Back to the Index Page

 
 
 
An Animated Conversation by By Henry James

 

IT TOOK place, accidentally, after dinner at an hotel in London, and I can pretend to transcribe it only as the story was told me by one of the interlocutors, who was not a professional reporter. The general sense of it—but general sense was possibly just what it lacked. At any rate, by what I gather, it was a friendly, lively exchange of ideas (on a subject or two in which, at this moment, we all appear to be infinitely interested) among several persons who evidently considered that they were not destitute of matter. The reader will judge if they were justified in this impression. The occasion was perhaps less remarkable than my informant deemed it; still, the reunion of half a dozen people with ideas at a lodging-house in Sackville Street, on a foggy November night, cannot be accounted a perfectly trivial fact. The apartment was the brilliant Belinda's, and the day before she had asked Camilla and Oswald to dine with her. After this she had invited Clifford and Darcy to meet them. Lastly, that afternoon, encountering Belwood in a shop in Piccadilly, she had begged him to join the party. The “ideas” were not produced in striking abundance, as I surmise, till the company had passed back into the little sitting-room and cigarettes, after the coffee, had been permitted by the ladies, and in the case of one of them (the reader must guess which), perhaps even more actively countenanced. The train was fired by a casual question from the artless Camilla; she asked Darcy if he could recommend her a nice book to read on the journey to Paris. Then, immediately, the colloquy took a turn which, little dramatic though it may appear, I can best present in the scenic form.

Darcy. My dear lady, what do you mean by a nice book? That's so vague.

Belinda. You could tell her definitely enough, if she asked for a n—-for one that's not nice.

Darcy. How do you mean—I could tell her?

Belinda. There are so many; and in this cosmopolitan age they are in every one's hands.

Camilla. Really, Belinda, they are not in mine.

Oswald. My wife, though she lives in Paris, doesn't read French books; she reads nothing but Tauchnitz.

Belinda. She has to be like that, to make up for you—with your French pictures.

Camilla. He doesn't paint the kind you mean; he paints only landscapes.

Belinda. That's the kind I mean.

Oswald. You may call me French if you like, but don't call me cosmopolitan. I'm sick of that word.

Belwood. You may call me so—I like it.

Belinda. Oh, you, of course—you're an analyst.

Clifford. Bless me, how you're abusing us!

Belinda. Ah, not you—you certainly are not one.

Darcy (to Clifford). You don't get off the better. But it's as you take it.

Clifford. Analysis be hanged!

Darcy. Yes, that's one way. Only you make me ashamed of my question to Camilla: it's so refined.

Camilla. What then do you call a book when you like it? I mean a nice, pretty, pleasant, interesting book; rather long, so it isn't over quickly.

Oswald. It never is with you, my dear. You read a page a day.

Belwood. I should like to write something for Camilla.

Belinda. To make her read faster?

Camilla. I shouldn't understand it.

Belinda. Precisely—you'd skip. But Darcy never likes anything—he's a critic.

Darcy. Only of books—not of people, as you are.

Belinda. Oh, I like people.

Belwood. They give it back!

Belinda. I mean I like them even when I don't—it's all life.

Darcy (smiling). That's the way I dislike books.

Belwood. Ah, yes, life—life!

Clifford. Oh, bother life! Of course you mean a novel, Camilla.

Belinda. What else can a woman mean? The book, to-day, is the novel.

Oswald. And the woman is the public. I'm glad I don't write. It's bad enough to paint.

Belwood. I protest against that.

Belinda. Against what?

Belwood. Against everything. The woman being the public, to begin with.

Belinda. It's very ungrateful of you. Where would you be without them?

Darcy. Belwood is right, in this sense; that though they are very welcome as readers it is fatal to write for them.

Belwood. Who writes for them? One writes for one's self.

Belinda. They write for themselves.

Darcy. And for each other.

Oswald. I didn't know women did anything for each other.

Darcy. It shows how little you read; for if they are as you say, the great consumers to-day, they are still more the great producers. No one seems to notice it—but no one notices anything. Literature is simply undergoing a transformation—it's becoming feminine. That's a portentous fact.

Oswald. It's very dreadful.

Belinda. Take care—we shall paint yet.

Oswald. I've no doubt you will—it will be fine!

Belwood. It will contribute in it's degree to the great evolution which as yet is only working vaguely and dumbly in the depths of things, but which is even now discernible by partial, imperfect signs, to the intelligent, and which will certainly become the huge “issue” of the future, belittling and swallowing up all our paltry present strife, our armaments and wars, our international hatreds, and even our international utopias, our political muddles and looming socialisms. It will make these things seem, in retrospect, a bed of roses.

Belinda. And pray what is it?

Belwood. The essential, latent antagonism of the sexes—the armed opposed array of men and women, founded on irreconcilable interests. Hitherto we have judged these interests reconcilable, and even practically identical. But all that is changing, because women are changing, and their necessary hostility to men—or that of men to them, I don't. care how you put it—is rising, by an inexorable logic, to the surface. It is deeper—ah, far deeper, than our need of each other, deep as we have always held that to be; and some day it will break out on a scale that will make us all turn pale.

Belinda. The Armageddon of the future, quoi!

Camilla. I turn pale already!

Belinda. I don't—I blush for his folly.

Darcy. Excuse the timidity of my imagination; but it seems to me that we must be united.

Belwood. That's where it is, as they say. We shall be united by hate.

Belinda. The Kilkenny cats, quoi!

Oswald. Well, we shall have the best of it—we can thrash them.

Belwood. I am not so sure; for if it's a question of the power of the parties to hurt each other, that of the sex to which these ladies belong is immense.

Camilla. Why, Belwood, I wouldn't hurt you for the world!

Belinda. I would, but I don't want to wait a thousand years.

Belwood. I'm sorry, but you'll have to. Meanwhile we shall be comfortable enough, with such women as Camilla.

Belinda. Thank you—for her.

Belwood. And as it won't be for a thousand years I may say that Darcy's account of the actual transformation of literature is based on rather a partial, local view. It isn't at all true of France.

Darcy. Oh, France! France is sometimes tiresome; she contradicts all one's generalizations.

Belinda. Dame, she contradicts her own!

Belwood. They're so clever, the French; they've arranged everything, in their system, so much more comfortably than we. They haven't to bother about women's work; that sort of thing doesn't exist for them, and they are not flooded with the old maid's novels which (a cynic or a purist would say) make English literature ridiculous.

Darcy. No, they have no Miss Austen. Belinda. And what do you do with George Sand?

Belwood. Do you call her an old maid? Belinda. She was a woman; we are speaking of that.

Belwood. Not a bit—she was only a motherly man.

Clifford. For heavens sake, and with all respect to Belwood, don't let us be cosmopolitan. Our prejudices are our responsibilities, and I hate to see a fine, big, healthy one dying of neglect, when it might grow up to support a family.

Belwood. Ah, they don't support families now; it's as much as they can do to scrape along for themselves.

Clifford. If you weren't a pessimist I should nearly become one. Our literature is good enough for us, and I don't at all complain of the ladies. They write jolly good novels sometimes, and I don't see why they shouldn't.

Oswald. It's true they play lawn-tennis.

Belwood. So they do, and that's more difficult. I'm perfectly willing to be English.

Belinda. Or American.

Belwood. Take care—that's cosmopolitan.

Belinda. For you, yes, but not for me.

Belwood. Yes, see what a muddle—with Clifford's simplifications. That's another thing the French have been clever enough to keep out of: the great silly schism of language, of usage, of literature. They have none of those clumsy questions—American-English and English-American. French is French and that's the end of it.

Clifford. And English is English.

Belinda. And American's American.

Belwood. Perhaps; but that's not the end of it, it's the beginning. And the beginning of such a weariness!

Darcy. A weariness only if our frivolity makes it so. It is true our frivolity is capable of anything.

Clifford. Oh, I like our frivolity!

Darcy. So it would seem, if you fail to perceive that our insistence on international differences is stupid.

Clifford. I'm not bound to perceive anything so metaphysical The American papers are awfully funny. Why shouldn't one say so? I don't insist—I never insisted on anything in my life.

Oswald. We are awfully different, say what you will.

Darcy. Rubbish—rubbish—rubbish!

Oswald. Go to Paris and you'll see.

Clifford. Oh, don't go to Paris again!

Darcy. What has Paris to do with it?

Belwood. We must be large—we must be rich.

Oswald. All the American painters are there. Go and see what they are doing, what they hold painting to be; and then come and look at the English idea.

Belinda. Do you call it an idea?

Darcy. You ought to be fined, and I think I shall propose the establishment of a system of fines, for the common benefit of the two peoples and the discouragement of aggravation.

Belinda. Dear friend, can't one breathe? Who does more for the two peoples than I, and for the practical solution of their little squabbles? Their squabbles are purely theoretic, and the solution is real, being simply that of personal intercourse. While we talk, and however we talk, association is cunningly, insidiously doing it's indestructible work. It works while were asleep—more than we can undo while were awake. It is wiser than we—it has a deeper passion. And what could be a better proof of what I say than the present occasion? All our intercourse is a perpetual conference, and this is one of it's sittings. They're informal, casual, humorous, but none the less useful, because they are full of an irrepressible give-and-take. What other nations are continually meeting to talk over the reasons why they shouldn't meet? What others are so sociably separate and so inextricably alien? We talk each other to sleep; it's becoming insipid—that's the only drawback. Am I not always coming and going, so that I have lost all sense of where I “belong?” And aren't we, in this room, such a mixture that we scarcely, ourselves, know who is who and what is what? Clifford utters an inarticulate and ambiguous sound, but I rejoice in the confusion, for it makes for civilization.

Belwood. All honour to Belinda, mistress of hospitality and of irony!

Clifford. Your party is jolly, but I didn't know it was so improving. At any rate, don't let us be insipid.

Belinda. We shall not, while you are here—even though you have no general ideas.

Belwood. Belinda has an extraordinary number, for a woman.

Belinda. Perhaps I am only a motherly man.

Oswald. Sisterly, rather. Talk of the fraternité of the French! But I feel rather out of it, in Paris.

Belinda. You're not in Paris-you're just here.

Camilla. But we are going to-morrow, and no one has yet told me a book for the train.

Clifford. Get “The Rival Bridesmaids”; it's a tremendous lark. And I am large, I am rich, as Belwood says, in recommending it, because it's about New York—one of your “society-novels", full of “snap”! And by a woman, I guess; though it strikes me that with American novels you can't be very sure.

Camilla. The women write like men?

Clifford. Or the men write like women.

Camilla. Then I expect (if you like that better) that it's horrid, one of those American productions which have no existence là-bas and are devoured in England.

Clifford. I see—the confusion commended by Belinda. It's very dense.

Camilla. Besides, whoever it was that said a book is as a matter of course a novel, it wasn't I.

Belwood. As no one seems prepared to father that terrible proposition I will just remark, in relation to the matter we are talking about—

Oswald. Lord, which? We are talking of so many!

Belwood. You will understand when I say that an acuteness of national sentiment on the part of my nation and yours (as against each other, of course, I mean) is more and more an artificial thing—a matter of perverted effort and mistaken duty. It is kept up by the newspapers, which must make a noise at any price, and whose huge, clumsy machinery (it exists only for that) is essentially blundering. They are incapable of the notation of private delicacies, in spite of the droll assumption of so many sheets that private life is their domain; and they keep striking the wrong hour with a complacency which misleads the vulgar. Unfortunately the vulgar are many. All the more reason why the children of light should see clear.

Darcy. Ah, those things are an education which I think even the French might envy us.

Oswald. What things?

Darcy. The recriminations, the little digs, whatever you choose to call them, between America and England.

Oswald. I thought you just said they were rubbish.

Darcy. It's the perception that they are rubbish that constitutes the education.

Oswald. I see—you're educated. I'm afraid I'm not.

Clifford. And I too perceive how much I have to learn.

Belinda. You are both naughty little boys who wont go to school.

Darcy. Au education of the intelligence, of the temper, of the manners.

Clifford. Do you think your manners to us show so much training?

Oswald (to Clifford). They are perhaps on the whole as finished as yours to us.

Belinda. A fine, a fine to each of you.

Darcy. Quite right, and Belinda shall impose them. I don't say we are all formed—the formation will have to be so large: I see it as majestic, as magnificent. But we are forming. The opportunity is grand, there has never been anything like it in the world.

Oswald. I'm not sure I follow you.

Darcy. Why, the opportunity for two great peoples to accept, or rather to cultivate, with talent a common destiny, to tackle the world together, to unite in the arts of peace—by which I mean, of course, in the arts of life. It will make life larger and the arts finer, for each of them. It will be an immense and complicated problem, of course—to see it through; but that's why I speak of it as an object of envy to other nations, in it's discipline, it's suggestiveness, the way it may nous faire voir du pays. Their problems, in comparison, strike me as small and vulgar. It's not true that there is nothing new under the sun; the donnée of the drama that England and America may act out together is absolutely new. Essentially new is the position in which they stand toward each other. It rests with all of us to make it newer still.

Clifford. I hope there will be a scene in the comedy for international copyright.

Darcy. A-ah!

Belinda. O-oh!

Belwood. Ay-ee!

Darcy. That will come—very soon: to a positive certainty.

Clifford. What do you call very soon? You seem to be talking for the ages.

Belwood. It's time—yes, it's time now. I can understand that hitherto—-

Clifford. I can't!

Darcy. I'm not sure whether I can or not. I'm trying what I can do. But it's all in the days work—we are learning.

Clifford. Learning at our expense. That's very nice. I observe that Oswald is silent; as an example of good manners he ought to defend the case.

Belinda. He is thinking of what he can say, and so am I

Camilla. Let me assist my husband. How did Clifford come by “The Rival Bridesmaids”? Wasn't it a pirated copy?

Clifford. Do you call that assisting him? I don't know whether it was or not, and at all events it needn't have been. Very likely the author lives in England.

Camilla. In England?

Clifford. Round the corner, quoi, as Belinda says.

Oswald. We have had to have cheap books, we were hard-working, grinding, bread-earning readers.

Clifford. Bravo! at last! You might have had them as cheap as you liked. What you mean is you wanted them for nothing. Ah, yes, you're so poor!

Belwood. Well, it has made you, your half-century of books for nothing, a magnificent public for us now. We appreciate that.

Belinda. Magnanimous Belwood! Thank you, for that.

Darcy. The better day is so surely coming that I was simply taking it for granted.

Clifford. Wait till it comes and then well start fair.

Belinda. Yes, we really can't talk till it does.

Darcy. On the contrary, talking will help it to come.

Belinda. If it doesn't come, and very soon—tomorrow, next week—our mouths will be shut forever.

Darcy. Ah, don't be horrible!

Clifford. Yes, you wont like that.

Oswald. You will; so it's perhaps your interest.

Darcy. I don't mean our shut mouths—I mean the reason for them.

Belinda (to Oswald). You remind me that you and Clifford are fined. But I think it must only be a farthing for Clifford.

Clifford. I won't pay even that. I speak but the truth, and under the circumstances I think I am very civil.

Oswald. Don't give up your grievance—it will be worth everything to you.

Belinda. You are fined five dollars!

Darcy. If copyright doesn't come, I'll—(hesitating).

Clifford (waiting). What will you do?

Darcy. I'll get me to a nunnery.

Clifford. Much good will that do!

Darcy. My nunnery shall be in the United States, and I shall found there a library of English novels in the original three volumes.

Belinda. I shall do very differently. I shall come out of my cell, like Peter the Hermit; I shall cry aloud for a crusade.

Clifford. Your comparison doesn't hold, for you are yourself an infidel.

Belinda. A fig for that! I shall fight under the cross.

Belwood. There's a great army over there now.

Clifford. I hope they'll win!

Belwood. If they don't, you Americans must make a great literature, such as we shall read with delight, pour it out on us unconditionally, and pay us back that way.

Clifford. I shall not object to that arrangement if we do read with delight.

Belwood. Ah, that will depend partly also on us.

Darcy. Delicate Belwood! If what we do becomes great, you will probably understand it—at least I hope so! But I like the way you talk about great literatures. Does it strike you that they are breaking out, about the world, that way?

Clifford. Send us over some good novels for nothing, and it will be all right.

Belwood. I admit, our preoccupations, everywhere—those of the race in general—don't seem to make for literature.

Clifford. Then we English shall never be repaid.

Oswald. Are the works you give to America then so literary?

Clifford. We give everything—we have given all the great people.

Oswald. Ah, the great people—if you mean those of the past—were not yours to give. They were ours too, you pay no more for them than we.

Clifford. It depends upon what you mean by the past.

Darcy. I don't think it's particularly in our interest to go into the chronology of the matter. We pirated Byron—we pirated Scott. Nor does it profit to differ about which were the great ones. They were all great enough for us to take, and we took them. We take them to-day, however the superior may estimate them; and we should take them still, even if the superior were to make more reservations. It has been our misfortune (in the long run, I mean) that years and years ago, when the taking began, it was really, intelligently viewed, inevitable. We were poor then, and we were hungry and lonely and far away, and we had to have something to read. We helped ourselves to the literature that was nearest, which was all the more attractive that it had about it, in it's native form, such a fine glamour of expense, of the guinea volume and the wide margin. It was aristocratic, and a civilization can't make itself without that. If it isn't the bricks it's the mortar. The first thing a society does after it has left the aristocratic out is to put it in again: of course I use the word in a loose way. We couldn't pay a fancy price for that element, and we only paid what we could. The booksellers made money, and the public only asked if there wasn't more—it asked no other questions. You can treat books as a luxury, and authors with delicacy, only if you've already got a lot: you can't start on that basis.

Clifford. But I thought your claim is precisely that you had a lot—all our old writers.

Darcy. The old writers, yes. But the old writers, uncontemporary and more or less archaic, were a little grim. We were so new ourselves, and our very newness was in itself sufficiently grim. The English books of the day (their charm was that they were of the day) were our society—we had very little other. We were happy to pay the servant for opening the door—the bookseller for republishing; but I daresay that even if we had thought of it we should have had a certain hesitation in feeing the visitors. A money-question, when they were so polite! It was too kind of them to come.

Clifford. I don't quite recognize the picture of your national humility, at any stage of your existence. Even if you had thought of it, you say? It didn't depend upon that. We began to remind you long ago—ever so long ago.

Darcy. Yes, you were fairly prompt. But our curse, in the disguise of a blessing, was that meanwhile we had begun to regard your company as a matter of course. Certainly, that should have been but a detail, when reflection and responsibility had come. At what particular period was it to have been expected of our conscience to awake?

Clifford. If it was last year, it's enough.

Darcy. Oh, it was long ago—very long ago, as you say. I assign an early date. But you can't put your finger on the place.

Clifford. On your conscience?

Darcy. On the period. Our conscience—to speak of that—has the defect of not being homogeneous. It's very big.

Clifford. You mean it's elastic?

Darcy. On the contrary, it's rigid, in places; it's numb; it's not animated to the extremities. A conscience is a natural organ, but if it's to be of any use in the complications of life it must also be a cultivated one. Ours is cultivated, highly cultivated, in spots; but there are large crude patches.

Clifford. I see—an occasional oasis in the desert.

Darcy. No—blooming farms in the prairie. The prairie is rich; but it's not all settled; there are promising barbarous tracts. Therefore the different parts of the organ to which I have likened it don't, just as yet, all act together. But when they do—

Clifford. When they do we shall all be dead of starvation.

Belinda. I'll divide my own pittance with you first.

Camilla. I'm glad we live in Paris. In Paris they don't mind.

Darcy. They mind something else.

Oswald (bracing himself). He means the invidious duty the American Government has levied on foreign works of art. In intention it's prohibitive—they won't admit free any but American productions.

Belwood. That's a fine sort of thing for the culture of a people.

Clifford. It keeps out monarchical pictures.

Belinda (to Oswald). Why did you tell—before two Englishmen.

Camilla. I never even heard of it—in Paris.

Belwood. Ah, there they are too polite to reproach you with it.

Oswald. It doesn't keep out anything, for in fact the duty, though high, isn't at all prohibitive. If it were effective it would be effective almost altogether against the French, whose pictures are not monarchical, but as republican as our own, so that Clifford's taunt is wasted. The people over there who buy foreign works of art are very rich, and they buy them just the same, duty and all.

Darcy. Doesn't what you say indicate that the tax restricts that ennobling pleasure to the very rich? Without it amateurs of moderate fortune might pick up some bits.

Oswald. Good pictures are very rarely cheap. When they are dear only the rich can buy them. In the few cases where they are cheap, the tax doesn't make them dear.

Belinda. Bravo—I'm reassured.

Darcy. It doesn't invalidate the fact that French artists have spoken of the matter to me with passion and scorn, and that I have hung my head and had nothing to say.

Belinda. Oh, Darcy—how can you? Wait till they go!

Clifford. Hadn't we better go now?

Belinda. Dear me, no—not on that note. Wait till we work round.

Clifford. What can you work round to?

Camilla. Why, to the novel. I insist on being told a good one.

Oswald. The foreigners were frightened at first, but things have turned out much better than they feared.

Belinda. We are working round.

Oswald. Otherwise do you think I could bear to stay in Paris.

Darcy. That makes me wince, as I have the face to stay in London.

Oswald. Oh, English pictures!—-

Darcy. I am not thinking of English pictures; though I might, for some of them are charming.

Belwood. What will you have? It's all protection.

Darcy. We protect the industry and demolish the art.

Oswald. I thought you said you were not thinking of the art.

Darcy. Dear Oswald, there's more than one. The art of letters.

Oswald. Where do you find it to-day, the art of letters? It seems to me to be the industry, all round and everywhere.

Clifford (to Belwood). They squabble among themselves—that may be good for us.

Darcy. Don't say squabble, say discuss. Of course we discuss; but from the moment we do so vous en êtes, indefeasibly. There is no such thing as themselves, on either side; it's all ourselves. The fact of discussion welds us together, and we have properties in common that we can't get rid of.

Oswald. My dear Darcy, you are fantastic.

Clifford. You do squabble, you do!

Darcy. Call it so, then: don't you see how you're in it?

Belwood. I see very well—I feel it all.

Clifford. I don't then—hanged if I'm in it!

Camilla. Now they are squabbling!

Belwood. Our conversation certainly supports Belinda's contention that we are in indissoluble contact. Our interchange of remarks, just now, about copyright was a signal proof of union.

Clifford. It was humiliating for these dear Americans—if you call that union.

Belwood. Clifford, I'm ashamed of you.

Camilla. They are squabbling—they are!

Belinda. Yes, but we don't gain by it. I am humiliated, and Darcy was pulled up short.

Clifford. You're in a false position, quoi! You see how intolerable that is. You feel it in everything.

Belinda. Yes, it's a loss of freedom the greatest form of suffering. A chill has descended upon me, and I'm not sure I can shake it off. I don't want this delightful party to break up, yet I feel as if we—I mean we four—had nothing more to say.

Oswald. We have all in fact chattered enough.

Camilla. Oh, be cheerful and talk about the novel.

Clifford. Innocent Camilla! as if the novel to-day were cheerful.

Belinda. I see Darcy has more assurance.

Belwood. You mean he has more ideas.

Darcy. It is because dear Belwood is here. If I were alone with Clifford I daresay I should be rather low. But I have more to say, inconsequent, and perhaps even indecent, as that may be. I have it at heart to say, that the things that divide us appear to me, when they are enumerated by the people who profess to be acutely conscious of them, ineffably small.

Clifford. Small for you!

Belinda. Clifford, if you are impertinent I shall rise from my ashes. Darcy is so charming.

Oswald. He's so ingenious.

Belwood. Continue to be charming, Darcy. That's the spell!

Darcy. I'm not ingenious at all; I'm only a God-fearing plain man, saying things as they strike him.

Camilla. You are charming!

Darcy. Well, it doesn't prevent me from having noticed the other day, in a magazine, in a recriminatory, a retaliatory (I don't know what to call it), article, a phrase to the effect that the author, an American, would frankly confess, and take his stand on it, that he liked rocking-chairs, Winchester rifles, and iced-water. He seemed a very bristling gentleman, and they apparently were his ultimatum. It made me reflect on these symbols of our separateness, and I wanted to put the article into the fire, before a Frenchman or a German should see it.

Clifford. Iced-water, rocking-chairs, and copyright.

Darcy. Well, add copyright, after all.

Belinda. Darcy is irrepressible.

Darcy. It wouldn't make the spectacle sensibly less puerile, or I may say less grotesque, for a Frenchman or a German. They are not quarrelling about copyright—or even about rocking-chairs.

Clifford. Or even about fisheries, or even about the public manners engendered by presidential elections.

Oswald (to Darcy). Don't you know your country-people well enough to know just how much they care, by which I mean how little, for what a Frenchman or a German may think of them?

Clifford. And don't you know mine?

Oswald. Or an Englishman?

Clifford. Or an American?

Darcy. Oh, every country cares, much more in practice than in theory. The form of national susceptibility differs with different peoples, but the substance is very much the same.

Belwood . I am appalled, when I look at the principal nations of the globe, at the vivacity of their mutual hatreds, as revealed by the bright light of the latter end of the nineteenth century. We are very proud of that light, but that's what it principally shows us. Look at the European family—it's a perfect menagerie of pet aversions. And some countries resemble certain fat old ladies—they have so many pets. It is certainly worse than it used to be: of old we didn't exchange compliments every day.

Darcy. It is only worse in this sense, that we see more of each other now, we touch each other infinitely more.

Belwood. Our acrimonies are a pleasant result of that.

Darcy. They are not a final one. We must get used to each other. It's a rough process, if you like, but there are worse discomforts. Our modern intimacy is a very new thing, it has brought us face to face, and in this way the question comes up for each party, of whether it likes, whether it can live with, the other. The question is practical, it's social now; before it was academic and official Newspapers, telegraphs, trains, fast steamers, all the electricities and publicities that are playing over us like a perpetual thunder-storm, have made us live in a common medium, which is far from being a non-conductor. The world has become a big hotel, the Grand Hotel of the Nations, and we meet—I mean the nations meet—on the stairs and at the table d'hôte. You know the faces at the table d'hôte, one is never enthusiastic about them; they give on one's nerves. All the same, their wearers fall into conversation and often find each other quite nice. We are in the first stage, looking at each other, glaring at each other if you will, while the entree goes round. We play the piano, we smoke, we chatter in our rooms, and the sound and the fumes go through. But we won't pull down the house, because by to-morrow we shall have found our big polyglot inn, with it's German waiters, rather amusing.

Belinda. Call them Jews as well as Germans. The landlord is German too.

Oswald. What a horrible picture! I don't accept it, for America and England; I think those parties have each a very good house of their own.

Darcy. From the moment you resent, on our behalf, the vulgarity of the idea of hotel-life, see what a superior situation, apart, in our duality, and distinguished, you by that very fact conceive for us. Belwood's image is, to my sense, graceful enough, even though it may halt a little. The fisheries, and all the rest, are simply the piano in the next room. It may be played at the wrong hour, but that isn't a casus belli; we can thump on the wall, we can rattle the door, we can arrange. And for that matter, surely it is not to be desired that all questions between us should cease. There must be enough to be amusing, que diable! As Belinda said, it's already becoming insipid.

Clifford. Perhaps we had better keep the copyright matter open, for the fun of it. It's remarkable fun for us.

Oswald. It's fun for you that our tongues are tied, as Belinda and Darcy declare.

Clifford. Are they indeed? I haven't perceived it.

Belinda. Every one, on our side, I admit, has not Darcy's delicacy.

Darcy. Nor Belinda's.

Oswald. Yet I think of innumerable things we don't say—that we might.

Clifford. You mean that you yourself might. If you think of them, pray say them.

Oswald. Oh, no, my tongue is tied.

Clifford. Come, I'll let you off.

Oswald. It's very good of you, but there are others who wouldn't.

Clifford. How would others know? Would your remarks have such a reverberation?

Belinda. I wont let him off, and please remember that this is my house.

Clifford. It's doubtless a great escape for me.

Oswald. You are all escaping all the while, under cover of your grievance. There would be a great deal to be said for the policy of your not letting it go. The advantage of it may be greater than the injury. If we pay you we can criticise you.

Clifford. Why, on the contrary it's that that will be an advantage for us. Fancy, immense!

Oswald. Oh, you won't like it.

Clifford. Will it be droller than it is already? We shall delight in it.

Belwood. Oh, there are many things to say.

Darcy. Detached Belwood!

Belwood. Attached, on the contrary. Attached to everything we have in common.

Darcy. Delightful Belwood!

Belwood. Delightful Darcy!

Belinda (to Clifford). That's the way you and Oswald should be.

Clifford. It makes me rather sick, and I think, from the expression of Oswald's face, that it has the same effect upon him.

Oswald. I hate a fool's paradise; it's the thing in the world I most pray to be kept out of.

Darcy. There is no question of paradise—that's the last thing. Your folly, as well as your ecstasy is, on the contrary, in your rigid national consciousness ; it's the extravagance of a perpetual spasm. What I go in for is a great reality, and our making it comprehensive and fruitful. Of course we shall never do anything without imagination—by remaining dull and dense and literal.

Oswald. Attrappe!

Clifford. What does Oswald mean? I don't understand French.

Oswald. I have heard you speak it to-night.

Clifford. Then I don't understand your pronunciation.

Oswald. It's not that of Stratford-at-Bow. The difference between your ideas about yourselves and the way your performances strike the rest of the world, is one of the points that might be touched upon if it were not, as I am advised, absolutely impossible. The emanation of talent and intelligence from your conversation, your journals, your books—-

Clifford. I give you up our conversation, and even our journals. As for our books, they are clever enough for you to steal.

Belinda. See what an immense advantage Clifford has!

Oswald. I acknowledge it in advance.

Camilla. I like their books better than ours. I love a good English novel

Oswald. If you were not so naïve, you wouldn't dare to say so in Paris. Darcy was talking about what a German, what a Frenchman thinks. Parlons-en, of what a Frenchman thinks!

Belinda. I thought you didn't care.

Belwood. He means thinks of us.

Darcy. An intelligent foreigner might easily think it is open to us to have the biggest international life in the world.

Oswald. Darcy has formed the foolish habit of living in England, and it has settled upon him so that he has become quite provincialized. I believe he really supposes that that's the centre of ideas.

Clifford. Oh, hang ideas!

Oswald. Thank you, Clifford. He has lost all sense of proportion and perspective, of the way things strike people on the continent—on the continents—in the clear air of the world. He has forfeited his birthright.

Darcy. On the contrary, I have taken it up, and my eye for perspective has grown so that I see an immensity where you seem to me to see a dusky little cul-de-sac.

Clifford. Is Paris the centre of ideas?

Belinda. I thought it was Berlin.

Camilla. Oh, dear, must we go and live in Berlin?

Darcy. Why will no one have the courage to say, frankly, that it's New York?

Belwood. Wouldn't it be Boston, rather?

Oswald. I am not obliged to say where it is, and I am not at all sure that there is such a place. But I know very well where it's not. There are places where there are more ideas—places where there are fewer—and places where there are none at all. In Paris there are many, in constant circulation; you meet them in periodicals, in books, and in the conversation of the people. The people are not afraid of them—they quite like them.

Belinda. Some of them are charming, and one must congratulate the people who like them on their taste.

Oswald. They are not all for women, and, mon Dieu, you must take one with another. You must have all sorts, to have many, and you must have many to have a few good ones.

Clifford. You express yourself like a preliminary remark in a French etude.

Belinda. Clifford, I shall have to double that farthing!

Belwood. If the book, at present, is the novel, the French book is the French novel. And. if the ideas are in the book, we must go to the French novel for our ideas.

Clifford. Another preliminary remark—does any one follow?

Darcy. We must go everywhere for them, and we may form altogether, you and we—that is, our common mind may form—the biggest net in the world for catching them.

Oswald. I should like to analyse that queer mixture—our common mind—and refer the different ingredients to their respective contributors. However, it doesn't strike me as true of France, and it is not of France that one would mean it, that the book is the novel. Across the Channel, there are other living forms. Criticism, for instance, is alive: I notice that in what is written about the art I endeavour to practise. Journalism is alive.

Belwood. And isn't the novel alive?

Oswald. Oh, yes, there are ideas in it there are ideas about it.

Darcy. In England, too, there are ideas about it; there seems to be nothing else just now.

Oswald. I haven't come across one.

Belwood. You might pass it without noticing it—they are not so salient.

Belinda. But I thought we agreed that it was in England that it is the form?

Oswald. We didn't agree; but that would be my impression. In England, however, even the form!—

Belwood. I see what you mean. Even the form doesn't carry you very far. That's a pretty picture of our literature.

Oswald. I should like Darcy to think so.

Darcy. My dear fellow, Darcy thinks a great many things, whereas you appear to him to be able to think but one or two.

Belinda. Do wait till Belwood and Clifford go.

Belwood. We must, or at least I must, in fact, be going.

Clifford. So must I, though there is a question I should have liked still to ask Darcy.

Camilla. Oh, I'm so disappointed—I hoped we should have talked about novels. There seemed a moment when we were near it.

Belinda. We must do that yet—we must all meet again.

Camilla. But, my dear, Oswald and I are going to Paris.

Belinda. That needn't prevent; the rest of us will .go over and see you. We'll talk of novels in your salon.

Camilla. That will be lovely—but will Clifford and Belwood come?

Clifford. Oh, I go to Paris sometimes; but not for the form. Nor even for the substance.

Oswald. What do you go for?

Clifford. Oh, just for the lark.

Belwood (to Camilla). I shall go to see you.

Camilla. You're the nicest Englishman I ever saw. And, in spite of my husband, I delight in your novels.

Oswald. I said nothing against Belwood's. And, in general, they are proper enough for women—especially for little girls like you.

Clifford (to Camilla). Have you read “Mrs. Jenks, of Philadelphia”?

Camilla. Of Philadelphia? Jamais de la vie!

Darcy (to Oswald). You think me so benighted to have a fancy for London; but is it your idea that one ought to live in Paris?

Belwood. Paris is very well, but why should you people give yourself away at such a rate to the French? Much they thank you for it. They don't even know that you do it.

Oswald. Darcy is a man of letters, and it's in Paris that letters flourish.

Belinda. Why does Darcy write?

Belwood. He writes, but before he writes he observes. Why should he observe in a French medium?

Oswald. For the same reason that I do. C'est plus clair.

Darcy. Oswald has no feeling of race.

Belwood. On the contrary, he feels it as a Frenchman. But why should you Americans keep pottering over French life and observing that? They themselves do nothing else, and surely they suffice to the task. Stick to our race—saturate yourself with that.

Oswald. Do you mean the English?

Darcy. I know what he means.

Oswald. You are mighty mysterious, if you do.

Darcy. I am of Camilla's opinion—I think Bellwood's the nicest Englishman I ever saw.

Belinda. I am amused at the way it seems not to occur to any of us that the proper place to observe our own people is in our own country.

Darcy. Oh, London's the place; it swarms with our own people.

Oswald. Do you mean with English people? You have mixed things up so that it's hard to know what you do mean.

Darcy. I mean with English people and with Americans—I mean with all. Enough is as good as a feast, and there are more Americans there than even the most rapacious observer can tackle.

Belinda. This hotel is full of them.

Darcy. You have only to stand quiet and every type passes by. And over here they have a relief—it's magnificent!

Belinda. They have a relief, but sometimes I have none. You must remember, however, that life isn't all observation. It's also action; it's also sympathy.

Darcy. To observe for a purpose is action. But there are more even than one can sympathize with; I am willing to put it that way.

Oswald. Rubbish—rubbish—rubbish!

Belinda. You're rough, Oswald.

Oswald. He used the same words a while ago.

Darcy. And then there are all the English too, thrown in. Think what that makes of London—think of the collection, the compendium. And Oswald talks of Paris!

Oswald. The Americans go to Paris in hordes—they are famous for it.

Darcy. They used to be, but it's not so now. They flock to London.

Oswald. Only the stupid ones.

Darcy. Those are so many, then, that they are typical; they must be watched.

Belinda. Go away, you two Englishmen; we are washing our dirty linen.

Belwood. I go. But we have washed ours before you.

Clifford. I also take leave, but I should like to put in my question to Darcy first.

Belinda. He's so exalted—he doesn't hear you.

Oswald. He sophisticates scandalously, in the interest of a fantastic theory. I might even say in that of a personal preference.

Darcy. Oh, don't speak of my personal preferences—you'll never get to the bottom of them!

Oswald (to Camilla). Ain't he mysterious?

Belinda. I have an idea he hasn't any personal preferences. Those are primitive things.

Camilla. Well, we have them—over there in the Avenue Marceau. So we can't cast the first stone. I am rather ashamed, before these gentlemen. We're a bad lot, we four.

Clifford. Yes, you're a bad lot. That's why I prefer Mrs. Jenks. Can't any of you stand it, over there?

Belinda. I am going home next year, to remain forever.

Belwood. Then Clifford and I will come over—so it will amount to the same thing.

Darcy. Those are details, and whatever we do, or don't do, it will amount to the same thing. For we are weaving our work together, and it goes on forever, and it's all one mighty loom. And we are all the shuttles—Belinda and Camilla, Belwood, Clifford, Oswald, and Darcy—directed by the master hand. We fly to and fro, in our complicated, predestined activity, and it matters very little where we are at a particular moment. We are all of us here, there, and everywhere, wherever the threads are crossed. And the tissue grows and grows, and we weave into it all our lights and our darkness, all our quarrels and reconciliations, all our stupidities and our strivings, all the friction of our intercourse and all the elements of our fate. The tangle may seem great at times, but it is all an immeasurable pattern, a spreading, many-coloured figure. And the figure, when it is finished ,will be a magnificent harmony.

Oswald. He is exalted!

Camilla. C'est très joli.

Belinda. If I'm only an unconscious, irresponsible shuttle, and it doesn't matter where I am, I think I won't, after all, go home.

Darcy. I don't care where you go. The world is ours!

Clifford. Yes, our common mind is to swallow it up. But what about our common language?

Belinda. This is Clifford's great question.

Darcy. How do you mean, what about it?

Clifford. Do you expect Belwood and me to learn American?

Belwood. It is a great question.

Darcy. Yes, if you like.

Clifford. Will it be obligatory?

Darcy. Oh, no, quite optional

Oswald. What do you mean by American?

Clifford. I mean your language. (To Darcy.) You consider that you will continue to understand ours?

Belinda. The upper classes, yes.

Camilla. My dear, there will be no upper classes, when we are all drudging little bobbins.

Belinda. Oh, yes, there'll be the bobbins for silk, and the bobbins for wool.

Camilla. And I suppose the silk will be English

Oswald (to Clifford). What do you mean by my language?

Clifford. I mean American.

Oswald. Haven't we a right to have a language of our own?

Darcy. It was inevitable.

Clifford (to Oswald). I don't understand you.

Belinda. Already?

Clifford. I mean that Oswald seems at once to resent the imputation that you have a national tongue and to wish to insist on the fact that you have it. His position is not clear.

Darcy. That is partly because our tongue itself is not clear, as yet. We must hope that it will be clearer. Oswald needn't resent anything, for the evolution was inevitable. A body of English people crossed the Atlantic and sat down in a new climate on a new soil, amid new circumstances. It was a new heaven and a new earth. They invented new institutions, they encountered different needs. They developed a particular physique, as people do in a particular medium, and they began to speak in a new voice. They went in for democracy, and that alone would affect—it has affected—the tone immensely. C'est bien le moins, as the French say, that that tone should have had it's range and that the language they brought over with them should have become different to express different things. A language is a very sensitive organism. It must be convenient; it varies, it responds, it accommodates itself.

Clifford. Ours, on your side of the water, has certainly been very accommodating.

Darcy. It has vibrated into different shades.

Clifford. Do you call them shades?

Belinda. I like that idea of our voice being new; do you mean it creaks? I listen to Darcy with a certain surprise, however, for I am bound to say I have heard him criticise the American idiom.

Darcy. You have heard me criticise it as neglected, as unstudied: you have never heard me criticise it as American. The fault I find with it is that it's irresponsible—it isn't American enough.

Clifford. C'est trop fort!

Darcy. It's the candid truth. I repeat, it's divergence was inevitable. But it has grown up roughly, and we haven't had time to cultivate it. That is all I complain of, and it's awkward for us, for surely the language of such a country ought to be magnificent. That is one of the reasons why I say that it wont be obligatory upon you English to learn it. We haven't quite learned it ourselves. When we shall at last have mastered it, well talk the matter over with you. We'll agree upon our signs.

Camilla. Do you mean we must study it in books?

Darcy. I don't care how—or from the lips of the pretty ladies.

Belinda. I must bravely concede that, often the lips of the pretty ladies—-

Darcy (interrupting). At any rate, it's always American.

Camilla. But American improved—that's simply English.

Clifford. Your husband will tell you it's simply French.

Darcy. If it's simply English, that perhaps is what was to be demonstrated. Extremes meet!

Belwood. You have the drawback (and I think it a great disadvantage) that you come so late, that you have not fallen on a language-making age. The people who first started our vocabularies were very naïfs.

Darcy. Oh, we are very naïfs.

Belwood. When I listen to Darcy, I find it hard to believe it.

Oswald. Don't listen to him. Belwood. The first words must have been rather vulgar.

Belinda. Or perhaps pathetic. Belwood. New signs are crude, and you, in this matter, are in the crude, the vulgar stage.

Darcy. That no doubt is our misfortune.

Belinda. That's what I mean by the pathos.

Darcy. But we have always the resource of English. We have lots of opportunity to practise it.

Clifford. As a foreign tongue, yes. Darcy. To speak it as the Russians speak French.

Belwood. Oh, you'll grow very fond of it.

Clifford. The Russians are giving up French.

Darcy. Yes, but they've got the language of Tolstoi.

Clifford (groaning). Oh, heavens, Tolstoi!

Darcy. Our great writers have written in English. That's what I mean by American having been neglected.

Clifford. If you mean ours, of course.

Darcy. I mean—yours—ours—yes.

Oswald. It isn't a harmony. It's a labyrinth.

Clifford. It plays an odd part in Darcy's harmony, this duality of tongues.

Darcy. It plays the part of amusement. What could be more useful?

Clifford. Ah, then, we may laugh at you?

Darcy. It will make against tameness.

Oswald. Camilla, come away!

Clifford. Especially if you get angry.

Belinda. No, you and Belwood go first. We Americans must stay to pray.

Camilla (to Clifford). Well, mind you come to Paris.

Clifford. Will your husband receive me?

Oswald. Oh, in Paris I'm all right.

Belinda. I'll bring every one.

Clifford (to Camilla). Try Mrs. Gibbs, of Nebraska the pendant to Mrs. Jenks.

Oswald. That's another one you stole.

Belwood. Ah, the French and Germans!

Belinda (pushing him out with Clifford). Go, go. (To the others.) And now we must pray.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page