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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Gentleman who Lived too Long

By Edgar Fawcett (1847–1904)

[Social Silhouettes. 1885.]

WHAT man who has ever gone into the whirl and glitter of his first ball does not clearly remember it? I remember mine. I was about twenty-three, and I appeared in a room filled with lights, flowers, music, dancing or sitting guests, hilarious festivity, and yet I did not know a soul with whom I could exchange a single authorized word.

True enough, I was Mark Manhattan. But who knew or cared for that? I was young, and I had never been seen before. I had bowed to my hostess, and passed on. Other people, I perceived, were bowing and passing on. But nobody passed on as I did, without finding somebody else whom he could pause beside and talk to. I could not find a soul. I roamed hither and thither, en martyr.

And yet every one was staring at me, or so I felt. I sidled near an alcove, and found that my back had come into contact with two male and female beings seated there. I blundered away, murmuring an apology, which was perhaps unheard above the brisk and dulcet waltz. I discovered a small knot of observant gentlemen, and shrank behind one of them, whose shoulders were shieldingly broad, and whose general physical height and bulk offered a most tempting ambuscade. But suddenly this gentleman, just as I had cleverly ensconced myself in his rear, made a dash forward for the purpose of joining some passing lady, and I was once more left mercilessly and glaringly revealed. It seemed to me that the wide critical stare at once began again. Was I quite sure that there was nothing in my costume out of order? Had I given sufficient attention to my white necktie? Might it not have drooped, sagged, grown demoralized? Did my new coat fit me rightly? Were my trousers bagging at the knees? Had my chaste oval of shirt-bosom become wrinkled? Some of the beautiful young girls, with their milky necks and arms, and their ethereal dresses, seemed to pass me in a sort of lovely disdain. “Why do you come here at all, you horrid young hobbledehoy?” their red, smiling lips seemed to inquire. I wondered whether it would look very strange if I slipped out of the rooms by a back door, thence upstairs, and thence, after procuring my wraps, down again to the street. Of course such a proceeding would be noticed at this early hour of the evening, and especially as my appearance had caused so universal and extraordinary a scrutiny. But, even if it did make them talk a little, why should I care? I meant never, never to go into society again. I was not fitted for it; perhaps I was above its flippancies, perhaps I was below its graces and felicities. However this might be, I had emphatically seen my last evening of mirth and melody, of revelry and roses.

While this gloomy resolution was shaping itself within my spirit, I found myself affably addressed by a person standing at my elbow. He was an elderly gentleman, and he then appeared to my grateful mind the most charming elderly gentleman in all the world. It was so delightful to be noticed at last in a conversational way—to feel one’s self an appreciable unit in the ignoring throng. I looked into the face of my companion while he spoke, and at first decided that he was a personnage. His pure white mustache flowed toward either pink cheek in rippling fulness; his white hair, still abundant, gleamed above a pair of restless hazel eyes; his form was compact and of good apparent capability. He had a bunch of violets in the lapel of his coat, and he posed his arms with a jaunty curve. He was clearly old, and yet a most elastic and potent vitality still dwelt in him. You felt that his foot was planted upon the floor with a firmness to which his actual age did not correspond.

But closer observation soon resulted in a new judgment. His impressiveness was wholly physical and facial. It was indeed hardly even the latter; for when you looked well into his countenance you saw there a certain vacancy that matched the inane quality of his words. Later it became plain to me that he would just as soon make himself audible in my society as in that of any one else. He had really nothing to say; it was all a stream of copious, artless prattle. It was about the weather, about the heat of the rooms, about the temperature desirable at a ball, about a ball last night where the temperature was just high enough, about the new way in which young girls wore their hair, about the prevalence of white dresses causing the whole festival to lack gayety. And sometimes it was about absolutely nothing, in so far as I could ascertain, while he babbled on in his short, jerky sentences, and in his guttural, monotonous, but entirely genial tones.

I noticed that he bowed often, as the ladies with their escorts moved past us, and that many bows were given him in return. He appeared to know everybody, as the phrase goes. I had said very little, myself, thus far; but feeling that he doubtless had it in his power to make me acquainted with at least three-quarters of the assembled guests, if so disposed, I ventured to sound his good nature on this important point. I began by telling him that I had hoped to meet a few of my relations there that night, but that none of them chanced to be present—a circumstance which I was compelled to regret, as it prevented me from securing an introduction to any of the attractive young ladies whom I saw on all sides. “And to-night,” I finished, “is really my first appearance in New York society.”

“I know nearly everybody,” he secretly gladdened me by saying, in his rapid, spasmodic, cordial way. “I guess I could fix things for you. Let’s see—you said your name was”——

I had not said what my name was, but on hearing it the gentleman grasped my hand and declared himself on the best of terms with about fifty of my relations. He talked so much of the large Manhattan family, flying from members of it who lived to members of it who had long ago been dead, that I conceived a fear lest he should quite forget his previous offer.

But he did not forget it; or rather a gentle reminder on my part stopped the ample current of his reminiscences, and I was subsequently made to know several of the ladies present. I owe to him my launching, as it were, upon the social stream. And I soon learned just who the gentleman was by whose kindness I had benefited.

His name was Billington, and for years he had been called Old Beau Billington. His age was estimated to be seventy, if a day, though he might even have been older. There was a time when he appeared in the exclusive circles of New York, and received many sidelong looks of distrust. Few strangers ever crossed, in those days, our quiet Knickerbocker limits. Mr. Billington was reported to have come originally from an Eastern State, but he had lived several years abroad. It was such a picturesque thing, then, to have lived several years abroad! But a great deal of suspicion at first attached to the brilliant newcomer, who danced the antique cotillion with so ravishingly graceful a pigeon’s-wing, who wore his stock with so modish an elegance, and who whispered compliments garnished by so novel an embellishment of dainty French idiom. But for some time Beau Billington had to carefully work his way. Our grandmothers remember being cautioned against him in their girlhood. Bowling Green was then the Madison Square of our little, provincial, semi-Dutch New York, and more than one pretty girl was instructed by her sedulous mother to turn her face in another direction when she met Mr. Billington strolling in beflowered waistcoat and with nicely-poised cane along the streets bordering on that miniature park. The Amsterdams, Ten Eycks, and Van Twillers for the most part disapproved of him. He lived on an income of his own, and did no business. It was such an unprecedented thing for any young gentleman, at that time, to do no business! It seemed quite shocking that he should haunt the breezy Battery of an afternoon, while all the scions of respectable families were poring decorously over ledgers and accounts in the offices of their merchant parents.

But the blooming daughters of Knickerbockerdom did not all obey the parental behest. Some of them rankly and daringly disobeyed it. They found Beau Billington, whose clothes fitted him to such perfection and whose foreign touches were so irresistibly winsome, a great deal more interesting than their brothers and cousins and friends, who held it disreputable to be seen smoking a cigar in “business hours,” and who cared as much for a verse of poetry as for the Koran or the Talmud. Beau Billington cared for poetry, and could write stanzas of it that were simply adorable. He had met Lord Byron abroad, and had once spent an evening in his company. There was a fascinating wickedness about this fact—if fact it could really be termed. His stanzas all had the most romantic ring. They were full of phrases like, “Fair lady, at thy shrine I lay my heart,” and

  • “When silver Dian beams above,
  • And summer dewdrops glisten clear,
  • I drop, in memory of my love,
  • A tender but respectful tear.”
  • Certain copies of Mr. Billington’s poetic tributes went fluttering like little insidious doves among the genteel maidens of old New York. But, unlike doves, they carried trouble instead of peace below their sly literary wings. And one day society woke to the alarming news that Miss Elizabeth Manhattan (very probably one of my own direct ancestresses) had openly braved the wrath of both her parents, and declared that she would either marry Beau Billington or live and die a spinster. The young lovers had been caught, one spring afternoon, together, wandering in sweet converse far out into the country. They had crossed the sluggish little canal that is now Canal Street, and before the cruel destroyers of their peace pounced upon them they must have reached those leafy, rural regions which lay where Union Square now lifts to an unmindful public its libellous statue of Lincoln.

    But they were dragged apart, and a great scandal followed. Beau Billington, deluged with sentimental sympathy from one source, and pelted with animadversions from another, remained majestically constant to his aristocratic sweetheart. Popular feeling ran high; everybody took either one side or another. The entire Van Horn family cut every member of the Schenectady family, one Sunday morning, at the door of Old Trinity, just after church, in consequence of different opinions on this mighty and absorbing subject. There was even some talk of a duel between Beau Billington and a fiery young brother of poor Elizabeth Manhattan. The duel was to take place somewhere “across the river”; report even named the precise historic spot in which Burr had killed Hamilton. But I believe there is no doubt that the duel failed to take place.

    Something sadder took place, however. Elizabeth paled, faded, and drooped in her captivity. Her parents continued relentless. She was a great heiress—great, that is, for those days; she would probably inherit, if she lived, the massive sum of $50,000. Her father was a very rich man; he had four children, and it was confidently expected that they would receive a fortune of at least $200,000 between them.

    But poor, love-lorn Elizabeth inherited nothing. It is stated that she died literally of a broken heart. I am writing of generations ago. Hearts were more brittle in New York society then than now. They broke then, sometimes; now they get sprained a little, like a wrist or an ankle, and ultimately recover.

    Beau Billington’s fidelity survived the death of his Elizabeth. He never married. He went to Boston and lived there for two or three years, and at length returned to New York. All the slanderous stories about his being a moneyless adventurer were slowly and thoroughly refuted. He had been in every respect what he had represented himself. His attachment to the young heiress from whom he was so mercilessly torn clad him with a new charm, melancholy and delicate, as years slipped on. His fealty to her memory kept his popularity forever fresh. He was still young, and still unusually handsome. He wrote new verses for the albums of many devout feminine friends. But they were all tinged with the same hue of sadness. “The loved and the lost” recurred again and again amid their funereal iambics.

    And here comes the real pathos of my history. Beau Billington gradually grew old. But he grew old in the most unskilful and injudicious way. If he had died at forty his fame as a new Abelard of constancy might have been preserved intact. If he had retired from the world at forty-five, there might still have remained a rich chance for his future poetic and legendary coronation as hero and martyr. Years of gout and rheumatism, passed in seclusion, would still have left his chivalrous renown untarnished. But he chose to linger in drawing-rooms until every vestige of youth had departed from him. His superabundant physical health, and his undying love for the pomp and glitter of fashion, had ruined him as a type of manly devotion. He became a senile bachelor, whom every one tolerated and laughed at.

    Thus he stood on the evening we met. The grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of all those who once made his name a sort of social war-cry lazily recollected his old prestige while they yawned at the dreary figments of his wandering brain. He was like a theatre from which the audience have departed and in which the lights of the auditorium burn no longer, while, strangely enough, the performance on the stage still continues, but with what mockery of its old alertness, vigor, and vivacity! How tame and thin it looks and sounds beside the energy and ring of the old entertainment!

    The romance lingering about this plaintive little story of the old Beau’s past devotion appealed to me at once. I don’t pretend to declare why. I suppose it was because one has grown to expect nothing of this sort in our big, hard, cold city, which imports its sentiment as it does its bric-à-brac. I have always had a tenderness for Bowling Green, too, and the Battery. Any affair of the heart which occurred there a good many years ago was like finding, when I heard it, a pretty picture to fit a quaint frame long in my possession. I tried to forget that Beau Billington had been displumed as a potential gallant of song and story; that he had played his beau rôle quite too continuously; that he resembled a tenor whose “Gennaro” and “Manrico” have once drawn forth wildest plaudits, but who has long outsung his prime and gets the bitter wage of silence where golden enthusiasm cheered him. I tried to forget this, and very fairly succeeded. Instead of encouraging such disillusionment, I dipped the brush of fancy, as one might say, into Colonial coloring, and saw the lovers strolling together on the airy Battery—he with a ruffled shirt-bosom and she in a poke-bonnet and mitts. I saw the rows of prim houses near by, with their plain black iron railings and their white arched doorways and the dormer windows standing forth from their sloped roofs. Beau Billington and his sweetheart were so much more agreeable to think of than if they had been two modern lovers promenading along the brownstone smartness of Fifth avenue, she with French heels that hurt her and he with an English collar that hurt him!

    I was very kind to Beau Billington for a year or two after that. And sometimes being kind to him meant being talked to by him for perhaps twenty good minutes in some such strain as the following:

    “Yes, that little thing over there in blue (or is it pink?—yes, pink—I declare I forgot to call the color by the right name—yes, really I did). Well, now, what was I just saying? Oh, yes, you needn’t tell me” (Beau Billington hated an interruption as though it were a troublesome insect), “for I recollect perfectly well. It was about that little thing over there in blue—I mean pink—yes, pink. Who’d ever suppose she could be Margaret Cartwright’s great-grandchild? I—I do believe there must be some mistake. I used to know Margaret Cartwright as well! Why, bless my soul, she married a man old enough to be her father—Colonel Preston, a Southerner, who’d been all through the Revolution. Made her an excellent husband, though. Poor fellow, he died long before she did. But not of old age—died from one of his wounds—caught cold in it, going, one very cold night, to the firemen’s ball. We used to have firemen’s balls in those days, and some of the biggest folks in the city would go to ’em, too. You see, the whole fire department was different then from what it is now. They didn’t have any horses hitched to the engines, you understand—no horses at all—and”——

    Perhaps I would break in just here with a polite statement that I knew well how the old fire department in New York had been managed (or mismanaged, should I have said?); and then, backing away with a smile or a wave of the hand, I would leave Beau Billington to find some other recipient of his garrulity. For, on the whole, being kind to him was by no means always a sinecure….

    At length I awoke one evening to the fact that I had not seen the old gentleman for several weeks. Learning his residence, I called there. I found him lying back in an arm-chair, quite alone. The chamber bore no signs of poverty, but it was grim and stiff in all its appointments. It needed the evidence of a woman’s touch. I thought of the dead-and-gone Elizabeth. How different everything would have been if— But, good heavens! of what was I thinking? Elizabeth, even if she had married Beau Billington, might have lived to a good old age and still long ago have been in her grave.

    The old invalid smiled when he saw me, but while I sat down beside him and took his hand he gave me no further sign of recognition. His old voluble tongue was silent forever. His paralysis had affected him most of all in that way. Every morning he would be dressed and go to his chair, walking feebly, but still walking. And there he would sit all day, never speaking, yet smiling his dim, vacant, pathetic smile if the doctor or the landlady or his valet addressed him.

    He was quite deserted by all his friends. No; I should say that he had no friends left to desert him. He had lived too long. There was no one to come except me. And I, strangely enough, was a Manhattan—a kinsman of his long-lost Elizabeth! Of course, if he had had any kindred here it would have been otherwise. But there was not a soul to whom one could say: “Old Beau Billington is dying at last, and the tie of blood makes it your duty to seek him out and watch beside him.” As for his kindred in other cities or States, no one knew them. And if any had been found there, they would doubtless have been perfect strangers to him—the children and grandchildren of vanished cousins.

    He had lived too long!

    Often during the days that followed, while I sat beside his arm-chair, I told myself that there was infinitely more sadness in a fate like his than in having died too early! The gods had never loved any human life of which they were willing to make so lonely and deserted a wreck as this!

    At last, one spring evening, at about six o’clock, I chanced to be sitting in his chamber. He had dozed much during the day, they told me; but I fancied that, as I took his hand and looked into his hazel eyes, there was a more intellectual gleam on his face than he had shown for weeks past. A window was open near his arm-chair; the air was bland as June that evening, though as yet it was only early May. I had brought some white and pink roses, and had set them in a vase on the table at his side, and now their delicious odor blent in some subtile way with the serenity of the chamber, the peace and repose of its continual occupant, the drowsy hum of the great city as it ceased from its daily toil, and the slant, vernal afternoon light.

    Suddenly he turned and looked at me, and I at once saw a striking change in his face. I could not have explained it; I simply understood it, and that was all.

    I bent over his chair, taking his hand. It occurs to me now, as I recall what happened, that I could not possibly have been mistaken in the single faintly uttered word which appeared to float forth from under his snow-white mustache. And that word (unless I curiously underwent some delusion) was—“Elizabeth.”

    The next instant his eyes closed. And then, only a short time later, I stood by his arm-chair and smelt the roses as they scented the sweet, fresh spring twilight, and thought, with no sense of death’s chill or horror—

    “Perhaps there is a blessing, after all, in having lived too long, if only one can pass away at the end as peacefully as Old Beau Billington.”