Bolton's letter excited in my mind a tumult of feeling. From the beginning of my acquaintance I had regarded him with daily increasing admiration. Young men like a species of mental fealty—a friendship that seems to draw them upward and give them an ideal of something above themselves. Bolton's ripe, elegant scholarship, his rare, critical taste, his calm insight into men and things, and the depth of his moral judgment, had inspired me with admiration, and his kindness for me with gratitude. It had always been an additional source of interest that there was something veiled about him—something that I could not exactly make out. This letter, so dignified in its melancholy frankness, seemed to let me into the secret of his life. It showed me the reason of that sort of sad and weary tolerance with which he seemed to regard life and its instincts, so different from the fiery, forward-looking hope of youth. He had impressed me from the first as one who had made up his mind to endure all things and hope for nothing. To keep watch every moment, to do the duty of the hour thoroughly, bravely, faithfully, as a sentinel paces through wind, rain and cold—neither asking why, nor uttering complaints—such seemed to be Bolton's theory of life.

The infirmity which he laid open to my view was one, to be sure, attributable in the first place to the thoughtless wrong-doing of confident youth. Yet, in its beginning, how little there was in it that looked like the deep and terrible tragedy to which it was leading! Out of every ten young men who begin the use of stimulants as a social exhilaration, there are perhaps five in whose breast lies coiled up and sleeping this serpent, destined in after years to be the deadly tyrant of their life—this curse, unappeasable by tears or prayers or agonies—with whom the struggle is like that of Laocoön with the hideous Python. Yet songs and garlands and poetry encircle the wine-cup, and ridicule and contumely are reserved for him who fears to touch it.

There was about this letter such a patient dignity, such an evident bracing of the whole man to meet in the bravest manner the hard truth of the situation, and such a disinterested care for others, as were to me inexpressibly touching. I could not help feeling that he judged and sentenced himself too severely, and that this was a case where a noble woman might fitly co-work with a man, and by doubling his nature give it double power of resistance and victory.

I went hastily up to his room with the letter in my hand after reading it. It was in the dusk of the evening twilight, but I could see him sitting there gazing out of the window at the fading sky; yet it was too dark for either of us to see the face of the other. There are some conversations that can only be held in darkness—the visible presence of the bodily form is an impediment—in darkness, spirit speaks directly to spirit.

"Bolton," I said, "I am yours to every intent and purpose, yours for life and death."

"And after," he said in a deep undertone, grasping my hand. "I knew you would be, Harry."

"But, Bolton, you judge yourself too severely. Why should you put from yourself the joys that other men, not half so good as you, claim eagerly? If I were a woman like Caroline, I can feel that I would rather share life with you, in all your dangers and liabilities, than with many another."

He thought a moment, and then said slowly, "It is well for Caroline that she has not this feeling; she probably has by this time forgotten me, and I would not for the world take the responsibility of trying to call back the feeling she once had."

At this moment my thoughts went back over many scenes, and the real meaning of all Caroline's life came to me. I appreciated the hardness of that lot of women which condemns them to be tied to one spot and one course of employment, when needing to fly from the atmosphere of an unhappy experience. I thought of the blank stillness of the little mountain town where her life had been passed, of her restlessness add impatience, of that longing to fly to new scenes and employments that she had expressed to me on the eve of my starting for Europe; yet she had told me her story, leaving out the one vital spot in it. I remembered her saying that she had never seen the man with whom she would think of marriage without a shudder. Was it because she had forgotten? Or was it that woman never even to herself admits that thought in connection with one who seems to have forgotten her? Or had her father so harshly painted the picture of her lover that she had been led to believe him utterly vile and unprincipled? Perhaps his proud silence had been interpreted by her as the silence of indifference; perhaps she looked back on their acquaintance with indignation that she should have been employed merely to diversify the leisure of a rusticated student and abandoned character. Whatever the experience might be, Caroline had carried it through silently.

Her gay, indifferent, brilliant manner of treating any approach to matters of the heart, as if they were the very last subjects in which she could be supposed to have any experience or interest, had been a complete blind to me, nor could I, through this dazzling atmosphere, form the least conjecture as to how the land actually lay.

In my former letters to her I had dwelt a good deal on Bolton, and mentioned the little fact of finding her photograph in his room. In reply, in a postscript at the end of a letter about everything else, there was a brief notice. "The Mr. Bolton you speak of taught the Academy in our place while you were away at college—and of course I was one of his scholars—but I have never seen or heard of him since. I was very young then, and it seems like something in a preëxistent state to be reminded of him. I believed him very clever, then, but was not old enough to form much of an opinion." I thought of all this as I sat silently in the dark with Bolton.

"Are you sure," I said, "that you consult for Caroline's best happiness in doing as you have done?"

There was a long pause, and at last he said with a deep, drawn breath,

"Yes. I am sure, the less I am to her the better."

"But may not your silence and apparent neglect and indifference have given pain?"

"Probably; but they helped her to cease caring for me; it was necessary that she should."

"Bolton, you are morbid in your estimate of yourself."

"You do not know all, Hal; nor what nor where I have been. I have been swept far out to sea, plunged under deep waters, all the waves and billows have been over me."

"Yet now, Bolton, surely you are on firm land. No man is more established, more reliable, more useful."

"Yet," he said with a kind of shudder, "all this I might lose in a moment. The other day when I dined with Westerford, the good fellow had his wines in all frank fellowship and pressed them on me, and the very smell distracted me. I looked at the little glass in which he poured some particularly fine sherry, and held to me to taste, and thought it was like so much heart's blood. If I had taken one taste, just one, I should have been utterly worthless and unreliable for weeks. Yet Westerford could not understand this; nobody can, except one who has been through my bitter experience. One sip would flash to the brain like fire, and then, all fear, all care, all conscience would be gone, and not one glass, but a dozen would be inevitable, and then you might have to look for me in some of those dens to which the possessed of the devil flee when the fit is on them, and where they rave and tear and cut themselves with stones till the madness is worn out. This has happened to me over and over, after long periods of self-denial and self-control and illusive hope. It seems to me that my experience is like that of a man whom some cruel fiend condemns to go through all the agonies of drowning over and over again—the dark plunge, the mad struggle, the suffocation, the horror, the agony, the clutch at the shore, the weary clamber up steep rocks, the sense of relief, recovery, and hope, only to be wrenched off and thrown back to struggle, and strangle, and sink again."

He spoke with such a deep intensity of voice that I drew in my breath, and a silence as of the grave fell between us.

"Harry," he said, after a pause, "you know we read in the Greek tragedies of men and women whom the gods have smitten with unnatural and guilty purposes. In which they were irresistibly impelled toward what they abominated and shuddered at! Is it not strange that the Greek fable should have a real counterpart in the midst of our modern life? That young man in all the inexperience and thoughtlessness of youth should be beguiled into just such a fatality; that there should be a possibility that they could be blighted by just such a doom, and yet that song, and poetry, and social illusion, and society customs should all be thrown around courses which excite and develop this fatality! What opera is complete without its drinking chorus? I remember when it used to be my forte to sing drinking songs; so the world goes! Men triumph and rejoice going to a doom to which death is a trifle. If I had fallen dead, the first glass of wine I tasted, it would have been thought a horrible thing; but it would have been better for my mother, better for me, than to have lived as I did."

"Oh, no, no, Bolton! don't say so: you become morbid in dwelling on this subject."

"No, Hal. I only know more of it than you. This curse has made life an unspeakable burden, a doom instead of a privilege. It has disappointed my friends, and subjected me to humiliations and agonies such that death seems to me a refuge; and yet it was all in its beginning mere thoughtlessness and ignorance. I was lost before I knew it."

"But you are not lost, and you shall not be!" I exclaimed, "you are good for more than most men now, and you will come through this."

"Never! to be just as others are. I shall be a vessel with a crack in it, always."

"Well, a vase of fine porcelain with a crack in it is better than earthenware without," I said.

"If I had not disappointed myself and my friends so often," said Bolton, "I might look on myself as sound and sane. But the mere sight and smell of the wine at Westerford's dinner gave me a giddy sensation that alarmed me; it showed that I was not yet out of danger, and it made me resolve to strengthen my self by making you my keeper. You have the advantage of perfectly healthy nerves that have come to manhood without the strain of any false stimulus, and you can be strong for both of us."

"God grant it!" said I, earnestly.

"But I warn you that, if the curse comes upon me you are not to trust me. I am a Christian and a man of honor in my sane moments, but let me tell you one glass of wine would make me a liar on this subject. I should lie, and intrigue, and deceive the very elect, to get at the miserable completion of the aroused fury, and there are times when I am so excited that I fear I may take that first irrevocable step; it is a horror, a nightmare, a temptation of the devil,—for that there is a devil, men with my experience know; but there is a kind of safety in having a friend of a steady pulse with me who knows all. The mere fact that you do know helps hold me firm."

"Bolton," said I, "the situation you offer to Caroline in the care of the Ladies' Cabinet will of course oblige her to come to New York. Shall you meet her and renew your acquaintance?"

"I do not desire to," he said.

There was a slight hesitancy and faltering of his voice as he spoke.

"Yet it can hardly be possible that you will not meet; you will have arrangements to make with her."

"That is one of the uses, among others, of having you. All that relates to her affairs will pass through you; and now, let us talk of the magazine and its programme for the season. What is the reason, Hal, that you waste your forces in short sketches? Why do you not boldly dash out into a serial story? Come, now, I am resolved among other things on a serial story by Harry Henderson."

"And I will recommend a taking title," cried Jim Fellows, who came in as we were talking, and stood behind my chair. "Let us have

HENDERSON'S HORROR; or, The Mystery of the Bloody Latch-Key.

There's a title to take with the reflecting public! The readers of serials are generally girls from twelve to twenty, and they read them with their back-hair down, lounging on the bed, just before a nap after dinner, and there must be enough blood and thunder, and murder and adultery and mystery in them to keep the dear creatures reading at least half an hour."

"I think serial stories are about played out in our day," said I.

"Not a bit of it. There's sister Nell, don't read anything else. She is regularly running on five serial stories, and among them all they keep her nicely a-going; and she tells me that the case is the same with all the girls in her set. The knowledge of the world and of human nature that the pretty creatures get in this way is something quite astounding. Nell is at present deeply interested in a fair lady who connives with her chambermaid to pass off her illegitimate child upon her husband as his own; and we have lying and false swearing, I say nothing of all other kinds of interesting things on every page. Of course this is written as a moral lesson, and interspersed with pious reflections to teach girls as how they hadn't oughter do so and so. All this, you see, has a refining effect upon the rising generation."

"But, really, Bolton, don't you think that it is treating our modern society as children, to fall in with this extreme fashion of story-telling? It seems so childish to need pictures and stories for everything. Isn't your magazine strong enough to lead and form public taste instead of following it?"

"Well, if I owned my magazine I would try it," said Bolton. "But, you see, the Westerfords, while they give me carte blanche as to means to run it, expect of course that it is to be run in the approved popular grooves that the dear thoughtless ten million prefer. The people who lounge on beds after dinner are our audience, and there must be nothing wiser nor stronger than they can apprehend between sleeping and waking. We talk to a blasé, hurried, unreflecting, indolent generation, who want emotion and don't care for reason. Something sharp and spicy, something pungent and stinging—no matter what or whence. And now as they want this sort of thing, why not give it to them? Are there no other condiments for seasoning stories besides intrigues, lies, murders, and adulteries? And if the young and unreflecting will read stories shouldn't some of the thoughtful and reflecting make stories for them to read?"

"Of course they should, Q. E. D.," said Jim Fellows, touching the gas with a match, and sending a flare of light upon our conference. "But come, now, behold the last novelty of the season," said he, tossing two cards of invitation. "This is for us, as sons of the press and recording angels, to be present at Wat Sydney's grand blow-out next Tuesday. All the rank and fashion are to go. It is to be very select, and there are people who would give their eye-teeth for these cards, and can't get 'em. How do ye say, Old Man of the Mountain, will you go?"

"No," said Bolton; "not my line."

"Well, at all events, Hal has got to go. I promised the fair Alice that I'd bring him if I had to take him by the hair."

I had a great mind to decline. I thought in my heart it was not at all the wisest thing for me to go; but then, Amare et sapere vix Deo—I had never seen Sydney, and I had a restless desire to see him and Eva together—and I thought of forty good reasons why I should go.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook