Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
She was very pretty when I first knew her, with the sweet straight nose
and short upper lip of the cameo-brooch divinity, humanized by a dimple
that flowered in her cheek whenever anything was said possessing the
outward attributes of humor without its intrinsic quality. For the dear
lady was providentially deficient in humor: the least hint of the real
thing clouded her lovely eye like the hovering shadow of an algebraic
I don't think nature had meant her to be "intellectual;" but what can a
poor thing do, whose husband has died of drink when her baby is hardly six
months old, and who finds her coral necklace and her grandfather's edition
of the British Dramatists inadequate to the demands of the creditors?
Her mother, the celebrated Irene Astarte Pratt, had written a poem in
blank verse on "The Fall of Man;" one of her aunts was dean of a girls'
college; another had translated Euripides--with such a family, the poor
child's fate was sealed in advance. The only way of paying her husband's
debts and keeping the baby clothed was to be intellectual; and, after some
hesitation as to the form her mental activity was to take, it was
unanimously decided that she was to give lectures.
They began by being drawing-room lectures. The first time I saw her she
was standing by the piano, against a flippant background of Dresden china
and photographs, telling a roomful of women preoccupied with their spring
bonnets all she thought she knew about Greek art. The ladies assembled to
hear her had given me to understand that she was "doing it for the baby,"
and this fact, together with the shortness of her upper lip and the
bewildering co-operation of her dimple, disposed me to listen leniently to
her dissertation. Happily, at that time Greek art was still, if I may use
the phrase, easily handled: it was as simple as walking down a museum-
gallery lined with pleasant familiar Venuses and Apollos. All the later
complications--the archaic and archaistic conundrums; the influences of
Assyria and Asia Minor; the conflicting attributions and the wrangles of
the erudite--still slumbered in the bosom of the future "scientific
critic." Greek art in those days began with Phidias and ended with the
Apollo Belvedere; and a child could travel from one to the other without
danger of losing his way.
Mrs. Amyot had two fatal gifts: a capacious but inaccurate memory, and an
extraordinary fluency of speech. There was nothing she did not remember--
wrongly; but her halting facts were swathed in so many layers of rhetoric
that their infirmities were imperceptible to her friendly critics.
Besides, she had been taught Greek by the aunt who had translated
Euripides; and the mere sound of the [Greek: ais] and [Greek: ois] that
she now and then not unskilfully let slip (correcting herself, of course,
with a start, and indulgently mistranslating the phrase), struck awe to
the hearts of ladies whose only "accomplishment" was French--if you didn't
speak too quickly.
I had then but a momentary glimpse of Mrs. Amyot, but a few months later I
came upon her again in the New England university town where the
celebrated Irene Astarte Pratt lived on the summit of a local Parnassus,
with lesser muses and college professors respectfully grouped on the lower
ledges of the sacred declivity. Mrs. Amyot, who, after her husband's
death, had returned to the maternal roof (even during her father's
lifetime the roof had been distinctively maternal), Mrs. Amyot, thanks to
her upper lip, her dimple and her Greek, was already esconced in a snug
hollow of the Parnassian slope.
After the lecture was over it happened that I walked home with Mrs. Amyot.
From the incensed glances of two or three learned gentlemen who were
hovering on the door-step when we emerged, I inferred that Mrs. Amyot, at
that period, did not often walk home alone; but I doubt whether any of my
discomfited rivals, whatever his claims to favor, was ever treated to so
ravishing a mixture of shyness and self-abandonment, of sham erudition and
real teeth and hair, as it was my privilege to enjoy. Even at the opening
of her public career Mrs. Amyot had a tender eye for strangers, as
possible links with successive centres of culture to which in due course
the torch of Greek art might be handed on.
She began by telling me that she had never been so frightened in her life.
She knew, of course, how dreadfully learned I was, and when, just as she
was going to begin, her hostess had whispered to her that I was in the
room, she had felt ready to sink through the floor. Then (with a flying
dimple) she had remembered Emerson's line--wasn't it Emerson's?--that
beauty is its own excuse for _seeing_, and that had made her feel a little
more confident, since she was sure that no one _saw_ beauty more vividly
than she--as a child she used to sit for hours gazing at an Etruscan vase
on the bookcase in the library, while her sisters played with their
dolls--and if _seeing_ beauty was the only excuse one needed for talking
about it, why, she was sure I would make allowances and not be _too_
critical and sarcastic, especially if, as she thought probable, I had
heard of her having lost her poor husband, and how she had to do it for
Being abundantly assured of my sympathy on these points, she went on to
say that she had always wanted so much to consult me about her lectures.
Of course, one subject wasn't enough (this view of the limitations of
Greek art as a "subject" gave me a startling idea of the rate at which a
successful lecturer might exhaust the universe); she must find others; she
had not ventured on any as yet, but she had thought of Tennyson--didn't I
_love_ Tennyson? She _worshipped_ him so that she was sure she could help
others to understand him; or what did I think of a "course" on Raphael or
Michelangelo--or on the heroines of Shakespeare? There were some fine
steel-engravings of Raphael's Madonnas and of the Sistine ceiling in her
mother's library, and she had seen Miss Cushman in several Shakespearian
_roles_, so that on these subjects also she felt qualified to speak with
When we reached her mother's door she begged me to come in and talk the
matter over; she wanted me to see the baby--she felt as though I should
understand her better if I saw the baby--and the dimple flashed through a
The fear of encountering the author of "The Fall of Man," combined with
the opportune recollection of a dinner engagement, made me evade this
appeal with the promise of returning on the morrow. On the morrow, I left
too early to redeem my promise; and for several years afterwards I saw no
more of Mrs. Amyot.
My calling at that time took me at irregular intervals from one to another
of our larger cities, and as Mrs. Amyot was also peripatetic it was
inevitable that sooner or later we should cross each other's path. It was
therefore without surprise that, one snowy afternoon in Boston, I learned
from the lady with whom I chanced to be lunching that, as soon as the meal
was over, I was to be taken to hear Mrs. Amyot lecture.
"On Greek art?" I suggested.
"Oh, you've heard her then? No, this is one of the series called 'Homes
and Haunts of the Poets.' Last week we had Wordsworth and the Lake Poets,
to-day we are to have Goethe and Weimar. She is a wonderful creature--all
the women of her family are geniuses. You know, of course, that her mother
was Irene Astarte Pratt, who wrote a poem on 'The Fall of Man'; N.P.
Willis called her the female Milton of America. One of Mrs. Amyot's aunts
has translated Eurip--"
"And is she as pretty as ever?" I irrelevantly interposed.
My hostess looked shocked. "She is excessively modest and retiring. She
says it is actual suffering for her to speak in public. You know she only
does it for the baby."
Punctually at the hour appointed, we took our seats in a lecture-hall full
of strenuous females in ulsters. Mrs. Amyot was evidently a favorite with
these austere sisters, for every corner was crowded, and as we entered a
pale usher with an educated mispronunciation was setting forth to several
dejected applicants the impossibility of supplying them with seats.
Our own were happily so near the front that when the curtains at the back
of the platform parted, and Mrs. Amyot appeared, I was at once able to
establish a comparison between the lady placidly dimpling to the applause
of her public and the shrinking drawing-room orator of my earlier
Mrs. Amyot was as pretty as ever, and there was the same curious
discrepancy between the freshness of her aspect and the stateness of her
theme, but something was gone of the blushing unsteadiness with which she
had fired her first random shots at Greek art. It was not that the shots
were less uncertain, but that she now had an air of assuming that, for her
purpose, the bull's-eye was everywhere, so that there was no need to be
flustered in taking aim. This assurance had so facilitated the flow of her
eloquence that she seemed to be performing a trick analogous to that of
the conjuror who pulls hundreds of yards of white paper out of his mouth.
From a large assortment of stock adjectives she chose, with unerring
deftness and rapidity, the one that taste and discrimination would most
surely have rejected, fitting out her subject with a whole wardrobe of
slop-shop epithets irrelevant in cut and size. To the invaluable knack of
not disturbing the association of ideas in her audience, she added the
gift of what may be called a confidential manner--so that her fluent
generalizations about Goethe and his place in literature (the lecture was,
of course, manufactured out of Lewes's book) had the flavor of personal
experience, of views sympathetically exchanged with her audience on the
best way of knitting children's socks, or of putting up preserves for the
winter. It was, I am sure, to this personal accent--the moral equivalent
of her dimple--that Mrs. Amyot owed her prodigious, her irrational
success. It was her art of transposing second-hand ideas into first-hand
emotions that so endeared her to her feminine listeners.
To any one not in search of "documents" Mrs. Amyot's success was hardly of
a kind to make her more interesting, and my curiosity flagged with the
growing conviction that the "suffering" entailed on her by public speaking
was at most a retrospective pang. I was sure that she had reached the
point of measuring and enjoying her effects, of deliberately manipulating
her public; and there must indeed have been a certain exhilaration in
attaining results so considerable by means involving so little conscious
effort. Mrs. Amyot's art was simply an extension of coquetry: she flirted
with her audience.
In this mood of enlightened skepticism I responded but languidly to my
hostess's suggestion that I should go with her that evening to see Mrs.
Amyot. The aunt who had translated Euripides was at home on Saturday
evenings, and one met "thoughtful" people there, my hostess explained: it
was one of the intellectual centres of Boston. My mood remained distinctly
resentful of any connection between Mrs. Amyot and intellectuality, and I
declined to go; but the next day I met Mrs. Amyot in the street.
She stopped me reproachfully. She had heard I was in Boston; why had I not
come last night? She had been told that I was at her lecture, and it had
frightened her--yes, really, almost as much as years ago in Hillbridge.
She never _could_ get over that stupid shyness, and the whole business was
as distasteful to her as ever; but what could she do? There was the baby--
he was a big boy now, and boys were _so_ expensive! But did I really think
she had improved the least little bit? And why wouldn't I come home with
her now, and see the boy, and tell her frankly what I had thought of the
lecture? She had plenty of flattery--people were _so_ kind, and every one
knew that she did it for the baby--but what she felt the need of was
criticism, severe, discriminating criticism like mine--oh, she knew that I
was dreadfully discriminating!
I went home with her and saw the boy. In the early heat of her Tennyson-
worship Mrs. Amyot had christened him Lancelot, and he looked it. Perhaps,
however, it was his black velvet dress and the exasperating length of his
yellow curls, together with the fact of his having been taught to recite
Browning to visitors, that raised to fever-heat the itching of my palms in
his Infant-Samuel-like presence. I have since had reason to think that he
would have preferred to be called Billy, and to hunt cats with the other
boys in the block: his curls and his poetry were simply another outlet for
Mrs. Amyot's irrepressible coquetry.
But if Lancelot was not genuine, his mother's love for him was. It
justified everything--the lectures _were_ for the baby, after all. I had
not been ten minutes in the room before I was pledged to help Mrs. Amyot
carry out her triumphant fraud. If she wanted to lecture on Plato she
should--Plato must take his chance like the rest of us! There was no use,
of course, in being "discriminating." I preserved sufficient reason to
avoid that pitfall, but I suggested "subjects" and made lists of books for
her with a fatuity that became more obvious as time attenuated the
remembrance of her smile; I even remember thinking that some men might
have cut the knot by marrying her, but I handed over Plato as a hostage
and escaped by the afternoon train.
The next time I saw her was in New York, when she had become so
fashionable that it was a part of the whole duty of woman to be seen at
her lectures. The lady who suggested that of course I ought to go and hear
Mrs. Amyot, was not very clear about anything except that she was
perfectly lovely, and had had a horrid husband, and was doing it to
support her boy. The subject of the discourse (I think it was on Ruskin)
was clearly of minor importance, not only to my friend, but to the throng
of well-dressed and absent-minded ladies who rustled in late, dropped
their muffs and pocket-books, and undisguisedly lost themselves in the
study of each other's apparel. They received Mrs. Amyot with warmth, but
she evidently represented a social obligation like going to church, rather
than any more personal interest; in fact, I suspect that every one of the
ladies would have remained away, had they been sure that none of the
others were coming.
Whether Mrs. Amyot was disheartened by the lack of sympathy between
herself and her hearers, or whether the sport of arousing it had become a
task, she certainly imparted her platitudes with less convincing warmth
than of old. Her voice had the same confidential inflections, but it was
like a voice reproduced by a gramophone: the real woman seemed far away.
She had grown stouter without losing her dewy freshness, and her smart
gown might have been taken to show either the potentialities of a settled
income, or a politic concession to the taste of her hearers. As I listened
I reproached myself for ever having suspected her of self-deception in
saying that she took no pleasure in her work. I was sure now that she did
it only for Lancelot, and judging from the size of her audience and the
price of the tickets I concluded that Lancelot must be receiving a liberal
I was living in New York that winter, and in the rotation of dinners I
found myself one evening at Mrs. Amyot's side. The dimple came out at my
greeting as punctually as a cuckoo in a Swiss clock, and I detected the
same automatic quality in the tone in which she made her usual pretty
demand for advice. She was like a musical-box charged with popular airs.
They succeeded one another with breathless rapidity, but there was a
moment after each when the cylinders scraped and whizzed.
Mrs. Amyot, as I found when I called on her, was living in a sunny flat,
with a sitting-room full of flowers and a tea-table that had the air of
expecting visitors. She owned that she had been ridiculously successful.
It was delightful, of course, on Lancelot's account. Lancelot had been
sent to the best school in the country, and if things went well and people
didn't tire of his silly mother he was to go to Harvard afterwards. During
the next two or three years Mrs. Amyot kept her flat in New York, and
radiated art and literature upon the suburbs. I saw her now and then,
always stouter, better dressed, more successful and more automatic: she
had become a lecturing-machine.
I went abroad for a year or two and when I came back she had disappeared.
I asked several people about her, but life had closed over her. She had
been last heard of as lecturing--still lecturing--but no one seemed to
know when or where.
It was in Boston that I found her at last, forlornly swaying to the
oscillations of an overhead strap in a crowded trolley-car. Her face had
so changed that I lost myself in a startled reckoning of the time that had
elapsed since our parting. She spoke to me shyly, as though aware of my
hurried calculation, and conscious that in five years she ought not to
have altered so much as to upset my notion of time. Then she seemed to set
it down to her dress, for she nervously gathered her cloak over a gown
that asked only to be concealed, and shrank into a seat behind the line of
prehensile bipeds blocking the aisle of the car.
It was perhaps because she so obviously avoided me that I felt for the
first time that I might be of use to her; and when she left the car I made
no excuse for following her.
She said nothing of needing advice and did not ask me to walk home with
her, concealing, as we talked, her transparent preoccupations under the
guise of a sudden interest in all I had been doing since she had last seen
me. Of what concerned her, I learned only that Lancelot was well and that
for the present she was not lecturing--she was tired and her doctor had
ordered her to rest. On the doorstep of a shabby house she paused and held
out her hand. She had been so glad to see me and perhaps if I were in
Boston again--the tired dimple, as it were, bowed me out and closed the
door on the conclusion of the phrase.
Two or three weeks later, at my club in New York, I found a letter from
her. In it she owned that she was troubled, that of late she had been
unsuccessful, and that, if I chanced to be coming back to Boston, and
could spare her a little of that invaluable advice which--. A few days
later the advice was at her disposal. She told me frankly what had
happened. Her public had grown tired of her. She had seen it coming on for
some time, and was shrewd enough in detecting the causes. She had more
rivals than formerly--younger women, she admitted, with a smile that could
still afford to be generous--and then her audiences had grown more
critical and consequently more exacting. Lecturing--as she understood it--
used to be simple enough. You chose your topic--Raphael, Shakespeare,
Gothic Architecture, or some such big familiar "subject"--and read up
about it for a week or so at the Athenaeum or the Astor Library, and then
told your audience what you had read. Now, it appeared, that simple
process was no longer adequate. People had tired of familiar "subjects";
it was the fashion to be interested in things that one hadn't always known
about--natural selection, animal magnetism, sociology and comparative
folk-lore; while, in literature, the demand had become equally difficult
to meet, since Matthew Arnold had introduced the habit of studying the
"influence" of one author on another. She had tried lecturing on
influences, and had done very well as long as the public was satisfied
with the tracing of such obvious influences as that of Turner on Ruskin,
of Schiller on Goethe, of Shakespeare on English literature; but such
investigations had soon lost all charm for her too-sophisticated
audiences, who now demanded either that the influence or the influenced
should be quite unknown, or that there should be no perceptible connection
between the two. The zest of the performance lay in the measure of
ingenuity with which the lecturer established a relation between two
people who had probably never heard of each other, much less read each
other's works. A pretty Miss Williams with red hair had, for instance,
been lecturing with great success on the influence of the Rosicrucians
upon the poetry of Keats, while somebody else had given a "course" on the
influence of St. Thomas Aquinas upon Professor Huxley.
Mrs. Amyot, warmed by my participation in her distress, went on to say
that the growing demand for evolution was what most troubled her. Her
grandfather had been a pillar of the Presbyterian ministry, and the idea
of her lecturing on Darwin or Herbert Spencer was deeply shocking to her
mother and aunts. In one sense the family had staked its literary as well
as its spiritual hopes on the literal inspiration of Genesis: what became
of "The Fall of Man" in the light of modern exegesis?
The upshot of it was that she had ceased to lecture because she could no
longer sell tickets enough to pay for the hire of a lecture-hall; and as
for the managers, they wouldn't look at her. She had tried her luck all
through the Eastern States and as far south as Washington; but it was of
no use, and unless she could get hold of some new subjects--or, better
still, of some new audiences--she must simply go out of the business. That
would mean the failure of all she had worked for, since Lancelot would
have to leave Harvard. She paused, and wept some of the unbecoming tears
that spring from real grief. Lancelot, it appeared, was to be a genius. He
had passed his opening examinations brilliantly; he had "literary gifts";
he had written beautiful poetry, much of which his mother had copied out,
in reverentially slanting characters, in a velvet-bound volume which she
drew from a locked drawer.
Lancelot's verse struck me as nothing more alarming than growing-pains;
but it was not to learn this that she had summoned me. What she wanted was
to be assured that he was worth working for, an assurance which I managed
to convey by the simple stratagem of remarking that the poems reminded me
of Swinburne--and so they did, as well as of Browning, Tennyson, Rossetti,
and all the other poets who supply young authors with original
This point being established, it remained to be decided by what means his
mother was, in the French phrase, to pay herself the luxury of a poet. It
was clear that this indulgence could be bought only with counterfeit coin,
and that the one way of helping Mrs. Amyot was to become a party to the
circulation of such currency. My fetish of intellectual integrity went
down like a ninepin before the appeal of a woman no longer young and
distinctly foolish, but full of those dear contradictions and
irrelevancies that will always make flesh and blood prevail against a
syllogism. When I took leave of Mrs. Amyot I had promised her a dozen
letters to Western universities and had half pledged myself to sketch out
a lecture on the reconciliation of science and religion.
In the West she achieved a success which for a year or more embittered my
perusal of the morning papers. The fascination that lures the murderer
back to the scene of his crime drew my eye to every paragraph celebrating
Mrs. Amyot's last brilliant lecture on the influence of something upon
somebody; and her own letters--she overwhelmed me with them--spared me no
detail of the entertainment given in her honor by the Palimpsest Club of
Omaha or of her reception at the University of Leadville. The college
professors were especially kind: she assured me that she had never before
met with such discriminating sympathy. I winced at the adjective, which
cast a sudden light on the vast machinery of fraud that I had set in
motion. All over my native land, men of hitherto unblemished integrity
were conniving with me in urging their friends to go and hear Mrs. Amyot
lecture on the reconciliation of science and religion! My only hope was
that, somewhere among the number of my accomplices, Mrs. Amyot might find
one who would marry her in the defense of his convictions.
None, apparently, resorted to such heroic measures; for about two years
later I was startled by the announcement that Mrs. Amyot was lecturing in
Trenton, New Jersey, on modern theosophy in the light of the Vedas. The
following week she was at Newark, discussing Schopenhauer in the light of
recent psychology. The week after that I was on the deck of an ocean
steamer, reconsidering my share in Mrs. Amyot's triumphs with the
impartiality with which one views an episode that is being left behind at
the rate of twenty knots an hour. After all, I had been helping a mother
to educate her son.
The next ten years of my life were spent in Europe, and when I came home
the recollection of Mrs. Amyot had become as inoffensive as one of those
pathetic ghosts who are said to strive in vain to make themselves visible
to the living. I did not even notice the fact that I no longer heard her
spoken of; she had dropped like a dead leaf from the bough of memory.
A year or two after my return I was condemned to one of the worst
punishments a worker can undergo--an enforced holiday. The doctors who
pronounced the inhuman sentence decreed that it should be worked out in
the South, and for a whole winter I carried my cough, my thermometer and
my idleness from one fashionable orange-grove to another. In the vast and
melancholy sea of my disoccupation I clutched like a drowning man at any
human driftwood within reach. I took a critical and depreciatory interest
in the coughs, the thermometers and the idleness of my fellow-sufferers;
but to the healthy, the occupied, the transient I clung with
In no other way can I explain, as I look back on it, the importance I
attached to the leisurely confidences of a new arrival with a brown beard
who, tilted back at my side on a hotel veranda hung with roses, imparted
to me one afternoon the simple annals of his past. There was nothing in
the tale to kindle the most inflammable imagination, and though the man
had a pleasant frank face and a voice differing agreeably from the shrill
inflections of our fellow-lodgers, it is probable that under different
conditions his discursive history of successful business ventures in a
Western city would have affected me somewhat in the manner of a lullaby.
Even at the tune I was not sure I liked his agreeable voice: it had a
self-importance out of keeping with the humdrum nature of his story, as
though a breeze engaged in shaking out a table-cloth should have fancied
itself inflating a banner. But this criticism may have been a mere mark of
my own fastidiousness, for the man seemed a simple fellow, satisfied with
his middling fortunes, and already (he was not much past thirty) deep-sunk
in conjugal content.
He had just started on an anecdote connected with the cutting of his
eldest boy's teeth, when a lady I knew, returning from her late drive,
paused before us for a moment in the twilight, with the smile which is the
feminine equivalent of beads to savages.
"Won't you take a ticket?" she said sweetly.
Of course I would take a ticket--but for what? I ventured to inquire.
"Oh, that's _so_ good of you--for the lecture this evening. You needn't
go, you know; we're none of us going; most of us have been through it
already at Aiken and at Saint Augustine and at Palm Beach. I've given away
my tickets to some new people who've just come from the North, and some of
us are going to send our maids, just to fill up the room."
"And may I ask to whom you are going to pay this delicate attention?"
"Oh, I thought you knew--to poor Mrs. Amyot. She's been lecturing all over
the South this winter; she's simply _haunted_ me ever since I left New
York--and we had six weeks of her at Bar Harbor last summer! One has to
take tickets, you know, because she's a widow and does it for her son--to
pay for his education. She's so plucky and nice about it, and talks about
him in such a touching unaffected way, that everybody is sorry for her,
and we all simply ruin ourselves in tickets. I do hope that boy's nearly
"Mrs. Amyot? Mrs. Amyot?" I repeated. "Is she _still_ educating her son?"
"Oh, do you know about her? Has she been at it long? There's some comfort
in that, for I suppose when the boy's provided for the poor thing will be
able to take a rest--and give us one!"
She laughed and held out her hand.
"Here's your ticket. Did you say _tickets_--two? Oh, thanks. Of course you
"But I mean to go. Mrs. Amyot is an old friend of mine."
"Do you really? That's awfully good of you. Perhaps I'll go too if I can
persuade Charlie and the others to come. And I wonder"--in a well-directed
aside--"if your friend--?"
I telegraphed her under cover of the dusk that my friend was of too recent
standing to be drawn into her charitable toils, and she masked her mistake
under a rattle of friendly adjurations not to be late, and to be sure to
keep a seat for her, as she had quite made up her mind to go even if
Charlie and the others wouldn't.
The flutter of her skirts subsided in the distance, and my neighbor, who
had half turned away to light a cigar, made no effort to reopen the
conversation. At length, fearing he might have overheard the allusion to
himself, I ventured to ask if he were going to the lecture that evening.
"Much obliged--I have a ticket," he said abruptly.
This struck me as in such bad taste that I made no answer; and it was he
who spoke next.
"Did I understand you to say that you were an old friend of Mrs. Amyot's?"
"I think I may claim to be, if it is the same Mrs. Amyot I had the
pleasure of knowing many years ago. My Mrs. Amyot used to lecture too--"
"To pay for her son's education?"
"I believe so."
"Well--see you later."
He got up and walked into the house.
In the hotel drawing-room that evening there was but a meagre sprinkling
of guests, among whom I saw my brown-bearded friend sitting alone on a
sofa, with his head against the wall. It could not have been curiosity to
see Mrs. Amyot that had impelled him to attend the performance, for it
would have been impossible for him, without changing his place, to command
the improvised platform at the end of the room. When I looked at him he
seemed lost in contemplation of the chandelier.
The lady from whom I had bought my tickets fluttered in late, unattended
by Charlie and the others, and assuring me that she would _scream_ if we
had the lecture on Ibsen--she had heard it three times already that
winter. A glance at the programme reassured her: it informed us (in the
lecturer's own slanting hand) that Mrs. Amyot was to lecture on the
After a long pause, during which the small audience coughed and moved its
chairs and showed signs of regretting that it had come, the door opened,
and Mrs. Amyot stepped upon the platform. Ah, poor lady!
Some one said "Hush!", the coughing and chair-shifting subsided, and she
It was like looking at one's self early in the morning in a cracked
mirror. I had no idea I had grown so old. As for Lancelot, he must have a
beard. A beard? The word struck me, and without knowing why I glanced
across the room at my bearded friend on the sofa. Oddly enough he was
looking at me, with a half-defiant, half-sullen expression; and as our
glances crossed, and his fell, the conviction came to me that _he was
I don't remember a word of the lecture; and yet there were enough of them
to have filled a good-sized dictionary. The stream of Mrs. Amyot's
eloquence had become a flood: one had the despairing sense that she had
sprung a leak, and that until the plumber came there was nothing to be
done about it.
The plumber came at length, in the shape of a clock striking ten; my
companion, with a sigh of relief, drifted away in search of Charlie and
the others; the audience scattered with the precipitation of people who
had discharged a duty; and, without surprise, I found the brown-bearded
stranger at my elbow.
We stood alone in the bare-floored room, under the flaring chandelier.
"I think you told me this afternoon that you were an old friend of Mrs.
Amyot's?" he began awkwardly.
"Will you come in and see her?"
"Now? I shall be very glad to, if--"
"She's ready; she's expecting you," he interposed.
He offered no further explanation, and I followed him in silence. He led
me down the long corridor, and pushed open the door of a sitting-room.
"Mother," he said, closing the door after we had entered, "here's the
gentleman who says he used to know you."
Mrs. Amyot, who sat in an easy-chair stirring a cup of bouillon, looked up
with a start. She had evidently not seen me in the audience, and her son's
description had failed to convey my identity. I saw a frightened look in
her eyes; then, like a frost flower on a window-pane, the dimple expanded
on her wrinkled cheek, and she held out her hand.
"I'm so glad," she said, "so glad!"
She turned to her son, who stood watching us. "You must have told Lancelot
all about me--you've known me so long!"
"I haven't had time to talk to your son--since I knew he was your son," I
Her brow cleared. "Then you haven't had time to say anything very
dreadful?" she said with a laugh.
"It is he who has been saying dreadful things," I returned, trying to fall
in with her tone.
I saw my mistake. "What things?" she faltered.
"Making me feel how old I am by telling me about his children."
"My grandchildren!" she exclaimed with a blush.
"Well, if you choose to put it so."
She laughed again, vaguely, and was silent. I hesitated a moment and then
put out my hand.
"I see you are tired. I shouldn't have ventured to come in at this hour if
The son stepped between us. "Yes, I asked him to come," he said to his
mother, in his clear self-assertive voice. "_I_ haven't told him anything
yet; but you've got to--now. That's what I brought him for."
His mother straightened herself, but I saw her eye waver.
"Lancelot--" she began.
"Mr. Amyot," I said, turning to the young man, "if your mother will let me
come back to-morrow, I shall be very glad--"
He struck his hand hard against the table on which he was leaning.
"No, sir! It won't take long, but it's got to be said now."
He moved nearer to his mother, and I saw his lip twitch under his beard.
After all, he was younger and less sure of himself than I had fancied.
"See here, mother," he went on, "there's something here that's got to be
cleared up, and as you say this gentleman is an old friend of yours it had
better be cleared up in his presence. Maybe he can help explain it--and if
he can't, it's got to be explained to _him."_
Mrs. Amyot's lips moved, but she made no sound. She glanced at me
helplessly and sat down. My early inclination to thrash Lancelot was
beginning to reassert itself. I took up my hat and moved toward the door.
"Mrs. Amyot is under no obligation to explain anything whatever to me," I
"Well! She's under an obligation to me, then--to explain something in your
presence." He turned to her again. "Do you know what the people in this
hotel are saying? Do you know what he thinks--what they all think? That
you're doing this lecturing to support me--to pay for my education! They
say you go round telling them so. That's what they buy the tickets for--
they do it out of charity. Ask him if it isn't what they say--ask him if
they weren't joking about it on the piazza before dinner. The others think
I'm a little boy, but he's known you for years, and he must have known how
old I was. _He_ must have known it wasn't to pay for my education!"
He stood before her with his hands clenched, the veins beating in his
temples. She had grown very pale, and her cheeks looked hollow. When she
spoke her voice had an odd click in it.
"If--if these ladies and gentlemen have been coming to my lectures out of
charity, I see nothing to be ashamed of in that--" she faltered.
"If they've been coming out of charity to _me_," he retorted, "don't you
see you've been making me a party to a fraud? Isn't there any shame in
that?" His forehead reddened. "Mother! Can't you see the shame of letting
people think I was a d--beat, who sponged on you for my keep? Let alone
making us both the laughing-stock of every place you go to!"
"I never did that, Lancelot!"
"Made you a laughing-stock--"
He stepped close to her and caught her wrist.
"Will you look me in the face and swear you never told people you were
doing this lecturing business to support me?"
There was a long silence. He dropped her wrist and she lifted a limp
handkerchief to her frightened eyes. "I did do it--to support you--to
educate you"--she sobbed.
"We're not talking about what you did when I was a boy. Everybody who
knows me knows I've been a grateful son. Have I ever taken a penny from
you since I left college ten years ago?"
"I never said you had! How can you accuse your mother of such wickedness,
"Have you never told anybody in this hotel--or anywhere else in the last
ten years--that you were lecturing to support me? Answer me that!"
"How can you," she wept, "before a stranger?"
"Haven't you said such things about _me_ to strangers?" he retorted.
"Well--answer me, then. Say you haven't, mother!" His voice broke
unexpectedly and he took her hand with a gentler touch. "I'll believe
anything you tell me," he said almost humbly.
She mistook his tone and raised her head with a rash clutch at dignity.
"I think you'd better ask this gentleman to excuse you first."
"No, by God, I won't!" he cried. "This gentleman says he knows all about
you and I mean him to know all about me too. I don't mean that he or
anybody else under this roof shall go on thinking for another twenty-four
hours that a cent of their money has ever gone into my pockets since I was
old enough to shift for myself. And he sha'n't leave this room till you've
made that clear to him."
He stepped back as he spoke and put his shoulders against the door.
"My dear young gentleman," I said politely, "I shall leave this room
exactly when I see fit to do so--and that is now. I have already told you
that Mrs. Amyot owes me no explanation of her conduct."
"But I owe you an explanation of mine--you and every one who has bought a
single one of her lecture tickets. Do you suppose a man who's been through
what I went through while that woman was talking to you in the porch
before dinner is going to hold his tongue, and not attempt to justify
himself? No decent man is going to sit down under that sort of thing. It's
enough to ruin his character. If you're my mother's friend, you owe it to
me to hear what I've got to say."
He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
"Good God, mother!" he burst out suddenly, "what did you do it for?
Haven't you had everything you wanted ever since I was able to pay for it?
Haven't I paid you back every cent you spent on me when I was in college?
Have I ever gone back on you since I was big enough to work?" He turned to
me with a laugh. "I thought she did it to amuse herself--and because there
was such a demand for her lectures. _Such a demand!_ That's what she
always told me. When we asked her to come out and spend this winter with
us in Minneapolis, she wrote back that she couldn't because she had
engagements all through the south, and her manager wouldn't let her off.
That's the reason why I came all the way on here to see her. We thought
she was the most popular lecturer in the United States, my wife and I did!
We were awfully proud of it too, I can tell you." He dropped into a chair,
"How can you, Lancelot, how can you!" His mother, forgetful of my
presence, was clinging to him with tentative caresses. "When you didn't
need the money any longer I spent it all on the children--you know I did."
"Yes, on lace christening dresses and life-size rocking-horses with real
manes! The kind of thing children can't do without."
"Oh, Lancelot, Lancelot--I loved them so! How can you believe such
falsehoods about me?"
"What falsehoods about you?"
"That I ever told anybody such dreadful things?"
He put her back gently, keeping his eyes on hers. "Did you never tell
anybody in this house that you were lecturing to support your son?"
Her hands dropped from his shoulders and she flashed round on me in sudden
"I know what I think of people who call themselves friends and who come
between a mother and her son!"
"Oh, mother, mother!" he groaned.
I went up to him and laid my hand on his shoulder.
"My dear man," I said, "don't you see the uselessness of prolonging this?"
"Yes, I do," he answered abruptly; and before I could forestall his
movement he rose and walked out of the room.
There was a long silence, measured by the lessening reverberations of his
footsteps down the wooden floor of the corridor.
When they ceased I approached Mrs. Amyot, who had sunk into her chair. I
held out my hand and she took it without a trace of resentment on her
"I sent his wife a seal-skin jacket at Christmas!" she said, with the
tears running down her cheeks.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.