Eugene Pickering

Eugene Pickering

EUGENE PICKERING HENRY JAMES CHAPTER I. It was at Homburg several years ago before the gaming had been suppressed. The evening was very warm and all the world was gathered on the terrace of the Kursaal and the esplanade below it to listen to the excellent orchestra; or half the world rather for the crowd was equally dense in the gaming-rooms around the tables. Everywhere the crowd was great. The night was perfect the season was at its height the open windows of the Kursaal sent long shafts of unnatural light into the dusky woods and now and then in the intervals of the music one might almost hear the clink of the napoleons and the metallic call of the croupiers rise above the watching silence of the saloons. I had been strolling with a friend and we at last prepared to sit down. Chairs however were scarce. I had captured one but it seemed no easy matter to find a mate for it. I was on the point of giving up in despair and proposing an adjournment to the silken ottomans of the Kursaal when I observed a young man lounging back on one of the objects of my quest with his feet supported on the rounds of another. This was more than his share of luxury and I promptly approached him. He evidently belonged to the race which has the credit of knowing best at home and abroad how to make itself comfortable; but something in his appearance suggested that his present attitude was the result of inadvertence rather than of egotism. He was staring at the conductor of the orchestra and listening intently to the music. His hands were locked round his long legs and his mouth was half open with rather a foolish air. "There are so few chairs" I said "that I must beg you to surrender this second one." He started stared blushed pushed the chair away with awkward alacrity and murmured something about not having noticed that he had it. "What an odd-looking youth!" said my companion who had watched me as I seated myself beside her. "Yes he is odd-looking; but what is odder still is that I have seen him before that his face is familiar to me and yet that I can't place him." The orchestra was playing the Prayer from Der Freischutz but Weber's lovely music only deepened the blank of memory. Who the deuce was he? where when how had I known him? It seemed extraordinary that a face should be at once so familiar and so strange. We had our backs turned to him so that I could not look at him again. When the music ceased we left our places and I went to consign my friend to her mamma on the terrace. In passing I saw that my young man had departed; I concluded that he only strikingly resembled some one I knew. But who in the world was it he resembled? The ladies went off to their lodgings which were near by and I turned into the gaming-rooms and hovered about the circle at roulette. Gradually I filtered through to the inner edge near the table and looking round saw my puzzling friend stationed opposite to me. He was watching the game with his hands in his pockets; but singularly enough now that I observed him at my leisure the look of familiarity quite faded from his face. What had made us call his appearance odd was his great length and leanness of limb his long white neck his blue prominent eyes and his ingenuous unconscious absorption in the scene before him. He was not handsome certainly but he looked peculiarly amiable and if his overt wonderment savoured a trifle of rurality it was an agreeable contrast to the hard inexpressive masks about him. He was the verdant offshoot I said to myself of some ancient rigid stem; he had been brought up in the quietest of homes and he was having his first glimpse of life. I was curious to see whether he would put anything on the table; he evidently felt the temptation but he seemed paralysed by chronic embarrassment. He stood gazing at the chinking complexity of losses and gains shaking his loose gold in his pocket and every now and then passing his hand nervously over his eyes. Most of the spectators were too attentive to the play to have many thoughts for each other; but before long I noticed a lady who evidently had an eye for her neighbours as well as for the table. She was seated about half-way between my friend and me and I presently observed that she was trying to catch his eye. Though at Homburg as people said "one could never be sure" I yet doubted whether this lady were one of those whose especial vocation it was to catch a gentleman's eye. She was youthful rather than elderly and pretty rather than plain; indeed a few minutes later when I saw her smile I thought her wonderfully pretty. She had a charming gray eye and a good deal of yellow hair disposed in picturesque disorder; and though her features were meagre and her complexion faded she gave one a sense of sentimental artificial gracefulness. She was dressed in white muslin very much puffed and filled but a trifle the worse for wear relieved here and there by a pale blue ribbon. I used to flatter myself on guessing at people's nationality by their faces and as a rule I guessed aright. This faded crumpled vaporous beauty I conceived was a German--such a German somehow as I had seen imagined in literature. Was she not a friend of poets a correspondent of philosophers a muse a priestess of aesthetics-- something in the way of a Bettina a Rahel? My conjectures however were speedily merged in wonderment as to what my diffident friend was making of her. She caught his eye at last and raising an ungloved hand covered altogether with blue-gemmed rings--turquoises sapphires and lapis--she beckoned him to come to her. The gesture was executed with a sort of practised coolness and accompanied with an appealing smile. He stared a moment rather blankly unable to suppose that the invitation was addressed to him; then as it was immediately repeated with a good deal of intensity he blushed to the roots of his hair wavered awkwardly and at last made his way to the lady's chair. By the time he reached it he was crimson and wiping his forehead with his pocket-handkerchief. She tilted back looked up at him with the same smile laid two fingers on his sleeve and said something interrogatively to which he replied by a shake of the head. She was asking him evidently if he had ever played and he was saying no. Old players have a fancy that when luck has turned her back on them they can put her into good-humour again by having their stakes placed by a novice. Our young man's physiognomy had seemed to his new acquaintance to express the perfection of inexperience and like a practical woman she had determined to make him serve her turn. Unlike most of her neighbours she had no little pile of gold before her but she drew from her pocket a double napoleon put it into his hand and bade him place it on a number of his own choosing. He was evidently filled with a sort of delightful trouble; he enjoyed the adventure but he shrank from the hazard. I would have staked the coin on its being his companion's last; for although she still smiled intently as she watched his hesitation there was anything but indifference in her pale pretty face. Suddenly in desperation he reached over and laid the piece on the table. My attention was diverted at this moment by my having to make way for a lady with a great many flounces before me to give up her chair to a rustling friend to whom she had promised it; when I again looked across at the lady in white muslin she was drawing in a very goodly pile of gold with her little blue-gemmed claw. Good luck and bad at the Homburg tables were equally undemonstrative and this happy adventuress rewarded her young friend for the sacrifice of his innocence with a single rapid upward smile. He had innocence enough left however to look round the table with a gleeful conscious laugh in the midst of which his eyes encountered my own. Then suddenly the familiar look which had vanished from his face flickered up unmistakably; it was the boyish laugh of a boyhood's friend. Stupid fellow that I was I had been looking at Eugene Pickering! Though I lingered on for some time longer he failed to recognise me. Recognition I think had kindled a smile in my own face; but less fortunate than he I suppose my smile had ceased to be boyish. Now that luck had faced about again his companion played for herself-- played and won hand over hand. At last she seemed disposed to rest on her gains and proceeded to bury them in the folds of her muslin. Pickering had staked nothing for himself but as he saw her prepare to withdraw he offered her a double napoleon and begged her to place it. She shook her head with great decision and seemed to bid him put it up again; but he still blushing a good deal pressed her with awkward ardour and she at last took it from him looked at him a moment fixedly and laid it on a number. A moment later the croupier was raking it in. She gave the young man a little nod which seemed to say "I told you so;" he glanced round the table again and laughed; she left her chair and he made a way for her through the crowd. Before going home I took a turn on the terrace and looked down on the esplanade. The lamps were out but the warm starlight vaguely illumined a dozen figures scattered in couples. One of these figures I thought was a lady in a white dress. I had no intention of letting Pickering go without reminding him of our old acquaintance. He had been a very singular boy and I was curious to see what had become of his singularity. I looked for him the next morning at two or three of the hotels and at last I discovered his whereabouts. But he was out the waiter said; he had gone to walk an hour before. I went my way confident that I should meet him in the evening. It was the rule with the Homburg world to spend its evenings at the Kursaal and Pickering apparently had already discovered a good reason for not being an exception. One of the charms of Homburg is the fact that of a hot day you may walk about for a whole afternoon in unbroken shade. The umbrageous gardens of the Kursaal mingle with the charming Hardtwald which in turn melts away into the wooded slopes of the Taunus Mountains. To the Hardtwald I bent my steps and strolled for an hour through mossy glades and the still perpendicular gloom of the fir-woods. Suddenly on the grassy margin of a by-path I came upon a young man stretched at his length in the sun-checkered shade and kicking his heels towards a patch of blue sky. My step was so noiseless on the turf that before he saw me I had time to recognise Pickering again. He looked as if he had been lounging there for some time; his hair was tossed about as if he had been sleeping; on the grass near him beside his hat and stick lay a sealed letter. When he perceived me he jerked himself forward and I stood looking at him without introducing myself--purposely to give him a chance to recognise me. He put on his glasses being awkwardly near-sighted and stared up at me with an air of general trustfulness but without a sign of knowing me. So at last I introduced myself. Then he jumped up and grasped my hands and stared and blushed and laughed and began a dozen random questions ending with a demand as to how in the world I had known him. "Why you are not changed so utterly" I said; "and after all it's but fifteen years since you used to do my Latin exercises for me." "Not changed eh?" he answered still smiling and yet speaking with a sort of ingenuous dismay. Then I remembered that poor Pickering had been in those Latin days a victim of juvenile irony. He used to bring a bottle of medicine to school and take a dose in a glass of water before lunch; and every day at two o'clock half an hour before the rest of us were liberated an old nurse with bushy eyebrows came and fetched him away in a carriage. His extremely fair complexion his nurse and his bottle of medicine which suggested a vague analogy with the sleeping-potion in the tragedy caused him to be called Juliet. Certainly Romeo's sweetheart hardly suffered more; she was not at least a standing joke in Verona. Remembering these things I hastened to say to Pickering that I hoped he was still the same good fellow who used to do my Latin for me. "We were capital friends you know" I went on "then and afterwards." "Yes we were very good friends" he said "and that makes it the stranger I shouldn't have known you. For you know as a boy I never ...