Bolton and I were sitting, up to our ears in new books which had been accumulating for notice for days past, and which I was turning over and dipping into here and there with the jaded, half-disgusted air of a child worn out by the profusion of a Thanksgiving dinner.

"I feel perfectly savage," I said. "What a never-ending harvest of trash! Two, or at the most, three tolerable ideas, turned and twisted in some novel device, got up in large print, with wide margins—and, behold, a modern book! I would like to be a black frost and nip them all in a night!"

"Your dinner didn't agree with you, apparently," said Bolton, as he looked up from a new scientific work he was patiently analyzing, making careful notes along the margin; "however, turn those books over to Jim, who understands the hop, skip, and jump style of criticism. Jim has about a dozen or two of blank forms that only need the name of the book and publisher inserted, and the work is done."

"What a perfect farce," said I.

"The notices are as good as the books," said Bolton. "Something has to be said to satisfy the publishers and do the handsome thing by them; and the usual string of commendatory phrases and trite criticism, which mean nothing in particular, I presume imposes upon nobody. It is merely a form of announcing that such and such wares are in the market. I fancy they have very little influence on public opinion."

"But do you think," said I, "that there is any hope of a just school of book criticism—something that should be a real guide to buyers and readers, and a real instruction to writers?"

"That is a large question," said Bolton, "and a matter beset with serious difficulties. While books are a matter of commerce and trade; while magazines which criticise books are the property of booksellers, and newspapers depend on them for advertising patronage, it is too much to expect of human nature, that we should always get wholly honest, unbiassed opinions. Then, again, there is the haste, and rush, and hurry of our times, the amount of literary drift-wood that is all the while accumulating! Editors and critics are but mortal men, and men kept, as a general thing, in the last agonies of weariness and boredom. There is not, for the most part, sensibility enough left to enable them to read through or enter into the purport of one book in a hundred; yet, for all this, you do observe here and there in the columns of our best papers carefully studied and seriously written critiques on books; these are hopeful signs. They show a conscientious effort on the part of the writers to enter into the spirit of the work, and to give their readers a fair account of it; and, if I mistake not, the number of such is on the increase."

"Well," said I, "do you suppose there is any prospect or possibility of a constructive school of criticism—honest, yet kindly and sympathetic, that shall lead young authors into right methods of perfecting themselves?"

"We have a long while to wait before that comes," said Bolton. "Who is appreciative and many-sided enough to guide the first efforts of genius just coming to consciousness? How many could profitably have advised Hawthorne when his peculiar Rembrandt style was just forming? As a race, we Anglo Saxons are so self-sphered that we lack the power to enter into the individuality of another mind, and give profitable advice for its direction.

"English criticism has generally been unappreciative and brutal; it has dissected butterflies and humming-birds with mallet and cleaver—witness the review that murdered Keats, and witness in the letters of Charlotte Bronté the perplexity into which sensitive, conscientious genius was thrown by obstreperous, conflicting criticism. The most helpful, because most appreciative reviews, she says, came to her from France."

"I suppose," said I, "that it is the dramatic element in the French character that fits them to be good literary critics. They can enter into another individuality. One would think it a matter of mere common sense, that in order to criticise justly you must put yourself for the time being as nearly as possible at the author's point of sight; form a sympathetic estimate of what he is striving to do, and then you can tell how nearly he attains his purpose. Of this delicate constructive criticism, we have as yet, it seems to me, almost no specimens in the English language. St. Beuve has left models in French, in this respect, which we should do well to imitate. We Americans are a good-natured set, and our criticism inclines to comity and good-fellowship far more than to the rude bluntness of our English neighbors; and if we could make this discriminating, as well as urbane, we should get about the right thing."

Our conversation was interrupted here by Jim Fellows, who came thundering up-stairs, singing at the top of his lungs—

"If an engine meet an engine

Coming round a curve,—

If it smash both train and tender,

What does It deserve?

Not a penny—paid to any,

So far as I observe—"

"Gracious, Jim! what a noise!" said I, as he entered the room with a perfect war-whoop on the chorus.

"Bless my soul, man, why arn't you dressing? Arn't you going up to the garden of Eden with me to night, to see the woman, and the serpent, and all that?" he said, collaring me without ceremony. "Come away to your bower, and curl your nut-brown hair; for

Time roils along,

Nor waits for mortal care or bliss,

We'll take our staff and travel on,

Till we arrive where the pretty gals is."

And thus singing, Jim whirled me down the stairs, and tumbled me into my room, and went into his, where I heard him accompanying his toilet operations with very loud selections from the last comic opera, beating time with his hair-brush in a bewildering manner.

Jim was certainly a natural curiosity in respect to the eternal, unceasing vivacity of his animal spirits, which were in a state of effervesence from morning to night, frothing out in some odd freak of drollery or buffoonery. There was not the smallest use in trying remonstrance or putting on a sober face; his persistence, and the endless variety of his queer conceits, would have overcome the gravity of the saddest hermit that ever wore sackcloth and ashes.

Bolton had become accustomed to see him bursting into his room at all hours, with a breeze which fluttered all his papers; and generally sat back resignedly in his chair, and laughed in helpless good-nature, no matter how untimely the interruption. "Oh, it's Jim!" he would say, in tones of comic resignation. "It's no use; he must have his fling!"

"Time's up," said Jim, drumming on my door with his hair-brush when his toilet was completed. "Come on, my boy, 'Let us haste to Kelvyn Grove.'"

I opened my door, and Jim took a paternal survey of me from neck-cloth to boot-toe, turning me round and inspecting me on all sides, as if I had been a Sunday-school boy, dressed for an exhibition.

"Those girls have such confounded sharp eyes," he remarked, "a fellow needs to be well got up. Yes, you'll do; and you're not bad looking, Hal, either, all things considered," he added, encouragingly. "Come along. I've got lots of things to make a sensation with among the girls to-night."

"What, for example?"

"Oh, I've been investigating round, and know sundry little interesting particulars as to the new engagement just declared. I know when the engagement ring was got, and what it cost, and where the bride's jewels are making up, and what they are to be—all secrets, you understand, of the very deadest door-nail kind. But Jim knows them! Oh, yes!—you'll see the flutter I'll make in the roost to-night! I say, if you want to cultivate your acquaintance with Miss Eva there, I'll draw all the rest off, and keep 'em so wide awake round me that they'll never think what becomes of you."

I must confess to feeling not a little nervous in the prospect of my initiation into society, and regarding with a secret envy the dashing, easy assurance of Jim. I called him in my heart something of a coxcomb, but it was with a half-amused tolerance that I allowed him to patronize me.

The experience of a young man who feels that he has his own way in life to make, and all whose surroundings must necessarily be of the most rigid economy, when he enters the modern sphere of young ladyhood, is like a sudden change from Nova Zembla to the tropics. His is a world of patient toil, of hard effort, of dry drudgery, of severe economies; while our young American princesses, his social equals, whose society fascinates him, to whose acquaintance he aspires, live like the fowls of the air or the lilies of the field, without a thought of labor, or a care, or serious responsibility of any kind. They are "gay creatures of the element," living to enjoy and to amuse themselves, to be fostered, sheltered, dressed, petted, and made to have "good times" generally. In England, there are men born to just this life and position,—hereditary possessors of wealth, ease, and leisure, and therefore able to be hereditary idlers and triflers—to live simply to spend and to enjoy. But in America, where there are no laws to keep fortunes in certain families, fortunes, as a general rule, must be made by their possessors, and young men must make them. The young, unmarried women, therefore, remain the only aristocracy privileged to live in idleness, and wait for their duties to come to them.

The house to which I was introduced that night was one of those New York palaces that are furnished with eclectic taste, after a survey of all that Europe has to give. The suites of rooms opened into each other in charming vista, and the walls were hung with the choicest paintings. It was evident that cultured skill and appreciation had presided over the collection of the endless objects of artistic elegance and vertu which adorned every apartment: it was no vulgar display of wealth, but a selection which must have been the result of study and care.

Jim, acting the part of master of ceremonies, duly presented me to Mr. and Mrs. Van Arsdel, and the bevy of young ladies, whose eyes twinkled with dangerous merriment as I made my bow to them.

Mr. Van Arsdel was what one so often sees in these palaces, a simple, quiet, silent man, not knowing or caring a bodle about any of the wonders of art and luxury with which his womankind have surrounded him, and not pretending in the least to comprehend them; but quietly indulgent to the tastes and whims of wife and daughters, of whose superior culture he is secretly not a little proud.

In Wall street Mr. Van Arsdel held up his head, and found much to say; his air was Napoleonic; in short, there his foot was on his native heath. But in his own house, among Cuyps, and Frères, and Rembrandts, and Fra Angelicos, with a set of polyglot daughters who spake with tongues, he walked softly, and expressed himself with humility, like a sensible man.

Mrs. Van Arsdel had been a beauty from her youth; had come of a family renowned for belles, and was still a very handsome woman, and, of course, versed in all those gentle diplomacies, and ineffable arts and crafts, by which the sons of Adam are immediately swayed and governed.

Never was stately swan sailing at the head of a brood of fair young cygnets more competent to leadership than she to marshal her troop of bright, handsome daughters through the straits of girlhood to the high places of matrimony. She read, and classified, and ticketed, at a glance, every young man presented to her, yet there was not a shade of the scrutiny dimming the bland cordiality of her reception. She was winning, warming, and charming; fully alive to the éclat of a train of admirers, and to the desirableness of keeping up a brilliant court.

"Mr. Henderson," she said, with a rich mellow laugh, "I tell Eva there is some advantage, first or last, in almost everything. One of her scatter-brained tricks has brought us the pleasure of your acquaintance."

"Mamma has such a shocking way of generalizing about us girls," said Eva; "If we once are caught doing a thing she talks as if we made a regular habit of it. Now, I have come over from Brooklyn hundreds of times, and never failed to have the proper change in my purse till this once."

"I am to regard it, then, as a special piece of good fortune, sent to me?" said I, drawing somewhat nearer, as Mrs. Van Arsdel turned to receive some new arrivals.

I had occasion this evening to admire the facility with which Jim fulfilled his promise of absorbing to himself the attention of the young hostesses, and leaving me the advantage of a tête-à-tête with my new acquaintance. I could see him at this moment, seated by Miss Alice, a splendid, brilliant brunette, while the two pretty younger sisters, not yet supposed to be out, were seated on ottomans, and all in various stages of intense excitement. I could hear:

"Oh, Mr. Fellows, now, you must tell us! indeed I am quite wild to know! how could you find it out?" in various, eager tones. Jim, of course, was as fully aware of the importance of a dramatic mystery as a modern novel-writer, and pursued a course of most obdurate provocation, letting out only such glimpses and sparkles of the desired intelligence as served to inflame curiosity, and hold the attention of the circle concentrated upon himself.

"I think you are perfectly dreadful! Oh, Mr. Fellows, it really is a shame that you don't tell us, really now I shall break friendship with you,"—the tones here became threatening. Then Jim struck a tragic attitude, and laid his hand on his heart, and declared that he was a martyr, and there was more laughing and such a chatter, and confusion of tongues, that nothing definite could be made out.

The length of time that young people, from eighteen to twenty, and even upward, can keep themselves in ecstacies of excitement with such small stock of real things of any sort to say, is something that invariably astonishes old and sober people, who have forgotten that they once were in this happy age, when everything made them laugh. There was soon noise enough, and absorption enough, in the little circle,—widened by the coming in of one or two other young men—to leave me quite unnoticed, and in the background. This was not to be regretted, as Miss Eva assumed with a charming ease and self-possession that rôle of hospitality and entertainment, for which I fancy our young American princess has an especial talent.

"Do you know, Mr. Henderson," she said, "we scarcely expected you, as we hear you never go out."

"Indeed!" said I.

"Oh, yes! your friend, Mr. Fellows there, has presented you to us in most formidable aspects—such a Diogenes! so devoted to your tub! no getting you out on any terms!"

"I'm sure," I answered, laughing, "I wasn't aware that I had ever had the honor of being discussed in your circle at all."

"Oh, indeed, Mr. Henderson, you gentlemen who make confidants of the public are often known much better than you know. I have felt acquainted with many of your thoughts for a long while."

What writer is insensible to such flattery as this? especially from the prettiest of lips. I confess I took to this sort of thing kindly, and was ready if possible for a little more of it. I began to say to myself how charming it was to find beauty and fashion united with correct literary taste.

"Now," she said, as the rooms were rapidly filling, "let me show you if I have not been able to read aright some of your tastes. Come into what I call my 'Italy.'" She lifted a portiére and we stepped into a charming little boudoir, furnished in blue satin, whose walls were finished in compartments, in each of which hung a copy of one of Fra Angelico's Angels. Over the white marble mantel was a superb copy of "The Paradise." "There," she said, turning to me, with a frank smile, "am I not right?"

"You are, indeed, Miss Van Arsdel. What beautiful copies! They take me back to Florence."

"See here," she added, opening a velvet case, "here is something that I know you noticed, for I read what you thought of it."

It was an exquisite copy of that rarest little gem of Fra Angelico's painting, "The Death-Bed of the Virgin Mary,"—in time past the theme of some of my verses, which Miss Van Arsdel thus graciously recalled.

"Do you know," she said, "the only drawback when one reads poems that exactly express what one would like to say, is that it makes us envious; one thinks, why couldn't I have said it thus?"

"Miss Van Arsdel," said I, "do you remember the lines of Longfellow: 'I shot an arrow through the air?'"

"What are they?" she said.

I repeated:

"I shot an arrow into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For, so swiftly it flew, the sight

Could not follow it in its flight.

"I breathed a song into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For who has sight so keen and strong,

That it can follow the flight of song?

"Long, long afterward, in an oak

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, from beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend."

"Do you know," I said, "that this expresses exactly what a poet wants? It is not admiration, it is sympathy. Poems are test papers, put in the atmosphere of life to detect this property; we can find by them who really feel with us; and those who do, whether near or far, are friends. The making of friends is the most precious gift for which poetic utterance is given."

"I don't think," said she, "you should say 'make friends'—friends are discovered, rather than made. There are people who are in their own nature friends, only they don't know each other; but certain things like poetry, music, and painting, are like the free-mason's signs—they reveal the initiated to each other."

And so on we went, deliciously talking and ranging through portfolios of engravings that took us through past days; rambling through all our sunny Italian life, up the Campanile, through the old Duomo; sauntering through the ilexes of the Boboli Garden; comparing notes on the pictures in the Pitti and the Belle Arte—in short, we had one of that blessed kind of times which come when two enthusiasts go back together over the brightest and sunniest passages of their experience.

My head swam; a golden haze was around me, and I was not quite certain whether I was in the body or not. It seemed to me that we two must always have known each other, so very simple and natural did it seem for us to talk together, and to understand one another. "But," she said, suddenly checking herself, "if we get to going on all these things there is no end to it, and I promised sister Ida that I would present you in her study to-night."

"Seems to me it is so very delightful here!" said I, deprecatingly, not well pleased to come out of my dream.

"Ah, but you don't know, Mr. Henderson, this proposed presentation is a special honor. I assure you that this is a distinction that is almost never accorded to any of our callers; you must know sister Ida has retired from the world, and given herself up to the pursuit of wisdom, and it is the rarest thing on earth that she vouchsafes to care for seeing any one."

"I should be only too much flattered," said I, as I followed my guide across a hall, and into a little plainly furnished study, whose air of rigid simplicity contrasted with the luxury of all the other parts of the house.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook