East and West Poems

Aspiring Miss De Laine

(A Chemical Narrative)

Bret Harte

CERTAIN facts which serve to explain
The physical charms of Miss Addie De Laine,
Who, as the common reports obtain,
Surpassed in complexion the lily and rose;
With a very sweet mouth and a retroussé nose;
A figure like Hebe’s, or that which revolves
In a milliner’s window, and partially solves
That question which mentor and moralist pains,
If grace may exist minus feeling or brains.

Of course the young lady had beaux by the score,
All that she wanted,—what girl could ask more?
Lovers that sighed and lovers that swore,
Lovers that danced and lovers that played,
Men of profession, of leisure, and trade;
But one, who was destined to take the high part
Of holding that mythical treasure, her heart,—
This lover, the wonder and envy of town,—
Was a practicing chemist,—a fellow called Brown.

I might here remark that ’twas doubted by many,
In regard to the heart, if Miss Addie had any;
But no one could look in that eloquent face,
With its exquisite outline and features of grace,
And mark, through the transparent skin, how the tide
Ebbed and flowed at the impulse of passion or pride,—
None could look, who believed in the blood’s circulation
As argued by Harvey, but saw confirmation
That here, at least, Nature had triumphed o’er art,
And as far as complexion went she had a heart.

But this par parenthesis.    Brown was the man
Preferred of all others to carry her fan,
Hook her glove, drape her shawl, and do all that a belle
May demand of the lover she wants to treat well.
Folks wondered and stared that a fellow called Brown—
Abstracted and solemn, in manner a clown,
Ill dressed, with a lingering smell of the shop—
Should appear as her escort at party or hop.
Some swore he had cooked up some villainous charm,
Or love philter, not in the regular Pharm-
Acopoeia, and thus, from pure malis prepense,
Had bewitched and bamboozled the young lady’s sense;
Others thought, with more reason, the secret to lie
In a magical wash or indelible dye;
While Society, with its censorious eye
And judgment impartial, stood ready to damn
What wasn’t improper as being a sham.

For a fortnight the townfolk had all been agog
With a party, the finest the season had seen,
To be given in honor of Miss Pollywog,
Who was just coming out as a belle of sixteen.
The guests were invited; but one night before
A carriage drew up at the modest back door
Of Brown’s lab’ratory, and, full in the glare
Of a big purple bottle, some closely veiled fair
Alighted and entered: to make matters plain,
Spite of veils and disguises,—’twas Addie De Laine.

As a bower for true love, ’twas hardly the one
That a lady would choose to be wooed in or won:
No odor of rose or sweet jessamine’s sigh
Breathed a fragrance to hallow their pledge of troth by,
Nor the balm that exhales from the odorous thyme;
But the gaseous effusions of chloride of lime,
And salts, which your chemist delights to explain
As the base of the smell of the rose and the drain.
Think of this, O ye lovers of sweetness! and know
What you smell when you snuff up Lubin or Pinaud.

I pass by the greetings, the transports and bliss,
Which of course duly followed a meeting like this,
And come down to business,—for such the intent
Of the lady who now o’er the crucible leant,
In the glow of a furnace of carbon and lime,
Like a fairy called up in the new pantomime,—
And give but her words, as she coyly looked down
In reply to the questioning glances of Brown:
“I am taking the drops, and am using the paste,
And the little white powders that had a sweet taste,
Which you told me would brighten the glance of my eye,
And the depilatory, and also the dye,
And I’m charmed with the trial; and now, my dear Brown,
I have one other favor,—now, ducky, don’t frown,—
Only one, for a chemist and genius like you
But a trifle, and one you can easily do.
Now listen: to-morrow, you know, is the night
Of the birthday soiree of that Pollywog fright;
And I’m to be there, and the dress I shall wear
Is too lovely; but”—;“But what then, ma chere?
Said Brown, as the lady came to a full stop,
And glanced round the shelves of the little back shop.
“Well, I want—I want something to fill out the skirt
To the proper dimensions, without being girt
In a stiff crinoline, or caged in a hoop
That shows through one’s skirt like the bars of a coop;
Something light, that a lady may waltz in, or polk,
With a freedom that none but you masculine folk
Ever know.    For, however poor woman aspires,
She’s always bound down to the earth by these wires.
Are you listening?    Nonsense! don’t stare like a spoon,
Idiotic; some light thing, and spacious, and soon—
Something like—well, in fact—something like a balloon!”
Here she paused; and here Brown, overcome by surprise,
Gave a doubting assent with still wondering eyes,
And the lady departed.    But just at the door
Something happened,—’tis true, it had happened before
In this sanctum of science,—a sibilant sound,
Like some element just from its trammels unbound,
Or two substances that their affinities found.
The night of the anxiously looked for soirée
Had come, with its fair ones in gorgeous array;
With the rattle of wheels and the tinkle of bells,
And the “How do ye do’s” and the “Hope you are well’s;”
And the crush in the passage, and last lingering look
You give as you hang your best hat on the hook;
The rush of hot air as the door opens wide;
And your entry,—that blending of self-possessed pride
And humility shown in your perfect-bred stare
At the folk, as if wondering how they got there;
With other tricks worthy of Vanity Fair.
Meanwhile, the safe topic, the beat of the room,
Already was losing its freshness and bloom;
Young people were yawning, and wondering when
The dance would come off; and why didn’t it then:
When a vague expectation was thrilling the crowd,
Lo! the door swung its hinges with utterance proud!
And Pompey announced, with a trumpet-like strain,
The entrance of Brown and Miss Addie De Laine.

She entered; but oh! how imperfect the verb
To express to the senses her movement superb!
To say that she “sailed in” more clearly might tell
Her grace in its buoyant and billowy swell.
Her robe was a vague circumambient space,
With shadowy boundaries made of point-lace;
The rest was but guesswork, and well might defy
The power of critical feminine eye
To define or describe: ’twere as futile to try
The gossamer web of the cirrus to trace,
Floating far in the blue of a warm summer sky.

’Midst the humming of praises and glances of beaux
That greet our fair maiden wherever she goes,
Brown slipped like a shadow, grim, silent, and black,
With a look of anxiety, close in her track.
Once he whispered aside in her delicate ear
A sentence of warning,—it might be of fear:
“Don’t stand in a draught, if you value your life.”
(Nothing more,—such advice might be given your wife
Or your sweetheart, in times of bronchitis and cough,
Without mystery, romance, or frivolous scoff.)
But hark to the music; the dance has begun.
The closely draped windows wide open are flung;
The notes of the piccolo, joyous and light,
Like bubbles burst forth on the warm summer night.
Round about go the dancers; in circles they fly;
Trip, trip, go their feet as their skirts eddy by;
And swifter and lighter, but somewhat too plain,
Whisks the fair circumvolving Miss Addie De Laine.
Taglioni and Cerito well might have pined
For the vigor and ease that her movements combined;
E’en Rigelboche never flung higher her robe
In the naughtiest city that’s known on the globe.
’Twas amazing, ’twas scandalous; lost in surprise,
Some opened their mouths, and a few shut their eyes.

But hark!    At the moment Miss Addie De Laine,
Circling round at the outer edge of an ellipse
Which brought her fair form to the window again,
From the arms of her partner incautiously slips!
And a shriek fills the air, and the music is still,
And the crowd gather round where her partner forlorn
Still frenziedly points from the wide window-sill
Into space and the night; for Miss Addie was gone!
Gone like the bubble that bursts in the sun;
Gone like the grain when the reaper is done;
Gone like the dew on the fresh morning grass;
Gone without parting farewell; and alas!
Gone with a flavor of hydrogen gas!

.     .     .     .     .

When the weather is pleasant, you frequently meet
A white-headed man slowly pacing the street;
His trembling hand shading his lack-lustre eye,
Half blind with continually scanning the sky.
Rumor points him as some astronomical sage,
Re-perusing by day the celestial page;
But the reader, sagacious, will recognize Brown,
Trying vainly to conjure his lost sweetheart down,
And learn the stern moral this story must teach,
That Genius may lift its love out of its reach.

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