Charles W. Chesnutt
I was sitting on the hotel piazza, following with my glass the movements of a steamer in the offing. As she disappeared around a distant bend of the shore, I turned my head toward the left, from which I heard footsteps approaching. My gaze rested upon the portly figure of a gentleman who stood a short distance from me, his hand resting on top of the balustrade. My eye instinctively settled upon the broad abdominal expanse which the skill of a fashionable tailor had not been able to prevent from being the most striking feature of the gentleman’s appearance, for he was very fat.
The gentleman evidently perceived the objective point of my glance, for he gave a faint apologetic sort of a smile, as though he were somewhat ashamed of himself, and advanced toward me.
“Well, Walton,” he said, extending his hand, “don’t you know me?”
I had not recognized his figure, but the voice was the familiar one of an old college friend.
“Why, it’s Cartwright! How are you, old boy? I’m ever so glad to see you,” I exclaimed, grasping his outstretched hand and shaking it with genuine pleasure. I had been at this particular hotel of this particular seaside resort (which we will call Cliffdale) for two whole days without meeting a single acquaintance. Cartwright’s advent was a decided relief to what threatened to be a solitary exile instead of a pleasant vacation. There were many people at the hotel, but I am not much of a hand at making new acquaintances.
“No wonder you didn’t recognize me,” said Cartwright, glancing downward at himself as far as his waistband, which formed his horizon in that direction. “I am getting so abominably fleshy that life is almost a burden to me. I thought a course of sea-bathing might reduce my weight somewhat and so I concluded to run down here for a few weeks. I’m ever so glad to meet you, Walton. What have you been doing with yourself since we left old Yale?”
We conversed awhile on topics of mutual interest and then went to walk along the beach. Though Cartwright’s weight, as he informed me, was two hundred and fifty pounds, yet he was no mere vulgar bundle of adipose tissue. He possessed a strong and vigorous mind, and carried his flesh in such a way that after the novelty of his appearance wore off it did not provoke mirth or even remark. He was very well proportioned, and while his chin was not disproportionate to the rest of his body, it had not put on the extra folds which disfigure so many fat people. His walk was dignified, at least, if not graceful. His frank good-nature was irresistible.
We parted at bedtime, to meet at breakfast next morning. After a cigar on the piazza, we took a stroll along the beach together. A short distance from the hotel an open carriage dashed by, in which were seated two ladies, one middle-aged and of rather distinguished appearance, the other young and beautiful. I had scarcely time to lift my hat before the carnage had passed us. . .
“What a beautiful girl!” exclaimed Cartwright, looking after the phaeton; the hood was down, and over it he could see the nodding plume of the young lady’s hat. “Who is she?”
“That,” I replied, calmly, “is Miss Florence Gaylord, of Clearport. She is rich and accomplished; her charms of person speak for themselves; she is an excellent catch, and so far as I can learn, is still unappropriated.”
“She is certainly very beautiful,” he rejoined, with a thoughtful air.
The Gaylords, mother and daughter, had arrived at Cliff dale the night before, and this was my first sight of them. They were old acquaintances of mine. We saw them every day during the next few weeks. Cartwright became very attentive to Miss Gaylord, and it soon grew obvious that he was very much in love. I do not know what tricks my own heart might have played me, for Florence was very charming; but there was another young woman, then spending the summer in Europe, who had a first mortgage on my affections, and the arrangements had been made for a foreclosure shortly after her return in October. I was therefore out of the race, and Cartwright had nothing to fear from my rivalry. Of course he would have had no chance whatever had I been in a position to enter the contest.
I could see with half an eye that Miss Gaylord was partial to Cartwright. She walked with him, talked with him, rode with him, danced with him–he could dance well, in spite of his obesity; she sang to him, and discussed books and authors with him, for they were both cultivated people, and fond of literature. I could not see how any self-respecting, modest young woman could offer a man more encouragement than she gave Cartwright. But he was singularly obtuse. He labored under the impression that no woman could love him with a genuine affection.
“No, Walton,” he would say, “no young and pretty woman could love such a mountain of flesh as I am. A widow with a large family, or an old maid who had exhausted all her hopes, might put up with me. A young woman might pity me, and in her generosity seem to encourage me, but she wouldn’t mean anything by it. They smile on me for the same reason that they pat the back of a prize ox at a county fair.”
“Nonsense,” I said, “the woman who catches you will win a prize in the matrimonial lottery and Florence Gaylord knows it. You are worth half a dozen of these feather-weight dudes who are fluttering around her.”
“Yes,” he rejoined with a rueful smile, “I suppose I would be, by the pound.”
One afternoon I strolled down the beach with a paper novel in my hand, and finding a comfortable seat in a rustic pagoda a little way from my hotel, I settled myself for a quiet half hour. I had not read more than one chapter when two ladies approached the pavilion and seated themselves on the other side of the lattice-work, vine-covered screen that divided the pavilion into two parts. I was lying stretched on the seat, the back of which concealed the most of my body, while a mass of vines hid my head from observation. I glanced up from my novel, but did not stir, nor did I recognize the ladies until one of them spoke, with the voice of Florence Gaylord.
“I love Mr. Cartwright very much, and I think he loves me in return, although he is awfully shy. I mean to catch him if I can though it sounds dreadfully vulgar for me to say so.” She glanced around her quickly as she made the remark, but fortunately did not perceive me.
Of course the proper thing for me to do would have been to make my presence known. But she had already spoken, and I had already heard, and I spared her blushes by remaining quiet, hoping they would go away before burdening my conscience with any further weight of ill-gotten information. I could not now escape without being seen by them; the most I could do was to feign sleep, to provide against possible discovery.
“He is so ridiculously fat,” said Mrs. Gaylord, who was evidently on very familiar terms with her daughter, “that everybody will laugh at you for marrying him. Charlie Puddinghead is just as rich, and much better looking, and is dying for you.”
“Why, mamma! How shameful for you to speak of Mr. Cartwright in that way! What you find fault with only makes him more attractive to me. I have always intended to marry a fat man. Charlie Puddinghead is no larger than a well-grown sparrow. Fat men are always good-natured; and one can feel, during the storms of life, that one is anchored to something substantial, that the first rough wind of sorrow or misfortune will not blow away. I despise lean men.”
I could scarcely restrain my laughter at this unique confession. I ought perhaps to have been angry, for I myself am lean almost to emaciation, but Miss Gaylord’s views were too deliciously droll to wound my sensibilities.
The ladies finally went away, and after waiting until they were some distance away, I went back to the hotel. I meant to tell Cartwright a part at least of what I had heard. But he had
latterly grown somewhat sensitive on the subject of his obesity, and I went up to my room after supper to mediate upon the best way in which to give him the benefit of what I had heard, without disclosing too much, or the exact manner in which I had acquired my information. An hour or two later I went to his room, but he was not there, and I did not see him until morning.
“Walton,” he exclaimed, grasping my hand with painful warmth, “congratulate me. Florence has promised to be mine.”
“I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart,” I said, “I am sureyou will be happy.”
In my surprise at the suddenness of the announcement, I forgot all about the conversation I had overheard on the bench, which, of course, was now of no consequence. The lovers were quite as much absorbed in each other as lovers usually are, and I was left to a certain extent to my own devices. I had utilized my opportunity by making some sketches which I had planned, but had up to this time been too lazy to execute.
A few days after the announcement of the engagement, Cartwright was called away from Cliffdale on urgent business. He went immediately, promising to return in two weeks.
My vacation lasted somewhat longer than I had originally intended. I was still at the hotel when the two weeks of Cartwright’s expected absence had elapsed. The Gaylords had been away a week, visiting some friends, but had returned to the hotel, where they expected to remain until September. When Cartwright had been away two weeks I received from him the following letter:
"My Dear Walton! I shall be detained here a week or two longer than I expected. I could perhaps finish up my business and get back sooner, but I am preparing a surprise for Florence and my other friends. You will hardly guess the nature of it, but you will open your eyes when you see what it is. Don't say anything about it, for I mean it to be a complete surprise to the others. "Yours, etc., D. CARTWRIGHT"
There was nothing in this mysterious communication that would afford a clue to the nature of the projected surprise. I said nothing to Miss Gaylord about the letter. Cartwright himself kept her informed of his movements.
The last two weeks of my vacation passed pleasantly enough. A day or two before I left Cliffdale, I received the following note from Cartwright:
"Dear Walton: Will be down on the eight o'clock express. Arrange it so that I can meet you alone with Florence and her mother. Leave word with the clerk what room you are in. Don't let them know you expect me. "Yours, Cartwright"
More mystery, and no clue to unravel it! As fortune would have it, I had received by express that morning a portfolio of etchings and engravings which I had purchased for a certain house I had built for a certain young woman (already mentioned) who was expected to return from Europe in a few weeks. By some mistake they had been sent to me at the seaside. I invited the ladies down to my sitting room at eight o’clock to look at the engravings, and left word at the clerk’s desk that Mr. Cartwright would find us there.
The ladies came promptly. They examined the pictures and criticized them with rare good taste, for they had both traveled widely and were familiar with art and the relative merit of artists.
At a quarter past eight I heard a quick step, which sounded somewhat familiar, pass along the hall and stop at my door, at which there was a knock.
“Come in,” I exclaimed.
The door was opened, and a gentleman stood in the doorway-a tall, symmetrical young man, without an ounce of superfluous flesh upon him, attired in a faultlessly fitting suit of gray tweed. The ladies and I looked at him for a moment in puzzled curiosity; there was something familiar about him though he was evidently a stranger. There was no sign of recognition on the part of anyone, nor could I imagine who he was until he spoke.
“Well?” he exclaimed, “I thought I would surprise you!”
The wish was father to the thought, for up to that time we had not shown any signs of surprise. It was Cartwright. He beamed upon us in an ecstasy of pleasure, and laughed gleefully at our evident amazement as we realized who he was.
Meanwhile I watched the effect of his changed appearance upon Florence. She had started at the sound of his voice. When the fact dawned fully upon her that the slender boy before her was but a few weeks before the man whom she loved, she turned as pale as though she had seen a ghost.
“Mamma,” she said, in a voice scarcely audible, “take me to my room. The gentlemen will excuse us.”
“Why, Florence,” answered her mother, “you will be better in a moment. Mr. Cartwright’s return was so sudden. You should have prepared us,” she said, with a note of reproach, sddressing Cartwright.
“Take me to my room, please,” urged Florence.
Mrs. Gaylord led her away with murmured excuses. Cartwright offered his arm to assist her.
“No thanks,” she said, with a perceptible shudder, “Mamma will help me.”
When they had gone, Cartwright turned to me, his face white and miserable, his elation all departed.
“What does it all mean?” he groaned. “I thought she would like it.” He cast a comprehensive look over his altered person.
“What have you been doing with yourself?” I inquired.
“I’ve been under treatment for obesity,” he replied. “I found a famous physician who has reduced my weight about half in four weeks. But what’s the matter with Florence?”
“The surprise was too great for her,” I said. “She will be all right in the morning.” But I remembered the conversation I had overheard on the beach, and I feared for the result of Cartwright’s experiment.
At nine the next morning Cartwright came into my room.
“They have gone,” he said; “read this.” He tossed me this note, which I opened and read:
"Dear Mr. Cartwright: Pardon my seeming rudeness of last evening. But permit me to explain it by saying that my feelings were beyond control. We leave this morning on the early train, and I beg of you to release me from my engagement. It is difficult for me to express my meaning, but you are so different from what you were when we met and when we became engaged, that it is hard to realize that you are the same person. I fear I could never be happy with you now. Feeling as I do, I think it best for us not to meet. I only wish you greater happiness than I could ever have brought you. FLORENCE GAYLORD"