I am introduced to polite society, and I find that it suits me very well.
Something appalling must be in that letter. In all my life I had never seen Viola in such a state. I had seen her furious; I had seen her seething with hatred; I had seen her frightened half out of her mind by a spider; but I had never seen that look of—of what? I supposed it must be horror, because I could not imagine what else it might be.
What could be in that letter? My mind whirled through every possibility, each more frightful than the last. But the general tenor of all of them was that I had been discovered: somehow—I knew not how—Amelia must have found out the truth about my lying in wait for her in the park; she must have denounced me in that letter in terms so scathingly explicit that even my dullard sister could understand them and be horrified.
Now, at this point in the narrative, if any readers besides myself ever peruse these pages, I suppose they must be just about evenly divided into two camps. The one group asks, “But why does he not simply read the letter? It is there before him on the table where his purple-faced imbecile of a sister left it. Why does he speculate on the contents when the thing itself is there, waiting to divulge whatever secrets it holds?” So say the readers who possess no imaginative faculty, and I think I should find it unutterably wearisome to write for such readers as those. —In the other camp are the readers who already know what it is to be paralyzed by such a fear; who even now dread turning the page and making the terrible discovery along with me. To you, dear sympathetic readers, I address myself, since it is so much less laborious to write for you than for those others. You have already, without my telling you, felt the near impossibility of even lifting the letter from the table, as if it were something a thousand times heavier than lead; you know how my shifting eyes lit on every other object in the room, but shunned the letter as if it were as painfully bright as the sun itself;—because your own eyes would have done the same. You see the blackness of the future along with me; you wonder as I do how I shall continue to exist in a world in which all my hopes are dashed.
Yet I did read the letter, because I dared myself to read it. “What,” I said to myself, “are you such a coward that a few sheets of paper terrify you? What would Baucher do under like circumstances? He would read the letter, and then, no matter what doom it portended, he could contrive to turn it to his advantage.”
I therefore took the letter in hand,—and almost immediately burst into laughter: audible and doubtless very undignified laughter. The greeting alone was enough to show that I had entirely misjudged the cause of Viola’s consternation. As I read on, however, my laughter soon subsided, and by the end of the letter I believe I must have been nearly as red as Viola had been. But I need not delay you any longer, dear sympathetic reader: I have given you so much description of my mental agitation only because I desired to point a valuable moral, which is how easily irrational feelings of guilt can assault a man who is only just setting out on a course of pure evil. I have the very letter before me now, and I shall transcribe it faithfully for you, the ideal reader in my imagination.
My dearest Galahad,—
If you have any regard for my reputation, or any sense at all, then you will burn this letter—but oh! I find that I hope you have no sense, and treasure it next to your heart. It would be something for me to know that my words lie there in your bosom, where I long to lie myself. No virtuous girl would ever commit such thoughts as mine to paper, and our short acquaintance should make me doubly reserved. But I cannot write anything at all without telling you how I long for you, how I burn to feel your lips pressed to mine. Shall I say more? When I retire at night, I long for the time when you should retire with me; I long to lie in your arms and feel your gentle strength pressing against me; I long for things no proper girl has even words to name. I have dreamed of these things night after night since I first saw you. Do you see now why I say you must burn this letter?—And yet, if you have not the heart to burn it, oh, Galahad, how happy it would make me!—Then you must keep it next to your heart, and let no one ever see it; and if your father or your sister should ask what I wrote to you, you shall say with perfect truth that I asked after your health, and had forgot the name of that book we talked of when last I saw you. —How is your health, Mr. Bousted? And what was the name of that book we talked of when last I saw you? I seem to have forgot. —Now you have no need to deceive your family, for I am sure that deception is not natural to you. They need not know that I have committed to paper such thoughts as no respectable girl ought even to think; but oh! Galahad! I could not do otherwise: the thought that you might hesitate from not knowing how I might receive your addresses—— Galahad! You must not hesitate! I have placed myself at your mercy; my very life is in your hands. I will see you very soon, and then you must tell me—you must, or I shall die—that I have not been a fool. Farewell, Galahad, my valiant knight, and when you retire to-night, take me with you in your thoughts, and know that I should give almost anything to be with you in body as well; and that I long with all my heart for the time when you shall call me
Reader, you may be quite certain that I did take Amelia with me in my thoughts—but also Viola, who came all unbidden into my mind. The letter was my greatest triumph;—but Viola had read it. Would she blight this triumph as she did every other success of mine?
Viola said nothing about the letter the next morning. She went through the ordinary business of breakfast in the usual way, except that she avoided meeting my eyes. I avoided meeting hers as well, and I am sure we were both quite happy to be spared the trouble of looking at each other. But whether she was mortally embarrassed at having been caught reading a personal letter, or whether the contents of the letter had shocked her conventionally virtuous little mind so deeply that she could not bring herself to speak of the matter at all, or whether her own betrothal had inclined her to take a more indulgent view of her brother’s amours, she said nothing.
As for myself, I had changed my opinion of Amelia considerably, and rather for the better. Her letter had taught me something that (absurd as it may seem that I should have been so ignorant) I had not yet known: that women can have desires comparable to those of men. I wonder now what I had imagined before that letter: across the distance of so many years, it is impossible to reconstruct my ignorance. I think I believed that a woman’s love was pure and spiritual, whereas a man’s love must always be admixed with a certain quantity of physical desire. If, as it seems, I had a higher opinion of women than they deserved, it was doubtless owing to the innumerable dreadful novels I had read, most of them written by females who never permitted the least suspicion of an impure thought to cross the minds of their heroines. Even the fallen women in those novels had fallen by directing their pure and spiritual love toward the wrong sort of man; there was no suggestion that the female herself had desired the act by which she had fallen, but rather she had permitted it in the mistaken belief that it would bind the object of her love to her. But in one letter Amelia had taught me, or at least begun to teach me, that women are not such fools as they appear to be in popular novels. I suppose I ought to have learned the same thing from the classical literature of my school days; but the love of Dido and Aeneas does not make a lasting impression on a boy’s heart when it is presented in terms of ablatives of means.
Preparations for the ball and the wedding (though Viola had decided on a June wedding, which was months away) occupied Viola completely for the next few days, and I was happy to have her out of my way. I had a letter to Amelia to post; again, I kept no copy, but you may be sure that it was filled with expressions of delight at the content of her letter, and assurance that I loved her all the better for her candor. Yes, I told her that I loved her, although the words could hardly have come as a surprise to her after the sentiments we had already exchanged.
The great night came at last: the night of the ball that Viola regarded as the crowning event of her life so far, hardly to be exceeded by her own wedding. A man can dress himself tolerably well in half an hour, but I think Viola had been dressing for a solid week. The ultimate effect was splendid in a horrible way: the dress was expensive, the gloves perfect, the jewelry at least tasteful; but in the middle of it all was my odious sister, and no amount of painting could make her a lily. The bustle she had chosen was huge beyond all measure, and no end-table or hall-tree was safe when Viola was in the vicinity. I have listened to many arguments in favor of the proposition that civilization is continually improving, but the most convincing evidence I have seen of any advancement in human happiness is the disappearance of the bustle.
As for myself, I had dressed as well as I could. I believe I looked respectable if nothing else. My father, on the other hand, was dressed in a style that might have been quite respectable in the time of Andrew Jackson, for aught I know; but it was not calculated to win him any admirers in the present day. He might just as well have worn knee-breeches and a powdered wig; it could not have made him look any more embarrassingly absurd.
We had hired a carriage for the evening: it was an expense my father considered ridiculously extravagant, but Viola insisted that to arrive at such an event without a carriage would be as improper as to arrive in one’s night-clothes. How Viola knew such things she never revealed to us. She was not in the habit of arriving at millionaires’ balls, but she set herself up as an expert on the subject. Her opinion carried a certain amount of authority, because she was blessed with the ability to make life, or at least domestic tranquility, completely impossible if we did not accede to her wishes. The carriage, therefore, arrived promptly at the time specified, and then had to wait another half-hour while Viola made the final adjustments to her appearance, at the end of which she was still Viola. Then at last we ascended into the carriage: it smelt equally of must and of horse manure, and I recall wondering why the wealthy classes put up with the stench of carriages when they could walk in the open air. (The answer, of course, is that a carriage properly maintained has no disagreeable odor; at least none of mine have, and a coachman who allowed my carriage to deteriorate into such a deplorable condition would not long remain in my employ.) Viola took up most of the interior with the imposing edifice of her bustle; my father and I were forced to compress ourselves into the smallest possible dimensions. I should have been much happier walking; my father,—well, there is no telling whether any thoughts were blowing through the howling wastes of his mind, but he seemed as idiotically pleased with the world as he generally was. Viola was entirely satisfied with her choice of the carriage, and found it impossible to contain her satisfaction, expressing it in a continuous stream of blether without taking a breath the entire length of the short ride from Beech-street to the Goodes’ house on North Avenue.
And here we were, in a swirl of activity like nothing I had ever known before, with a line of carriages (none but ours the least bit musty) discharging splendid ladies and fine gentlemen into a blaze of lights, laughter, and motion. Somewhere inside the house music was already playing. And this was how I was to spend the evening—among the aristocracy of Allegheny! A sudden fear gripped me. Would I have the courage to walk through this press of humanity, to present myself as if I belonged there? Well, of course I must. I was ashamed that I had ever doubted. Truly enlightened men do not ask what belongs to them. They take what they desire, and that is the end of it. Strange—it took as much courage to enter that crowd as it had ever taken to do anything in my life, and I do not except the duel with Snyder.
By the time I had set my feet on the ground, I had worked up the courage to go in; but first we had to extract Viola and the bustle from the carriage. I worked from the front, and my father took up his position in the rear; our efforts were greatly hampered by Viola’s worry that we might somehow mar the gown, or dislodge a bow from its exactly proper place in the composition. I was ready to call for a carpenter to take the carriage apart, but Viola at last extracted herself and her bustle from the thing, and we were on our way into the house.
What a house! The walk through the grand entrance hall and into the presence of the Goodes looms in my mind like a half-remembered dream of a pilgrimage. I know that we were met by Sheridan and announced, and I know that he conducted us to the presence of Amelia and her father; but their house was so enormous, and the crowd so pressing, that the journey thither seemed as full of peril and incident as the voyages of Ulysses, and my courage was tried as sorely as if I had to face a dozen of Homer’s choicest mythical monsters. Viola was struck absolutely dumb by the spectacle, which was a great improvement in her; but my father was struck with an unquenchable loquacity. I do not remember a single thing he said, although his remarks followed one after another in a ceaseless torrent: I remember thinking only that, if there were indeed a benevolent Providence, my prayer that he would shut his mouth before we reached the Goodes would be answered. It was not answered, which was just as I ought to have expected, but which was a severe disappointment nonetheless.
And then we were before the Goodes themselves, father and daughter, and if I had not been speechless before, I should certainly have been struck dumb by the vision in front of me. I knew now that my journey had been so arduous because I had at last been admitted to the heavenly mansions, and here before me was an angel. Amelia was dressed in the latest French fashion, all classical drapery, with her shoulders bare, displaying more of her captivating flesh than I believed it was possible for a girl to show in public, and with absolutely no bustle at all. It was fortunate for me that she took it upon herself to begin the conversation, because I should not have been able to form articulate speech.
“Miss Bousted!” Amelia greeted my sister as though she were genuinely pleased to see her, which of course was impossible. “How delightful to see you again! I hope you have been well.”
Viola murmured a few syllables in what might have been Chaldee for all we could understand of it.
“And Mr. Bousted—the elder and the younger, of course,” Amelia continued with a bright smile. My father returned her greeting with an old-fashioned bow that would have made John Quincy Adams proud; I very properly took her hand for the approved length of time and no more.
“You must remind me to show you the gallery,” Amelia said to me. “Father is very proud of his collection, and I know what an admirer you are of Boucher.” —In fact I had never heard the name Boucher before: in the noise and music, I had almost thought I heard her say Baucher, and my blood froze for an instant before I realized that Boucher must be some picture in her father’s gallery. It was still a mystery why she thought I was an admirer of Boucher;—but there was no time to think about that: more guests were arriving, and Amelia was introducing me to a pleasantly plain young lady, a Miss Weatherly or Wherewithal or some such name. And then I was talking to Miss Wherewithal, and Amelia had gone on to the next guest;—I saw out of the corner of my eye that my father was still babbling at Colonel Goode, and was evidently prepared to continue babbling until the poor old man’s ears melted into a puddle in his collar.
Then there was dancing, and for once I was glad that my father had paid the dollar and a quarter extra to have me trained in the art at school. There was also much drinking; but I avoided any alcoholic liquors, the example of Snyder being still fresh in my mind. I danced with several ladies who had already drunk a little too much. I danced with Miss Wherewithal, who, like me, had avoided spirits (or so she said), but whose giddy awkwardness was as good a replacement for drunkenness as one could wish for. At last I danced with Amelia, and if all the divines of the world could have the same privilege, they would cease to manufacture imaginary heavens and acknowledge that paradise can be found on earth.
The music came to an end, and, as Miss Wherewithal appeared to be approaching, Amelia quickly said, rather louder than necessary, “Oh, Mr. Bousted, I did promise to show you the gallery, didn’t I?” This was enough to stop Miss Wherewithal, who turned away and began searching the room for other prospects. “Father appears to be engaged”—Amelia’s eyes flitted toward her father, who (mirabile dictu!) was now talking to mine in a happy and animated fashion—“so I suppose I shall have to take on the duty myself. It’s right through this way.”
She took my arm and led me to the edge of the room, nodding and exchanging greetings with various guests along the way, until we reached a pair of sliding doors, one of which she slid open just enough to admit the two of us, and then closed again.
We were in what was evidently the back parlor. The sounds of the ball were muffled, and the gas was turned down to a dim suggestion of light; but Amelia spoke even louder than she had done before.
“I venture to say there are few finer collections in Allegheny or Pittsburgh; one or two larger perhaps, but none chosen with such good taste. I think you will be favorably impressed, especially by some of the larger works.”
She was almost shouting in my ear, and I was filled with a sense that something very odd was happening. By the time we reached the pocket door at the other end of the room—which was only a few steps, but an infinite number of mental revolutions—I had persuaded myself that, whatever our true destination might be, it was certainly no picture gallery.
Amelia had fallen silent now, and she released my arm and pushed the door back. The room beyond was even dimmer, but as Amelia turned up the gas to a great chandelier in the middle of the room, the darkness dissipated, and the place revealed itself as—a picture gallery.
The walls were crowded with pictures of every sort, from every era. Old Colonel Goode might or might not have taste in art: I was no fit judge of that. But that he had money any fool could see. I knew nothing of paintings or artists (a deficiency I have since remedied), but merely in canvas and paint this gallery had to represent a considerable expenditure.
“The Boucher is over there,” Amelia said, speaking very softly now; and she walked over toward the opposite wall, with me following her closely. She stopped in front of the largest canvas in the room.
“La Belle Anglaise,” she announced, turning to face me.
It was a picture of a reclining nude, which in itself was very shocking to me at the time. Such things were not publicly exhibited in Allegheny or Pittsburgh at that remote era. I had heard of such pictures, but I knew them only by verbal descriptions. It was also more than a little embarrassing to look at the picture of a nude woman with another and far more beautiful woman judging my response. I tried not to show any of my discomfort, of course: instead, I attempted to absorb certain details that I might be able to mention from an artistic perspective. I remember especially noting the drapery: the woman was on a couch draped with abundant red velvet, and the texture of the velvet had been rendered with great skill. There at least was something I might be able to mention if called upon to render an opinion. More red was in the curtains behind her; a subtler, deeper shade of red, indicative of shadow.
“She was the mistress of a French duke,” Amelia explained. “He loved her passionately; but so, they say, did Boucher. I think from her expression you can tell which one she preferred.”
It was even stranger, and somehow deeply thrilling, to hear a woman talk of such things as the young men I knew—with the exception of Snyder, of course—mentioned only in hushed whispers.
“My father,” Amelia continued, “keeps the gallery closed off when we entertain. Some of the ladies are easily offended, and we have not seen the O’Haras for five years, because the mother and daughter both refuse to set foot in a house where such a picture exists. But you are not a prig.”
“No, of course not,” I agreed, stepping closer to the picture and examining it in detail, as if I were admiring the brushwork.
Amelia turned and stood close beside me, taking my arm. “I am not a prig either,” she said.
Suddenly I felt myself whirled around to face her, and a moment later her lips were pressed to mine with such force that I nearly stumbled backwards. My first instinct in the face of this unexpected assault was, absurdly, to raise my arms to defend myself; but in the event my arms rose only half way, and, as saner instincts took possession of me, my arms encircled Amelia, as hers did me, and we tightened our embrace. And all the while my mind was filled with the most ridiculous thoughts. Is this how kisses usually begin? Are my hands correctly positioned on her back, and should they be moving in some fashion? Are my lips what she was hoping they would be? Is my breath pleasant enough? Does a kiss normally involve quite so much of the mouth? Is it proper for me to break the contact first, or do I wait for her to move away? Will I be expected to make some appropriate remark afterward? Do I dare touch the bare flesh of her shoulder?
At last Amelia withdrew her lips from mine; but she did not break our embrace, and she rested her head on my shoulder. “Oh, Galahad—oh, dearest, dearest Galahad—I love you so madly! It’s foolish, absurd—I’ve known you such a short time—but I do love you; I loved you before I knew your name! When you wrote that you loved me, I kissed the letter a thousand times;—and then at night,—at night I laid it on my pillow, and kissed it a thousand times more. And I wished—how I wished!—that the letter might have been you. I don’t know what has made me the slave of passion, but I had to snatch this precious, fleeting moment to do what I’ve longed to do since you first passed me on Federal-street.—We must return to the ball soon—I can’t be missed—but, oh, Galahad, when you dance with Miss Weatherbee and all your other female admirers, I want you to remember
She pressed her lips to mine once more, with less violence, but with growing ardor; and I certainly cannot say that I was passive in our embrace.
When at last she withdrew, she led me by the arm back to the doorway; then, just as she was about to turn down the gas again, she turned for a moment and looked back toward the Boucher, and spoke a few words that engraved an indelible picture on my mind:
“I should like to be your Belle Anglaise.”