Back to Bret Harte Page

My Metamorphosis

By Bret Harte

When I left the Academy of the Reverend Mr. Blatherskite, after four years' board and educational experience, it was with a profound confidence in books and a supreme contempt for the world ó in which cosmogony I included all kinds of practical institutions. With a strong poetical imagination, a memory saturated with fictitious narrative, and a sensitive temperament full of salient angles not yet rubbed off by contact with society, I easily glided into the following adventure.

The great vagabond principle peculiar to such tempera ments led me to wander. A love for the beautiful made me an artist. A small patrimony sufficed my wants; and so, one day, I found myself loitering, pencil and sketch book in hand, in one of the pleasantest midland counties in England.

Near the village where I tarried, a noble estate spread over the country. All that the refined taste of a great family ó whose wealth was incalculable ó had gathered in successive generations, lay in that ancestral park. The same liberal spirit which had adorned it, opened its gates to the curious stranger; and here it was that I picked up many a woodland sketch, a study, a suggestive grouping of light and shadow, which you may see in those two pictures numbered in the catalogue of the Academy of Design respectively as Nos. 190006 and 190007, and to which the "Art Journal" so favorably alluded as "the happiest pre-Eaphael- ite effort of the gifted Van Daub."

One July afternoon, ó the air had that quivering intensity of heat, which I think is as palpable to sight as feeling, — after a quiet stroll in the park, I reached the margin of a sylvan lake. A lawn, girdled by oaks and beeches, loped toward it in a semicircle for some few hundred feet, and its margin was decorated with statuary. Here was Diana and her hounds, Actseon, Pan and pipe, Satyrs, Fauns, Naiads, Dryads, and numberless deities of both elements. The spot was rural, weird, and fascinating. I threw myself luxuriously on the sward beside it.

I had forgotten to mention a strong predilection of mine. I was passionately fond of swimming. The air was opprsssive—the surface of the lake looked cool and tempting; thsre was nothing to prevent an indulgence of my propensity but the fear of interruption. The knowledge that the family were absent from the mansion, that few strangers passed thai way, and the growing lateness of the hour determined me. I divested myself of my garments on the wooded margin, and plunged boldly in. How deliciously the thirsty pores drank up the pure element! I dived. I rolled over like a dolphin. I swam to the opposite side, by the lawn, and among ths v/hispering reeds I floated idly on my back, glancing at ihs statues, and thinking of the quaint legends which had shadowed them forth. My mind enthusiastically dwelt upon the pleasures of its sensuous life. "Happy,'' said I, "were the days when Naiads sported in these waters ! Blest were the innocent and peaceful Dryads who inhabited the boles of yonder oaks. Beautiful was the sentiment, and exquisite the fancy which gave to each harmonious element of nature a living embodiment." Alas, if I had only been content with thinking this nonsense ! But then it was that the following solemnly ridiculous idea took possession of me. A few strokes brought me to the bank, and gathering some alder boughs, I twined their green leaves intermixed with rushes around my loins. A few more I twisted into a wreath around my foolish cranium. Thus crowned, I surveyed myself with unmixed satisfaction in the watery mirror. I might have been Actseon in person, or a graceful Dryad of the masculine gender. The illusion in either case was perfect.

I was still looking when I was startled at the sound of voices. Conceive of my dismay on turning around and perceiving a crowd of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, scattered in groups about the lawn. It at once rushed upon my mind that the family had returned with company. What was to be done? My clothes were on the opposite shore. An open space intervening between myself and the woods rendered escape in that direction impossible without detec tion. As yet I was unperceived. But a party of both sexes were approaching by a path which led directly toward me. I looked around in anguish. A few feet from me arose a pyramidal pedestal of some statue; but Time, the iconoclast, had long ago tumbled the battered monolith into the lake. A brilliant idea struck me. I had got myself into this horrible scrape by the foolish impersonation of my fancy; I resolved to free myself by its aid. The pedestal was about eight feet in height. To scale this and place myself in attitude was but a moment's work. With a beat ing heart, but perfectly rigid limbs, I awaited their coming. I hoped, I prayed it might not be long.

Imagine to yourself a clean-limbed young fellow of one- and-twenty, sans the ordinary habiliments, with no other covering than nature's own and a sort of fig-leaf apron made of rushes and encircling his loins and thighs, his brows bound with an alder wreath, and the evening shadows cast over his pale face and chilled but upright figure, and you have me as I stood at that eventful moment.

To give effect to my acting, I closed my eyes. Footsteps approached. I heard the rustle of silks and the sound of voices.

"Beautiful!" (full feminine chorus). "How perfectly natural!" (sotto voce).

A cracked hase voice ó probably pater-familias ó "Yes, decidedly. The position is easy and graceful. The contour is excellent ó not modern, I should think, but in good preservation."

A drawling falsetto : "Ya-as, pretty good ó vewy fair copy; 'ave seen lots of such fellows at Wome. They 're vewy common there; don't think it's quite cowwect; vewy bad leg's, vewy!"

This was too much. I had been a great pedestrian and flattered myself that I had pretty well-developed calves. I could bear female criticism; but, to put up with the indelicate comments of a creature whom I felt to be a spindle-shanked dandy, infuriated me. I choked my rising wrath with clenched teeth, but moved not an external muscle.

"Well," said a sweet voice that thrilled me, "I have no disposition to stay here all night, with heaven knows how many woodland sprites about us. The place looks weird and gloomy. I almost fancy that yonder gentleman has a disposition to step down from his pedestal and carry some of us off to his home in some hollow tree!"

I did dare to open my eyes, though each syllable of that musical, gurgling voice rang in my ears, and sent the blood slowly back to my heart. But then the evening air was damp and chill, and my limbs, by the unaccustomed exposure, felt benumbed and dead. I began to fear that I might stiffen in that position, when, luckily, the party moved slowly away.

I opened my eyes and—shut them instantly. In that glance, rapid as lightning, I encountered a pair of full-orbed, blue, girlish eyes gazing intently at me from beneath a coquettish hat streaming with ribbons that rocked like some fairy boat over a tempestuous sea of golden curls. I dared not look again.

"Ada, Ada! have you fallen in love with the statue?"

"No, I'm coming I"—and the rustling dress and fairy voice moved away.

I waited in fear and trembling. For the first time I felt unnerved. Had she discovered me ? I felt myself already ignominiously expelled from the fatal garden like the sinful Adam ó but alas, without the solace of the beautiful Eve. Five minutes passed, I ventured to look again. All was dark. I could hear the singing of voices high up on the garden terrace.—To step from my uneasy elevation by the light of the rising moon, as soon as my cramped limbs would permit, run around to the opposite shore, hurry on my clothes, and through thicket and brake reach the park lodge, was the work of a moment. That night I left the village. That week I left England.

I went to France. I went to Germany. I went to Italy. Three years passed. My imagination and enthusiasm were more under control. I began to think better of society. I had painted several large pictures, allegorical and fanciful, with prominent female figures with blue eyes and golden hair. They were not appreciated. I had painted some portraits for which I was remunerated handsomely, and had amassed an independence. I lived at Florence. I was happy.

The saloons of the Due de R were filled one evening with a pleasant party of painters, sculptors, poets, and authors. I had the entree there, and was formally introduced to a Mr. Willoughby, an English gentleman, who was trav eling for his health in company with an only daughter. Our acquaintance ripened into esteem, and calling one even- ing at my studio to examine the portrait of a mutual friend, he proposed that I should make a picture of his daughter. I was introduced to Ada Willoughby, and she became my sitter.

She was a pretty blonde, with whom three years before, I might have fallen in love at first sight. But a restraint seemed to be over us when together, and I vainly tried to shake off some fanciful recollection with which her pretty face seemed inseparably associated. She was a clever girl, a genial companion, and our tastes assimilated. I painted her features faithfully ó the picture was admired ó but when I found that, like Eaphael's Fornarina, I was apt to introduce some of her features in all my portraits, I dame to the conclusion that I was in love with her. The old restraint kept my heart from expression. One day we were walking through one of the galleries when we stopped before an exquisite picture of Pygmalion's transformation. I challenged her faith in the story. She replied' simply that it was a "pretty fable." "But if Pygmalion had been a woman and the sculptured figure a man, do you imagine her love could have warmed him to life?" I persisted. She replied that "any woman was a fool to fall in love with the mere physical semblance of a man." Disappointed, but why I did not clearly know, I did not rejoin.

But she was to return to England. I had endeavored to reason myself out of a feeling which was beginning to exert an influence over my future. A party had been formed to visit a villa on the outskirts of the city, and I was to accompany her. The grounds were tastefully adorned; there were groups of statuary, and the never-failing Italian accesseries of rills and fountains. A gay party we were, making the alleys ring with laughter. At length Mr. Willoughby, Ada, a few ladies, and myself, seated ourselves by the margin of an artificial lake, from whose centre a trickling fountain sent its spray toward the clear blue sky. The evening was deliciously cool and Ada lent her sweet voice to the rippling water. I had fallen into a reverie, from which I was recalled, accused of unsociability, and taxed to contribute to the amusement of the day.

"Well," said I, "politeness forbade me to sing before Miss Willoughby, and prudence forbids my singing after. What shall I do?"

"A story, a story," said they.

"What shall it be? Of love or war, or a most 'lament, able comedy'?"

"Oh, a love story," said Ada, "full of fairies, knights, dragons, and disconsolate damsels,—something like your pictures—with lights and shadows—and dark gray masses, and rather vague!"

"With a moral," said papa.

''To hear is to obey," replied I; "I call my story 'The most Mournful and Pathetic Story of the Enchanted Knights, or the Wicked Naiad.'"

An expected pause ensued, and I went on.

"In the days of Fairy dynasty there lived a knight. He was young and adventurous. To him had been given the art of reproducing that which caught his errant fancy, and the true appreciation of the beautiful, without which it has been held all happiness is naught. But from his youth he had been a wanderer, and had fallen in love with a being whose image he met in every lake and fountain, and whose virtues he fully appreciated. In return for his constancy she had bestowed upon him the gifts of unfailing health and strength. One day, in a distant land, he traversed a fair domain, and amid the luxuries of taste and elegance, he found her image still. But she was loved by the great monarch of the domain, who had kept her in secluded pri- vacy. The knight, being headstrong and adventurous, rushed to her forbidden embrace. She received him coldly. The chill of her touch stiffened his limbs and benumbed his faculties. He felt himself gradually turning into stone.

Alas! the waters of the lake in which she dwelt held in solution strange minerals, and possessed a petrifying quality. He was found hy the monarch and placed on a pedestal, as an example to warn others from a like unlawful intrusion."

"How delightfully ohscure!" said Ada.

"Mark the sequel. For a long time he remained in this state; motionless hut not senseless, mute hut not passion- less. The subjects of the monarch passed before him with ironical comments and jests and jeers. He was powerless to reply. But it chanced that a good fairy passed that way. She possessed the power of disarming wicked en- chantment and restoring all unnatural changes, for which she repaid herself by making the subject her vassal forever. She bent her luminous eyes on the petrified knight, and their glances melted away the icy torpor which clung to him. Under their genial sunshine his lids opened as a flower, his own eyes reflected back the love that lent him life. He moved and was again a man."

"And of course gave up hydropathy for matrimony," interrupted papa.

I did not answer, for Ada claimed my attention. The blood had climbed step by step into her cheek, and at last the red signal of the success of my stratagem waved from the topmost turret. She looked at me and said nothing, but the look bade me hope.

I need not continue; my story is done. I, of course, managed to have a tete-a-t6te with my former acquaintance and generous friend ó my new love and charming sitter— before she left for England. What transpired the reader may guess. The only answer I shall transcribe was given some time after the great affirmative which made me forever blessed.

"But, Ada, my darling, how was it that your bright eyes alone detected in the marble statue a living imposture?"

"Why," said Ada, looking saucily into my eyes, "I never before saw a marble statue with a plain gold ring upon its little finger."

So I took the treacherous ornament from my little finger and placed it on her hand.
Golden Era, April 29, 1860.

Back to Bret Harte Page