“Our little Master George!” said the General. “Old friends! Charming!”
“You have become quite an Italian,” said the General’s lady, “and I presume you speak the language like a native?”
“My wife sings the language, but she does not speak it,” observed the General.
At dinner, George sat at the right hand of Emily, whom the General had taken down, while the Count led in the General’s lady.
Mr. George talked and told of his travels; and he could talk well, and was the life and soul of the table, though the old Count could have been it too. Emily sat silent, but she listened, and her eyes gleamed, but she said nothing.
In the verandah, among the flowers, she and George stood together; the rose-bushes concealed them. And George was speaking again, for he took the lead now.
“Many thanks for the kind consideration you showed my old mother,” he said. “I know that you went down to her on the night when my father died, and you stayed with her till his eyes were closed. My heartiest thanks!”
He took Emily’s hand and kissed it—he might do so on such an occasion. She blushed deeply, but pressed his hand, and looked at him with her dear blue eyes.
“Your mother was a dear soul!” she said. “How fond she was of her son! And she let me read all your letters, so that I almost believe I know you. How kind you were to me when I was little girl! You used to give me pictures.”
“Which you tore in two,” said George.
“No, I have still your drawing of the castle.”
“I must build the castle in reality now,” said George; and he became quite warm at his own words.
The General and the General’s lady talked to each other in their room about the porter’s son—how he knew how to behave, and to express himself with the greatest propriety.
“He might be a tutor,” said the General.
“Intellect!” said the General’s lady; but she did not say anything more.
During the beautiful summer-time Mr. George several times visited the Count at his castle; and he was missed when he did not come.
“How much the good God has given you that he has not given to us poor mortals,” said Emily to him. “Are you sure you are very grateful for it?”
It flattered George that the lovely young girl should look up to him, and he thought then that Emily had unusually good abilities. And the General felt more and more convinced that George was no cellar-child.
“His mother was a very good woman,” he observed. “It is only right I should do her that justice now she is in her grave.”
The summer passed away, and the winter came; again there was talk about Mr. George. He was highly respected, and was received in the first circles. The General had met him at a court ball.
And now there was a ball to be given in the General’s house for Emily, and could Mr. George be invited to it?
“He whom the King invites can be invited by the General also,” said the General, and drew himself up till he stood quite an inch higher than before.
Mr. George was invited, and he came; princes and counts came, and they danced, one better than the other. But Emily could only dance one dance—the first; for she made a false step—nothing of consequence; but her foot hurt her, so that she had to be careful, and leave off dancing, and look at the others. So she sat and looked on, and the architect stood by her side.
“I suppose you are giving her the whole history of St. Peter’s,” said the General, as he passed by; and smiled, like the personification of patronage.
With the same patronizing smile he received Mr. George a few days afterwards. The young man came, no doubt, to return thanks for the invitation to the ball. What else could it be? But indeed there was something else, something very astonishing and startling. He spoke words of sheer lunacy, so that the General could hardly believe his own ears. It was “the height of rhodomontade,” an offer, quite an inconceivable offer—Mr. George came to ask the hand of Emily in marriage!
“Man!” cried the General, and his brain seemed to be boiling. “I don’t understand you at all. What is it you say? What is it you want? I don’t know you. Sir! Man! What possesses you to break into my house? And am I to stand here and listen to you?” He stepped backwards into his bed-room, locked the door behind him, and left Mr. George standing alone. George stood still for a few minutes, and then turned round and left the room. Emily was standing in the corridor.
“My father has answered?” she said, and her voice trembled.
George pressed her hand.
“He has escaped me,” he replied; “but a better time will come.”
There were tears in Emily’s eyes, but in the young man’s eyes shone courage and confidence; and the sun shone through the window, and cast his beams on the pair, and gave them his blessing.
The General sat in his room, bursting hot. Yes, he was still boiling, until he boiled over in the exclamation, “Lunacy! porter! madness!”
Not an hour was over before the General’s lady knew it out of the General’s own mouth. She called Emily, and remained alone with her.
“You poor child,” she said; “to insult you so! to insult us so! There are tears in your eyes, too, but they become you well. You look beautiful in tears. You look as I looked on my wedding-day. Weep on, my sweet Emily.”
“Yes, that I must,” said Emily, “if you and my father do not say ‘yes.’”
“Child!” screamed the General’s lady; “you are ill! You are talking wildly, and I shall have a most terrible headache! Oh, what a misfortune is coming upon our house! Don’t make your mother die, Emily, or you will have no mother.”
And the eyes of the General’s lady were wet, for she could not bear to think of her own death.
In the newspapers there was an announcement. “Mr. George has been elected Professor of the Fifth Class, number Eight.”
“It’s a pity that his parents are dead and cannot read it,” said the new porter people, who now lived in the cellar under the General’s apartments. They knew that the Professor had been born and grown up within their four walls.
“Now he’ll get a salary,” said the man.
“Yes, that’s not much for a poor child,” said the woman.
“Eighteen dollars a year,” said the man. “Why, it’s a good deal of money.”
“No, I mean the honor of it,” replied the wife. “Do you think he cares for the money? Those few dollars he can earn a hundred times over, and most likely he’ll get a rich wife into the bargain. If we had children of our own, husband, our child should be an architect and a professor too.”
George was spoken well of in the cellar, and he was spoken well of in the first floor. The old Count took upon himself to do that.
The pictures he had drawn in his childhood gave occasion for it. But how did the conversation come to turn on these pictures? Why, they had been talking of Russia and of Moscow, and thus mention was made of the Kremlin, which little George had once drawn for Miss Emily. He had drawn many pictures, but the Count especially remembered one, “Emily’s Castle,” where she was to sleep, and to dance, and to play at receiving guests.
“The Professor was a true man,” said the Count, “and would be a privy councillor before he died, it was not at all unlikely; and he might build a real castle for the young lady before that time came: why not?”
“That was a strange jest,” remarked the General’s lady, when the Count had gone away. The General shook his head thoughtfully, and went out for a ride, with his groom behind him at a proper distance, and he sat more stiffly than ever on his high horse.
It was Emily’s birthday. Flowers, books, letters, and visiting cards came pouring in. The General’s lady kissed her on the mouth, and the General kissed her on the forehead; they were affectionate parents, and they and Emily had to receive grand visitors, two of the Princes. They talked of balls and theatres, of diplomatic missions, of the government of empires and nations; and then they spoke of talent, native talent; and so the discourse turned upon the young architect.
“He is building up an immortality for himself,” said one, “and he will certainly build his way into one of our first families”.
“One of our first families!” repeated the General and afterwards the General’s lady; “what is meant by one of our first families?”
“I know for whom it was intended,” said the General’s lady, “but I shall not say it. I don’t think it. Heaven disposes, but I shall be astonished.”
“I am astonished also!” said the General. “I haven’t an idea in my head!” And he fell into a reverie, waiting for ideas.
There is a power, a nameless power, in the possession of favor from above, the favor of Providence, and this favor little George had. But we are forgetting the birthday.
Emily’s room was fragrant with flowers, sent by male and female friends; on the table lay beautiful presents for greeting and remembrance, but none could come from George—none could come from him; but it was not necessary, for the whole house was full of remembrances of him. Even out of the ash-bin the blossom of memory peeped forth, for Emily had sat whimpering there on the day when the window-curtain caught fire, and George arrived in the character of fire engine. A glance out of the window, and the acacia tree reminded of the days of childhood. Flowers and leaves had fallen, but there stood the tree covered with hoar frost, looking like a single huge branch of coral, and the moon shone clear and large among the twigs, unchanged in its changings, as it was when George divided his bread and butter with little Emily.
Out of a box the girl took the drawings of the Czar’s palace and of her own castle—remembrances of George. The drawings were looked at, and many thoughts came. She remembered the day when, unobserved by her father and mother, she had gone down to the porter’s wife who lay dying. Once again she seemed to sit beside her, holding the dying woman’s hand in hers, hearing the dying woman’s last words: “Blessing George!” The mother was thinking of her son, and now Emily gave her own interpretation to those words. Yes, George was certainly with her on her birthday.
It happened that the next day was another birthday in that house, the General’s birthday. He had been born the day after his daughter, but before her of course—many years before her. Many presents arrived, and among them came a saddle of exquisite workmanship, a comfortable and costly saddle—one of the Princes had just such another. Now, from whom might this saddle come? The General was delighted. There was a little note with the saddle. Now if the words on the note had been “many thanks for yesterday’s reception,” we might easily have guessed from whom it came. But the words were “From somebody whom the General does not know.”
“Whom in the world do I not know?” exclaimed the General. “I know everybody;” and his thoughts wandered all through society, for he knew everybody there. “That saddle comes from my wife!” he said at last. “She is teasing me—charming!”
But she was not teasing him; those times were past.
Again there was a feast, but it was not in the General’s house, it was a fancy ball at the Prince’s, and masks were allowed too.
The General went as Rubens, in a Spanish costume, with a little ruff round his neck, a sword by his side, and a stately manner. The General’s lady was Madame Rubens, in black velvet made high round the neck, exceedingly warm, and with a mill-stone round her neck in the shape of a great ruff—accurately dressed after a Dutch picture in the possession of the General, in which the hands were especially admired. They were just like the hands of the General’s lady.
Emily was Psyche. In white crape and lace she was like a floating swan. She did not want wings at all. She only wore them as emblematic of Psyche.
Brightness, splendor, light and flowers, wealth and taste appeared at the ball; there was so much to see, that the beautiful hands of Madame Rubens made no sensation at all.
A black domino, with an acacia blossom in his cap, danced with Psyche.
“Who is that?” asked the General’s lady.
“His Royal Highness,” replied the General. “I am quite sure of it. I knew him directly by the pressure of his hand.”
The General’s lady doubted it.
General Rubens had no doubts about it. He went up to the black domino and wrote the royal letters in the mask’s hand. These were denied, but the mask gave him a hint.
The words that came with the saddle: “One whom you do not know, General.”
“But I do know you,” said the General. “It was you who sent me the saddle.”
The domino raised his hand, and disappeared among the other guests.
“Who is that black domino with whom you were dancing, Emily?” asked the General’s lady.
“I did not ask his name,” she replied, “because you knew it. It is the Professor. Your protégé is here, Count!” she continued, turning to that nobleman, who stood close by. “A black domino with acacia blossoms in his cap.”
“Very likely, my dear lady,” replied the Count. “But one of the Princes wears just the same costume.”
“I knew the pressure of the hand,” said the General. “The saddle came from the Prince. I am so certain of it that I could invite that domino to dinner.”
“Do so. If it be the Prince he will certainly come,” replied the Count.
“And if it is the other he will not come,” said the General, and approached the black domino, who was just speaking with the King. The General gave a very respectful invitation “that they might make each other’s acquaintance,” and he smiled in his certainty concerning the person he was inviting. He spoke loud and distinctly.
The domino raised his mask, and it was George. “Do you repeat your invitation, General?” he asked.
The General certainly seemed to grow an inch taller, assumed a more stately demeanor, and took two steps backward and one step forward, as if he were dancing a minuet, and then came as much gravity and expression into the face of the General as the General could contrive to infuse into it; but he replied,
“I never retract my words! You are invited, Professor!” and he bowed with a glance at the King, who must have heard the whole dialogue.
Now, there was a company to dinner at the General’s, but only the old Count and his protégé were invited.
“I have my foot under his table,” thought George. “That’s laying the foundation stone.”
And the foundation stone was really laid, with great ceremony, at the house of the General and of the General’s lady.
The man had come, and had spoken quite like a person in good society, and had made himself very agreeable, so that the General had often to repeat his “Charming!” The General talked of this dinner, talked of it even to a court lady; and this lady, one of the most intellectual persons about the court, asked to be invited to meet the Professor the next time he should come. So he had to be invited again; and he was invited, and came, and was charming again; he could even play chess.
“He’s not out of the cellar,” said the General; “he’s quite a distinguished person. There are many distinguished persons of that kind, and it’s no fault of his.”
The Professor, who was received in the King’s palace, might very well be received by the General; but that he could ever belong to the house was out of the question, only the whole town was talking of it.
He grew and grew. The dew of favor fell from above, so no one was surprised after all that he should become a Privy Councillor, and Emily a Privy Councillor’s lady.
“Life is either a tragedy or a comedy,” said the General. “In tragedies they die, in comedies they marry one another.”
In this case they married. And they had three clever boys—but not all at once.
The sweet children rode on their hobby-horses through all the rooms when they came to see the grandparents. And the General also rode on his stick; he rode behind them in the character of groom to the little Privy Councillors.
And the General’s lady sat on her sofa and smiled at them, even when she had her severest headache.
So far did George get, and much further; else it had not been worth while to tell the story of THE PORTER’S SON.