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THE INTERVIEWER ATTACKS THE SPHINX.
When Miss Euthymia Tower sent her oar off in flashing splinters, as she pulled her last stroke in the boat-race, she did not know what a strain she was putting upon it. She did know that she was doing her best, but how great the force of her best was she was not aware until she saw its effects. Unconsciousness belonged to her robust nature, in all its manifestations. She did not pride herself on her knowledge, nor reproach herself for her ignorance. In every way she formed a striking contrast to her friend, Miss Vincent. Every word they spoke betrayed the difference between them: the sharp tones of Lurida's head-voice, penetrative, aggressive, sometimes irritating, revealed the corresponding traits of mental and moral character; the quiet, conversational contralto of Euthymia was the index of a nature restful and sympathetic.
The friendships of young girls prefigure the closer relations which will one day come in and dissolve their earlier intimacies. The dependence of two young friends may be mutual, but one will always lean more heavily than the other; the masculine and feminine elements will be as sure to assert themselves as if the friends were of different sexes.
On all common occasions Euthymia looked up to her friend as her superior. She fully appreciated all her varied gifts and knowledge, and deferred to her opinion in every-day matters, not exactly as an oracle, but as wiser than herself or any of her other companions. It was a different thing, however, when the graver questions of life came up. Lurida was full of suggestions, plans, projects, which were too liable to run into whims before she knew where they were tending. She would lay out her ideas before Euthymia so fluently and eloquently that she could not help believing them herself, and feeling as if her friend must accept them with an enthusiasm like her own. Then Euthymia would take them up with her sweet, deliberate accents, and bring her calmer judgment to bear on them.
Lurida was in an excited condition, in the midst of all her new interests and occupations. She was constantly on the lookout for papers to be read at the meetings of her Society,--for she made it her own in great measure, by her zeal and enthusiasm,--and in the mean time she was reading in various books which Dr. Butts selected for her, all bearing on the profession to which, at least as a possibility, she was looking forward. Privately and in a very still way, she was occupying herself with the problem of the young stranger, the subject of some delusion, or disease, or obliquity of unknown nature, to which the vague name of antipathy had been attached. Euthymia kept an eye upon her, partly in the fear that over-excitement would produce some mental injury, and partly from anxiety lest she should compromise her womanly dignity in her desire to get at the truth of a very puzzling question.
"How do you like the books I see you reading?" said Euthymia to Lurida, one day, as they met at the Library.
"Better than all the novels I ever read," she answered. "I have been reading about the nervous system, and it seems to me I have come nearer the springs of life than ever before in all my studies. I feel just as if I were a telegraph operator. I was sure that I had a battery in my head, for I know my brain works like one; but I did not know how many centres of energy there are, and how they are played upon by all sorts of influences, external and internal. Do you know, I believe I could solve the riddle of the 'Arrowhead Village Sphinx,' as the paper called him, if he would only stay here long enough?"
"What paper has had anything about it, Lurida? I have not seen or heard of its being mentioned in any of the papers."
"You know that rather queer-looking young man who has been about here for some time,--the same one who gave the account of his interview with a celebrated author? Well, he has handed me a copy of a paper in which he writes, 'The People's Perennial and Household Inquisitor.' He talks about this village in a very free and easy way. He says there is a Sphinx here, who has mystified us all."
"And you have been chatting with that fellow! Don't you know that he'll have you and all of us in his paper? Don't you know that nothing is safe where one of those fellows gets in with his note-book and pencil? Oh, Lurida, Lurida, do be careful! What with this mysterious young man and this very questionable newspaper-paragraph writer, you will be talked about, if you don't mind, before you know it. You had better let the riddle of the Sphinx alone. If you must deal with such dangerous people, the safest way is to set one of them to find out the other.--I wonder if we can't get this new man to interview the visitor you have so much curiosity about. That might be managed easily enough without your having anything to do with it. Let me alone, and I will arrange it. But mind, now, you must not meddle; if you do, you will spoil everything, and get your name in the 'Household Inquisitor' in a way you won't like."
"Don't be frightened about me, Euthymia. I don't mean to give him a chance to work me into his paper, if I can help it. But if you can get him to try his skill upon this interesting personage and his antipathy, so much the better. I am very curious about it, and therefore about him. I want to know what has produced this strange state of feeling in a young man who ought to have all the common instincts of a social being. I believe there are unexplained facts in the region of sympathies and antipathies which will repay study with a deeper insight into the mysteries of life than we have dreamed of hitherto. I often wonder whether there are not heart-waves and soul-waves as well as 'brain-waves,' which some have already recognized."
Euthymia wondered, as well she might, to hear this young woman talking the language of science like an adept. The truth is, Lurida was one of those persons who never are young, and who, by way of compensation, will never be old. They are found in both sexes. Two well-known graduates of one of our great universities are living examples of this precocious but enduring intellectual development. If the readers of this narrative cannot pick them out, they need not expect the writer of it to help them. If they guess rightly who they are, they will recognize the fact that just such exceptional individuals as the young woman we are dealing with are met with from time to time in families where intelligence has been cumulative for two or three generations.
Euthymia was very willing that the questioning and questionable visitor should learn all that was known in the village about the nebulous individual whose misty environment all the eyes in the village were trying to penetrate, but that he should learn it from some other informant than Lurida.
The next morning, as the Interviewer took his seat on a bench outside his door, to smoke his after-breakfast cigar, a bright-looking and handsome youth, whose features recalled those of Euthymia so strikingly that one might feel pretty sure he was her brother, took a seat by his side. Presently the two were engaged in conversation. The Interviewer asked all sorts of questions about everybody in the village. When he came to inquire about Maurice, the youth showed a remarkable interest regarding him. The greatest curiosity, he said, existed with reference to this personage. Everybody was trying to find out what his story was,--for a story, and a strange one, he must surely have,--and nobody had succeeded.
The Interviewer began to be unusually attentive. The young man told him the various antipathy stories, about the evil-eye hypothesis, about his horse-taming exploits, his rescuing the student whose boat was overturned, and every occurrence he could recall which would help out the effect of his narrative.
The Interviewer was becoming excited. "Can't find out anything about him, you said, did n-'t you? How do you know there's anything to find? Do you want to know what I think he is? I'll tell you. I think he is an actor,--a fellow from one of the city theatres. Those fellows go off in their summer vacation, and like to puzzle the country folks. They are the very same chaps, like as not, the visitors have seen in plays at the city theatres; but of course they don't know 'em in plain clothes. Kings and Emperors look pretty shabby off the stage sometimes, I can tell you."
The young man followed the Interviewer's lead. "I shouldn't wonder if you were right," he said. "I remember seeing a young fellow in Romeo that looked a good deal like this one. But I never met the Sphinx, as they call him, face to face. He is as shy as a woodchuck. I believe there are people here that would give a hundred dollars to find out who he is, and where he came from, and what he is here for, and why he does n't act like other folks. I wonder why some of those newspaper men don't come up here and get hold of this story. It would be just the thing for a sensational writer."
To all this the Interviewer listened with true professional interest. Always on the lookout for something to make up a paragraph or a column about; driven oftentimes to the stalest of repetitions,--to the biggest pumpkin story, the tall cornstalk, the fat ox, the live frog from the human stomach story, the third set of teeth and reading without spectacles at ninety story, and the rest of the marvellous commonplaces which are kept in type with e o y or e 6 m (every other year or every six months) at the foot; always in want of a fresh incident, a new story, an undescribed character, an unexplained mystery, it is no wonder that the Interviewer fastened eagerly upon this most tempting subject for an inventive and emotional correspondent.
He had seen Paolo several times, and knew that he was Maurice's confidential servant, but had never spoken to him. So he said to himself that he must make Paolo's acquaintance, to begin with. In the summer season many kinds of small traffic were always carried on in Arrowhead Village. Among the rest, the sellers of fruits--oranges, bananas, and others, according to the seasons--did an active business. The Interviewer watched one of these fruit-sellers, and saw that his hand-cart stopped opposite the house where, as he knew, Maurice Kirkwood was living. Presently Paolo came out of the door, and began examining the contents of the hand-cart. The Interviewer saw his opportunity. Here was an introduction to the man, and the man must introduce him to the master.
He knew very well how to ingratiate himself with the man,--there was no difficulty about that. He had learned his name, and that he was an Italian whom Maurice had brought to this country with him.
"Good morning, Mr. Paul," he said. "How do you like the look of these oranges?"
"They pretty fair," said Paolo: "no so good as them las' week; no sweet as them was."
"Why, how do you know without tasting them?" said the Interviewer.
"I know by his look,--I know by his smell,--he no good yaller,--he no smell ripe,--I know orange ever since my head no bigger than he is," and Paolo laughed at his own comparison.
The Interviewer laughed louder than Paolo.
"Good!" said he,--"first-rate! Of course you know all about 'em. Why can't you pick me out a couple of what you think are the best of 'em? I shall be greatly obliged to you. I have a sick friend, and I want to get two nice sweet ones for him."
Paolo was pleased. His skill and judgment were recognized. He felt grateful to the stranger, who had given him, an opportunity of conferring a favor. He selected two, after careful examination and grave deliberation. The Interviewer had sense and tact enough not to offer him an orange, and so shift the balance of obligation.
"How is Mr. Kirkwood, to-day?" he asked.
"Signor? He very well. He always well. Why you ask? Anybody tell you he sick?"
"No, nobody said he was sick. I have n't seen him going about for a day or two, and I thought he might have something the matter with him. Is he in the house now?"
"No: he off riding. He take long, long rides, sometime gone all day. Sometime he go on lake, paddle, paddle in the morning, very, very early,--in night when the moon shine; sometime stay in house, and read, and study, and write,--he great scholar, Misser Kirkwood."
"A good many books, has n't he?"
"He got whole shelfs full of books. Great books, little books, old books, new books, all sorts of books. He great scholar, I tell you."
"Has n't he some curiosities,--old figures, old jewelry, old coins, or things of that sort?"
Paolo looked at the young man cautiously, almost suspiciously. "He don't keep no jewels nor no money in his chamber. He got some old things,--old jugs, old brass figgers, old money, such as they used to have in old times: she don't pass now." Paolo's genders were apt to be somewhat indiscriminately distributed.
A lucky thought struck the Interviewer. "I wonder if he would examine some old coins of mine?" said he, in a modestly tentative manner.
"I think he like to see anything curious. When he come home I ask him. Who will I tell him wants to ask him about old coin?"
"Tell him a gentleman visiting Arrowhead Village would like to call and show him some old pieces of money, said to be Roman ones."
The Interviewer had just remembered that he had two or three old battered bits of copper which he had picked up at a tollman's, where they had been passed off for cents. He had bought them as curiosities. One had the name of Gallienus upon it, tolerably distinct,--a common little Roman penny; but it would serve his purpose of asking a question, as would two or three others with less legible legends. Paolo told him that if he came the next morning he would stand a fair chance of seeing Mr. Kirkwood. At any rate, he would speak to his master.
The Interviewer presented himself the next morning, after finishing his breakfast and his cigar, feeling reasonably sure of finding Mr. Kirkwood at home, as he proved to be. He had told Paolo to show the stranger up to his library,--or study, as he modestly called it.
It was a pleasant room enough, with a lookout on the lake in one direction, and the wooded hill in another. The tenant had fitted it up in scholarly fashion. The books Paolo spoke of were conspicuous, many of them, by their white vellum binding and tasteful gilding, showing that probably they had been bound in Rome, or some other Italian city. With these were older volumes in their dark original leather, and recent ones in cloth or paper. As the Interviewer ran his eye over them, he found that he could make very little out of what their backs taught him. Some of the paper-covered books, some of the cloth-covered ones, had names which he knew; but those on the backs of many of the others were strange to his eyes. The classics of Greek and Latin and Italian literature were there; and he saw enough to feel convinced that he had better not attempt to display his erudition in the company of this young scholar.
The first thing the Interviewer had to do was to account for his visiting a person who had not asked to make his acquaintance, and who was living as a recluse. He took out his battered coppers, and showed them to Maurice.
"I understood that you were very skilful in antiquities, and had a good many yourself. So I took the liberty of calling upon you, hoping that you could tell me something about some ancient coins I have had for a good while." So saying, he pointed to the copper with the name of Gallienus.
"Is this very rare and valuable? I have heard that great prices have been paid for some of these ancient coins,--ever so many guineas, sometimes. I suppose this is as much as a thousand years old."
"More than a thousand years old," said Maurice.
"And worth a great deal of money?" asked the Interviewer.
"No, not a great deal of money," answered Maurice.
"How much, should you say?" said the Interviewer.
Maurice smiled. "A little more than the value of its weight in copper,--I am afraid not much more. There are a good many of these coins of Gallienus knocking about. The peddlers and the shopkeepers take such pieces occasionally, and sell them, sometimes for five or ten cents, to young collectors. No, it is not very precious in money value, but as a relic any piece of money that was passed from hand to hand a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago is interesting. The value of such relics is a good deal a matter of imagination."
"And what do you say to these others?" asked the Interviewer. Poor old worn-out things they were, with a letter or two only, and some faint trace of a figure on one or two of them.
"Very interesting, always, if they carry your imagination back to the times when you may suppose they were current. Perhaps Horace tossed one of them to a beggar. Perhaps one of these was the coin that was brought when One said to those about Him, 'Bring me a penny, that I may see it.' But the market price is a different matter. That depends on the beauty and preservation, and above all the rarity, of the specimen. Here is a coin, now,"--he opened a small cabinet, and took one from it. "Here is a Syracusan decadrachm with the head of Persephone, which is at once rare, well preserved, and beautiful. I am afraid to tell what I paid for it."
The Interviewer was not an expert in numismatics. He cared very little more for an old coin than he did for an old button, but he had thought his purchase at the tollman's might prove a good speculation. No matter about the battered old pieces: he had found out, at any rate, that Maurice must have money and could be extravagant, or what he himself considered so; also that he was familiar with ancient coins. That would do for a beginning.
"May I ask where you picked up the coin you are showing me?" he said
"That is a question which provokes a negative answer. One does not 'pick up' first-class coins or paintings, very often, in these times. I bought this of a great dealer in Rome."
"Lived in Rome once?" said the Interviewer.
"For some years. Perhaps you have been there yourself?"
The Interviewer said he had never been there yet, but he hoped he should go there, one of these years, "suppose you studied art and antiquities while you were there?" he continued.
"Everybody who goes to Rome must learn something of art and antiquities. Before you go there I advise you to review Roman history and the classic authors. You had better make a study of ancient and modern art, and not have everything to learn while you are going about among ruins, and churches, and galleries. You know your Horace and Virgil well, I take it for granted?"
The Interviewer hesitated. The names sounded as if he had heard them. "Not so well as I mean to before going to Rome," he answered. "May I ask how long you lived in Rome?"
"Long enough to know something of what is to be seen in it. No one should go there without careful preparation beforehand. You are familiar with Vasari, of course?"
The Interviewer felt a slight moisture on his forehead. He took out his handkerchief. "It is a warm day," he said. "I have not had time to read all--the works I mean to. I have had too much writing to do, myself, to find all the time for reading and study I could have wished."
"In what literary occupation have you been engaged, if you will pardon my inquiry? said Maurice.
"I am connected with the press. I understood that you were a man of letters, and I hoped I might have the privilege of hearing from your own lips some account of your literary experiences."
"Perhaps that might be interesting, but I think I shall reserve it for my autobiography. You said you were connected with the press. Do I understand that you are an author?"
By this time the Interviewer had come to the conclusion that it was a very warm day. He did not seem to be getting hold of his pitcher by the right handle, somehow. But he could not help answering Maurice's very simple question.
"If writing for a newspaper gives one a right to be called an author, I may call myself one. I write for the 'People's Perennial and Household Inquisitor'."
"Are you the literary critic of that well-known journal, or do you manage the political column?"
"I am a correspondent from different places and on various matters of interest."
"Places you have been to, and people you have known?"
"Well, yes,-generally, that is. Sometimes I have to compile my articles."
"Did you write the letter from Rome, published a few weeks ago?"
The Interviewer was in what he would call a tight place. However, he had found that his man was too much for him, and saw that the best thing he could do was to submit to be interviewed himself. He thought that he should be able to pick up something or other which he could work into his report of his visit.
"Well, I--prepared that article for our columns. You know one does not have to see everything he describes. You found it accurate, I hope, in its descriptions?"
"Yes, Murray is generally accurate. Sometimes he makes mistakes, but I can't say how far you have copied them. You got the Ponte Molle--the old Milvian bridge--a good deal too far down the stream, if I remember. I happened to notice that, but I did not read the article carefully. May I ask whether you propose to do me the honor of reporting this visit and the conversation we have had, for the columns of the newspaper with which you are connected?"
The Interviewer thought he saw an opening. "If you have no objections," he said, "I should like very much to ask a few questions." He was recovering his professional audacity.
"You can ask as many questions as you consider proper and discreet, --after you have answered one or two of mine: Who commissioned you to submit me to examination?"
"The curiosity of the public wishes to be gratified, and I am the humble agent of its investigations."
"What has the public to do with my private affairs?"
"I suppose it is a question of majority and minority. That settles everything in this country. You are a minority of one opposed to a large number of curious people that form a majority against you. That is the way I've heard the chief put it."
Maurice could not help smiling at the quiet assumption of the American citizen. The Interviewer smiled, too, and thought he had his man, sure, at last. Maurice calmly answered, "There is nothing left for minorities, then, but the right of rebellion. I don't care about being made the subject of an article for your paper. I am here for my pleasure, minding my own business, and content with that occupation. I rebel against your system of forced publicity. Whenever I am ready I shall tell the public all it has any right to know about me. In the mean time I shall request to be spared reading my biography while I am living. I wish you a good-morning."
The Interviewer had not taken out his note-book and pencil. In his next communication from Arrowhead Village he contented himself with a brief mention of the distinguished and accomplished gentleman now visiting the place, whose library and cabinet of coins he had had the privilege of examining, and whose courtesy was equalled only by the modesty that shunned the public notoriety which the organs of popular intelligence would otherwise confer upon him.
The Interviewer had attempted the riddle of the Sphinx, and had failed to get the first hint of its solution.
The many tongues of the village and its visitors could not remain idle. The whole subject of antipathies had been talked over, and the various cases recorded had become more or less familiar to the conversational circles which met every evening in the different centres of social life. The prevalent hypothesis for the moment was that Maurice had a congenital aversion to some color, the effects of which upon him were so painful or disagreeable that he habitually avoided exposure to it. It was known, and it has already been mentioned, that such cases were on record. There had been a great deal of discussion, of late, with reference to a fact long known to a few individuals, but only recently made a matter of careful scientific observation and brought to the notice of the public. This was the now well-known phenomenon of color-blindness. It did not seem very strange that if one person in every score or two could not tell red from green there might be other curious individual peculiarities relating to color. A case has already been referred to where the subject of observation fainted at the sight of any red object. What if this were the trouble with Maurice Kirkwood? It will be seen at once how such a congenital antipathy would tend to isolate the person who was its unfortunate victim. It was an hypothesis not difficult to test, but it was a rather delicate business to be experimenting on an inoffensive stranger. Miss Vincent was thinking it over, but said nothing, even to Euthymia, of any projects she might entertain.
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