Sylvia: A Novel
By Upton Sinclair
This is the story of Sylvia Castleman, of her love and her marriage. The story goes back to the days of her golden youth; but it has to be told by an old woman who had no youth at all, and who never dreamed of having a story to tell. It begins with scenes of luxury among the proudest aristocracy of the South; it is told by one who for the first thirty years of her life was a farmer’s wife in a lonely pioneer homestead in Manitoba, and who, but for the pictures and stories in magazines, would never have known that such a world as Sylvia Castleman’s existed.
Yet I believe that I can tell her story. Eight years of it I lived with her, so intensely that it became as my own existence to me. And the rest I gathered from her lips, even to the tiniest details. For years I went about my daily tasks with Sylvia’s memories as a kind of radiance about me, like a rainbow that shimmers over the head of a plodding traveler. In the time that I knew her, I never came to the end of her picturesque adventures, nor did I ever know what it was to be bored by them. The incident might be commonplace—a bit of a flirtation, the ordering of a costume, the blunder of a negro servant; but it was always Sylvia who was telling it—there was always the sparkle of her eyes, the mischievous smile, the swift glow of her countenance. And as the story progressed, suddenly would come some incident so wild that it would make you catch your breath; some fantastic, incredible extravagance; some strange, quixotic trait of character. You would find yourself face to face with an attitude to life out of the Middle Ages, with some fierce, vivid passion that carried you back even farther.
What a world it is! I know that it exists—for Sylvia took me home with her twice. I saw the Major wearing his faded gray uniform (it was “Reunion Day”) and discoursing upon the therapeutic qualities of “hot toddies.” I watched the negro boy folding and unfolding the newspaper, because Mrs. Castleman was obeying her physician and avoiding unnecessary exertion. I shook hands with Master Castleman Lysle, whose names were reversed by special decree of the state legislature, so that the memory of his distinguished ancestress might be preserved to posterity. And yet it will always seem like a fairy-story world to me. I can no more believe in the courtly Bishop, praying over my unrepentant head, than I can believe in Don Quixote. As for “Uncle Mandeville”—I could more easily persuade myself that I once talked with Pan Zagloba in the flesh.
I have Sylvia’s picture on my desk—the youthful picture that means so much to me, with its strange mixture of coquetry and wistfulness, of mischief and tenderness. Downstairs in the dining-room is the portrait of Lady Lysle, which is so much like her that strangers always mistook it. And if that be not enough, now and then Elaine steals into my room, and, silent as a shadow, takes her seat upon the little stool beside me, watching me with her sightless eyes. Her fingers fly swiftly at her knitting, and for hours, if need be, she moves nothing else. She knows by the sound of my pen that I am busy; with the wonderful acuteness of the blind she knows whether I am successful or not, whether what I write be joyous or painful.
How much she knows—much more than I dream, perhaps! I wonder about it, but I never ask her. Both Frank and I have tried to talk to her, but we cannot; it is cowardly, pitiful, perhaps—but we cannot! She used to ask questions in the beginning, but she must have felt our pain, for she asks no more; she simply haunts our home, the incarnation of the tragedy. So much of her mother she has—the wonderful red-brown eyes, the golden hair, the mobile, delicate features. But the sparkle of the eyes and the glow in the cheeks, the gaiety, the rapture—where are they? When I think of this, I clutch my hands in a sort of spasm, and go to my work again.
Or perhaps I go into Frank’s den and see him sitting there, with his haggard, brooding face, his hair that turned gray in one week. He never asks the question, but I see it in his eyes: “How much have you done to-day?” A cruel taskmaster is that face of Frank’s! He is haunted by the thought that I may not live to finish the story.