name enough, isn’t it? Well, I have nothing much to boast about.
“I was born in a little town in eastern Ontario. My father was the manager of a private bank. He never rose above that position. He was content. He accumulated a little money, very little. He married and there were two children, myself and a sister who died when she was twelve years old.
“My mother died when I was born. After she died, a sister of my father’s came to keep house for him. My aunt was an old maid, with precise notions regarding the bringing up of children. She thought that all sportiveness, every natural instinct, every childish impulse, should be pruned away, or at least suppressed. She suppressed my sister and me very effectually. My sister died when she was twelve, as I have said. As for me, I have been more or less suppressed all my life, which may account for the fact that I never became a bank manager, like my father. Teller was the highest position I ever reached; and teller in a small private bank, in the country, is, not much is it?
“Well, I am not much, I admit, yet I have enjoyed moments which I think even Napoleon—I speak, of course, of the great Napoleon—might have envied me, moments of pure and exalted happiness. Such moments are rare in this life. The man who has even a few of them has reason to be proud, he should be happy forever, living on the memory of them. He has no reason to complain of his lot.
“Of my early years I have little or nothing to tell, I was fed, at first, out of a bottle, I suppose. It must have been a neat, sanitary bottle, kept in excellent condition, if my aunt had charge of it. She was terribly afraid of dirt. During all the years she lived under my father’s roof, I cannot recall having seen her without a broom in her hand, or a dust cloth, or a dish towel; except when she took her afternoon nap in her white wicker chair in the kitchen or was on her way to the store or to church, the only two places she ever went. She never went visiting, consequently we had no visitors except the minister, who always called once a week, usually on Wednesday evening.
He was a tall, severe man. He used to frown at my sister and me over his tea-cup and •enquire whether we had been good or naughty and whether we wanted to go to heaven or hell when we died. He used to frighten my sister terribly. She would cry for hours after he left the house. As for me, I do not think I was ever really afraid of him but I disliked him. I resented his impertinent questions and I did not, even then, believe all he said.
“Understand me, please. I do not dislike ministers of the Gospel as a class. I think they are very admirable men for the most part; but I did dislike the individual I have xeferred to. My aunt thought he was an angel. Perhaps he was. I have only known one angel and she was not at all like Mr.
Spence. That was his name, the Reverend John Spence.
“In due time I was breeched. Then, when I was five, I commenced going to school with my sister who was nearly three years older than myself.
“I did not get along very fast at school. I was not particularly bright, nor was I dull. I usually held a middle position in my class, inclining slightly, I am afraid toward the foot. My greatest trouble at school was arithmetic. I never could see through arithmetic easily but, by plugging along, with a little help from my teacher and from schoolmates who were brighter than I, I managed to pass my examinations somehow.
“My sister was a great help to me at school. She was older, as I have said, and she was clever. Ah, yes, she was clever, poor little Marjorie. If she had lived now, when young women go to college, I do not know what she might or might not have done. I have fancied she was like my mother. She was not much like father and certainly not at all like my aunt.
“I left school when I was fourteen and went into the bank, where I commenced, at once, keeping a small deposit ledger. My father needed my help, being unprovided with a junior clerk and afraid to ask for one. He was always afraid to ask for anything, in which respect I resemble him.
“For six years, I worked on that ledger. At first I made a good many mistakes in my addition, but by and by I became more proficient and was scolded less often by my father, who could be severe at times.
“Our teller at that time was a tall, dry, old bachelor named Rummy, John Rummy. He always used to pull my ear the first thing when he came into the bank in the morning and tell me to cross my t’s and dot my i’s for that was the first principle of good banking. Whenever he wanted me for anything, he would say, ‘Boy, come here.’ He had a very high, sharp voice. He continued to call me boy till the day he retired and I stepped into his cage.
“Those early years in the bank were not unhappy, as I remember them. I was kept too busy all day, and sometimes far into the night, to have any time to be discontented. I never had been a child. Thanks to my aunt, I had been, at best, only a small man in knee pants learning to cast accounts.
“In the evenings, when there was no work to do in the bank, I used to do little jobs around our house. We lived in a large house. My aunt could always find me something to do, at a moment’s notice. She was always wonderfully clever at finding work for other people to do.
“In winter there was snow to shovel, ashes to carry out, coal and wood to bring in, the porch to sweep off or a storm window to mend. In summer, there was the garden, the cow, a fence to repair, some painting to be done, a light of glass to put in, heaven knows what!
“My aunt worked all day. Looking back on those
years now, I think she must have sat up a good portion of each night thinking of some way to keep me employed during the following evening. She was a wonder in that respect. She kept my sister employed, too, on the table linen, till the poor little fingers refused to drive a needle any longer and were put away under ground.
“I am not vindictive, sir, I trust, but I have something in my heart, very like hatred for my aunt, not for the way she treated me, I forgot that years ago, but for the way she treated my sister. She killed her, sir. It is really remarkable how very cruel some good people can be.
“T COME now to a more interesting period of my life, Jmore interesting to me that is; perhaps it will be so to you, too. Certainly, there is nothing remarkable in
what I have already told you. Pardon me if, in what follows, I give way a little to my feelings and leeome —well—exalted, just a little. I am not accustomed to give way to my feelings for they were too thoroughly suppressed when I was a child.
“I was about twenty-one and had been a teller in my father’s bank eight months, when, walking along the river bank, we had a little river running through our town, I saw Maud. She was standing beside a high hedge of wild-roses. It was mid-June and the roses were in bloom. There had been a slight shower a few minutes before. The hedge was higher than her head, for she was only a little woman, and a puff of wind shook some of the rain drops out of the roses onto her hair as I approached her.
I thought then, and I still think, that I never saw a prettier picture. She had large, soft, brown eyes, like great brown pansies, and her hair, brown with a tinge of red in it, was blown back from her forehead. She had a high forehead, though I do not think I noticed it particularly at that time. It was her eyes that attracted me.
“We became acquainted easily enough. I knew something of her people; they were farmers living a mile or two out of town. Her father, a big, rosy-faced, white-haired old man, with his daughter’s eyes, large and brown, used to come into the bank to get his pass-book balanced about once .a month. He kept a fairly large balance on hand and was very precise in his business habits. I recall his handing the book back to me one morning, because I had forgotten to stroke a figure four properly.
“I am not going to tell you much about my courtship. That is something I cannot speak about, even, to you, even to myself. It lies along that part of my life, like light along the east on a fair morning in summer. You know the kind of morning I mean, clear blue overhead and in the west, but the east all alive with little rosy clouds, like the cherubs in one of that Italian—what’s his name—Angelico’s pictures.
“Her parents made no attempt to hinder our union, neither did my father. It would not have been of any use to raise difficulties. Maud was of age, so was I. If her parents, or my father, had opposed our marriage we would have married despite their opposition.
“There are times, occasions, in a man’s life when he is given courage to do anything, go anywhere, even through flame. I am not a strong man or a brave one; you must have seen that at once. None the less, if anything had threatened to come between me and my sweetheart I should have found strength to stop, nay to destroy it, if it had been the devil himself.
“As soon as we were married we went _ away for a little trip to a place called Pensacola; you may have heard of it. It is a small city in Florida, very pretty and sleepy, heavy with the languor of the South and with a magnificent bay in front, almost as fine as the bay of Naples. I like it better than the bay of Naples, but, of course, my reasons for the preference are purely sentimental.
“Ah, what a happy time we had there! I have already spoken of moments of happiness, unspeakable happiness. It was there, at Pensacola, that I first learned what sort of woman my wife was. A fine, quick, beautiful mind, incapable of harboring, even for an instant, any evil, ugly or sordid thought, and a heart of pure gold; that, sir, was Maud, then and always.
“I am frequently told, sir, that the young people, nowadays, do not believe in love. They scoff at it, calling it old-fashioned, silly.
I am not wise, God knows, but I think these young people are very foolish.
“To be loved by a woman, especially such a woman as Maud, is like coming upon one of those fountains yonder, on a hot day when you are very thirsty, or coming across a flower, different from, and more beautiful than, all other flowers. It enables a man to bear anything. And, sir, when the person who gives such love, and inspires it in others, is taken away, it is forever a great happiness to have possessed it; even for a year, a month, a day.
“What did we do at Pensacola? We sat on the promenade watching the ships come in. We wandernd, arm in arm, through the old streets, lined with great trees, heavy with swinging pendants of Spanish moss. We sat in the moonlight, the glorious moonlight of the South, on the benches of Lee square, watching the riding lights of the ships down in the harbor. By day, we played along the sands, down towards Fort Barrancas, and wre played like children because we had childrens' hearts. I think I was more like a child that autumn than I have ever been before or since.
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WHEN we came home we lived for a long time in two rooms over the bank. They were small rooms; the furniture was poor. I remember the stove would not work half the time without much coaxing, and there was a draught from one of the windows in winter that gave me some trouble to stop. Yes, there was a good deal of discomfort connected with, those rooms, but we made the best of it and Maud never complained when things went wrong. From my cage in the bank, downstairs, I could hear her singing to herself. She had a way of humming a tune low. It was the sweetest sound I ever heard. She always carried her head a little on one side, like a bird, listening.
“She was even cleaner than my aunt but she managed to keep everything spotless without much fuss, though she worked hard; for a long time I did not suspect how'hard. Everything about her —her clothes, dresses, shoes, whitewear— was always as clean as a freshly opened flower. You may think I am foolish to mention all these little things, but they help you to know my wife as I knew her and that is what I want.
“There came a time when we thought that we should have a child. It was a wonderful time for both of us. We used to sit looking at each other in the evenings, for hours, her hand in mine, thinking of what we were too happy to speak about. As I worked in the bank I could see that little child at my wife’s breast, playing on the floor, running about the street, going to school, becoming a man. Funny that I never thought of a girl, It might have been a girl. The doctor came. Maud was sick, almost unto death. Then the hope that we had both cherished faded forever and we knew that a child’s laugh would never ring in our home. My wife never wholly recovered from the disappointment occasioned by that loss. It left a wound in her mind, or heart, that time refused to heal.
“We had been eager, I may say, and I ought to know, to share the love we felt for each other with our children. But, since there were to be no children, we had to grow fonder than ever of each other to make up for what we had lost.
“My father wanted us to go and live with him but I said, no! We were happier and more independent in our rooms than we could have been at home. One woman in a house is enough. Not even Maud could have got along with my aunt.
“Then, suddenly, my father died and within a few weeks my aunt followed him. Maudie and I moved into the old house that had been in the family for three generations. It was a big house, far too big. I cannot speak of it calmly, even now, because it robbed me of what I valued more than life. It was keeping that house clean that killed Maud. She was too good a housekeeper to leave undone anything she thought needed doing and she saw too many things to do.
“My father left very little money but no debts. As soon as he was dead a new manager came to the bank. I stayed in the teller’s cage and my salary was cut five dollars a month. That was a bad blow for we needed more money just then, not less. Maudie was sick and the big house was expensive; what was worse we could not rent it to anybody,
“I commenced to work evenings, when I was not tied up in the bank. I can tell a story sometimes. I have always been fond of writing. I wrote some short stories and sold them, which brought in a little money, but still we were too hard up to keep a girl and every day I could see Maud’s strength going down, down, as you’ve seen the tide go down the sands when it’s running out fast. It nearly drove me mad. I tried every honest way to get more money, no use; my earnings never rose beyond a certain fixed point, while the price of everything we had to buy went up.
“Maud had believed for a long time that I could write a full length novel if I tried. She had read in some paper about an author making a great deal of money out of one book. She kept urging me to write.
“For a long time I hesitated but at last I screwed my courage to the sticking point and began. It went along better than I had thought it would. As soon as I had finished each chapter I read it to Maud. She would criticize it, gently, pointing out where she thought it could be improved a little, urging her reasons with such a sweet persuasiveness that I nearly always came round to her view of the matter.
“Presently my book was done, a hundred thousand words. I sat up all night, night after night, in the bank, to type it. I was as proud as Punch when it was ready for the press. I sent it to a big New York firm of publishers. My novel bore a dedication to Maud.
“Maud was nearly wild with joy and excitement. She swore the book was a masterpiece. What I swore was, that, masterpiece or no masterpiece, it was her beautiful faith in my power to write that had inspired every word of it. I promised that if it proved a success I would, out of the first royalty cheque, take her to Europe to show her all the famous buildings and objets d’ art we had read about together in books and magazines.
“We spent many happy hours planning that trip. Maud was not much interested in history but beauty drew her to itself with an irresistible compulsion. What she wanted to see, chiefly, was the winged Psyche, the Hermes, the children of Reynolds, Fra Angelic and Raphael and those landscapes of Corot with that tender mist over them that is like twilight seen through tears of happiness.
“Shortly after I sent the manuscript away, Maud took sick. I had seen it coming. She had had one attack the previous spring, when she lay at death’s door for weeks. But she rallied, got back on her feet. I made the work as light for her as I could, did a good deal of it myself, not that I make any virtue of it or take any credit for doing it, it was my duty and my privilege. I might perhaps have done even more. Ah, dear God, yes, that is the worst of it! As I look back now, I can see where I might perhaps have done a little more. I might have bought her a few flowers instead of all that useless medicine which only tormented her poor little body and did her no good at all. I might have kissed her goodnight a time or two, when I came up from the bank, dog-tired, and forgot about it. You’ll think me foolish for telling you all this.
“Yes, I got her back on her feet for a year and during that year I wrote my book. She remained well throughout the winter but at last, as spring drew on, she began to fail and on the twenty-fifth of March she went down. We had been up late, papering a room. She wanted the spring cleaning to be all done before Easter. As she undressed for bed that night she said: ‘I don’t think I shall get up to-morrow, not till noon, anyway.’ She was a true prophet. Save for a few hours, one day toward the middle of April, she never got up again.
“I am nearly done. You have been very patient. I am grateful to you.
“During those days when Maud lay sick I would listen for the postman. He always used to bring my mail to the bank. Every time it came, I used to jump for it, to see whether there was a letter from the publishers or not. None came and Maud grew steadily weaker. The doctor told me plainly she would not get better. At first I would not believe it. I never really did believe it until the end. Even while she was dying I kept my fingers on her wrist hoping, praying, actually believing at times, so strong is the force of
imagination, that the pulse was coming back, that I could feel a faint flicker of returning life.
“She lacked nothing. She had a good doctor, the best of doctors and men, and she was well nursed by her mother, a wonderful old woman, who saw, long before I did, what the end was going to be.
“Oh, those days! One day Maud would be better, quite well, to all appearances. The next day she would be down again.I would buoy myself up with a hope only to have it dashed from me. And still that accursed letter from the publishers did not come.
“I am not going to tell you all that happened. It is like dropping acid into an open wound, though my poor girl has gone twenty years.
“There came a night when I knelt beside her bed, my arm round her shoulders, she always slept like that, and held her hand, right up to the valley of the Shadow of Death. I would have given the universe, if it had been mine to give, to have gone all the way with her. She died at three o’clock, on a lovely, silver May morning. The robins were just beginning to call and I could smell the fresh earth as I bowed over her, waiting for the end.
“My life went out that night, all but a sort of poor, mechanical existence that keeps me moving around, like one óf those tin toys you see in the stores, that you wind up and set walking across the floor. They are quite lifelike but there is no soul in them. A man whose soul is dead or absent is a worse horror than a skeleton fresh from the charnel house. You know what I mean. I am not wicked, abandoned, but I’m a machine. I have no warm human contacts with anyone any more. You are the first human being I have spoken to, intimately, since Maud died.
“No, no more life for me! Yet I’m not unhappy. She is with me. You cannot see her, of course, but she is beside me now, watching these children play in the sun.”
He pointed to two little girls who were playing in the park near our bench and paused, digging into the gravel of the walk with his cane. Then he rose to go. I rose, too. He held out a little dry hand, saying:
“I am grateful to you. I don’t know your name. It was kind of you to listen. I wanted to tell my story to someone.”
I took his outstretched hand. I said, “And you really believe that she goes everywhere with you? Your book was a success after all?”
“Yes.” He answered my second question first. “Two days after the funeral I received a wire from the publishers, announcing the acceptance of my book. It was a great success. I cursed my success then, but I don’t now, because it had made it possible for me to show her this; and—” He gulped, catching at his throat, like a man trying to master some strong emotion. He paused: “She is beside me now, now and always.”
We shook hands and parted.
I SAW him only once after that, at the Louvre in Paris, quite by accident. He was in one of the smaller rooms, in front of a pastel by Greuze, one of those dainty little conceits of the eighteenth century. He was busy and he seemed to be happy talking away to himself, or to her, if you like, all the time gesticulating and pointing with that absurd little cane of his.
I am not impressionable in any sense, nor am I superstitious, yet, watching him, after hearing his story, I suddenly felt my blood turn cold and the hair rise on my head.
You who have had the privilege of seeing the great Duse in Ibsen’s terrible drama of inherited sin, must recall, with painful vividness, the awful simplicity, and power with which she utters the word, “Ghosts.”
Well, when I saw the little man pointing at that pastel with his cane, then turning his head to speak to that invisible
presence by his side I am quite willing to confess that I too, caught one fleeting glimpse of a little, ghostly woman standing beside him, listening with rapt attention to his enthusiastic encomiums of Greuze. Call it mental suggestion, imag-
ination, pure humbug, what you will; I don’t care! For me, as well as for him she was, for a moment, there in the gallery, a quiet little woman with big, brown eyes her dainty head held sideways, like a bird. Listening!