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Chapter XIX 


WHY THE STRANGER WOULD NOT LOSE HIS SHELLEY FOR THE WORLD

Picking up the book, I opened it involuntarily at the titlepage, and then--I resisted a great temptation! I shut it again. A little flowery plot of girl's handwriting had caught my eye, and a girl's pretty name. When Love and Beauty meet, it is hard not to play the eavesdropper, and it was easy to guess that Love and Beauty met upon that page. St. Anthony had no harder fight with the ladies he was unpolite enough to call demons, than I in resisting the temptation to take another look at that pen-and-ink love making. Now, as I look back, I think it was sheer priggishness to resist so human and yet so reverent an impulse. There is nothing sacred from reverence, and love's lovers have a right to regard themselves as the confidants of lovers, whenever they may chance to surprise either them or their letters.

While I was still hesitating, and wondering how I could get the book conveyed to its romantic owner, suddenly a figure turned the corner of the road, and there was Alastor coming back again. I slipped the book, in distracted search for which he was evidently still engaged, under the ferns, and, leisurely lighting a pipe, prepared to tease him. He was presently within hail, and, looking up, caught sight of me.

"Have you found your Shelley yet?" I called down to him, as he stood a moment in the road.

He shook his head. No! But he meant to find it, if he had to hunt every square foot of the valley inch by inch.

Wouldn't any other book do, I asked him. Would he take a Boccaccio, or a "Golden Ass," or a "Tom Jones," in exchange?--for of such consisted my knapsack library. He laughed a negative, and it seemed a shame to tease him.

"It is not so much the book itself," he said.

"But the giver?" I suggested.

"Of course," he blushingly replied.

"Well, suppose I have found it?" I continued.

"You don't mean it--"

"But suppose I have--I'm only supposing-- will you give me the pleasure of your company at dinner at the next inn and tell me its story?"

"Indeed I will, gladly," he replied.

"Well, then," I said, "catch, for here it is!"

The joy with which he recovered it was pretty to behold, and the eagerness with which he ran through the leaves, to see that the violets and the primroses and a spray of meadowsweet, young love's bookmarkers, were all in their right places, touched my heart.

He could not thank me enough; and as we stepped out to the inn, some three or four miles on the road, I elicited something of his story.

He was a clerk in a city office, he said, but his dreams were not commercial. His one dream was to be a great poet, or a great writer of some sort, and this was one of his holidays. As I looked at his sensitive young face, unmarred by pleasure and unscathed by sorrow, bathed daily, I surmised, in the may-dew of high philosophies--ah, so high! washed from within by a constant radiancy of pure thoughts, and from without by a constant basking in the shine of every beautiful and noble and tender thing,--I thought it not unlikely that he might fulfil his dream.

But, alas! as he talked on, with lighted face and chin in the air, how cruelly I realised how little I had fulfilled mine.

And how hard it was to talk to him, without crushing some flower of his fancy or casting doubt upon his dreams. Oh, the gulf between twenty and thirty! I had never quite comprehended it before. And how inexpressibly sad it was to hear him prattling on of the ideal life, of socialism, of Walt Whitman and what not,--all the dear old quackeries,--while I was already settling down comfortably to a conservative middle age. He had no hope that had not long been my despair, no aversion that I had not accepted among the more or less comfortable conditions of the universe. He was all for nature and liberty, whereas I had now come to realise the charm of the artificial, and the social value of constraint.

"Young man," I cried in my heart, "what shall I do to inherit Eternal Youth?"

The gulf between us was further revealed when, at length coming to our inn, we sat down to dinner. To me it seemed the most natural thing in the world to call for the wine-list and consult his choice of wine; but, will you believe me, he asked to be allowed to drink water! And when he quoted the dear old stock nonsense out of Thoreau about being able to get intoxicated on a glass of water, I could have laughed and cried at the same time.

"Happy Boy!" I cried, "still able to turn water into wine by the divine power of your youth"; and then, turning to the waiter, I ordered a bottle of No. 37.

"Wine is the only youth granted to middle age," I continued,--"in vino juventus, one might say; and may you, my dear young friend, long remain so proudly independent of that great Elixir--though I confess that I have met no few young men under thirty who have been excellent critics of the wine-list."

As the water warmed him, he began to expand into further confidence, and then he told me the story of his Shelley, if a story it can be called. For, of course, it was simple enough, and the reader has long since guessed that the reason why he wouldn't lose his Shelley for the world was the usual simple reason.

I listened to his rhapsodies of HER and HER and HER with an aching heart. How good it was to be young! No wonder men had so desperately sought the secret of Eternal Youth! Who would not be young for ever, for such dreams and such an appetite?

Here of course was the very heaven-sent confidant for such an enterprise as mine. I told him all about my whim, just for the pleasure of watching his face light up with youth's generous worship of all such fantastic nonsense. You should have seen his enthusiasm and heard all the things he said. Why, to encounter such a whimsical fellow as myself in this unimaginative age was like meeting a fairy prince, or coming unexpectedly upon Don Quixote attacking the windmill. I offered him the post of Sancho Panza; and indeed what would he not give, he said, to leave all and follow me! But then I reminded him that he had already found his Golden Girl.

"Of course, I forgot," he said, with I'm afraid something of a sigh. For you see he was barely twenty, and to have met your ideal so early in life is apt to rob the remainder of the journey of something of its zest.

I asked him to give me his idea of what the Blessed Maid should be, to which he replied, with a smile, that he could not do better than describe Her, which he did for the sixth time. It was, as I had foreseen, the picture of a Saint, a Goddess, a Dream, very lovely and pure and touching; but it was not a woman, and it was a woman I was in search of, with all her imperfections on her head. I suppose no boy of twenty really loves a WOMEN, but loves only his etherealised extract of woman, entirely free from earthy adulteration. I noticed the words "pure" and "natural" in constant use by my young friend. Some lines went through my head, but I forbore to quote them:--

Alas I your so called purity Is merely immaturity, And woman's nature plays its part Sincerely but in woman's art.

But I couldn't resist asking him, out of sheer waggery, whether he didn't think a touch of powder, and even, very judiciously applied, a touch of rouge, was an improvement to woman. His answer went to my heart.

"Paint--a WOMAN!" he exclaimed.

It was as though you had said--paint an angel!

I could bear no more of it. The gulf yawned shiveringly wide at remarks like that; so, with the privilege of an elder, I declared it time for bed, and yawned off to my room.

Next morning we bade good-bye, and went our several ways. As we parted, he handed me a letter which I was not to open till I was well on my journey. We waved good-bye to each other till the turnings of the road made parting final, and then, sitting down by the roadside, I opened the letter. It proved to be not a letter, but a poem, which he had evidently written after I had left him for bed. It was entitled, with twenty's love for a tag of Latin, Ad Puellam Auream, and it ran thus:--

The Golden Girl in every place Hides and reveals her lovely face; Her neither skill nor strength may find-- T is only loving moves her mind. If but a pretty face you seek, You'll find one any day or week; But if you look with deeper eyes, And seek her lovely, pure, and wise, Then must you wear the pilgrim's shoon For many a weary, wandering moon.

Only the pure in heart may see That lily of all purity, Only in clean unsullied thought The image of her face is caught, And only he her love may hold Who buys her with the spirit's gold.

Thus only shall you find your pearl, O seeker of the Golden Girl! She trod but now the grassy way, A vision of eternal May.

The devil take his impudence! "Only the pure in heart," "clean, unsullied thought." How like the cheek of twenty! And all the same how true! Dear lad, how true! Certainly, the child is father to the man. Dirige nos! O sage of the Golden Twenties!

As I meditatively folded up the pretty bit of writing, I made a resolution; but it was one of such importance that not only is another chapter needed to do it honour, but it may well inaugurate another book of this strange uneventful history.

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