In my mind's eye, Horatio.
Prue and I do not entertain much; our means forbid it. In truth, other people entertain for us. We enjoy that hospitality of which no account is made. We see the show, and hear the music, and smell the flowers of great festivities, tasting as it were the drippings from rich dishes. Our own dinner service is remarkably plain, our dinners, even on state occasions, are strictly in keeping, and almost our only guest is Titbottom. I buy a handful of roses as I come up from the office, perhaps, and Prue arranges them so prettily in a glass dish for the centre of the table that even when I have hurried out to see Aurelia step into her carriage to go out to dine, I have thought that the bouquet she carried was not more beautiful because it was more costly. I grant that it was more harmonious with her superb beauty and her rich attire. And I have no doubt that if Aurelia knew the old man, whom she must have seen so often watching her, and his wife, who ornaments her sex with as much sweetness, although with less splendor, than Aurelia herself, she would also acknowledge that the nosegay of roses was as fine and fit upon their table as her own sumptuous bouquet is for herself. I have that faith in the perception of that lovely lady. It is at least my habit—I hope I may say, my nature, to believe the best of people, rather than the worst. If I thought that all this sparkling setting of beauty—this fine fashion—these blazing jewels and lustrous silks and airy gauzes, embellished with gold-threaded embroidery and wrought in a thousand exquisite elaborations, so that I cannot see one of those lovely girls pass me by without thanking God for the vision—if I thought that this was all, and that underneath her lace flounces and diamond bracelets Aurelia was a sullen, selfish woman, then I should turn sadly homewards, for I should see that her jewels were flashing scorn upon the object they adorned, and that her laces were of a more exquisite loveliness than the woman whom they merely touched with a superficial grace. It would be like a gaily decorated mausoleum—bright to see, but silent and dark within.
"Great excellences, my dear Prue," I sometimes allow myself to say, "lie concealed in the depths of character, like pearls at the bottom of the sea. Under the laughing, glancing surface, how little they are suspected! Perhaps love is nothing else than the sight of them by one person. Hence every man's mistress is apt to be an enigma to everybody else. I have no doubt that when Aurelia is engaged, people will say that she is a most admirable girl, certainly; but they cannot understand why any man should be in love with her. As if it were at all necessary that they should! And her lover, like a boy who finds a pearl in the public street, and wonders as much that others did not see it as that he did, will tremble until he knows his passion is returned; feeling, of course, that the whole world must be in love with this paragon who cannot possibly smile upon anything so unworthy as he."
"I hope, therefore, my dear Mrs. Prue," I continue to say to my wife, who looks up from her work regarding me with pleased pride, as if I were such an irresistible humorist, "you will allow me to believe that the depth may be calm although the surface is dancing. If you tell me that Aurelia is but a giddy girl, I shall believe that you think so. But I shall know, all the while, what profound dignity, and sweetness, and peace lie at the foundation of her character."
I say such things to Titbottom during the dull season at the office. And I have known him sometimes to reply with a kind of dry, sad humor, not as if he enjoyed the joke, but as if the joke must be made, that he saw no reason why I should be dull because the season was so.
"And what do I know of Aurelia or any other girl?" he says to me with that abstracted air. "I, whose Aurelias were of another century and another zone."
Then he falls into a silence which it seems quite profane to interrupt. But as we sit upon our high stools at the desk opposite each other, I leaning upon my elbows and looking at him; he, with sidelong face, glancing out of the window, as if it commanded a boundless landscape, instead of a dim, dingy office court, I cannot refrain from saying:
He turns slowly, and I go chatting on—a little too loquacious, perhaps, about those young girls. But I know that Titbottom regards such an excess as venial, for his sadness is so sweet that you could believe it the reflection of a smile from long, long years ago.
One day, after I had been talking for a long time, and we had put up our books, and were preparing to leave, he stood for some time by the window, gazing with a drooping intentness, as if he really saw something more than the dark court, and said slowly:
"Perhaps you would have different impressions of things if you saw them through my spectacles."
There was no change in his expression. He still looked from the window, and I said:
"Titbottom, I did not know that you used glasses. I have never seen you wearing spectacles."
"No, I don't often wear them. I am not very fond of looking through them. But sometimes an irresistible necessity compels me to put them on, and I cannot help seeing." Titbottom sighed.
"Is it so grievous a fate, to see?" inquired I.
"Yes; through my spectacles," he said, turning slowly and looking at me with wan solemnity.
It grew dark as we stood in the office talking, and taking our hats we went out together. The narrow street of business was deserted. The heavy iron shutters were gloomily closed over the windows. From one or two offices struggled the dim gleam of an early candle, by whose light some perplexed accountant sat belated, and hunting for his error. A careless clerk passed, whistling. But the great tide of life had ebbed. We heard its roar far away, and the sound stole into that silent street like the murmur of the ocean into an inland dell.
"You will come and dine with us, Titbottom?"
He assented by continuing to walk with me, and I think we were both glad when we reached the house, and Prue came to meet us, saying:
"Do you know I hoped you would bring Mr. Titbottom to dine?"
Titbottom smiled gently, and answered:
"He might have brought his spectacles with him, and I have been a happier man for it."
Prue looked a little puzzled.
"My dear," I said, "you must know that our friend, Mr. Titbottom, is the happy possessor of a pair of wonderful spectacles. I have never seen them, indeed; and, from what he says, I should be rather afraid of being seen by them. Most short-sighted persons are very glad to have the help of glasses; but Mr. Titbottom seems to find very little pleasure in his."
"It is because they make him too far-sighted, perhaps," interrupted
Prue quietly, as she took the silver soup-ladle from the sideboard.
We sipped our wine after dinner, and Prue took her work. Can a man be too far-sighted? I did not ask the question aloud. The very tone in which Prue had spoken convinced me that he might.
"At least," I said, "Mr. Titbottom will not refuse to tell us the history of his mysterious spectacles. I have known plenty of magic in eyes"—and I glanced at the tender blue eyes of Prue—"but I have not heard of any enchanted glasses."
"Yet you must have seen the glass in which your wife looks every morning, and I take it that glass must be daily enchanted." said Titbottom, with a bow of quaint respect to my wife.
I do not think I have seen such a blush upon Prue's cheek since—well, since a great many years ago.
"I will gladly tell you the history of my spectacles," began Titbottom. "It is very simple; and I am not at all sure that a great many other people have not a pair of the same kind. I have never, indeed, heard of them by the gross, like those of our young friend, Moses, the son of the Vicar of Wakefield. In fact, I think a gross would be quite enough to supply the world. It is a kind of article for which the demand does not increase with use. If we should all wear spectacles like mine, we should never smile any more. Oh—I am not quite sure—we should all be very happy."
"A very important difference," said Prue, counting her stitches.
"You know my grandfather Titbottom was a West Indian. A large proprietor, and an easy man, he basked in the tropical sun, leading his quiet, luxurious life. He lived much alone, and was what people call eccentric, by which I understand that he was very much himself, and, refusing the influence of other people, they had their little revenges, and called him names. It is a habit not exclusively tropical. I think I have seen the same thing even in this city. But he was greatly beloved—my bland and bountiful grandfather. He was so large-hearted and open-handed. He was so friendly, and thoughtful, and genial, that even his jokes had the air of graceful benedictions. He did not seem to grow old, and he was one of those who never appear to have been very young. He flourished in a perennial maturity, an immortal middle-age.
"My grandfather lived upon one of the small islands, St. Kit's, perhaps, and his domain extended to the sea. His house, a rambling West Indian mansion, was surrounded with deep, spacious piazzas, covered with luxurious lounges, among which one capacious chair was his peculiar seat. They tell me he used sometimes to sit there for the whole day, his great, soft, brown eyes fastened upon the sea, watching the specks of sails that flashed upon the horizon, while the evanescent expressions chased each other over his placid face, as if it reflected the calm and changing sea before him. His morning costume was an ample dressing-gown of gorgeously flowered silk, and his morning was very apt to last all day.
"He rarely read, but he would pace the great piazza for hours, with his hands sunken in the pockets of his dressing-gown, and an air of sweet reverie, which any author might be very happy to produce.
"Society, of course, he saw little. There was some slight apprehension that if he were bidden to social entertainments he might forget his coat, or arrive without some other essential part of his dress; and there is a sly tradition in the Titbottom family that, having been invited to a ball in honor of the new governor of the island, my grandfather Titbottom sauntered into the hall towards midnight, wrapped in the gorgeous flowers of his dressing-gown, and with his hands buried in the pockets, as usual. There was great excitement, and immense deprecation of gubernatorial ire. But it happened that the governor and my grandfather were old friends, and there was no offense. But as they were conversing together, one of the distressed managers cast indignant glances at the brilliant costume of my grandfather, who summoned him, and asked courteously:
"'Did you invite me or my coat?'
"'You, in a proper coat,' replied the manager.
"The governor smiled approvingly, and looked at my grandfather.
"'My friend," said he to the manager, 'I beg your pardon, I forgot.'
"The next day my grandfather was seen promenading in full ball dress along the streets of the little town.
"'They ought to know,' said he, 'that I have a proper coat, and that not contempt nor poverty, but forgetfulness, sent me to a ball in my dressing-gown.'
"He did not much frequent social festivals after this failure, but he always told the story with satisfaction and a quiet smile.
"To a stranger, life upon those little islands is uniform even to weariness. But the old native dons like my grandfather ripen in the prolonged sunshine, like the turtle upon the Bahama banks, nor know of existence more desirable. Life in the tropics I take to be a placid torpidity. During the long, warm mornings of nearly half a century, my grandfather Titbottom had sat in his dressing-gown and gazed at the sea. But one calm June day, as he slowly paced the piazza after breakfast, his dreamy glance was arrested by a little vessel, evidently nearing the shore. He called for his spyglass, and surveying the craft, saw that she came from the neighboring island. She glided smoothly, slowly, over the summer sea. The warm morning air was sweet with perfumes, and silent with heat. The sea sparkled languidly, and the brilliant blue hung cloudlessly over. Scores of little island vessels had my grandfather seen come over the horizon, and cast anchor in the port. Hundreds of summer mornings had the white sails flashed and faded, like vague faces through forgotten dreams. But this time he laid down the spyglass, and leaned against a column of the piazza, and watched the vessel with an intentness that he could not explain. She came nearer and nearer, a graceful spectre in the dazzling morning.
"'Decidedly I must step down and see about that vessel,' said my grandfather Titbottom.
"He gathered his ample dressing-gown about him, and stepped from the piazza with no other protection from the sun than the little smoking cap upon his head. His face wore a calm, beaming smile, as if he approved of all the world. He was not an old man, but there was almost a patriarchal pathos in his expression as he sauntered along in the sunshine towards the shore. A group of idle gazers was collected to watch the arrival. The little vessel furled her sails and drifted slowly landward, and as she was of very light draft, she came close to the shelving shore. A long plank was put out from her side, and the debarkation commenced. My grandfather Titbottom stood looking on to see the passengers descend. There were but a few of them, and mostly traders from the neighboring island. But suddenly the face of a young girl appeared over the side of the vessel, and she stepped upon the plank to descend. My grandfather Titbottom instantly advanced, and moving briskly reached the top of the plank at the same moment, and with the old tassel of his cap flashing in the sun, and one hand in the pocket of his dressing gown, with the other he handed the young lady carefully down the plank. That young lady was afterwards my grandmother Titbottom.
"And so, over the gleaming sea which he had watched so long, and which seemed thus to reward his patient gaze, came his bride that sunny morning.
"'Of course we are happy,' he used to say: 'For you are the gift of the sun I have loved so long and so well.' And my grandfather Titbottom would lay his hand so tenderly upon the golden hair of his young bride, that you could fancy him a devout Parsee caressing sunbeams.
"There were endless festivities upon occasion of the marriage; and my grandfather did not go to one of them in his dressing-gown. The gentle sweetness of his wife melted every heart into love and sympathy. He was much older than she, without doubt. But age, as he used to say with a smile of immortal youth, is a matter of feeling, not of years. And if, sometimes, as she sat by his side upon the piazza, her fancy looked through her eyes upon that summer sea and saw a younger lover, perhaps some one of those graceful and glowing heroes who occupy the foreground of all young maidens' visions by the sea, yet she could not find one more generous and gracious, nor fancy one more worthy and loving than my grandfather Titbottom. And if in the moonlit midnight, while he lay calmly sleeping, she leaned out of the window and sank into vague reveries of sweet possibility, and watched the gleaming path of the moonlight upon the water, until the dawn glided over it—it was only that mood of nameless regret and longing, which underlies all human happiness,—or it was the vision of that life of society, which she had never seen, but of which she had often read, and which looked very fair and alluring across the sea to a girlish imagination which knew that it should never know that reality.
"These West Indian years were the great days of the family," said Titbottom, with an air of majestic and regal regret, pausing and musing in our little parlor, like a late Stuart in exile, remembering England. Prue raised her eyes from her work, and looked at him with a subdued admiration; for I have observed that, like the rest of her sex, she has a singular sympathy with the representative of a reduced family. Perhaps it is their finer perception which leads these tender-hearted women to recognize the divine right of social superiority so much more readily than we; and yet, much as Titbottom was enhanced in my wife's admiration by the discovery that his dusky sadness of nature and expression was, as it were, the expiring gleam and late twilight of ancestral splendors, I doubt if Mr. Bourne would have preferred him for bookkeeper a moment sooner upon that account. In truth, I have observed, down town, that the fact of your ancestors doing nothing is not considered good proof that you can do anything. But Prue and her sex regard sentiment more than action, and I understand easily enough why she is never tired of hearing me read of Prince Charlie. If Titbottom had been only a little younger, a little handsomer, a little more gallantly dressed—in fact, a little more of the Prince Charlie, I am sure her eyes would not have fallen again upon her work so tranquilly, as he resumed his story.
"I can remember my grandfather Titbottom, although I was a very young child, and he was a very old man. My young mother and my young grandmother are very distinct figures in my memory, ministering to the old gentleman, wrapped in his dressing-gown, and seated upon the piazza. I remember his white hair and his calm smile, and how, not long before he died, he called me to him, and laying his hand upon my head, said to me:
"My child, the world is not this great sunny piazza, nor life the fairy stories which the women tell you here as you sit in their laps. I shall soon be gone, but I want to leave with you some memento of my love for you, and I know nothing more valuable than these spectacles, which your grandmother brought from her native island, when she arrived here one fine summer morning, long ago. I cannot quite tell whether, when you grow older, you will regard it as a gift of the greatest value or as something that you had been happier never to have possessed.'
"'But grandpapa, I am not short-sighted.'
"'My son, are you not human?' said the old gentleman; and how shall I ever forget the thoughtful sadness with which, at the same time he handed me the spectacles.
"Instinctively I put them on, and looked at my grandfather. But I saw no grandfather, no piazza, no flowered dressing-gown: I saw only a luxuriant palm-tree, waving broadly over a tranquil landscape. Pleasant homes clustered around it. Gardens teeming with fruit and flowers; flocks quietly feeding; birds wheeling and chirping. I heard children's voices, and the low lullaby of happy mothers. The sound of cheerful singing came wafted from distant fields upon the light breeze. Golden harvests glistened out of sight, and I caught their rustling whisper of prosperity. A warm, mellow atmosphere bathed the whole. I have seen copies of the landscapes of the Italian painter Claude which seemed to me faint reminiscences of that calm and happy vision. But all this peace and prosperity seemed to flow from the spreading palm as from a fountain.
"I do not know how long I looked, but I had, apparently, no power, as I had no will, to remove the spectacles. What a wonderful island must Nevis be, thought I, if people carry such pictures in their pockets, only by buying a pair of spectacles! What wonder that my dear grandmother Titbottom has lived such a placid life, and has blessed us all with her sunny temper, when she has lived surrounded by such images of peace.
"My grandfather died. But still, in the warm morning sunshine upon the piazza, I felt his placid presence, and as I crawled into his great chair, and drifted on in reverie through the still, tropical day, it was as if his soft, dreamy eye had passed into my soul. My grandmother cherished his memory with tender regret. A violent passion of grief for his loss was no more possible than for the pensive decay of the year. We have no portrait of him, but I see always, when I remember him, that peaceful and luxuriant palm. And I think that to have known one good old man—one man who, through the chances and rubs of a long life, has carried his heart in his hand, like a palm branch, waving all discords into peace, helps our faith in God, in ourselves, and in each other, more than many sermons. I hardly know whether to be grateful to my grandfather for the spectacles; and yet when I remember that it is to them I owe the pleasant image of him which I cherish, I seem to myself sadly ungrateful.
"Madam," said Titbottom to Prue, solemnly, "my memory is a long and gloomy gallery, and only remotely, at its further end, do I see the glimmer of soft sunshine, and only there are the pleasant pictures hung. They seem to me very happy along whose gallery the sunlight streams to their very feet, striking all the pictured walls into unfading splendor."
Prue had laid her work in her lap, and as Titbottom paused a moment, and I turned towards her, I found her mild eyes fastened upon my face, and glistening with happy tears.
"Misfortunes of many kinds came heavily upon the family after the head was gone. The great house was relinquished. My parents were both dead, and my grandmother had entire charge of me. But from the moment that I received the gift of the spectacles, I could not resist their fascination, and I withdrew into myself, and became a solitary boy. There were not many companions for me of my own age, and they gradually left me, or, at least, had not a hearty sympathy with me; for if they teased me I pulled out my spectacles and surveyed them so seriously that they acquired a kind of awe of me, and evidently regarded my grandfather's gift as a concealed magical weapon which might be dangerously drawn upon them at any moment. Whenever, in our games, there were quarrels and high words, and I began to feel about my dress and to wear a grave look, they all took the alarm, and shouted, 'Look out for Titbottom's spectacles,' and scattered like a flock of scared sheep.
"Nor could I wonder at it. For, at first, before they took the alarm, I saw strange sights when I looked at them through the glasses. If two were quarrelling about a marble or a ball, I had only to go behind a tree where I was concealed and look at them leisurely. Then the scene changed, and no longer a green meadow with boys playing, but a spot which I did not recognize, and forms that made me shudder or smile. It was not a big boy bullying a little one, but a young wolf with glistening teeth and a lamb cowering before him; or, it was a dog faithful and famishing—or a star going slowly into eclipse—or a rainbow fading—or a flower blooming—or a sun rising—or a waning moon. The revelations of the spectacles determined my feeling for the boys, and for all whom I saw through them. No shyness, nor awkwardness, nor silence, could separate me from those who looked lovely as lilies to my illuminated eyes. If I felt myself warmly drawn to any one I struggled with the fierce desire of seeing him through the spectacles. I longed to enjoy the luxury of ignorant feeling, to love without knowing, to float like a leaf upon the eddies of life, drifted now to a sunny point, now to a solemn shade—now over glittering ripples, now over gleaming calms,—and not to determined ports, a trim vessel with an inexorable rudder.
"But, sometimes, mastered after long struggles, I seized my spectacles and sauntered into the little town. Putting them to my eyes I peered into the houses and at the people who passed me. Here sat a family at breakfast, and I stood at the window looking in. O motley meal! fantastic vision! The good mother saw her lord sitting opposite, a grave, respectable being, eating muffins. But I saw only a bank-bill, more or less crumpled and tattered, marked with a larger or lesser figure. If a sharp wind blew suddenly, I saw it tremble and flutter; it was thin, flat, impalpable. I removed my glasses, and looked with my eyes at the wife. I could have smiled to see the humid tenderness with which she regarded her strange vis-à-vis. Is life only a game of blind-man's-buff? of droll cross-purposes?
Click Here for Part II
A Classic Funny Story
George William Curtis