It was always a mystery to me where Severance got precisely his combination of qualities. His father was simply what is called a handsome man, with stately figure and curly black hair, not without a certain dignity of manner, but with a face so shallow that it did not even seem to ripple, and with a voice so prosy that, when he spoke of the sky, you wished there were no such thing. His mother was a fair, little, pallid creature,--wash-blond, as they say of lace,--patient, meek, and always fatigued and fatiguing. But Severance, as I first knew him, was the soul of activity. He had dark eyes, that had a great deal of light in them, without corresponding depth; his hair was dark, straight, and very soft; his mouth expressed sweetness, without much strength; he talked well; and though he was apt to have a wandering look, as if his thoughts were laying a submarine cable to another continent, yet the young girls were always glad to have the semblance of conversation with him in this. To me he was in the last degree lovable. He had just enough of that subtile quality called genius, perhaps, to spoil first his companions, and then himself. His words had weight with you, though you might know yourself wiser; and if you went to give him the most reasonable advice, you were suddenly seized with a slight paralysis of the tongue. Thus it was, at any rate, with me. We were cemented therefore by the firmest ties,--a nominal seniority on my part, and a substantial supremacy on his.
We lodged one summer at an old house in that odd suburb of Oldport called "The Point." It is a sort of Artists' Quarter of the town, frequented by a class of summer visitors more addicted to sailing and sketching than to driving and bowing,--persons who do not object to simple fare, and can live, as one of them said, on potatoes and Point. Here Severance and I made our summer home, basking in the delicious sunshine of the lovely bay. The bare outlines around Oldport sometimes dismay the stranger, but soon fascinate. Nowhere does one feel bareness so little, because there is no sharpness of perspective; everything shimmers in the moist atmosphere; the islands are all glamour and mirage; and the undulating hills of the horizon seem each like the soft, arched back of some pet animal, and you long to caress them with your hand. At last your thoughts begin to swim also, and pass into vague fancies, which you also love to caress. Severance and I were constantly afloat, body and mind. He was a perfect sailor, and had that dreaminess in his nature which matches with nothing but the ripple of the waves. Still, I could not hide from myself that he was a changed man since that voyage in search of health from which he had just returned. His mother talked in her humdrum way about heart disease; and his father, taking up the strain, bored us about organic lesions, till we almost wished he had a lesion himself. Severance ridiculed all this; but he grew more and more moody, and his eyes seemed to be laying more submarine cables than ever.
When we were not on the water, we both liked to mouse about the queer streets and quaint old houses of that region, and to chat with the fishermen and their grandmothers. There was one house, however, which was very attractive to me,--perhaps because nobody lived in it, and which, for that or some other reason, he never would approach. It was a great square building of rough gray stone, looking like those sombre houses which everyone remembers in Montreal, but which are rare in "the States." It had been built many years before by some millionnaire from New Orleans, and was left unfinished, nobody knew why, till the garden was a wilderness of bloom, and the windows of ivy. Oldport is the only place in New England where either ivy or traditions will grow; there were, to be sure, no legends about this house that I could hear of, for the ghosts in those parts were feeble-minded and retrospective by reason of age, and perhaps scorned a mansion where nobody had ever lived; but the ivy clustered round the projecting windows as densely as if it had the sins of a dozen generations to hide.
The house stood just above what were commonly called (from their slaty color) the Blue Rocks; it seemed the topmost pebble left by some tide that had receded,--which perhaps it was. Nurses and children thronged daily to these rocks, during the visitors' season, and the fishermen found there a favorite lounging-place; but nobody scaled the wall of the house save myself, and I went there very often. The gate was sometimes opened by Paul, the silent Bavarian gardener, who was master of the keys; and there were also certain great cats that were always sunning themselves on the steps, and seemed to have grown old and gray in waiting for mice that had never come. They looked as if they knew the past and the future. If the owl is the bird of Minerva, the cat should be her beast; they have the same sleepy air of unfathomable wisdom. There was such a quiet and potent spell about the place that one could almost fancy these constant animals to be the transformed bodies of human visitors who had stayed too long. Who knew what tales might be told by these tall, slender birches, clustering so closely by the sombre walls?--birches which were but whispering shrubs when the first gray stones were laid, and which now reared above the eaves their white stems and dark boughs, still whispering and waiting till a few more years should show them, across the roof, the topmost blossoms of other birches on the other side.
Before the great western doorway spread the outer harbor, whither the coasting vessels came to drop anchor at any approach of storm. These silent visitors, which arrived at dusk and went at dawn, and from which no boat landed, seemed fitting guests before the portals of the silent house. I was never tired of watching them from the piazza; but Severance always stayed outside the wall. It was a whim of his, he said; and once only I got out of him something about the resemblance of the house to some Portuguese mansion,--at Madeira, perhaps, or at Rio Janeiro, but he did not say,--with which he had no pleasant associations. Yet he afterwards seemed to wish to deny this remark, or to confuse my impressions of it, which naturally fixed it the better in my mind.
I remember well the morning when he was at last coaxed into approaching the house. It was late in September, and a day of perfect calm. As we looked from the broad piazza, there was a glassy smoothness over all the bay, and the hills were coated with a film, or rather a mere varnish, inconceivably thin, of haze more delicate than any other climate in America can show. Over the water there were white gulls flying, lazy and low; schools of young mackerel displayed their white sides above the surface; and it seemed as if even a butterfly might be seen for miles over that calm expanse. The bay was covered with mackerel-boats, and one man sculled indolently across the foreground a scarlet skiff. It was so still that every white sail-boat rested where its sail was first spread; and though the tide was at half-ebb, the anchored boats swung idly different ways from their moorings. Yet there was a continuous ripple in the broad sail of some almost motionless schooner, and there was a constant melodious plash along the shore. From the mouth of the bay came up slowly the premonitory line of bluer water, and we knew that a breeze was near.
Severance seemed to rise in spirits as we approached the house, and I noticed no sign of shrinking, except an occasional lowering of the voice. Seeing this, I ventured to joke him a little on his previous reluctance, and he replied in the same strain. I seated myself at the corner, and began sketching old Fort Louis, while he strolled along the piazza, looking in at the large, vacant windows. As he approached the farther end, I suddenly heard him give a little cry of amazement or dismay, and, looking up, saw him leaning against the wall, with pale face and hands clenched.
A minute sometimes appears a long while; and though I sprang to him instantly, yet I remember that it seemed as if, during that instant, the whole face of things had changed. The breeze had come, the bay was rippled, the sail-boats careened to the wind, fishes and birds were gone, and a dark gray cloud had come between us and the sun. Such sudden changes are not, however, uncommon after an interval of calm; and my only conscious thought at the time was of wonder at the strange aspect of my companion.
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