THE EVENING before my departure for
Blithedale, I was returning to my bachelor-apartments, after
attending the wonderful exhibition of the Veiled Lady, when an
elderly-man of rather shabby appearance met me in an obscure part
of the street.
"Mr. Coverdale," said he, softly, "can I speak
with you a moment?"
As I have casually alluded to the Veiled Lady,
it may not be amiss to mention, for the benefit of such of my
readers as are unacquainted with her now forgotten celebrity, that
she was a phenomenon in the mesmeric line; one of the earliest that
had indicated the birth of a new science, or the revival of an old
humbug. Since those times, her sisterhood have grown too numerous
to attract much individual notice; nor, in fact, has any one of
them ever come before the public under such skilfully contrived
circumstances of stage-effect, as those which at once mystified and
illuminated the remarkable performances of the lady in question.
Now-a-days, in the management of his "subject," "clairvoyant," or
"medium," the exhibitor affects the simplicity and openness of
scientific experiment; and even if he profess to tread a step or
two across the boundaries of the spiritual world, yet carries with
him the laws of our actual life, and extends them over his
preternatural conquests. Twelve or fifteen years ago, on the
contrary, all the arts of mysterious arrangement, of picturesque
disposition, and artistically contrasted light and shade, were made
available in order to set the apparent miracle in the strongest
attitude of opposition to ordinary facts. In the case of the Veiled
Lady, moreover, the interest of the spectator was further wrought
up by the enigma of her identity, and an absurd rumor (probably set
afloat by the exhibitor, and at one time very prevalent) that a
beautiful young lady, of family and fortune, was enshrouded within
the misty drapery of the veil. It was white, with somewhat of a
subdued silver sheen, like the sunny side of a cloud; and falling
over the wearer, from head to foot, was supposed to insulate her
from the material world, from time and space, and to endow her with
many of the privileges of a disembodied spirit.
Her pretensions, however, whether miraculous
or otherwise, have little to do with the present narrative; except,
indeed, that I had propounded, for the Veiled Lady's prophetic
solution, a query as to the success of our Blithedale enterprise.
The response, by-the-by, was of the true Sibylline stamp,
nonsensical in its first aspect, yet, on closer study, unfolding a
variety of interpretations, one of which has certainly accorded
with the event. I was turning over this riddle in my mind, and
trying to catch its slippery purport by the tail, when the old man,
above-mentioned, interrupted me. "Mr. Coverdale!--Mr. Coverdale!"
said he, repeating my name twice, in order to make up for the
hesitating and ineffectual way in which he uttered it--"I ask your
pardon, sir--but I hear you are going to Blithedale tomorrow?"
I knew the pale, elderly face, with the
red-tipt nose, and the patch over one eye, and likewise saw
something characteristic in the old fellow's way of standing under
the arch of a gate, only revealing enough of himself to make me
recognize him as an acquaintance. He was a very shy personage, this
Mr. Moodie; and the trait was the more singular, as his mode of
getting his bread necessarily brought him into the stir and hubbub
of the world, more than the generality of men.
"Yes, Mr. Moodie," I answered, wondering what
interest he could take in the fact, "it is my intention to go to
Blithedale tomorrow. Can I be of any service to you, before my
"If you pleased, Mr. Coverdale," said he, "you
might do me a very great favor."
"A very great one!" repeated I, in a tone that
must have expressed but little alacrity of beneficence, although I
was ready to do the old man any amount of kindness involving no
special trouble to myself. "A very great favor, do you say? My time
is brief, Mr. Moodie, and I have a good many preparations to make.
But be good enough to tell me what you wish."
"Ah, sir," replied old Moodie, "I don't quite
like to do that; and, on further thoughts, Mr. Coverdale, perhaps I
had better apply to some older gentleman, or to some lady, if you
would have the kindness to make me known to one, who may happen to
be going to Blithedale. You are a young man, sir!"
"Does that fact lessen my availability for
your purpose?" asked I. "However, if an older man will suit you
better, there is Mr. Hollingsworth, who has three or four years the
advantage of me in age, and is a much more solid character, and a
philanthropist to boot. I am only a poet, and, so the critics tell
me, no great affair at that! But what can this business be, Mr.
Moodie? It begins to interest me; especially since your hint that a
lady's influence might be found desirable. Come; I am really
anxious to be of service to you."
But the old fellow, in his civil and demure
manner, was both freakish and obstinate; and he had now taken some
notion or other into his head that made him hesitate in his former
"I wonder, sir," said he, "whether you know a
lady whom they call Zenobia?"
"Not personally," I answered, "although I
expect that pleasure tomorrow, as she has got the start of the rest
of us, and is already a resident at Blithedale. But have you a
literary turn, Mr. Moodie?--or have you taken up the advocacy of
women's rights?--or what else can have interested you in this lady?
Zenobia, by-the-by, as I suppose you know, is merely her public
name; a sort of mask in which she comes before the world, retaining
all the privileges of privacy--a contrivance, in short, like the
white drapery of the Veiled Lady, only a little more transparent.
But it is late! Will you tell me what I can do for you?"
"Please to excuse me to-night, Mr. Coverdale,"
said Moodie. "You are very kind; but I am afraid I have troubled
you, when, after all, there may be no need. Perhaps, with your good
leave, I will come to your lodgings tomorrow-morning, before you
set out for Blithedale. I wish you a good-night, sir, and beg
pardon for stopping you."
And so he slips away; and, as he did not show
himself, the next morning, it was only through subsequent events
that I ever arrived at a plausible conjecture as to what his
business could have been. Arriving at my room, I threw a lump of
cannel coal upon the grate, lighted a cigar, and spent an hour in
musings of every hue, from the brightest to the most sombre; being,
in truth, not so very confident as at some former periods, that
this final step, which would mix me up irrevocably with the
Blithedale affair, was the wisest that could possibly be taken. It
was nothing short of midnight when I went to bed, after drinking a
glass of particularly fine Sherry, on which I used to pride myself,
in those days. It was the very last bottle; and I finished it, with
a friend, the next forenoon, before setting out for Blithedale.
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