The young lady in the dining-room had a brave face, black hair, blue eyes, and in her lap a big volume. "I've come for his autograph," she said, when I had explained to her that I was under bonds to see people for him when he was occupied. "I've been waiting half an hour, but I'm prepared to wait all day." I don't know whether it was this that told me she was American, for the propensity to wait all day is not in general characteristic of her race. I was enlightened probably not so much by the spirit of the utterance as by some quality of its sound. At any rate I saw she had an individual patience and a lovely frock, together with an expression that played among her pretty features as a breeze among flowers. Putting her book upon the table, she showed me a massive album, showily bound and full of autographs of price. The collection of faded notes, of still more faded "thoughts," of quotations, platitudes, signatures, represented a formidable purpose.
"Most people apply to Mr. Paraday by letter, you know," I said.
"Yes, but he doesn't answer. I've written three times."
"Very true," I reflected; "the sort of letter you mean goes straight into the fire."
"How do you know the sort I mean?" my interlocutress asked. She had blushed and smiled and in a moment she added: "I don't believe he gets many like them!"
"I'm sure they're beautiful, but he burns without reading." I didn't add that I had told him he ought to.
"Isn't he then in danger of burning things of importance?"
"He would be, if distinguished men hadn't an infallible nose for a petition."
She looked at me a moment—her face was sweet and gay. "Do you burn without reading, too?" she asked; in answer to which I assured her that if she would trust me with her repository I would see that Mr. Paraday should write his name in it.
She considered a little. "That's very well, but it wouldn't make me see him."
"Do you want very much to see him?" It seemed ungracious to catechise so charming a creature, but somehow I had never yet taken my duty to the great author so seriously.
"Enough to have come from America for the purpose."
I stared. "All alone?"
"I don't see that that's exactly your business; but if it will make me more appealing I will confess that I am quite by myself. I had to come alone or not at all."
She was interesting; I could imagine that she had lost parents, natural protectors—could conceive even that she had inherited money. I was in a phase of my own fortunes when keeping hansoms at doors seemed to me pure swagger. As a trick of this frank and delicate girl, however, it became romantic—a part of the general romance of her freedom, her errand, her innocence. The confidence of young Americans was notorious, and I speedily arrived at a conviction that no impulse could have been more generous than the impulse that had operated here. I foresaw at that moment that it would make her my peculiar charge, just as circumstances had made Neil Paraday. She would be another person to look after, and one's honour would be concerned in guiding her straight. These things became clearer to me later; at the instant I had scepticism enough to observe to her, as I turned the pages of her volume, that her net had, all the same, caught many a big fish. She appeared to have had fruitful access to the great ones of the earth; there were people moreover whose signatures she had presumably secured without a personal interview. She couldn't have waylaid George Washington and Friedrich Schiller and Hannah More. She met this argument, to my surprise, by throwing up the album without a pang. It wasn't even her own; she was responsible for none of its treasures. It belonged to a girl-friend in America, a young lady in a western city. This young lady had insisted on her bringing it, to pick up more autographs: she thought they might like to see, in Europe, in what company they would be. The "girl-friend," the western city, the immortal names, the curious errand, the idyllic faith, all made a story as strange to me, and as beguiling, as some tale in the Arabian Nights. Thus it was that my informant had encumbered herself with the ponderous tome; but she hastened to assure me that this was the first time she had brought it out. For her visit to Mr. Paraday it had simply been a pretext. She didn't really care a straw that he should write his name; what she did want was to look straight into his face.
I demurred a little. "And why do you require to do that?"
"Because I just love him!" Before I could recover from the agitating effect of this crystal ring my companion had continued: "Hasn't there ever been any face that you've wanted to look into?"
How could I tell her so soon how much I appreciated the opportunity of looking into hers? I could only assent in general to the proposition that there were certainly for every one such faces; and I felt that the crisis demanded all my lucidity, all my wisdom. "Oh, yes, I'm a student of physiognomy. Do you mean," I pursued, "that you've a passion for Mr. Paraday's books?"
"They've been everything to me—I know them by heart. They've completely taken hold of me. There's no author about whom I feel as I do about Neil Paraday."
"Permit me to remark then," I presently rejoined, "that you're one of the right sort."
"One of the enthusiasts? Of course I am!"
"Oh, there are enthusiasts who are quite of the wrong, I mean you're one of those to whom an appeal can be made."
"An appeal?" Her face lighted as if with the chance of some great sacrifice.
If she was ready for one it was only waiting for her, and in a moment I mentioned it. "Give up this rigid purpose of seeing him. Go away without it. That will be far better."
She looked mystified; then she turned visibly pale. "Why, hasn't he any personal charm?" The girl was terrible and laughable in her bright directness.
"Ah, that dreadful word 'personal'!" I exclaimed; "we're dying of it, and you women bring it out with murderous effect. When you encounter a genius as fine as this idol of ours, let him off the dreary duty of being a personality as well. Know him only by what's best in him, and spare him for the same sweet sake."
My young lady continued to look at me in confusion and mistrust, and the result of her reflection on what I had just said was to make her suddenly break out: "Look here, sir—what's the matter with him?"
"The matter with him is that, if he doesn't look out, people will eat a great hole in his life."
She considered a moment. "He hasn't any disfigurement?"
"Nothing to speak of!"
"Do you mean that social engagements interfere with his occupations?"
"That but feebly expresses it."
"So that he can't give himself up to his beautiful imagination?"
"He's badgered, bothered, overwhelmed, on the pretext of being applauded. People expect him to give them his time, his golden time, who wouldn't themselves give five shillings for one of his books."
"Five? I'd give five thousand!"
"Give your sympathy—give your forbearance. Two-thirds of those who approach him only do it to advertise themselves."
"Why, it's too bad!" the girl exclaimed, with the face of an angel.
I followed up my advantage. "There's a lady with him now who's a terrible complication, and who yet hasn't read, I am sure, ten pages that he ever wrote."
My visitor's wide eyes grew tenderer. "Then how does she talk——?"
"Without ceasing. I only mention her as a single case. Do you want to know how to show a superlative consideration? Simply avoid him."
"Avoid him?" she softly wailed.
"Don't force him to have to take account of you; admire him in silence, cultivate him at a distance and secretly appropriate his message. Do you want to know," I continued, warming to my idea, "how to perform an act of homage really sublime?" Then as she hung on my words: "Succeed in never seeing him!"
"Never?" she pathetically gasped.
"The more you get into his writings the less you'll want to; and you'll be immensely sustained by the thought of the good you're doing him."
She looked at me without resentment or spite, and at the truth I had put before her with candour, credulity and pity. I was afterwards happy to remember that she must have recognised in my face the liveliness of my interest in herself. "I think I see what you mean."
"Oh, I express it badly; but I should be delighted if you would let me come to see you to explain it better."
She made no response to this, and her thoughtful eyes fell on the big album, on which she presently laid her hands as if to take it away. "I did use to say out West that they might write a little less for autographs (to all the great poets, you know) and study the thoughts and style a little more."
"What do they care for the thoughts and style? They didn't even understand you. I'm not sure," I added, "that I do myself, and I daresay that you by no means make me out." She had got up to go, and though I wanted her to succeed in not seeing Neil Paraday I wanted her also, inconsequently, to remain in the house. I was at any rate far from desiring to hustle her off. As Mrs. Weeks Wimbush, upstairs, was still saving our friend in her own way, I asked my young lady to let me briefly relate, in illustration of my point, the little incident of my having gone down into the country for a profane purpose and been converted on the spot to holiness. Sinking again into her chair to listen, she showed a deep interest in the anecdote. Then, thinking it over gravely, she exclaimed with her odd intonation:
"Yes, but you do see him!" I had to admit that this was the case; and I was not so prepared with an effective attenuation as I could have wished. She eased the situation off, however, by the charming quaintness with which she finally said: "Well, I wouldn't want him to be lonely!" This time she rose in earnest, but I persuaded her to let me keep the album to show to Mr. Paraday. I assured her I would bring it back to her myself. "Well, you'll find my address somewhere in it, on a paper!" she sighed resignedly, as she took leave.