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CORNELIUS AND VAVASOR.
From what I have written of him it may well seem as if such a cub were hardly worth writing about; but if my reader had chanced to meet him first in other company than that of his own family, on every one of whom he looked down with a contempt which although slight was not altogether mild, he would have taken him for at least an agreeable young man. He would then have perceived little or nothing of the look of doggedness and opposition he wore at home; that would have been, all unconsciously, masked in a just unblown smile of general complaisance, ready to burst into full blossom for anyone who should address him; while the rubbish he would then talk to ladies had a certain grace about it--such as absolutely astonished Hester once she happened to overhear some of it, and set her wondering how the phenomenon was to be accounted for of the home-cactus blossoming into such a sweet company-flower--wondering also which was the real Cornelius, he of the seamy side turned always to his own people, or he of the silken flowers and arabesques presented to strangers. Analysis of anything he said would have certified little or nothing in it; but that little or nothing was pleasantly uttered, and served perhaps as well as something cleverer to pass a faint electric flash between common mind and mind. The slouch, the hands-in-pocket mood, the toe-and-heel oscillation upon the hearth-rug--those flying signals that self was at home to nobody but himself, had for the time vanished; desire to please had tied up the black dog in his kennel, and let the white one out. By keeping close in the protective shadow of the fashion, he always managed to be well-dressed. Ever since he went to the same tailor as Vavasor his coats had been irreproachable; and why should not any youth pay just twice as much for his coats as his father does for his? His shirt-studs were simplicity itself--single pearls; and he was very particular about both the quantity and the quality of the linen showing beyond his coat-cuffs. Altogether he was nicely got up and pleasant to look upon. Stupid as the conventional European dress is, its trimness and clear contrast of white and black tends to level up all to the appearance of gentlemen, and I suspect this may be the real cause of its popularity.
But I beg my reader to reflect before he sets Cornelius down as an exceptionally disagreeable young man because of the difference between his behavior at home and abroad. I admit that his was a bad case, but in how many a family, the members of which are far from despising each other, does it not seem judged unnecessary to cultivate courtesy! Surely this could not be if a tender conscience of the persons and spiritual rights of others were not wanting. If there be any real significance in politeness, if it be not a mere empty and therefore altogether hypocritical congeries of customs, it ought to have its birth, cultivation and chief exercise at home. Of course there are the manners suitable to strangers and those suitable to intimates, but politeness is the one essential of both. I would not let the smallest child stroke his father's beard roughly. Watch a child and when he begins to grow rough you will see an evil spirit looking out of his eyes. It is a mean and bad thing to be ungentle with our own. Politeness is either a true face or a mask. If worn at one place and not at another, which of them is it? And there were no mask if there ought not to be a face. Neither is politeness at all inconsistent with thorough familiarity. I will go farther and say, that no true, or certainly no profound familiarity is attainable without it. The soul will not come forth to be roughly used. And where truth reigns familiarity only makes the manners strike deeper root in the being, and take a larger share in its regeneration.
Amongst the other small gifts over which Cornelius was too tender to exhibit them at home, was a certain very small one of song. How he had developed it would have been to the home-circle a mystery, but they did not even know that he possessed it, and the thought that they did not was a pleasant one to him. For all his life he had loved vulgar mystery--mystery, that is, without any mystery in it except what appearance of it may come of barren concealment. He never came out with anything at home as to where he had been or what he was going to do or had done. And he gloried specially in the thought that he could and did this or that of which neither the governor, the mater, nor Hester knew his capability. He felt large and powerful and wise in consequence! and if he was only the more of a fool, what did it matter so long as he did not know it? Rather let me ask what better was he, either for the accomplishment or the concealment of it, so long as it did nothing to uncover to him the one important fact, that its possessor was neither more nor less than a fool?
He had been now some eighteen months in the bank, and from the first Mr. Vavasor, himself not the profoundest of men, had been taken with the easy manners of the youth combined with his evident worship of himself, and having no small proclivity towards patronage, had allowed the aspirant to his favor to enter by degrees its charmed circle. Gathering a certain liking for him, he began to make him an occasional companion for the evening, and at length would sometimes take him home with him. There Cornelius at once laid himself out to please Miss Vavasor, and flattery went a long way with that lady, because she had begun to suspect herself no longer young or beautiful. Her house was a dingy little hut in Mayfair, full of worthless pictures and fine old-fashioned furniture. Any piece of this she would for a long time gladly have exchanged for a new one in the fashion, but as soon as she found such things themselves the fashion, her appreciation of them rose to such fervor that she professed an unchangeable preference for them over things of any modern style whatever. Cornelius soon learned what he must admire and what despise if he would be in tune with Miss Vavasor, to the false importance of being one of whose courtiers he was so much alive that he counted it one of the most precious of his secrets; none of his family had heard of Mr. Vavasor even, before the encounter at the aquarium.
From Miss Vavasor's Cornelius had been invited to several other houses, and the consequence was that he looked from an ever growing height upon his own people, judging not one of them fit for the grand company to which his merits, unappreciated at home, had introduced him. He began to take private lessons in dancing and singing, and as he possessed a certain natural grace, invisible when he was out of humor, but always appearing when he wanted to please, and a certain facility of imitation as well, he was soon able to dance excellently, and sing with more or less dullness a few songs of the sort fashionable at the time. But he took so little delight in music or singing for its own sake that in any allusion to his sister's practicing he would call it an infernal row.
He was not a little astonished, was perhaps a little annoyed at the impression made by his family in general, and Hester in particular, upon one in whose judgment he had placed unquestioning confidence. Nor did he conceal from Vavasor his dissent from his opinion of them, for he felt that his friend's admiration gave him an advantage--not as member of such a family, but as the pooh-pooher of what his friend admired. For did not his superiority to the admiration to which his friend yielded, stamp him in that one thing at least the superior of him who was his superior in so many other things? To be able to look down where he looked up--what was it but superiority?
"My mother's the best of the lot," he said: "--she's the best woman in the world, I do believe; but she's nobody except at home--don't you know? Look at her and your aunt together! Pooh! Because she's my mother, that's no reason why I should think royalty of her!"
"What a cub it is!" said Vavasor to himself, almost using a worse epithet of the same number of letters, and straightway read him a lecture, well meant and shallow, on what was good form in a woman. According to him, not the cub's mother only, but Hester also possessed the qualities that went to the composition of this strange virtue in eminent degrees. Cornelius continued his opposition, but modified it, for he could not help feeling flattered, and began to think a little more of his mother and of Hester too.
"She's a very good girl--of her sort--is Hester," he said; "I don't require to be taught that, Mr. Vavasor. But she's too awfully serious. She's in such earnest about everything--you haven't an idea! One half-hour of her in one of her moods is enough to destroy a poor beggar's peace of mind for ever. And there's no saying when the fit may take her."
Vavasor laughed. But he said to himself "there was stuff in her: what a woman might be made of her!" To him she seemed fit--with a little developing aid--to grace the best society in the world. It was not polish she needed but experience and insight, thought Vavasor, who would have her learn to look on the world and its affairs as they saw them who by long practice had disqualified themselves for seeing them in any other than the artificial light of fashion. Thus early did Vavasor conceive the ambition of having a hand in the worldly education of this young woman, such a hand that by his means she should come to shine as she deserved in the only circle in which he thought shining worth any one's while; his reward should be to see her so shine. Through his aunt he could gain her entrance where he pleased. In relation to her and her people he seemed to himself a man of power and influence.
I wonder how Jesus Christ would carry himself in Mayfair. Perhaps he would not enter it. Perhaps he would only call to his own to come out of it, and turn away to go down among the money-lenders and sinners of the east end. I am only wondering.
Hester took to Vavasor from the first, in an external, meet-and-part sort of fashion. His bearing was so dignified yet his manner so pleasing, that she, whose instinct was a little repellent, showed him nothing of that phase of her nature. He roused none of that inclination to oppose which poor foolish Corney always roused in her. He could talk well about music and pictures and novels and plays, and she not only let him talk freely, but was inclined to put a favorable interpretation upon things he said which she did not altogether like, trying to see only humor where another might have found heartlessness or cynicism. For Vavasor, being in his own eyes the model of an honorable and well-behaved gentleman, had of course only the world's way of regarding and judging things. Had he been a man of fortune he would have given to charities with some freedom; but, his salary being very moderate, and his aunt just a little stingy as he thought, he would not have denied himself the smallest luxury his means could compass, for the highest betterment of a human soul. He would give a half-worn pair of gloves to a poor woman in the street, but not the price of the new pair he was on his way to buy to get her a pair of shoes.
It would have enlightened Hester a little about him to watch him for half an hour where he stood behind the counter of the bank: there he was the least courteous of proverbially discourteous bank-clerks, whose manners are about of the same breed with those of hotel-clerks in America. It ought to be mentioned, however, that he treated those of his own social position in precisely the same way as less distinguished callers. But he never forgot to take up his manners with his umbrella as he left the bank, and his airy, cheerful way of talking, which was more natural to him than his rudeness, coming from the same source that afforded the rimes he delighted in, sparkling pleasantly against the more somber texture of Hester's consciousness. She suspected he was no profound, but that was no reason why she should not be pleasant to him, and allow him to be pleasant to her. So by the time Vavasor had spent three evenings with the Raymounts, Hester and he were on a standing of external intimacy, if there be such a relation.
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