BY GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS (1824-1892)
Humorous Short Stories
[From Putnam's Monthly, December, 1854. Republished in the volume,
Prue and I (1856), by George William Curtis (Harper & Brothers).]
In my mind's eye, Horatio.
Prue and I do not entertain much; our means forbid it. In truth, other
people entertain for us. We enjoy that hospitality of which no account
is made. We see the show, and hear the music, and smell the flowers of
great festivities, tasting as it were the drippings from rich dishes.
Our own dinner service is remarkably plain, our dinners, even on state
occasions, are strictly in keeping, and almost our only guest is
Titbottom. I buy a handful of roses as I come up from the office,
perhaps, and Prue arranges them so prettily in a glass dish for the
centre of the table that even when I have hurried out to see Aurelia
step into her carriage to go out to dine, I have thought that the
bouquet she carried was not more beautiful because it was more costly.
I grant that it was more harmonious with her superb beauty and her
rich attire. And I have no doubt that if Aurelia knew the old man,
whom she must have seen so often watching her, and his wife, who
ornaments her sex with as much sweetness, although with less splendor,
than Aurelia herself, she would also acknowledge that the nosegay of
roses was as fine and fit upon their table as her own sumptuous
bouquet is for herself. I have that faith in the perception of that
lovely lady. It is at least my habit—I hope I may say, my nature, to
believe the best of people, rather than the worst. If I thought that
all this sparkling setting of beauty—this fine fashion—these blazing
jewels and lustrous silks and airy gauzes, embellished with
gold-threaded embroidery and wrought in a thousand exquisite
elaborations, so that I cannot see one of those lovely girls pass me
by without thanking God for the vision—if I thought that this was
all, and that underneath her lace flounces and diamond bracelets
Aurelia was a sullen, selfish woman, then I should turn sadly
homewards, for I should see that her jewels were flashing scorn upon
the object they adorned, and that her laces were of a more exquisite
loveliness than the woman whom they merely touched with a superficial
grace. It would be like a gaily decorated mausoleum—bright to see,
but silent and dark within.
"Great excellences, my dear Prue," I sometimes allow myself to say,
"lie concealed in the depths of character, like pearls at the bottom
of the sea. Under the laughing, glancing surface, how little they are
suspected! Perhaps love is nothing else than the sight of them by one
person. Hence every man's mistress is apt to be an enigma to everybody
else. I have no doubt that when Aurelia is engaged, people will say
that she is a most admirable girl, certainly; but they cannot
understand why any man should be in love with her. As if it were at
all necessary that they should! And her lover, like a boy who finds a
pearl in the public street, and wonders as much that others did not
see it as that he did, will tremble until he knows his passion is
returned; feeling, of course, that the whole world must be in love
with this paragon who cannot possibly smile upon anything so unworthy
"I hope, therefore, my dear Mrs. Prue," I continue to say to my wife,
who looks up from her work regarding me with pleased pride, as if I
were such an irresistible humorist, "you will allow me to believe that
the depth may be calm although the surface is dancing. If you tell me
that Aurelia is but a giddy girl, I shall believe that you think so.
But I shall know, all the while, what profound dignity, and sweetness,
and peace lie at the foundation of her character."
I say such things to Titbottom during the dull season at the office.
And I have known him sometimes to reply with a kind of dry, sad humor,
not as if he enjoyed the joke, but as if the joke must be made, that
he saw no reason why I should be dull because the season was so.
"And what do I know of Aurelia or any other girl?" he says to me with
that abstracted air. "I, whose Aurelias were of another century and
Then he falls into a silence which it seems quite profane to
interrupt. But as we sit upon our high stools at the desk opposite
each other, I leaning upon my elbows and looking at him; he, with
sidelong face, glancing out of the window, as if it commanded a
boundless landscape, instead of a dim, dingy office court, I cannot
refrain from saying:
He turns slowly, and I go chatting on—a little too loquacious,
perhaps, about those young girls. But I know that Titbottom regards
such an excess as venial, for his sadness is so sweet that you could
believe it the reflection of a smile from long, long years ago.
One day, after I had been talking for a long time, and we had put up
our books, and were preparing to leave, he stood for some time by the
window, gazing with a drooping intentness, as if he really saw
something more than the dark court, and said slowly:
"Perhaps you would have different impressions of things if you saw
them through my spectacles."
There was no change in his expression. He still looked from the
window, and I said:
"Titbottom, I did not know that you used glasses. I have never seen
you wearing spectacles."
"No, I don't often wear them. I am not very fond of looking through
them. But sometimes an irresistible necessity compels me to put them
on, and I cannot help seeing." Titbottom sighed.
"Is it so grievous a fate, to see?" inquired I.
"Yes; through my spectacles," he said, turning slowly and looking at
me with wan solemnity.
It grew dark as we stood in the office talking, and taking our hats we
went out together. The narrow street of business was deserted. The
heavy iron shutters were gloomily closed over the windows. From one or
two offices struggled the dim gleam of an early candle, by whose light
some perplexed accountant sat belated, and hunting for his error. A
careless clerk passed, whistling. But the great tide of life had
ebbed. We heard its roar far away, and the sound stole into that
silent street like the murmur of the ocean into an inland dell.
"You will come and dine with us, Titbottom?"
He assented by continuing to walk with me, and I think we were both
glad when we reached the house, and Prue came to meet us, saying:
"Do you know I hoped you would bring Mr. Titbottom to dine?"
Titbottom smiled gently, and answered:
"He might have brought his spectacles with him, and I have been a
happier man for it."
Prue looked a little puzzled.
"My dear," I said, "you must know that our friend, Mr. Titbottom, is
the happy possessor of a pair of wonderful spectacles. I have never
seen them, indeed; and, from what he says, I should be rather afraid
of being seen by them. Most short-sighted persons are very glad to
have the help of glasses; but Mr. Titbottom seems to find very little
pleasure in his."
"It is because they make him too far-sighted, perhaps," interrupted
Prue quietly, as she took the silver soup-ladle from the sideboard.
We sipped our wine after dinner, and Prue took her work. Can a man be
too far-sighted? I did not ask the question aloud. The very tone in
which Prue had spoken convinced me that he might.
"At least," I said, "Mr. Titbottom will not refuse to tell us the
history of his mysterious spectacles. I have known plenty of magic in
eyes"—and I glanced at the tender blue eyes of Prue—"but I have not
heard of any enchanted glasses."
"Yet you must have seen the glass in which your wife looks every
morning, and I take it that glass must be daily enchanted." said
Titbottom, with a bow of quaint respect to my wife.
I do not think I have seen such a blush upon Prue's cheek since—well,
since a great many years ago.
"I will gladly tell you the history of my spectacles," began
Titbottom. "It is very simple; and I am not at all sure that a great
many other people have not a pair of the same kind. I have never,
indeed, heard of them by the gross, like those of our young friend,
Moses, the son of the Vicar of Wakefield. In fact, I think a gross
would be quite enough to supply the world. It is a kind of article for
which the demand does not increase with use. If we should all wear
spectacles like mine, we should never smile any more. Oh—I am not
quite sure—we should all be very happy."
"A very important difference," said Prue, counting her stitches.
"You know my grandfather Titbottom was a West Indian. A large
proprietor, and an easy man, he basked in the tropical sun, leading
his quiet, luxurious life. He lived much alone, and was what people
call eccentric, by which I understand that he was very much himself,
and, refusing the influence of other people, they had their little
revenges, and called him names. It is a habit not exclusively
tropical. I think I have seen the same thing even in this city. But he
was greatly beloved—my bland and bountiful grandfather. He was so
large-hearted and open-handed. He was so friendly, and thoughtful, and
genial, that even his jokes had the air of graceful benedictions. He
did not seem to grow old, and he was one of those who never appear to
have been very young. He flourished in a perennial maturity, an
"My grandfather lived upon one of the small islands, St. Kit's,
perhaps, and his domain extended to the sea. His house, a rambling
West Indian mansion, was surrounded with deep, spacious piazzas,
covered with luxurious lounges, among which one capacious chair was
his peculiar seat. They tell me he used sometimes to sit there for the
whole day, his great, soft, brown eyes fastened upon the sea, watching
the specks of sails that flashed upon the horizon, while the
evanescent expressions chased each other over his placid face, as if
it reflected the calm and changing sea before him. His morning costume
was an ample dressing-gown of gorgeously flowered silk, and his
morning was very apt to last all day.
"He rarely read, but he would pace the great piazza for hours, with
his hands sunken in the pockets of his dressing-gown, and an air of
sweet reverie, which any author might be very happy to produce.
"Society, of course, he saw little. There was some slight apprehension
that if he were bidden to social entertainments he might forget his
coat, or arrive without some other essential part of his dress; and
there is a sly tradition in the Titbottom family that, having been
invited to a ball in honor of the new governor of the island, my
grandfather Titbottom sauntered into the hall towards midnight,
wrapped in the gorgeous flowers of his dressing-gown, and with his
hands buried in the pockets, as usual. There was great excitement, and
immense deprecation of gubernatorial ire. But it happened that the
governor and my grandfather were old friends, and there was no
offense. But as they were conversing together, one of the distressed
managers cast indignant glances at the brilliant costume of my
grandfather, who summoned him, and asked courteously:
"'Did you invite me or my coat?'
"'You, in a proper coat,' replied the manager.
"The governor smiled approvingly, and looked at my grandfather.
"'My friend," said he to the manager, 'I beg your pardon, I forgot.'
"The next day my grandfather was seen promenading in full ball dress
along the streets of the little town.
"'They ought to know,' said he, 'that I have a proper coat, and that
not contempt nor poverty, but forgetfulness, sent me to a ball in my
"He did not much frequent social festivals after this failure, but he
always told the story with satisfaction and a quiet smile.
"To a stranger, life upon those little islands is uniform even to
weariness. But the old native dons like my grandfather ripen in the
prolonged sunshine, like the turtle upon the Bahama banks, nor know of
existence more desirable. Life in the tropics I take to be a placid
torpidity. During the long, warm mornings of nearly half a century, my
grandfather Titbottom had sat in his dressing-gown and gazed at the
sea. But one calm June day, as he slowly paced the piazza after
breakfast, his dreamy glance was arrested by a little vessel,
evidently nearing the shore. He called for his spyglass, and surveying
the craft, saw that she came from the neighboring island. She glided
smoothly, slowly, over the summer sea. The warm morning air was sweet
with perfumes, and silent with heat. The sea sparkled languidly, and
the brilliant blue hung cloudlessly over. Scores of little island
vessels had my grandfather seen come over the horizon, and cast anchor
in the port. Hundreds of summer mornings had the white sails flashed
and faded, like vague faces through forgotten dreams. But this time he
laid down the spyglass, and leaned against a column of the piazza, and
watched the vessel with an intentness that he could not explain. She
came nearer and nearer, a graceful spectre in the dazzling morning.
"'Decidedly I must step down and see about that vessel,' said my
"He gathered his ample dressing-gown about him, and stepped from the
piazza with no other protection from the sun than the little smoking
cap upon his head. His face wore a calm, beaming smile, as if he
approved of all the world. He was not an old man, but there was almost
a patriarchal pathos in his expression as he sauntered along in the
sunshine towards the shore. A group of idle gazers was collected to
watch the arrival. The little vessel furled her sails and drifted
slowly landward, and as she was of very light draft, she came close to
the shelving shore. A long plank was put out from her side, and the
debarkation commenced. My grandfather Titbottom stood looking on to
see the passengers descend. There were but a few of them, and mostly
traders from the neighboring island. But suddenly the face of a young
girl appeared over the side of the vessel, and she stepped upon the
plank to descend. My grandfather Titbottom instantly advanced, and
moving briskly reached the top of the plank at the same moment, and
with the old tassel of his cap flashing in the sun, and one hand in
the pocket of his dressing gown, with the other he handed the young
lady carefully down the plank. That young lady was afterwards my
"And so, over the gleaming sea which he had watched so long, and which
seemed thus to reward his patient gaze, came his bride that sunny
"'Of course we are happy,' he used to say: 'For you are the gift of
the sun I have loved so long and so well.' And my grandfather
Titbottom would lay his hand so tenderly upon the golden hair of his
young bride, that you could fancy him a devout Parsee caressing
"There were endless festivities upon occasion of the marriage; and my
grandfather did not go to one of them in his dressing-gown. The gentle
sweetness of his wife melted every heart into love and sympathy. He
was much older than she, without doubt. But age, as he used to say
with a smile of immortal youth, is a matter of feeling, not of years.
And if, sometimes, as she sat by his side upon the piazza, her fancy
looked through her eyes upon that summer sea and saw a younger lover,
perhaps some one of those graceful and glowing heroes who occupy the
foreground of all young maidens' visions by the sea, yet she could not
find one more generous and gracious, nor fancy one more worthy and
loving than my grandfather Titbottom. And if in the moonlit midnight,
while he lay calmly sleeping, she leaned out of the window and sank
into vague reveries of sweet possibility, and watched the gleaming
path of the moonlight upon the water, until the dawn glided over
it—it was only that mood of nameless regret and longing, which
underlies all human happiness,—or it was the vision of that life of
society, which she had never seen, but of which she had often read,
and which looked very fair and alluring across the sea to a girlish
imagination which knew that it should never know that reality.
"These West Indian years were the great days of the family," said
Titbottom, with an air of majestic and regal regret, pausing and
musing in our little parlor, like a late Stuart in exile, remembering
England. Prue raised her eyes from her work, and looked at him with a
subdued admiration; for I have observed that, like the rest of her
sex, she has a singular sympathy with the representative of a reduced
family. Perhaps it is their finer perception which leads these
tender-hearted women to recognize the divine right of social
superiority so much more readily than we; and yet, much as Titbottom
was enhanced in my wife's admiration by the discovery that his dusky
sadness of nature and expression was, as it were, the expiring gleam
and late twilight of ancestral splendors, I doubt if Mr. Bourne would
have preferred him for bookkeeper a moment sooner upon that account.
In truth, I have observed, down town, that the fact of your ancestors
doing nothing is not considered good proof that you can do anything.
But Prue and her sex regard sentiment more than action, and I
understand easily enough why she is never tired of hearing me read of
Prince Charlie. If Titbottom had been only a little younger, a little
handsomer, a little more gallantly dressed—in fact, a little more of
the Prince Charlie, I am sure her eyes would not have fallen again
upon her work so tranquilly, as he resumed his story.
"I can remember my grandfather Titbottom, although I was a very young
child, and he was a very old man. My young mother and my young
grandmother are very distinct figures in my memory, ministering to the
old gentleman, wrapped in his dressing-gown, and seated upon the
piazza. I remember his white hair and his calm smile, and how, not
long before he died, he called me to him, and laying his hand upon my
head, said to me:
"My child, the world is not this great sunny piazza, nor life the
fairy stories which the women tell you here as you sit in their laps.
I shall soon be gone, but I want to leave with you some memento of my
love for you, and I know nothing more valuable than these spectacles,
which your grandmother brought from her native island, when she
arrived here one fine summer morning, long ago. I cannot quite tell
whether, when you grow older, you will regard it as a gift of the
greatest value or as something that you had been happier never to have
"'But grandpapa, I am not short-sighted.'
"'My son, are you not human?' said the old gentleman; and how shall I
ever forget the thoughtful sadness with which, at the same time he
handed me the spectacles.
"Instinctively I put them on, and looked at my grandfather. But I saw
no grandfather, no piazza, no flowered dressing-gown: I saw only a
luxuriant palm-tree, waving broadly over a tranquil landscape.
Pleasant homes clustered around it. Gardens teeming with fruit and
flowers; flocks quietly feeding; birds wheeling and chirping. I heard
children's voices, and the low lullaby of happy mothers. The sound of
cheerful singing came wafted from distant fields upon the light
breeze. Golden harvests glistened out of sight, and I caught their
rustling whisper of prosperity. A warm, mellow atmosphere bathed the
whole. I have seen copies of the landscapes of the Italian painter
Claude which seemed to me faint reminiscences of that calm and happy
vision. But all this peace and prosperity seemed to flow from the
spreading palm as from a fountain.
"I do not know how long I looked, but I had, apparently, no power, as
I had no will, to remove the spectacles. What a wonderful island must
Nevis be, thought I, if people carry such pictures in their pockets,
only by buying a pair of spectacles! What wonder that my dear
grandmother Titbottom has lived such a placid life, and has blessed us
all with her sunny temper, when she has lived surrounded by such
images of peace.
"My grandfather died. But still, in the warm morning sunshine upon the
piazza, I felt his placid presence, and as I crawled into his great
chair, and drifted on in reverie through the still, tropical day, it
was as if his soft, dreamy eye had passed into my soul. My grandmother
cherished his memory with tender regret. A violent passion of grief
for his loss was no more possible than for the pensive decay of the
year. We have no portrait of him, but I see always, when I remember
him, that peaceful and luxuriant palm. And I think that to have known
one good old man—one man who, through the chances and rubs of a long
life, has carried his heart in his hand, like a palm branch, waving
all discords into peace, helps our faith in God, in ourselves, and in
each other, more than many sermons. I hardly know whether to be
grateful to my grandfather for the spectacles; and yet when I remember
that it is to them I owe the pleasant image of him which I cherish, I
seem to myself sadly ungrateful.
"Madam," said Titbottom to Prue, solemnly, "my memory is a long and
gloomy gallery, and only remotely, at its further end, do I see the
glimmer of soft sunshine, and only there are the pleasant pictures
hung. They seem to me very happy along whose gallery the sunlight
streams to their very feet, striking all the pictured walls into
Prue had laid her work in her lap, and as Titbottom paused a moment,
and I turned towards her, I found her mild eyes fastened upon my face,
and glistening with happy tears.
"Misfortunes of many kinds came heavily upon the family after the head
was gone. The great house was relinquished. My parents were both dead,
and my grandmother had entire charge of me. But from the moment that I
received the gift of the spectacles, I could not resist their
fascination, and I withdrew into myself, and became a solitary boy.
There were not many companions for me of my own age, and they
gradually left me, or, at least, had not a hearty sympathy with me;
for if they teased me I pulled out my spectacles and surveyed them so
seriously that they acquired a kind of awe of me, and evidently
regarded my grandfather's gift as a concealed magical weapon which
might be dangerously drawn upon them at any moment. Whenever, in our
games, there were quarrels and high words, and I began to feel about
my dress and to wear a grave look, they all took the alarm, and
shouted, 'Look out for Titbottom's spectacles,' and scattered like a
flock of scared sheep.
"Nor could I wonder at it. For, at first, before they took the alarm,
I saw strange sights when I looked at them through the glasses. If two
were quarrelling about a marble or a ball, I had only to go behind a
tree where I was concealed and look at them leisurely. Then the scene
changed, and no longer a green meadow with boys playing, but a spot
which I did not recognize, and forms that made me shudder or smile. It
was not a big boy bullying a little one, but a young wolf with
glistening teeth and a lamb cowering before him; or, it was a dog
faithful and famishing—or a star going slowly into eclipse—or a
rainbow fading—or a flower blooming—or a sun rising—or a waning
moon. The revelations of the spectacles determined my feeling for the
boys, and for all whom I saw through them. No shyness, nor
awkwardness, nor silence, could separate me from those who looked
lovely as lilies to my illuminated eyes. If I felt myself warmly drawn
to any one I struggled with the fierce desire of seeing him through
the spectacles. I longed to enjoy the luxury of ignorant feeling, to
love without knowing, to float like a leaf upon the eddies of life,
drifted now to a sunny point, now to a solemn shade—now over
glittering ripples, now over gleaming calms,—and not to determined
ports, a trim vessel with an inexorable rudder.
"But, sometimes, mastered after long struggles, I seized my spectacles
and sauntered into the little town. Putting them to my eyes I peered
into the houses and at the people who passed me. Here sat a family at
breakfast, and I stood at the window looking in. O motley meal!
fantastic vision! The good mother saw her lord sitting opposite, a
grave, respectable being, eating muffins. But I saw only a bank-bill,
more or less crumpled and tattered, marked with a larger or lesser
figure. If a sharp wind blew suddenly, I saw it tremble and flutter;
it was thin, flat, impalpable. I removed my glasses, and looked with
my eyes at the wife. I could have smiled to see the humid tenderness
with which she regarded her strange vis-à-vis. Is life only a game
of blind-man's-buff? of droll cross-purposes?
"Or I put them on again, and looked at the wife. How many stout trees
I saw,—how many tender flowers,—how many placid pools; yes, and how
many little streams winding out of sight, shrinking before the large,
hard, round eyes opposite, and slipping off into solitude and shade,
with a low, inner song for their own solace. And in many houses I
thought to see angels, nymphs, or at least, women, and could only find
broomsticks, mops, or kettles, hurrying about, rattling, tinkling, in
a state of shrill activity. I made calls upon elegant ladies, and
after I had enjoyed the gloss of silk and the delicacy of lace, and
the flash of jewels, I slipped on my spectacles, and saw a peacock's
feather, flounced and furbelowed and fluttering; or an iron rod, thin,
sharp, and hard; nor could I possibly mistake the movement of the
drapery for any flexibility of the thing draped,—or, mysteriously
chilled, I saw a statue of perfect form, or flowing movement, it might
be alabaster, or bronze, or marble,—but sadly often it was ice; and I
knew that after it had shone a little, and frozen a few eyes with its
despairing perfection, it could not be put away in the niches of
palaces for ornament and proud family tradition, like the alabaster,
or bronze, or marble statues, but would melt, and shrink, and fall
coldly away in colorless and useless water, be absorbed in the earth
and utterly forgotten.
"But the true sadness was rather in seeing those who, not having the
spectacles, thought that the iron rod was flexible, and the ice statue
warm. I saw many a gallant heart, which seemed to me brave and loyal
as the crusaders sent by genuine and noble faith to Syria and the
sepulchre, pursuing, through days and nights, and a long life of
devotion, the hope of lighting at least a smile in the cold eyes, if
not a fire in the icy heart. I watched the earnest, enthusiastic
sacrifice. I saw the pure resolve, the generous faith, the fine scorn
of doubt, the impatience of suspicion. I watched the grace, the ardor,
the glory of devotion. Through those strange spectacles how often I
saw the noblest heart renouncing all other hope, all other ambition,
all other life, than the possible love of some one of those statues.
Ah! me, it was terrible, but they had not the love to give. The Parian
face was so polished and smooth, because there was no sorrow upon the
heart,—and, drearily often, no heart to be touched. I could not
wonder that the noble heart of devotion was broken, for it had dashed
itself against a stone. I wept, until my spectacles were dimmed for
that hopeless sorrow; but there was a pang beyond tears for those icy
"Still a boy, I was thus too much a man in knowledge,—I did not
comprehend the sights I was compelled to see. I used to tear my
glasses away from my eyes, and, frightened at myself, run to escape my
own consciousness. Reaching the small house where we then lived, I
plunged into my grandmother's room and, throwing myself upon the
floor, buried my face in her lap; and sobbed myself to sleep with
premature grief. But when I awakened, and felt her cool hand upon my
hot forehead, and heard the low, sweet song, or the gentle story, or
the tenderly told parable from the Bible, with which she tried to
soothe me, I could not resist the mystic fascination that lured me, as
I lay in her lap, to steal a glance at her through the spectacles.
"Pictures of the Madonna have not her rare and pensive beauty. Upon
the tranquil little islands her life had been eventless, and all the
fine possibilities of her nature were like flowers that never bloomed.
Placid were all her years; yet I have read of no heroine, of no woman
great in sudden crises, that it did not seem to me she might have
been. The wife and widow of a man who loved his own home better than
the homes of others, I have yet heard of no queen, no belle, no
imperial beauty, whom in grace, and brilliancy, and persuasive
courtesy, she might not have surpassed.
"Madam," said Titbottom to my wife, whose heart hung upon his story;
"your husband's young friend, Aurelia, wears sometimes a camelia in
her hair, and no diamond in the ball-room seems so costly as that
perfect flower, which women envy, and for whose least and withered
petal men sigh; yet, in the tropical solitudes of Brazil, how many a
camelia bud drops from a bush that no eye has ever seen, which, had it
flowered and been noticed, would have gilded all hearts with its
"When I stole these furtive glances at my grandmother, half fearing
that they were wrong, I saw only a calm lake, whose shores were low,
and over which the sky hung unbroken, so that the least star was
clearly reflected. It had an atmosphere of solemn twilight
tranquillity, and so completely did its unruffled surface blend with
the cloudless, star-studded sky, that, when I looked through my
spectacles at my grandmother, the vision seemed to me all heaven and
stars. Yet, as I gazed and gazed, I felt what stately cities might
well have been built upon those shores, and have flashed prosperity
over the calm, like coruscations of pearls.
"I dreamed of gorgeous fleets, silken sailed and blown by perfumed
winds, drifting over those depthless waters and through those spacious
skies. I gazed upon the twilight, the inscrutable silence, like a
God-fearing discoverer upon a new, and vast, and dim sea, bursting
upon him through forest glooms, and in the fervor of whose impassioned
gaze, a millennial and poetic world arises, and man need no longer die
to be happy.
"My companions naturally deserted me, for I had grown wearily grave
and abstracted: and, unable to resist the allurement of my spectacles,
I was constantly lost in a world, of which those companions were part,
yet of which they knew nothing. I grew cold and hard, almost morose;
people seemed to me blind and unreasonable. They did the wrong thing.
They called green, yellow; and black, white. Young men said of a girl,
'What a lovely, simple creature!' I looked, and there was only a
glistening wisp of straw, dry and hollow. Or they said, 'What a cold,
proud beauty!' I looked, and lo! a Madonna, whose heart held the
world. Or they said, 'What a wild, giddy girl!' and I saw a glancing,
dancing mountain stream, pure as the virgin snows whence it flowed,
singing through sun and shade, over pearls and gold dust, slipping
along unstained by weed, or rain, or heavy foot of cattle, touching
the flowers with a dewy kiss,—a beam of grace, a happy song, a line
of light, in the dim and troubled landscape.
"My grandmother sent me to school, but I looked at the master, and saw
that he was a smooth, round ferule—or an improper noun—or a vulgar
fraction, and refused to obey him. Or he was a piece of string, a rag,
a willow-wand, and I had a contemptuous pity. But one was a well of
cool, deep water, and looking suddenly in, one day, I saw the stars.
He gave me all my schooling. With him I used to walk by the sea, and,
as we strolled and the waves plunged in long legions before us, I
looked at him through the spectacles, and as his eye dilated with the
boundless view, and his chest heaved with an impossible desire, I saw
Xerxes and his army tossing and glittering, rank upon rank, multitude
upon multitude, out of sight, but ever regularly advancing and with
the confused roar of ceaseless music, prostrating themselves in abject
homage. Or, as with arms outstretched and hair streaming on the wind,
he chanted full lines of the resounding Iliad, I saw Homer pacing the
AEgean sands in the Greek sunsets of forgotten times.
"My grandmother died, and I was thrown into the world without
resources, and with no capital but my spectacles. I tried to find
employment, but men were shy of me. There was a vague suspicion that I
was either a little crazed, or a good deal in league with the Prince
of Darkness. My companions who would persist in calling a piece of
painted muslin a fair and fragrant flower had no difficulty; success
waited for them around every corner, and arrived in every ship. I
tried to teach, for I loved children. But if anything excited my
suspicion, and, putting on my spectacles, I saw that I was fondling a
snake, or smelling at a bud with a worm in it, I sprang up in horror
and ran away; or, if it seemed to me through the glasses that a cherub
smiled upon me, or a rose was blooming in my buttonhole, then I felt
myself imperfect and impure, not fit to be leading and training what
was so essentially superior in quality to myself, and I kissed the
children and left them weeping and wondering.
"In despair I went to a great merchant on the island, and asked him to
"'My young friend,' said he, 'I understand that you have some singular
secret, some charm, or spell, or gift, or something, I don't know
what, of which people are afraid. Now, you know, my dear,' said the
merchant, swelling up, and apparently prouder of his great stomach
than of his large fortune, 'I am not of that kind. I am not easily
frightened. You may spare yourself the pain of trying to impose upon
me. People who propose to come to time before I arrive, are accustomed
to arise very early in the morning,' said he, thrusting his thumbs in
the armholes of his waistcoat, and spreading the fingers, like two
fans, upon his bosom. 'I think I have heard something of your secret.
You have a pair of spectacles, I believe, that you value very much,
because your grandmother brought them as a marriage portion to your
grandfather. Now, if you think fit to sell me those spectacles, I will
pay you the largest market price for glasses. What do you say?'
"I told him that I had not the slightest idea of selling my
"'My young friend means to eat them, I suppose,' said he with a
"I made no reply, but was turning to leave the office, when the
merchant called after me—
"'My young friend, poor people should never suffer themselves to get
into pets. Anger is an expensive luxury, in which only men of a
certain income can indulge. A pair of spectacles and a hot temper are
not the most promising capital for success in life, Master Titbottom.'
"I said nothing, but put my hand upon the door to go out, when the
merchant said more respectfully,—
"'Well, you foolish boy, if you will not sell your spectacles, perhaps
you will agree to sell the use of them to me. That is, you shall only
put them on when I direct you, and for my purposes. Hallo! you little
fool!' cried he impatiently, as he saw that I intended to make no
"But I had pulled out my spectacles, and put them on for my own
purpose, and against his direction and desire. I looked at him, and
saw a huge bald-headed wild boar, with gross chops and a leering
eye—only the more ridiculous for the high-arched, gold-bowed
spectacles, that straddled his nose. One of his fore hoofs was thrust
into the safe, where his bills payable were hived, and the other into
his pocket, among the loose change and bills there. His ears were
pricked forward with a brisk, sensitive smartness. In a world where
prize pork was the best excellence, he would have carried off all the
"I stepped into the next office in the street, and a mild-faced,
genial man, also a large and opulent merchant, asked me my business in
such a tone, that I instantly looked through my spectacles, and saw a
land flowing with milk and honey. There I pitched my tent, and stayed
till the good man died, and his business was discontinued.
"But while there," said Titbottom, and his voice trembled away into a
sigh, "I first saw Preciosa. Spite of the spectacles, I saw Preciosa.
For days, for weeks, for months, I did not take my spectacles with me.
I ran away from them, I threw them up on high shelves, I tried to make
up my mind to throw them into the sea, or down the well. I could not,
I would not, I dared not look at Preciosa through the spectacles. It
was not possible for me deliberately to destroy them; but I awoke in
the night, and could almost have cursed my dear old grandfather for
his gift. I escaped from the office, and sat for whole days with
Preciosa. I told her the strange things I had seen with my mystic
glasses. The hours were not enough for the wild romances which I raved
in her ear. She listened, astonished and appalled. Her blue eyes
turned upon me with a sweet deprecation. She clung to me, and then
withdrew, and fled fearfully from the room. But she could not stay
away. She could not resist my voice, in whose tones burned all the
love that filled my heart and brain. The very effort to resist the
desire of seeing her as I saw everybody else, gave a frenzy and an
unnatural tension to my feeling and my manner. I sat by her side,
looking into her eyes, smoothing her hair, folding her to my heart,
which was sunken and deep—why not forever?—in that dream of peace. I
ran from her presence, and shouted, and leaped with joy, and sat the
whole night through, thrilled into happiness by the thought of her
love and loveliness, like a wind-harp, tightly strung, and answering
the airiest sigh of the breeze with music. Then came calmer days—the
conviction of deep love settled upon our lives—as after the hurrying,
heaving days of spring, comes the bland and benignant summer.
"'It is no dream, then, after all, and we are happy,' I said to her,
one day; and there came no answer, for happiness is speechless.
"We are happy then," I said to myself, "there is no excitement now.
How glad I am that I can now look at her through my spectacles."
"I feared lest some instinct should warn me to beware.
I escaped from her arms, and ran home and seized the glasses and
bounded back again to Preciosa. As I entered the room I was heated, my
head was swimming with confused apprehension, my eyes must have
glared. Preciosa was frightened, and rising from her seat, stood with
an inquiring glance of surprise in her eyes. But I was bent with
frenzy upon my purpose. I was merely aware that she was in the room. I
saw nothing else. I heard nothing. I cared for nothing, but to see her
through that magic glass, and feel at once, all the fulness of
blissful perfection which that would reveal. Preciosa stood before the
mirror, but alarmed at my wild and eager movements, unable to
distinguish what I had in my hands, and seeing me raise them suddenly
to my face, she shrieked with terror, and fell fainting upon the
floor, at the very moment that I placed the glasses before my eyes,
and beheld—myself, reflected in the mirror, before which she had been
"Dear madam," cried Titbottom, to my wife, springing up and falling
back again in his chair, pale and trembling, while Prue ran to him and
took his hand, and I poured out a glass of water—"I saw myself."
There was silence for many minutes. Prue laid her hand gently upon the
head of our guest, whose eyes were closed, and who breathed softly,
like an infant in sleeping. Perhaps, in all the long years of anguish
since that hour, no tender hand had touched his brow, nor wiped away
the damps of a bitter sorrow. Perhaps the tender, maternal fingers of
my wife soothed his weary head with the conviction that he felt the
hand of his mother playing with the long hair of her boy in the soft
West Indian morning. Perhaps it was only the natural relief of
expressing a pent-up sorrow. When he spoke again, it was with the old,
subdued tone, and the air of quaint solemnity.
"These things were matters of long, long ago, and I came to this
country soon after. I brought with me, premature age, a past of
melancholy memories, and the magic spectacles. I had become their
slave. I had nothing more to fear. Having seen myself, I was compelled
to see others, properly to understand my relations to them. The lights
that cheer the future of other men had gone out for me. My eyes were
those of an exile turned backwards upon the receding shore, and not
forwards with hope upon the ocean. I mingled with men, but with little
pleasure. There are but many varieties of a few types. I did not find
those I came to clearer sighted than those I had left behind. I heard
men called shrewd and wise, and report said they were highly
intelligent and successful. But when I looked at them through my
glasses, I found no halo of real manliness. My finest sense detected
no aroma of purity and principle; but I saw only a fungus that had
fattened and spread in a night. They all went to the theater to see
actors upon the stage. I went to see actors in the boxes, so
consummately cunning, that the others did not know they were acting,
and they did not suspect it themselves.
"Perhaps you wonder it did not make me misanthropical. My dear
friends, do not forget that I had seen myself. It made me
compassionate, not cynical. Of course I could not value highly the
ordinary standards of success and excellence. When I went to church
and saw a thin, blue, artificial flower, or a great sleepy cushion
expounding the beauty of holiness to pews full of eagles, half-eagles,
and threepences, however adroitly concealed in broadcloth and boots:
or saw an onion in an Easter bonnet weeping over the sins of Magdalen,
I did not feel as they felt who saw in all this, not only propriety,
but piety. Or when at public meetings an eel stood up on end, and
wriggled and squirmed lithely in every direction, and declared that,
for his part, he went in for rainbows and hot water—how could I help
seeing that he was still black and loved a slimy pool?
"I could not grow misanthropical when I saw in the eyes of so many who
were called old, the gushing fountains of eternal youth, and the light
of an immortal dawn, or when I saw those who were esteemed
unsuccessful and aimless, ruling a fair realm of peace and plenty,
either in themselves, or more perfectly in another—a realm and
princely possession for which they had well renounced a hopeless
search and a belated triumph. I knew one man who had been for years a
by-word for having sought the philosopher's stone. But I looked at him
through the spectacles and saw a satisfaction in concentrated
energies, and a tenacity arising from devotion to a noble dream, which
was not apparent in the youths who pitied him in the aimless
effeminacy of clubs, nor in the clever gentlemen who cracked their
thin jokes upon him over a gossiping dinner.
"And there was your neighbor over the way, who passes for a woman who
has failed in her career, because she is an old maid. People wag
solemn heads of pity, and say that she made so great a mistake in not
marrying the brilliant and famous man who was for long years her
suitor. It is clear that no orange flower will ever bloom for her. The
young people make tender romances about her as they watch her, and
think of her solitary hours of bitter regret, and wasting longing,
never to be satisfied. When I first came to town I shared this
sympathy, and pleased my imagination with fancying her hard struggle
with the conviction that she had lost all that made life beautiful. I
supposed that if I looked at her through my spectacles, I should see
that it was only her radiant temper which so illuminated her dress,
that we did not see it to be heavy sables. But when, one day, I did
raise my glasses and glanced at her, I did not see the old maid whom
we all pitied for a secret sorrow, but a woman whose nature was a
tropic, in which the sun shone, and birds sang, and flowers bloomed
forever. There were no regrets, no doubts and half wishes, but a calm
sweetness, a transparent peace. I saw her blush when that old lover
passed by, or paused to speak to her, but it was only the sign of
delicate feminine consciousness. She knew his love, and honored it,
although she could not understand it nor return it. I looked closely
at her, and I saw that although all the world had exclaimed at her
indifference to such homage, and had declared it was astonishing she
should lose so fine a match, she would only say simply and quietly—
"'If Shakespeare loved me and I did not love him, how could I marry
"Could I be misanthropical when I saw such fidelity, and dignity, and
"You may believe that I was especially curious to look at that old
lover of hers, through my glasses. He was no longer young, you know,
when I came, and his fame and fortune were secure. Certainly I have
heard of few men more beloved, and of none more worthy to be loved. He
had the easy manner of a man of the world, the sensitive grace of a
poet, and the charitable judgment of a wide traveller. He was
accounted the most successful and most unspoiled of men. Handsome,
brilliant, wise, tender, graceful, accomplished, rich, and famous, I
looked at him, without the spectacles, in surprise, and admiration,
and wondered how your neighbor over the way had been so entirely
untouched by his homage. I watched their intercourse in society, I saw
her gay smile, her cordial greeting; I marked his frank address, his
lofty courtesy. Their manner told no tales. The eager world was
balked, and I pulled out my spectacles.
"I had seen her, already, and now I saw him. He lived only in memory,
and his memory was a spacious and stately palace. But he did not
oftenest frequent the banqueting hall, where were endless hospitality
and feasting—nor did he loiter much in reception rooms, where a
throng of new visitors was forever swarming—nor did he feed his
vanity by haunting the apartment in which were stored the trophies of
his varied triumphs—nor dream much in the great gallery hung with
pictures of his travels. But from all these lofty halls of memory he
constantly escaped to a remote and solitary chamber, into which no one
had ever penetrated. But my fatal eyes, behind the glasses, followed
and entered with him, and saw that the chamber was a chapel. It was
dim, and silent, and sweet with perpetual incense that burned upon an
altar before a picture forever veiled. There, whenever I chanced to
look, I saw him kneel and pray; and there, by day and by night, a
funeral hymn was chanted.
"I do not believe you will be surprised that I have been content to
remain deputy bookkeeper. My spectacles regulated my ambition, and I
early learned that there were better gods than Plutus. The glasses
have lost much of their fascination now, and I do not often use them.
Sometimes the desire is irresistible. Whenever I am greatly
interested, I am compelled to take them out and see what it is that I
"And yet—and yet," said Titbottom, after a pause, "I am not sure that
I thank my grandfather."
Prue had long since laid away her work, and had heard every word of
the story. I saw that the dear woman had yet one question to ask, and
had been earnestly hoping to hear something that would spare her the
necessity of asking. But Titbottom had resumed his usual tone, after
the momentary excitement, and made no further allusion to himself. We
all sat silently; Titbottom's eyes fastened musingly upon the carpet:
Prue looking wistfully at him, and I regarding both.
It was past midnight, and our guest arose to go. He shook hands
quietly, made his grave Spanish bow to Prue, and taking his hat, went
towards the front door. Prue and I accompanied him. I saw in her eyes
that she would ask her question. And as Titbottom opened the door, I
heard the low words:
Titbottom paused. He had just opened the door and the moonlight
streamed over him as he stood, turning back to us.
"I have seen her but once since. It was in church, and she was
kneeling with her eyes closed, so that she did not see me. But I
rubbed the glasses well, and looked at her, and saw a white lily,
whose stem was broken, but which was fresh; and luminous, and
"That was a miracle," interrupted Prue.
"Madam, it was a miracle," replied Titbottom, "and for that one sight
I am devoutly grateful for my grandfather's gift. I saw, that although
a flower may have lost its hold upon earthly moisture, it may still
bloom as sweetly, fed by the dews of heaven."
The door closed, and he was gone. But as Prue put her arm in mine and
we went upstairs together, she whispered in my ear:
"How glad I am that you don't wear spectacles."