by Henry James
THE FIGURE IN THE CARPET
THE NEXT TIME
THE WAY IT CAME
By Henry James
The Figure in the Carpet
The Next Time
The Way it Came
THE FIGURE IN THE CARPET
I had done a few things and earned a few penceI had perhaps even
had time to begin to think I was finer than was perceived by the
patronising; but when I take the little measure of my course (a fidgety
habit, for it's none of the longest yet) I count my real start from the
evening George Corvick, breathless and worried, came in to ask me a
service. He had done more things than I, and earned more pence, though
there were chances for cleverness I thought he sometimes missed. I
could only however that evening declare to him that he never missed one
for kindness. There was almost rapture in hearing it proposed to me to
prepare for _The Middle, the organ of our lucubrations, so
called from the position in the week of its day of appearance, an
article for which he had made himself responsible and of which, tied up
with a stout string, he laid on my table the subject. I pounced upon my
opportunitythat is on the first volume of itand paid scant
attention to my friend's explanation of his appeal. What explanation
could be more to the point than my obvious fitness for the task? I had
written on Hugh Vereker, but never a word in The Middle, where
my dealings were mainly with the ladies and the minor poets. This was
his new novel, an advance copy, and whatever much or little it should
do for his reputation I was clear on the spot as to what it should do
for mine. Moreover, if I always read him as soon as I could get hold of
him, I had a particular reason for wishing to read him now: I had
accepted an invitation to Bridges for the following Sunday, and it had
been mentioned in Lady Jane's note that Mr. Vereker was to be there. I
was young enough to have an emotion about meeting a man of his renown,
and innocent enough to believe the occasion would demand the display of
an acquaintance with his last.
Corvick, who had promised a review of it, had not even had time to
read it; he had gone to pieces in consequence of news requiringas on
precipitate reflection he judgedthat he should catch the night-mail
to Paris. He had had a telegram from Gwendolen Erme in answer to his
letter offering to fly to her aid. I knew already about Gwendolen Erme;
I had never seen her, but I had my ideas, which were mainly to the
effect that Corvick would marry her if her mother would only die. That
lady seemed now in a fair way to oblige him; after some dreadful
mistake about some climate or some waters, she had suddenly collapsed
on the return from abroad. Her daughter, unsupported and alarmed,
desiring to make a rush for home but hesitating at the risk, had
accepted our friend's assistance, and it was my secret belief that at
the sight of him Mrs. Erme would pull round. His own belief was
scarcely to be called secret; it discernibly at any rate differed from
mine. He had showed me Gwendolen's photograph with the remark that she
wasn't pretty but was awfully interesting; she had published at the age
of nineteen a novel in three volumes, Deep Down, about which, in
The Middle, he had been really splendid. He appreciated my present
eagerness and undertook that the periodical in question should do no
less; then at the last, with his hand on the door, he said to me: Of
course you'll be all right, you know. Seeing I was a trifle vague he
added: I mean you won't be silly.
Sillyabout Vereker! Why, what do I ever find him but awfully
Well, what's that but silly? What on earth does 'awfully clever'
mean? For God's sake try to get at him. Don't let him suffer by
our arrangement. Speak of him, you know, if you can, as should have
spoken of him.
I wondered an instant. You mean as far and away the biggest of the
lotthat sort of thing?
Corvick almost groaned. Oh, you know, I don't put them back to back
that way; it's the infancy of art! But he gives me a pleasure so rare;
the sense of he mused a littlesomething or other.
I wondered again. The sense, pray, of what?
My dear man, that's just what I want you to say!
Even before Corvick had banged the door I had begun, book in hand,
to prepare myself to say it. I sat up with Vereker half the night;
Corvick couldn't have done more than that. He was awfully cleverI
stuck to that, but he wasn't a bit the biggest of the lot. I didn't
allude to the lot, however; I flattered myself that I emerged on this
occasion from the infancy of art. It's all right, they declared
vividly at the office; and when the number appeared I felt there was a
basis on which I could meet the great man; It gave me confidence for a
day or two, and then that confidence dropped. I had fancied him reading
it with relish, but if Corvick was not satisfied how could Vereker
himself be? I reflected indeed that the heat of the admirer was
sometimes grosser even than the appetite of the scribe. Corvick at all
events wrote me from Paris a little ill-humouredly. Mrs. Erme was
pulling round, and I hadn't at all said what Vereker gave him the sense
The effect of my visit to Bridges was to turn me out for more
profundity. Hugh Vereker, as I saw him there, was of a contact so void
of angles that I blushed for the poverty of imagination involved in my
small precautions. If he was in spirits it was not because he had read
my review; in fact on the Sunday morning I felt sure he hadn't read it,
though The Middle had been out three days and bloomed, I assured
myself, in the stiff garden of periodicals which gave one of the ormolu
tables the air of a stand at a station. The impression he made on me
personally was such that I wished him to read it, and I corrected to
this end with a surreptitious hand what might be wanting in the
careless conspicuity of the sheet. I am afraid I even watched the
result of my manouvre, but up to luncheon I watched in vain.
When afterwards, in the course of our gregarious walk, I found
myself for half an hour, not perhaps without another manoeuvre, at the
great man's side, the result of his affability was a still livelier
desire that he should not remain in ignorance of the peculiar justice I
had done him. It was not that he seemed to thirst for justice; on the
contrary I had not yet caught in his talk the faintest grunt of a
grudgea note for which my young experience had already given me an
ear. Of late he had had more recognition, and it was pleasant, as we
used to say in The Middle, to see that it drew him out. He
wasn't of course popular, but I judged one of the sources of his good
humour to be precisely that his success was independent of that. He had
none the less become in a manner the fashion; the critics at least had
put on a spurt and caught up with him. We had found out at last how
clever he was, and he had had to make the best of the loss of his
mystery. I was strongly tempted, as I walked beside him, to let him
know how much of that unveiling was my act; and there was a moment when
I probably should have done so had not one of the ladies of our party,
snatching a place at his other elbow, just then appealed to him in a
spirit comparatively selfish. It was very discouraging: I almost felt
the liberty had been taken with myself.
I had had on my tongue's end, for my own part, a phrase or two about
the right word at the right time; but later on I was glad not to have
spoken, for when on our return we clustered at tea I perceived Lady
Jane, who had not been out with us, brandishing The Middle with
her longest arm. She had taken it up at her leisure; she was delighted
with what she had found, and I saw that, as a mistake in a man may
often be a felicity in a woman, she would practically do for me what I
hadn't been able to do for myself. Some sweet little truths that
needed to be spoken, I heard her declare, thrusting the paper at
rather a bewildered couple by the fireplace. She grabbed it away from
them again on the reappearance of Hugh Vereker, who after our walk had
been upstairs to change something. I know you don't in general look at
this kind of thing, but it's an occasion really for doing so. You
haven't seen it? Then you must. The man has actually got at
you, at what I always feel, you know. Lady Jane threw into her
eyes a look evidently intended to give an idea of what she always felt;
but she added that she couldn't have expressed it. The man in the paper
expressed it in a striking manner. Just see there, and there, where
I've dashed it, how he brings it out. She had literally marked for him
the brightest patches of my prose, and if I was a little amused Vereker
himself may well have been. He showed how much he was when before us
all Lady Jane wanted to read something aloud. I liked at any rate the
way he defeated her purpose by jerking the paper affectionately out of
her clutch. He would take it upstairs with him, would look at it on
going to dress. He did this half an hour laterI saw it in his hand
when he repaired to his room. That was the moment at which, thinking to
give her pleasure, I mentioned to Lady Jane that I was the author of
the review. I did give her pleasure, I judged, but perhaps not quite so
much as I had expected. If the author was only me the thing didn't
seem quite so remarkable. Hadn't I had the effect rather of diminishing
the lustre of the article than of adding to my own? Her ladyship was
subject to the most extraordinary drops. It didn't matter; the only
effect I cared about was the one it would have on Vereker up there by
his bedroom fire.
At dinner I watched for the signs of this impression, tried to fancy
there was some happier light in his eyes; but to my disappointment Lady
Jane gave me no chance to make sure. I had hoped she would call
triumphantly down the table, publicly demand if she hadn't been right.
The party was largethere were people from outside as well, but I had
never seen a table long enough to deprive Lady Jane of a triumph. I was
just reflecting in truth that this interminable board would deprive
me of one, when the guest next me, dear womanshe was Miss Poyle,
the vicar's sister, a robust, unmodulated personhad the happy
inspiration and the unusual courage to address herself across it to
Vereker, who was opposite, but not directly, so that when he replied
they were both leaning forward. She inquired, artless body, what he
thought of Lady Jane's panegyric, which she had readnot connecting
it however with her right-hand neighbour; and while I strained my ear
for his reply I heard him, to my stupefaction, call back gaily, with
his mouth full of bread: Oh, it's all rightit's the usual twaddle!
I had caught Vereker's glance as he spoke, but Miss Poyle's surprise
was a fortunate cover for my own. You mean he doesn't do you justice?
said the excellent woman.
Vereker laughed out, and I was happy to be able to do the same.
It's a charming article, he tossed us.
Miss Poyle thrust her chin half across the cloth.
Oh you're so deep! she drove home.
As deep as the ocean! All I pretend is, the author doesn't see
A dish was at this point passed over his shoulder, and we had to
wait while he helped himself.
Doesn't see what? my neighbour continued.
Doesn't see anything.
Dear mehow very stupid!
Not a bit, Vereker laughed again. Nobody does.
The lady on his further side appealed to him, and Miss Poyle sank
back to me. Nobody sees anything! she cheerfully announced; to which
I replied that I had often thought so too, but had somehow taken the
thought for a proof on my own part of a tremendous eye. I didn't tell
her the article was mine; and I observed that Lady Jane, occupied at
the end of the table, had not caught Vereker's words.
I rather avoided him after dinner, for I confess he struck me as
cruelly conceited, and the revelation was a pain. The usual
twaddlemy acute little study! That one's admiration should have had
a reserve or two could gall him to that point? I had thought him
placid, and he was placid enough; such a surface was the hard, polished
glass that encased the bauble of his vanity. I was really ruffled, the
only comfort was that if nobody saw anything George Corvick was quite
as much out of it as I. This comfort however was not sufficient, after
the ladies had dispersed, to carry me in the proper mannerI mean in a
spotted jacket and humming an airinto the smoking-room. I took my way
in some dejection to bed; but in the passage I encountered Mr. Vereker,
who had been up once more to change, coming out of his room. He
was humming an air and had on a spotted jacket, and as soon as he saw
me his gaiety gave a start.
My dear young man, he exclaimed, I'm so glad to lay hands on you!
I'm afraid I most unwittingly wounded you by those words of mine at
dinner to Miss Poyle. I learned but half an hour ago from Lady Jane
that you wrote the little notice in The Middle.
I protested that no bones were broken; but he moved with me to my
own door, his hand on my shoulder, kindly feeling for a fracture; and
on hearing that I had come up to bed he asked leave to cross my
threshold and just tell me in three words what his qualification of my
remarks had represented. It was plain he really feared I was hurt, and
the sense of his solicitude suddenly made all the difference to me. My
cheap review fluttered off into space, and the best things I had said
in it became flat enough beside the brilliancy of his being there. I
can see him there still, on my rug, in the firelight and his spotted
jacket, his fine, clear face all bright with the desire to be tender to
my youth. I don't know what he had at first meant to say, but I think
the sight of my relief touched him, excited him, brought up words to
his lips from far within. It was so these words presently conveyed to
me something that, as I afterwards knew, he had never uttered to any
one. I have always done justice to the generous impulse that made him
speak; it was simply compunction for a snub unconsciously administered
to a man of letters in a position inferior to his own, a man of letters
moreover in the very act of praising him. To make the thing right he
talked to me exactly as an equal and on the ground of what we both
loved best. The hour, the place, the unexpectedness deepened the
impression: he couldn't have done anything more exquisitely successful.
I don't quite know how to explain it to you, he said, but it was
the very fact that your notice of my book had a spice of intelligence,
it was just your exceptional sharpness that produced the feelinga
very old story with me, I beg you to believeunder the momentary
influence of which I used in speaking to that good lady the words you
so naturally resent. I don't read the things in the newspapers unless
they're thrust upon me as that one wasit's always one's best friend
that does it! But I used to read them sometimesten years ago. I
daresay they were in general rather stupider then; at any rate it
always seemed to me that they missed my little point with a perfection
exactly as admirable when they patted me on the back as when they
kicked me in the shins. Whenever since I've happened to have a glimpse
of them they were still blazing awaystill missing it, I mean,
deliciously. You miss it, my dear fellow, with inimitable
assurance; the fact of your being awfully clever and your article's
being awfully nice doesn't make a hair's breadth of difference. It's
quite with you rising young men, Vereker laughed, that I feel most
what a failure I am!
I listened with intense interest; it grew in-tenser as he talked.
You a failureheavens! What then may your 'little point' happen to
Have I got to tell you, after all these years and labours?
There was something in the friendly reproach of thisjocosely
exaggeratedthat made me, as an ardent young seeker for truth, blush
to the roots of my hair. I'm as much in the dark as ever, though I've
grown used in a sense to my obtuseness; at that moment, however,
Vereker's happy accent made me appear to myself, and probably to him, a
rare donkey. I was on the point of exclaiming, Ah, yes, don't tell me:
for my honour, for that of the craft, don't! when he went on in a
manner that showed he had read my thought and had his own idea of the
probability of our some day redeeming ourselves. By my little point I
meanwhat shall I call it?the particular thing I've written my books
most for. Isn't there for every writer a particular thing of
that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing
without the effort to achieve which he wouldn't write at all, the very
passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the
flame of art burns most intensely? Well, it's that!
I considered a moment. I was fascinatedeasily, you'll say; but I
wasn't going after all to be put off my guard. Your description's
certainly beautiful, but it doesn't make what you describe very
I promise you it would be distinct if it should dawn on you at
all. I saw that the charm of our topic overflowed for my companion
into an emotion as lively as my own. At any rate, he went on, I can
speak for myself: there's an idea in my work without which I wouldn't
have given a straw for the whole job. It's the finest, fullest
intention of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a
triumph of patience, of ingenuity. I ought to leave that to somebody
else to say; but that nobody does say it is precisely what we're
talking about. It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to
book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it.
The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day
constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it's
naturally the thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me, my
visitor added, smiling, even as the thing for the critic to find.
This seemed a responsibility indeed. You call it a little trick?
That's only my little modesty. It's really an exquisite scheme.
And you hold that you've carried the scheme out?
The way I've carried it out is the thing in life I think a bit well
of myself for.
I was silent a moment. Don't you think you oughtjust a trifleto
assist the critic?
Assist him? What else have I done with every stroke of my pen? I've
shouted my intention in his great blank face! At this, laughing out
again, Vereker laid his hand on my shoulder to show that the allusion
was not to my personal appearance.
But you talk about the initiated. There must therefore, you see, be
What else in heaven's name is criticism supposed to be? I'm afraid
I coloured at this too; but I took refuge in repeating that his account
of his silver lining was poor in something or other that a plain man
knows things by. That's only because you've never had a glimpse of
it, he replied. If you had had one the element in question would soon
have become practically all you'd see. To me it's exactly as palpable
as the marble of this chimney. Besides, the critic just isn't a
plain man: if he were, pray, what would he be doing in his neighbour's
garden? You're anything but a plain man yourself, and the very
raison d'être of you all is that you're little demons of subtlety.
If my great affair's a secret, that's only because it's a secret in
spite of itselfthe amazing event has made it one. I not only never
took the smallest precaution to do so, but never dreamed of any such
accident. If I had I shouldn't in advance have had the heart to go on.
As it was I only became aware little by little, and meanwhile I had
done my work.
And now you quite like it? I risked.
Your secret. It's the same thing.
Your guessing that, Vereker replied, is a proof that you're as
clever as I say! I was encouraged by this to remark that he would
clearly be pained to part with it, and he confessed that it was indeed
with him now the great amusement of life. I live almost to see if it
will ever be detected. He looked at me for a jesting challenge;
something at the back of his eyes seemed to peep out. But I needn't
You fire me as I've never been fired, I returned; you make me
determined to do or die. Then I asked: Is it a kind of esoteric
His countenance fell at thishe put out his hand as if to bid me
good-night. Ah, my dear fellow, it can't be described in cheap
I knew of course he would be awfully fastidious, but our talk had
made me feel how much his nerves were exposed. I was unsatisfiedI
kept hold of his hand. I won't make use of the expression then, I
said, in the article in which I shall eventually announce my
discovery, though I daresay I shall have hard work to do without it.
But meanwhile, just to hasten that difficult birth, can't you give a
fellow a clue? I felt much more at my ease.
My whole lucid effort gives him a clueevery page and line and
letter. The thing's as concrete there as a bird in a cage, a bait on a
hook, a piece of cheese in a mouse-trap. It's stuck into every volume
as your foot is stuck into your shoe. It governs every line, it chooses
every word, it dots every i, it places every comma.
I scratched my head. Is it something in the style or something in
the thought? An element of form or an element of feeling?
He indulgently shook my hand again, and I felt my questions to be
crude and my distinctions pitiful. Good-night, my dear boydon't
bother about it. After all, you do like a fellow.
And a little intelligence might spoil it? I still detained him.
He hesitated. Well, you've got a heart in your body. Is that an
element of form or an element of feeling? What I contend that nobody
has ever mentioned in my work is the organ of life.
I seeit's some idea about life, some sort of philosophy. Unless
it be, I added with the eagerness of a thought perhaps still happier,
some kind of game you're up to with your style, something you're after
in the language. Perhaps it's a preference for the letter P! I
ventured profanely to break out. Papa, potatoes, prunesthat sort of
thing? He was suitably indulgent: he only said I hadn't got the right
letter. But his amusement was over; I could see he was bored. There was
nevertheless something else I had absolutely to learn. Should you be
able, pen in hand, to state it clearly yourselfto name it, phrase it,
Oh, he almost passionately sighed, if I were only, pen in hand,
one of you chaps!
That would be a great chance for you of course. But why should you
despise us chaps for not doing what you can't do yourself?
Can't do? He opened his eyes. Haven't I done it in twenty
volumes? I do it in my way, he continued. You don't do it in yours.
Ours is so devilish difficult, I weakly observed.
So is mine. We each choose our own. There's no compulsion. You
won't come down and smoke?
No. I want to think this thing out.
You'll tell me then in the morning that you've laid me bare?
I'll see what I can do; I'll sleep on it. But just one word more,
I added. We had left the roomI walked again with him a few steps
along the passage. This extraordinary 'general intention,' as you call
itfor that's the most vivid description I can induce you to make of
itis then generally a sort of buried treasure?
His face lighted. Yes, call it that, though it's perhaps not for me
to do so.
Nonsense! I laughed. You know you're hugely proud of it.
Well, I didn't propose to tell you so; but it is the joy of
You mean it's a beauty so rare, so great?
He hesitated a moment. The loveliest thing in the world! We had
stopped, and on these words he left me; but at the end of the corridor,
while I looked after him rather yearningly, he turned and caught sight
of my puzzled face. It made him earnestly, indeed I thought quite
anxiously, shake his head and wave his finger. Give it upgive it
This wasn't a challengeit was fatherly advice. If I had had one of
his books at hand I would have repeated my recent act of faithI would
have spent half the night with him. At three o'clock in the morning,
not sleeping, remembering moreover how indispensable he was to Lady
Jane, I stole down to the library with a candle. There wasn't, so far
as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house.
Returning to town I feverishly collected them all; I picked out each
in its order and held it up to the light. This gave me a maddening
month, in the course of which several things took place. One of these,
the last, I may as well immediately mention, was that I acted on
Vereker's advice: I renounced my ridiculous attempt. I could really
make nothing of the business; it proved a dead loss. After all, before,
as he had himself observed, I liked him; and what now occurred was
simply that my new intelligence and vain preoccupation damaged my
liking. I not only failed to find his general intentionI found myself
missing the subordinate intentions I had formerly found. His books
didn't even remain the charming things they had been for me; the
exasperation of my search put me out of conceit of them. Instead of
being a pleasure the more they became a resource the less; for from the
moment I was unable to follow up the author's hint I of course felt it
a point of honour not to make use professionally of my knowledge of
them. I had no knowledgenobody had any. It was humiliating,
but I could bear itthey only annoyed me now. At last they even bored
me, and I accounted for my confusionperversely, I confessby the
idea that Vereker had made a fool of me. The buried treasure was a bad
joke, the general intention a monstrous pose.
The great incident of the time however was that I told George
Corvick all about the matter and that my information had an immense
effect upon him. He had at last come back, but so, unfortunately, had
Mrs. Erme, and there was as yet, I could see, no question of his
nuptials. He was immensely stirred up by the anecdote I had brought
from Bridges; it fell in so completely with the sense he had had from
the first that there was more in Vereker than met the eye. When I
remarked that the eye seemed what the printed page had been expressly
invented to meet he immediately accused me of being spiteful because I
had been foiled. Our commerce had always that pleasant latitude. The
thing Vereker had mentioned to me was exactly the thing he, Corvick,
had wanted me to speak of in my review. On my suggesting at last that
with the assistance I had now given him he would doubtless be prepared
to speak of it himself he admitted freely that before doing this there
was more he must understand. What he would have said, had he reviewed
the new book, was that there was evidently in the writer's inmost art
something to be understood. I hadn't so much as hinted at that:
no wonder the writer hadn't been flattered! I asked Corvick what he
really considered he meant by his own supersubtlety, and, unmistakably
kindled, he replied: It isn't for the vulgarit isn't for the
vulgar! He had hold of the tail of something; he would pull hard, pull
it right out. He pumped me dry on Vereker's strange confidence and,
pronouncing me the luckiest of mortals, mentioned half a dozen
questions he wished to goodness I had had the gumption to put. Yet on
the other hand he didn't want to be told too muchit would spoil the
fun of seeing what would come. The failure of my fun was at the moment
of our meeting not complete, but I saw it ahead, and Corvick saw that I
saw it. I, on my side, saw likewise that one of the first things he
would do would be to rush off with my story to Gwendolen.
On the very day after my talk with him I was surprised by the
receipt of a note from Hugh Vereker, to whom our encounter at Bridges
had been recalled, as he mentioned, by his falling, in a magazine, on
some article to which my signature was appended. I read it with great
pleasure, he wrote, and remembered under its influence our lively
conversation by your bedroom fire. The consequence of this has been
that I begin to measure the temerity of my having saddled you with a
knowledge that you may find something of a burden. Now that the fit's
over I can't imagine how I came to be moved so much beyond my wont. I
had never before related, no matter in what expansion, the history of
my little secret, and I shall never speak of the business again. I was
accidentally so much more explicit with you than it had ever entered
into my game to be, that I find this gameI mean the pleasure of
playing itsuffers considerably. In short, if you can understand it,
I've spoiled a part of my fun. I really don't want to give anybody what
I believe you clever young men call the tip. That's of course a selfish
solicitude, and I name it to you for what it may be worth to you. If
you're disposed to humour me, don't repeat my revelation. Think me
dementedit's your right; but don't tell anybody why.
The sequel to this communication was that as early on the morrow as
I dared I drove straight to Mr. Vereker's door. He occupied in those
years one of the honest old houses in Kensington-square. He received me
immediately, and as soon as I came in I saw I had not lost my power to
minister to his mirth. He laughed out at the sight of my face, which
doubtless expressed my perturbation. I had been indiscreetmy
compunction was great. I have told somebody, I panted, and
I'm sure that, person will by this time have told somebody else! It's a
woman, into the bargain.
The person you've told?
No, the other person. I'm quite sure he must have told her.
For all the good it will do heror do me! A woman will
never find out.
No, but she'll talk all over the place: she'll do just what you
Vereker thought a moment, but he was not so disconcerted as I had
feared: he felt that if the harm was done it only served him right. It
doesn't matterdon't worry.
I'll do my best, I promise you, that your talk with me shall go no
Very good; do what you can.
In the meantime, I pursued, George Cor-vick's possession of the
tip may, on his part, really lead to something.
That will be a brave day.
I told him about Corvick's cleverness, his admiration, the intensity
of his interest in my anecdote; and without making too much of the
divergence of our respective estimates mentioned that my friend was
already of opinion that he saw much further into a certain affair than
most people. He was quite as fired as I had been at Bridges. He was
moreover in love with the young lady: perhaps the two together would
puzzle something out.
Vereker seemed struck with this. Do you mean they're to be
I daresay that's what it will come to.
That may help them, he conceded, but we must give them time!
I spoke of my own renewed assault and confessed my difficulties;
whereupon he repeated his former advice: Give it up, give it up! He
evidently didn't think me intellectually equipped for the adventure. I
stayed half an hour, and he was most good-natured, but I couldn't help
pronouncing him a man of shifting moods. He had been free with me in a
mood, he had repented in a mood, and now in a mood he had turned
indifferent. This general levity helped me to believe that, so far as
the subject of the tip went, there wasn't much in it. I contrived
however to make him answer a few more questions about it, though he did
so with visible impatience. For himself, beyond doubt, the thing we
were all so blank about was vividly there. It was something, I guessed,
in the primal plan, something like a complex figure in a Persian
carpet. He highly approved of this image when I used it, and he used
another himself. It's the very string, he said, that my pearls are
strung on! The reason of his note to me had been that he really didn't
want to give us a grain of succourour destiny was a thing too perfect
in its way to touch. He had formed the habit of depending upon it, and
if the spell was to break it must break by some force of its own. He
comes back to me from that last occasionfor I was never to speak to
him againas a man with some safe secret for enjoyment. I wondered as
I walked away where he had got his tip.
When I spoke to George Corvick of the caution I had received he made
me feel that any doubt of his delicacy would be almost an insult. He
had instantly told Gwendolen, but Gwendolen's ardent response was in
itself a pledge of discretion. The question would now absorb them, and
they would enjoy their fun too much to wish to share it with the crowd.
They appeared to have caught instinctively Vereker's peculiar notion of
fun. Their intellectual pride, however, was not such as to make them
indifferent to any further light I might throw on the affair they had
in hand. They were indeed of the artistic temperament, and I was
freshly struck with my colleague's power to excite himself over a
question of art. He called it letters, he called it lifeit was all
one thing. In what he said I now seemed to understand that he spoke
equally for Gwendolen, to whom, as soon as Mrs. Erme was sufficiently
better to allow her a little leisure, he made a point of introducing
me. I remember our calling together one Sunday in August at a huddled
house in Chelsea, and my renewed envy of Corvick's possession of a
friend who had some light to mingle with his own. He could say things
to her that I could never say to him. She had indeed no sense of humour
and, with her pretty way of holding her head on one side, was one of
those persons whom you want, as the phrase is, to shake, but who have
learnt Hungarian by themselves. She conversed perhaps in Hungarian with
Corvick; she had remarkably little English for his friend. Corvick
afterwards told me that I had chilled her by my apparent indisposition
to oblige her with the detail of what Vereker had said to me. I
admitted that I felt I had given thought enough to this exposure:
hadn't I even made up my mind that it was hollow, wouldn't stand the
test? The importance they attached to it was irritatingit rather
envenomed my dissent.
That statement looks unamiable, and what probably happened was that
I felt humiliated at seeing other persons derive a daily joy from an
experiment which had brought me only chagrin. I was out in the cold
while, by the evening fire, under the lamp, they followed the chase for
which I myself had sounded the horn. They did as I had done, only more
deliberately and sociablythey went over their author from the
beginning. There was no hurry, Corvick saidthe future was before them
and the fascination could only grow; they would take him page by page,
as they would take one of the classics, inhale him in slow draughts and
let him sink deep in. I doubt whether they would have got so wound up
if they had not been in love: poor Vereker's secret gave them endless
occasion to put their young heads together. None the less it
represented the kind of problem for which Corvick had a special
aptitude, drew out the particular pointed patience of which, had he
lived, he would have given more striking and, it is to be hoped, more
fruitful examples. He at least was, in Vereker's words, a little demon
of subtlety. We had begun by disputing, but I soon saw that without my
stirring a finger his infatuation would have its bad hours. He would
bound off on false scents as I had donehe would clap his hands over
new lights and see them blown out by the wind of the turned page. He
was like nothing, I told him, but the maniacs who embrace some
bedlamitical theory of the cryptic character of Shakespeare. To this he
replied that if we had had Shakespeare's own word for his being cryptic
he would immediately have accepted it. The case there was altogether
differentwe had nothing but the word of Mr. Snooks. I rejoined that I
was stupefied to see him attach such importance even to the word of Mr.
Vereker. He inquired thereupon whether I treated Mr. Vereker's word as
a lie. I wasn't perhaps prepared, in my unhappy rebound, to go as far
as that, but I insisted that till the contrary was proved I should view
it as too fond an imagination. I didn't, I confess, sayI didn't at
that time quite knowall I felt. Deep down, as Miss Erme would have
said, I was uneasy, I was expectant. At the core of my personal
confusionfor my curiosity lived in its asheswas the sharpness of a
sense that Corvick would at last probably come out somewhere. He made,
in defence of his credulity, a great point of the fact that from of
old, in his study of this genius, he had caught whiffs and hints of he
didn't know what, faint wandering notes of a hidden music. That was
just the rarity, that was the charm: it fitted so perfectly into what I
If I returned on several occasions to the little house in Chelsea I
daresay it was as much for news of Vereker as for news of Miss Erme's
mamma. The hours spent there by Corvick were present to my fancy as
those of a chessplayer bent with a silent scowl, all the lamplit
winter, over his board and his moves. As my imagination filled it out
the picture held me fast. On the other side of the table was a
ghostlier form, the faint figure of an antagonist good-humouredly but a
little wearily securean antagonist who leaned back in his chair with
his hands in his pockets and a smile on his fine clear face. Close to
Corvick, behind him, was a girl who had begun to strike me as pale and
wasted and even, on more familiar view, as rather handsome, and who
rested on his shoulder and hung upon his moves. He would take up a
chessman and hold it poised a while over one of the little squares, and
then he would put it back in its place with a long sigh of
disappointment. The young lady, at this, would slightly but uneasily
shift her position and look across, very hard, very long, very
strangely, at their dim participant. I had asked them at an early stage
of the business if it mightn't contribute to their success to have some
closer communication with him. The special circumstances would surely
be held to have given me a right to introduce them. Corvick immediately
replied that he had no wish to approach the altar before he had
prepared the sacrifice. He quite agreed with our friend both as to the
sport and as to the honourhe would bring down the animal with his own
rifle. When I asked him if Miss Erme were as keen a shot he said after
an hesitation: No; I'm ashamed to say she wants to set a trap. She'd
give anything to see him; she says she requires another tip. She's
really quite morbid about it. But she must play fairshe shan't
see him! he emphatically added. I had a suspicion that they had even
quarrelled a little on the subjecta suspicion not corrected by the
way he more than once exclaimed to me: She's quite incredibly
literary, you knowquite fantastically! I remember his saying of her
that she felt in italics and thought in capitals. Oh, when I've run
him to earth, he also said, then, you know, I shall knock at his
door. RatherI beg you to believe. I'll have it from his own lips:
'Right you are, my boy; you've done it this time!' He shall crown me
victorwith the critical laurel.
Meanwhile he really avoided the chances London life might have given
him of meeting the distinguished novelist; a danger however that
disappeared with Vereker's leaving England for an indefinite absence,
as the newspapers announcedgoing to the south for motives connected
with the health of his wife, which had long kept her in retirement. A
yearmore than a yearhad elapsed since the incident at Bridges, but
I had not encountered him again. I think at bottom I was rather
ashamedI hated to remind him that though I had irremediably missed
his point a reputation for acuteness was rapidly overtaking me. This
scruple led me a dance; kept me out of Lady Jane's house, made me even
decline, when in spite of my bad manners she was a second time so good
as to make me a sign, an invitation to her beautiful seat. I once saw
her with Vereker at a concert and was sure I was seen by them, but I
slipped out without being caught. I felt, as on that occasion I
splashed along in the rain, that I couldn't have done anything else;
and yet I remember saying to myself that it was hard, was even cruel.
Not only had I lost the books, but I had lost the man himself: they and
their author had been alike spoiled for me. I knew too which was the
loss I most regretted. I had liked the man still better than I had
liked the books.
Six months after Vereker had left England George Corvick, who made
his living by his pen, contracted for a piece of work which imposed on
him an absence of some length and a journey of some difficulty, and his
undertaking of which was much of a surprise to me. His brother-in-law
had become editor of a great provincial paper, and the great provincial
paper, in a fine flight of fancy, had conceived the idea of sending a
special commissioner to India. Special commissioners had begun, in
the metropolitan press, to be the fashion, and the journal in
question felt that it had passed too long for a mere country cousin.
Corvick had no hand, I knew, for the big brush of the correspondent,
but that was his brother-in-law's affair, and the fact that a
particular task was not in his line was apt to be with himself exactly
a reason for accepting it. He was prepared to out-Herod the
metropolitan press; he took solemn precautions against priggishness, he
exquisitely outraged taste. Nobody ever knew itthe taste was all his
own. In addition to his expenses he was to be conveniently paid, and I
found myself able to help him, for the usual fat book, to a plausible
arrangement with the usual fat publisher. I naturally inferred that his
obvious desire to make a little money was not unconnected with the
prospect of a union with Gwendolen Erme. I was aware that her mother's
opposition was largely addressed to his want of means and of lucrative
abilities, but it so happened that, on my saying the last time I saw
him something that bore on the question of his separation from our
young lady, he exclaimed with an emphasis that startled me: Ah, I'm
not a bit engaged to her, you know!
Not overtly, I answered, because her mother doesn't like you. But
I've always taken for granted a private understanding.
Well, there was one. But there isn't now. That was all he
said, except something about Mrs. Erme's having got on her feet again
in the most extraordinary waya remark from which I gathered he wished
me to think he meant that private understandings were of little use
when the doctor didn't share them. What I took the liberty of really
thinking was that the girl might in some way have estranged him. Well,
if he had taken the turn of jealousy for instance it could scarcely be
jealousy of me. In that case (besides the absurdity of it) he wouldn't
have gone away to leave us together. For some time before his departure
we had indulged in no allusion to the buried treasure, and from his
silence, of which mine was the consequence, I had drawn a sharp
conclusion. His courage had dropped, his ardour had gone the way of
minethis inference at least he left me to enjoy. More than that he
couldn't do; he couldn't face the triumph with which I might have
greeted an explicit admission. He needn't have been afraid, poor dear,
for I had by this time lost all need to triumph. In fact I considered
that I showed magnanimity in not reproaching him with his collapse, for
the sense of his having thrown up the game made me feel more than ever
how much I at last depended on him. If Corvick had broken down I should
never know; no one would be of any use if he wasn't. It wasn't a
bit true that I had ceased to care for knowledge; little by little my
curiosity had not only begun to ache again, but had become the familiar
torment of my consciousness. There are doubtless people to whom
torments of such an order appear hardly more natural than the
contortions of disease; but I don't know after all why I should in this
connection so much as mention them. For the few persons, at any rate,
abnormal or not, with whom my anecdote is concerned, literature was a
game of skill, and skill meant courage, and courage meant honour, and
honour meant passion, meant life. The stake on the table was of a
different substance, and our roulette was the revolving mind, but we
sat round the green board as intently as the grim gamblers at Monte
Carlo. Gwendolen Erme, for that matter, with her white face and her
fixed eyes, was of the very type of the lean ladies one had met in the
temples of chance. I recognised in Corvick's absence that she made this
analogy vivid. It was extravagant, I admit, the way she lived for the
art of the pen. Her passion visibly preyed upon her, and in her
presence I felt almost tepid. I got hold of Deep Down again: it was a
desert in which she had lost herself, but in which too she had dug a
wonderful hole in the sanda cavity out of which Corvick had still
more remarkably pulled her.
Early in March I had a telegram from her, in consequence of which I
repaired immediately to Chelsea, where the first thing she said to me
was: He has got it, he has got it!
She was moved, as I could see, to such depths that she must mean the
great thing. Vereker's idea?
His general intention. George has cabled from Bombay.
She had the missive open there; it was emphatic, but it was brief.
Eureka. Immense. That was allhe had saved the money of the
signature. I shared her emotion, but I was disappointed. He doesn't
say what it is.
How could hein a telegram? He'll write it.
But how does he know?
Know it's the real thing? Oh, I'm sure when you see it you do know.
Vera incessu patuit dea!
It's you, Miss Erme, who are a dear for bringing me such news!I
went all lengths in my high spirits. But fancy finding our goddess in
the temple of Vishnu! How strange of George to have been able to go
into the thing again in the midst of such different and such powerful
He hasn't gone into it, I know; it's the thing itself, let severely
alone for six months, that has simply sprung out at him like a tigress
out of the jungle. He didn't take a book with himon purpose; indeed
he wouldn't have needed tohe knows every page, as I do, by heart.
They all worked in him together, and some day somewhere, when he wasn't
thinking, they fell, in all their superb intricacy, into the one right
combination. The figure in the carpet came out. That's the way he knew
it would come and the real reasonyou didn't in the least understand,
but I suppose I may tell you nowwhy he went and why I consented to
his going. We knew the change would do it, the difference of thought,
of scene, would give the needed touch, the magic shake. We had
perfectly, we had admirably calculated. The elements were all in his
mind, and in the secousse of a new and intense experience they
just struck light. She positively struck light herselfshe was
literally, facially luminous. I stammered something about unconscious
cerebration, and she continued: He'll come right homethis will bring
To see Vereker, you mean?
To see Verekerand to see me. Think what he'll have to tell
I hesitated. About India?
About fiddlesticks! About Verekerabout the figure in the carpet.
But, as you say, we shall surely have that in a letter.
She thought like one inspired, and I remembered how Corvick had told
me long before that her face was interesting. Perhaps it won't go in a
letter if it's 'immense.'
Perhaps not if it's immense bosh. If he has got something that
won't go in a letter he hasn't got the thing. Vereker's own
statement to me was exactly that the 'figure' would go in a
Well, I cabled to George an hour agotwo words, said Gwendolen.
Is it indiscreet of me to inquire what they were?
She hung fire, but at last she brought them out. 'Angel, write.'
Good! I exclaimed. I'll make it sureI'll send him the same.
My words however were not absolutely the sameI put something
instead of angel; and in the sequel my epithet seemed the more apt,
for when eventually we heard from Corvick it was merely, it was
thoroughly to be tantalised. He was magnificent in his triumph, he
described his discovery as stupendous; but his ecstasy only obscured
itthere were to be no particulars till he should have submitted his
conception to the supreme authority. He had thrown up his commission,
he had thrown up his book, he had thrown up everything but the instant
need to hurry to Rapallo, on the Genoese shore, where Vereker was
making a stay. I wrote him a letter which was to await him at AdenI
besought him to relieve my suspense. That he found my letter was
indicated by a telegram which, reaching me after weary days and without
my having received an answer to my laconic dispatch at Bombay, was
evidently intended as a reply to both communications. Those few words
were in familiar French, the French of the day, which Corvick often
made use of to show he wasn't a prig. It had for some persons the
opposite effect, but his message may fairly be paraphrased. Have
patience; I want to see, as it breaks on you, the face you'll make!
Tellement envie de voir ta tête!that was what I had to sit down
with. I can certainly not be said to have sat down, for I seem to
remember myself at this time as rushing constantly between the little
house in Chelsea and my own. Our impatience, Gwendolen's and mine, was
equal, but I kept hoping her light would be greater. We all spent
during this episode, for people of our means, a great deal of money in
telegrams, and I counted on the receipt of news from Rapallo
immediately after the junction of the discoverer with the discovered.
The interval seemed an age, but late one day I heard a hansom rattle up
to my door with a crash engendered by a hint of liberality. I lived
with my heart in my mouth and I bounded to the windowa movement which
gave me a view of a young lady erect on the footboard of the vehicle
and eagerly looking up at my house. At sight of me she flourished a
paper with a movement that brought me straight down, the movement with
which, in melodramas, handkerchiefs and reprieves are flourished at the
foot of the scaffold.
Just seen Verekernot a note wrong. Pressed me to bosomkeeps me
a month. So much I read on her paper while the cabby dropped a grin
from his perch. In my excitement I paid him profusely and in hers she
suffered it; then as he drove away we started to walk about and talk.
We had talked, 'heaven knows, enough before, but this was a wondrous
lift. We pictured the whole scene at Rapallo, where he would have
written, mentioning my name, for permission to call; that is I
pictured it, having more material than my companion, whom I felt hang
on my lips as we stopped on purpose before shop-windows we didn't look
into. About one thing we were clear: if he was staying on for fuller
communication we should at least have a letter from him that would help
us through the dregs of delay. We understood his staying on, and yet
each of us saw, I think, that the other hated it. The letter we were
clear about arrived; it was for Gwendolen, and I called upon her in
time to save her the trouble of bringing it to me. She didn't read it
out, as was natural enough; but she repeated to me what it chiefly
embodied. This consisted of the remarkable statement that he would tell
her when they were married exactly what she wanted to know.
Only when we're marriednot before, she explained. It's
tantamount to sayingisn't it?that I must marry him straight off!
She smiled at me while I flushed with disappointment, a vision of fresh
delay that made me at first unconscious of my surprise. It seemed more
than a hint that on me as well he would impose some tiresome condition.
Suddenly, while she reported several more things from his letter, I
remembered what he had told me before going away. He found Mr. Vereker
deliriously interesting and his own possession of the secret a kind of
intoxication. The buried treasure was all gold and gems. Now that it
was there it seemed to grow and grow before him; it was in all time, in
all tongues, one of the most wonderful flowers of art. Nothing, above
all, when once one was face to face with it, had been more consummately
done. When once it came out it came out, was there with a splendour
that made you ashamed; and there had not been, save in the bottomless
vulgarity of the age, with every one tasteless and tainted, every sense
stopped, the smallest reason why it should have been overlooked. It was
immense, but it was simpleit was simple, but it was immense, and the
final knowledge of it was an experience quite apart. He intimated that
the charm of such an experience, the desire to drain it, in its
freshness, to the last drop, was what kept him there close to the
source. Gwendolen, frankly radiant as she tossed me these fragments,
showed the elation of a prospect more assured than my own. That brought
me back to the question of her marriage, prompted me to ask her if what
she meant by what she had just surprised me with was that she was under
Of course I am! she answered. Didn't you know it? She appeared
astonished; but I was still more so, for Corvick had told me the exact
contrary. I didn't mention this, however; I only reminded her that I
had not been to that degree in her confidence, or even in Corvick's,
and that moreover I was not in ignorance of her mother's interdict. At
bottom I was troubled by the disparity of the two assertions; but after
a moment I felt that Corvick's was the one I least doubted. This simply
reduced me to asking myself if the girl had on the spot improvised an
engagementvamped up an old one or dashed off a newin order to
arrive at the satisfaction she desired. I reflected that she had
resources of which I was destitute; but she made her case slightly more
intelligible by rejoining presently: What the state of things has been
is that we felt of course bound to do nothing in mamma's lifetime.
But now you think you'll just dispense with your mother's consent?
Ah, it may not come to that! I wondered what it might come to, and
she went on: Poor dear, she may swallow the dose. In fact, you know,
she added with a laugh, she really must!a proposition of
which, on behalf of every one concerned, I fully acknowledged the
Nothing more annoying had ever happened to me than to become aware
before Corvick's arrival in England that I should not be there to put
him through. I found myself abruptly called to Germany by the alarming
illness of my younger brother, who, against my advice, had gone to
Munich to study, at the feet indeed of a great master, the art of
portraiture in oils. The near relative who made him an allowance had
threatened to withdraw it if he should, under specious pretexts, turn
for superior truth to ParisParis being somehow, for a Cheltenham
aunt, the school of evil, the abyss. I deplored this prejudice at the
time, and the deep injury of it was now visiblefirst in the fact that
it had not saved the poor boy, who was clever, frail and foolish, from
congestion of the lungs, and second in the greater remoteness from
London to which the event condemned me. I am afraid that what was
uppermost in my mind during several anxious weeks was the sense that if
we had only been in Paris I might have run over to see Corvick. This
was actually out of the question from every point of view: my brother,
whose recovery gave us both plenty to do, was ill for three months,
during which I never left him and at the end of which we had to face
the absolute prohibition of a return to England. The consideration of
climate imposed itself, and he was in no state to meet it alone. I took
him to Meran and there spent the summer with him, trying to show him by
example how to get back to work and nursing a rage of another sort that
I tried not to show him.
The whole business proved the first of a series of phenomena so
strangely combined that, taken together (which was how I had to take
them) they form as good an illustration as I can recall of the manner
in which, for the good of his soul doubtless, fate sometimes deals with
a man's avidity. These incidents certainly had larger bearings than the
comparatively meagre consequence we are here concerned withthough I
feel that consequence also to be a thing to speak of with some respect.
It's mainly in such a light, I confess, at any rate, that at this hour
the ugly fruit of my exile is present to me. Even at first indeed the
spirit in which my avidity, as I have called it, made me regard this
term owed no element of ease to the fact that before coming back from
Rapallo George Corvick addressed me in a way I didn't like. His letter
had none of the sedative action that I must to-day profess myself sure
he had wished to give it, and the march of occurrences was not so
ordered as to make up for what it lacked. He had begun on the spot, for
one of the quarterlies, a great last word on Vereker's writings, and
this exhaustive study, the only one that would have counted, have
existed, was to turn on the new light, to utteroh, so quietly!the
unimagined truth. It was in other words to trace the figure in the
carpet through every convolution, to reproduce it in every tint. The
result, said Corvick, was to be the greatest literary portrait ever
painted, and what he asked of me was just to be so good as not to
trouble him with questions till he should hang up his masterpiece
before me. He did me the honour to declare that, putting aside the
great sitter himself, all aloft in his indifference, I was individually
the connoisseur he was most working for. I was therefore to be a good
boy and not try to peep under the curtain before the show-was ready: I
should enjoy it all the more if I sat very still.
I did my best to sit very still, but I couldn't help giving a jump
on seeing in The Times after I had been a week or two in Munich
and before, as I knew, Corvick had reached London, the announcement of
the sudden death of poor Mrs. Erme. I instantly wrote to Gwendolen for
particulars, and she replied that her mother had succumbed to
long-threatened failure of the heart. She didn't say, but I took the
liberty of reading into her words, that from the point of view of her
marriage and also of her eagerness, which was quite a match for mine,
this was a solution more prompt than could have been expected and more
radical than waiting for the old lady to swallow the dose. I candidly
admit indeed that at the timefor I heard from her repeatedlyI read
some singular things into Gwendolen's words and some still more
extraordinary ones into her silences. Pen in hand, this way, I live the
time over, and it brings back the oddest sense of my having been for
months and in spite of myself a kind of coerced spectator. All my life
had taken refuge in my eyes, which the procession of events appeared to
have committed itself to keep astare. There were days when I thought of
writing to Hugh Vereker and simply throwing myself on his charity. But
I felt more deeply that I hadn't fallen quite so low, besides which,
quite properly, he would send me about my business. Mrs. Erme's death
brought Corvick straight home, and within the month he was united very
quietlyas quietly I suppose as he meant in his article to bring out
his trouvailleto the young lady he had loved and quitted. I
use this last term, I may parenthetically say, because I subsequently
grew sure that at the time he went to India, at the time of his great
news from Bombay, there was no engagement whatever. There was none at
the moment she affirmed the opposite. On the other hand he certainly
became engaged the day he returned. The happy pair went down to Torquay
for their honeymoon, and there, in a reckless hour, it occurred to poor
Corvick to take his young bride a drive. He had no command of that
business: this had been brought home to me of old in a little tour we
had once made together in a dogcart. In a dogcart he perched his
companion for a rattle over Devonshire hills, on one of the likeliest
of which he brought his horse, who, it was true, had bolted, down with
such violence that the occupants of the cart were hurled forward and
that he fell horribly on his head. He was killed on the spot; Gwendolen
I pass rapidly over the question of this unmitigated tragedy, of
what the loss of my best friend meant for me, and I complete my little
history of my patience and my pain by the frank statement of my having,
in a postscript to my very first letter to her after the receipt of the
hideous news, asked Mrs. Corvick whether her husband had not at least
finished the great article on Vereker. Her answer was as prompt as my
inquiry: the article, which had been barely begun, was a mere
heartbreaking scrap. She explained that Corvick had just settled down
to it when he was interrupted by her mother's death; then, on his
return, he had been kept from work by the engrossments into which that
calamity plunged them. The opening pages were all that existed; they
were striking, they were promising, but they didn't unveil the idol.
That great intellectual feat was obviously to have formed his climax.
She said nothing more, nothing to enlighten me as to the state of her
own knowledgethe knowledge for the acquisition of which I had
conceived her doing prodigious things. This was above all what I wanted
to know: had she seen the idol unveiled? Had there been a
private ceremony for a palpitating audience of one? For what else but
that ceremony had the previous ceremony been enacted? I didn't like as
yet to press her, though when I thought of what had passed between us
on the subject in Corvick's absence her reticence surprised me. It was
therefore not till much later, from Meran, that I risked another
appeal, risked it in some trepidation, for she continued to tell me
nothing. Did you hear in those few days of your blighted bliss, I
wrote, what we desired so to hear? I said we as a little hint; and
she showed me she could take a little hint. I heard everything, she
replied, and I mean to keep it to myself!
It was impossible not to be moved with the strongest sympathy for
her, and on my return to England I showed her every kindness in my
power. Her mother's death had made her means sufficient, and she had
gone to live in a more convenient quarter. But her loss had been great
and her visitation cruel; it never would have occurred to me moreover
to suppose she could come to regard the enjoyment of a technical tip,
of a piece of literary experience, as a counterpoise to her grief.
Strange to say, none the less, I couldn't help fancying after I had
seen her a few times that I caught a glimpse of some such oddity. I
hasten to add that there had been other things I couldn't help
fancying; and as I never felt I was really clear about these, so, as to
the point I here touch on, I give her memory the benefit of every
doubt. Stricken and solitary, highly accomplished and now, in her deep
mourning, her maturer grace, and her uncomplaining sorrow incontestably
handsome, she presented herself as leading a life of singular dignity
and beauty. I had at first found a way to believe that I should soon
get the better of the reserve formulated the week after the catastrophe
in her reply to an appeal as to which I was not unconscious that it
might strike her as mistimed. Certainly that reserve was something of a
shock to mecertainly it puzzled me the more I thought of it, though I
tried to explain it, with moments of success, by the supposition of
exalted sentiments, of superstitious scruples, of a refinement of
loyalty. Certainly it added at the same time hugely to the price of
Vereker's secret, precious as that mystery already appeared. I may as
well confess abjectly that Mrs. Corvick's unexpected attitude was the
final tap on the nail that was to fix, as they say, my luckless idea,
convert it into the obsession of which I am for ever conscious. But
this only helped me the more to be artful, to be adroit, to allow time
to elapse before renewing my suit. There were plenty of speculations
for the interval, and one of them was deeply absorbing. Corvick had
kept his information from his young friend till after the removal of
the last barriers to their intimacy; then he had let the cat out of the
bag. Was it Gwendolen's idea, taking a hint from him, to liberate this
animal only on the basis of the renewal of such a relation? Was the
figure in the carpet traceable or describable only for husbands and
wivesfor lovers supremely united? It came back to me in a mystifying
manner that in Kensington-square, when I told him that Corvick would
have told the girl he loved, some word had dropped from Vereker that
gave colour to this possibility. There might be little in it, but there
was enough to make me wonder if I should have to marry Mrs. Corvick to
get what I wanted. Was I prepared to offer her this price for the
blessing of her knowledge? Ah! that way madness layso I said to
myself at least in bewildered hours. I could see meanwhile the torch
she refused to pass on flame away in her chamber of memorypour
through her eyes a light that made a glow in her lonely house. At the
end of six months I was fully sure of what this warm presence made up
to her for. We had talked again and again of the man who had brought us
together, of his talent, his character, his personal charm, his certain
career, his dreadful doom, and even of his clear purpose in that great
study which was to have been a supreme literary portrait, a kind of
critical Vandyke or Velasquez. She had conveyed to me in abundance that
she was tongue-tied by her perversity, by her piety, that she would
never break the silence it had not been given to the right person, as
she said, to break. The hour however finally arrived. One evening when
I had been sitting with her longer than usual I laid my hand firmly on
Now, at last, what is it?
She had been expecting me; she was ready. She gave a long, slow,
soundless headshake, merciful only in being inarticulate. This mercy
didn't prevent its hurling at me the largest, finest, coldest Never!
I had yet, in the course of a life that had known denials, had to take
full in the face. I took it and was aware that with the hard blow the
tears had come into my eyes. So for a while we sat and looked at each
other; after which I slowly rose. I was wondering if some day she would
accept me; but this was not what I brought out. I said as I smoothed
down my hat: I know what to think then; it's nothing!
A remote, disdainful pity for me shone out of her dim smile; then
she exclaimed in a voice that I hear at this moment: It's my life!
As I stood at the door she added: You've insulted him!
Do you mean Vereker?
I meanthe Dead!
I recognised when I reached the street the justice of her charge.
Yes, it was her lifeI recognised that too; but her life none the less
made room with the lapse of time for another interest. A year and a
half after Corvick's death she published in a single volume her second
novel, Overmastered, which I pounced on in the hope of finding in it
some tell-tale echo or some peeping face. All I found was a much better
book than her younger performance, showing I thought the better company
she had kept. As a tissue tolerably intricate it was a carpet with a
figure of its own; but the figure was not the figure I was looking for.
On sending a review of it to The Middle I was surprised to learn
from the office that a notice was already in type. When the paper came
out I had no hesitation in attributing this article, which I thought
rather vulgarly overdone, to Drayton Deane, who in the old days had
been something of a friend of Corvick's, yet had only within a few
weeks made the acquaintance of his widow. I had had an early copy of
the book, but Deane had evidently had an earlier. He lacked all the
same the light hand with which Corvick had gilded the gingerbreadhe
laid on the tinsel in splotches.
Six months later appeared The Right of Way, the last chance,
though we didn't know it, that we were to have to redeem ourselves.
Written wholly during Vereker's absence, the book had been heralded, in
a hundred paragraphs, by the usual ineptitudes. I carried it, as early
a copy as any, I this time flattered myself, straightway to Mrs.
Corvick. This was the only use I had for it; I left the inevitable
tribute of The Middle to some more ingenious mind and some less
irritated temper. But I already have it, Gwendolen said. Drayton
Deane was so good as to bring it to me yesterday, and I've just
Yesterday? How did he get it so soon?
He gets everything soon. He's to review it in The Middle.
HeDrayton Deanereview Vereker? I couldn't believe my ears.
Why not? One fine ignorance is as good as another.
I winced, but I presently said: You ought to review him yourself!
I don't 'review,' she laughed. I'm reviewed!
Just then the door was thrown open. Ah yes, here's your reviewer!
Drayton Deane was there with his long legs and his tall forehead: he
had come to see what she thought of The Right of Way, and to bring
news which was singularly relevant. The evening papers were just out
with a telegram on the author of that work, who, in Rome, had been ill
for some days with an attack of malarial fever. It had at first not
been thought grave, but had taken in consequence of complications a
turn that might give rise to anxiety. Anxiety had indeed at the latest
hour begun to be felt.
I was struck in the presence of these tidings with the fundamental
detachment that Mrs. Cor-vick's public regret quite failed to conceal:
it gave me the measure of her consummate independence. That
independence rested on her knowledge, the knowledge which nothing now
could destroy and which nothing could make different. The figure in the
carpet might take on another twist or two, but the sentence had
virtually been written. The writer might go down to his grave: she was
the person in the world to whomas if she had been his favoured
heirhis continued existence was least of a need. This reminded me how
I had observed at a particular momentafter Corvick's deaththe drop
of her desire to see him face to face. She had got what she wanted
without that. I had been sure that if she hadn't got it she wouldn't
have been restrained from the endeavour to sound him personally by
those superior reflections, more conceivable on a man's part than on a
woman's, which in my case had served as a deterrent. It wasn't however,
I hasten to add, that my case, in spite of this invidious comparison,
wasn't ambiguous enough. At the thought that Vereker was perhaps at
that moment dying there rolled over me a wave of anguisha poignant
sense of how inconsistently I still depended on him. A delicacy that it
was my one compensation to suffer to rule me had left the Alps and the
Apennines between us, but the vision of the waning opportunity made me
feel as if I might in my despair at last have gone to him. Of course I
would really have done nothing of the sort. I remained five minutes,
while my companions talked of the new book, and when Drayton Deane
appealed to me for my opinion of it I replied, getting up, that I
detested Hugh Verekersimply couldn't read him. I went away with the
moral certainty that as the door closed behind me Deane would remark
that I was awfully superficial. His hostess wouldn't contradict him.
I continue to trace with a briefer touch our intensely odd
concatenation. Three weeks after this came Vereker's death, and before
the year was out the death of his wife. That poor lady I had never
seen, but I had had a futile theory that, should she survive him long
enough to be decorously accessible, I might approach her with the
feeble flicker of my petition. Did she know and if she knew would she
speak? It was much to be presumed that for more reasons than one she
would have nothing to say; but when she passed out of all reach I felt
that renouncement was indeed my appointed lot. I was shut up in my
obsession for evermy gaolers had gone off with the key. I find myself
quite as vague as a captive in a dungeon about the time that further
elapsed before Mrs. Corvick became the wife of Drayton Deane. I had
foreseen, through my bars, this end of the business, though there was
no indecent haste and our friendship had rather fallen off. They were
both so awfully intellectual that it struck people as a suitable
match, but I knew better than any one the wealth of understanding the
bride would contribute to the partnership. Never, for a marriage in
literary circlesso the newspapers described the alliancehad a bride
been so handsomely dowered. I began with due promptness to look for the
fruit of their unionthat fruit, I mean, of which the premonitory
symptoms would be peculiarly visible in the husband. Taking for granted
the splendour of the lady's nuptial gift, I expected to see him make a
show commensurate with his increase of means. I knew what his means had
beenhis article on The Right of Way had distinctly given one the
figure. As he was now exactly in the position in which still more
exactly I was not I watched from month to month, in the likely
periodicals, for the heavy message poor Corvick had been unable to
deliver and the responsibility of which would have fallen on his
successor. The widow and wife would have broken by the rekindled hearth
the silence that only a widow and wife might break, and Deane would be
as aflame with the knowledge as Cor-vick in his own hour, as Gwendolen
in hers had been. Well, he was aflame doubtless, but the fire was
apparently not to become a public blaze. I scanned the periodicals in
vain: Drayton Deane filled them with exuberant pages, but he withheld
the page I most feverishly sought. He wrote on a thousand subjects, but
never on the subject of Vereker. His special line was to tell truths
that other people either funked, as he said, or overlooked, but he
never told the only truth that seemed to me in these days to signify. I
met the couple in those literary circles referred to in the papers: I
have sufficiently intimated that it was only in such circles we were
all constructed to revolve. Gwendolen was more than ever committed to
them by the publication of her third novel, and I myself definitely
classed by holding the opinion that this work was inferior to its
immediate predecessor. Was it worse because she had been keeping worse
company? If her secret was, as she had told me, her lifea fact
discernible in her increasing bloom, an air of conscious privilege
that, cleverly corrected by pretty charities, gave distinction to her
appearanceit had yet not a direct influence on her work. That only
madeeverything only madeone yearn the more for it, rounded it off
with a mystery finer and subtler.
It was therefore from her husband I could never remove my eyes: I
hovered about him in a manner that might have made him uneasy. I went
even so far as to engage him in conversation. Didn't he know,
hadn't he come into it as a matter of course?that question hummed in
my brain. Of course he knew; otherwise he wouldn't return my stare so
queerly. His wife had told him what I wanted, and he was amiably amused
at my impotence. He didn't laughhe was not a laugher: his system was
to present to my irritation, so that I should crudely expose myself, a
conversational blank as vast as his big bare brow. It always happened
that I turned away with a settled conviction from these unpeopled
expanses, which seemed to complete each other geographically and to
symbolise together Drayton Deane's want of voice, want of form. He
simply hadn't the art to use what he knew; he literally was incompetent
to take up the duty where Corvick had left it. I went still furtherit
was the only glimpse of happiness I had. I made up my mind that the
duty didn't appeal to him. He wasn't interested, he didn't care. Yes,
it quite comforted me to believe him too stupid to have joy of the
thing I lacked. He was as stupid after as before, and that deepened for
me the golden glory in which the mystery was wrapped. I had of course
however to recollect that his wife might have imposed her conditions
and exactions. I had above all to recollect that with Vereker's death
the major incentive dropped. He was still there to be honoured by what
might be donehe was no longer there to give it his sanction. Who,
alas, but he had the authority?
Two children were born to the pair, but the second cost the mother
her life. After this calamity I seemed to see another ghost of a
chance. I jumped at it in thought, but I waited a certain time for
manners, and at last my opportunity arrived in a remunerative way. His
wife had been dead a year when I met Drayton Deane in the smoking-room
of a small club of which we both were members, but where for
monthsperhaps because I rarely entered itI had not seen him. The
room was empty and the occasion propitious. I deliberately offered him,
to have done with the matter for ever, that advantage for which I felt
he had long been looking.
As an older acquaintance of your late wife's than even you were, I
began, you must let me say to you something I have on my mind. I shall
be glad to make any terms with you that you see fit to name for the
information she had from George Corvickthe information, you know,
that he, poor fellow, in one of the happiest hours of his life, had
straight from Hugh Vereker.
He looked at me like a dim phrenological bust. The
Vereker's secret, my dear manthe general intention of his books:
the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure
in the carpet.
He began to flushthe numbers on his bumps to come out. Vereker's
books had a general intention?
I stared in my turn. You don't mean to say you don't know it? I
thought for a moment he was playing with me. Mrs. Deane knew it; she
had it, as I say, straight from Corvick, who had, after infinite search
and to Vereker's own delight, found the very mouth of the cave. Where
is the mouth? He told after their marriageand told alonethe
person who, when the circumstances were reproduced, must have told you.
Have I been wrong in taking for granted that she admitted you, as one
of the highest privileges of the relation in which you stood to her, to
the knowledge of which she was after Corvick's death the sole
depositary? All I know is that that knowledge is infinitely
precious, and what I want you to understand is that if you will in your
turn admit me to it you will do me a kindness for which I shall
be everlastingly grateful.
He had turned at last very red; I daresay he had begun by thinking I
had lost my wits. Little by little he followed me; on my own side I
stared with a livelier surprise. I don't know what you're talking
about, he said.
He wasn't actingit was the absurd truth. She didn't tell
Nothing about Hugh Vereker.
I was stupefied; the room went round. It had been too good even for
that! Upon your honour?
Upon my honour. What the devil's the matter with you? he demanded.
I'm astoundedI'm disappointed. I wanted to get it out of you.
It isn't in me! he awkwardly laughed. And even if it
If it were you'd let me have itoh yes, in common humanity. But I
believe you. I seeI see! I went on, conscious, with the full turn of
the wheel, of my great delusion, my false view of the poor man's
attitude. What I saw, though I couldn't say it, was that his wife
hadn't thought him worth enlightening. This struck me as strange for a
woman who had thought him worth marrying. At last I explained it by the
reflection that she couldn't possibly have married him for his
understanding. She had married him for something else. He was to some
extent enlightened now, but he was even more astonished, more
disconcerted: he took a moment to compare my story with his quickened
memories. The result of his meditation was his presently saying with a
good deal of rather feeble form:
This is the first I hear of what you allude to. I think you must be
mistaken as to Mrs. Drayton Deane's having had any unmentioned, and
still less any unmentionable, knowledge about Hugh Vereker. She would
certainly have wished itif it bore on his literary characterto be
It was used. She used it herself. She told me with her own
lips that she 'lived' on it.
I had no sooner spoken than I repented of my words; he grew so pale
that I felt as if I had struck him. Ah, 'lived'! he murmured,
turning short away from me.
My compunction was real; I laid my hand on his shoulder. I beg you
to forgive meI've made a mistake. You don't know what I
thought you knew. You could, if I had been right, have rendered me a
service; and I had my reasons for assuming that you would be in a
position to meet me.
Your reasons? he asked. What were your reasons?
I looked at him well; I hesitated; I considered. Come and sit down
with me here, and I'll tell you. I drew him to a sofa, I lighted
another cigarette and, beginning with the anecdote of Vereker's one
descent from the clouds, I gave him an account of the extraordinary
chain of accidents that had in spite of it kept me till that hour in
the dark. I told him in a word just what I've written out here. He
listened with deepening attention, and I became aware, to my surprise,
by his ejaculations, by his questions, that he would have been after
all not unworthy to have been trusted by his wife. So abrupt an
experience of her want of trust had an agitating effect on him, but I
saw that immediate shock throb away little by little and then gather
again into waves of wonder and curiositywaves that promised, I could
perfectly judge, to break in the end with the fury of my own highest
tides. I may say that to-day as victims of unappeased desire there
isn't a pin to choose between us. The poor man's state is almost my
consolation; there are indeed moments when I feel it to be almost my
Yes indeed, I say to myself, pen in hand, I can keep hold of the
thread and let it lead me back to the first impression. The little
story is all there, I can touch it from point to point; for the thread,
as I call it, is a row of coloured beads on a string. None of the beads
are missingat least I think they're not: that's exactly what I shall
amuse myself with finding out.
I had been all summer working hard in town and then had gone down to
Folkestone for a blow. Art was long, I felt, and my holiday short; my
mother was settled at Folkestone, and I paid her a visit when I could.
I remember how on this occasion, after weeks, in my stuffy studio, with
my nose on my palette, I sniffed up the clean salt air and cooled my
eyes with the purple sea. The place was full of lodgings, and the
lodgings were at that season full of people, people who had nothing to
do but to stare at one another on the great flat down. There were
thousands of little chairs and almost as many little Jews; and there
was music in an open rotunda, over which the little Jews wagged their
big noses. We all strolled to and fro and took pennyworths of rest; the
long, level cliff-top, edged in places with its iron rail, might have
been the deck of a huge crowded ship. There were old folks in Bath
chairs, and there was one dear chair, creeping to its last full stop,
by the side of which I always walked. There was in fine weather the
coast of France to look at, and there were the usual things to say
about it; there was also in every state of the atmosphere our friend
Mrs. Meldrum, a subject of remark not less inveterate. The widow of an
officer in the Engineers, she had settled, like many members of the
martial miscellany, well within sight of the hereditary enemy, who
however had left her leisure to form in spite of the difference of
their years a close alliance with my mother. She was the heartiest, the
keenest, the ugliest of women, the least apologetic, the least morbid
in her misfortune. She carried it high aloft, with loud sounds and free
gestures, made it flutter in the breeze as if it had been the flag of
her country. It consisted mainly of a big red face, indescribably out
of drawing, from which she glared at you through gold-rimmed aids to
vision, optic circles of such diameter and so frequently displaced that
some one had vividly spoken of her as flattening her nose against the
glass of her spectacles. She was extraordinarily near-sighted, and
whatever they did to other objects they magnified immensely the kind
eyes behind them. Blessed conveniences they were, in their hideous,
honest strengththey showed the good lady everything in the world but
her own queerness. This element was enhanced by wild braveries of
dress, reckless charges of colour and stubborn resistances of cut,
wonderous encounters in which the art of the toilet seemed to lay down
its life. She had the tread of a grenadier and the voice of an angel.
In the course of a walk with her the day after my arrival I found
myself grabbing her arm with sudden and undue familiarity. I had been
struck by the beauty of a face that approached us and I was still more
affected when I saw the face, at the sight of my companion, open like a
window thrown wide. A smile fluttered out of it as brightly as a
drapery dropped from a silla drapery shaken there in the sun by a
young lady flanked with two young men, a wonderful young lady who, as
we drew nearer, rushed up to Mrs. Meldrum with arms flourished for an
embrace. My immediate impression of her had been that she was dressed
in mourning, but during the few moments she stood talking with our
friend I made more discoveries. The figure from the neck down was
meagre, the stature insignificant, but the desire to please towered
high, as well as the air of infallibly knowing how and of never, never
missing it. This was a little person whom I would have made a high bid
for a good chance to paint. The head, the features, the colour, the
whole facial oval and radiance had a wonderful purity; the deep grey
eyesthe most agreeable, I thought, that I had ever seenbrushed with
a kind of winglike grace every object they encountered. Their possessor
was just back from Boulogne, where she had spent a week with dear Mrs.
Floyd-Taylor: this accounted for the effusiveness of her reunion with
dear Mrs. Meldrum. Her black garments were of the freshest and
daintiest; she suggested a pink-and-white wreath at a showy funeral.
She confounded us for three minutes with her presence; she was a beauty
of the great conscious, public, responsible order. The young men, her
companions, gazed at her and grinned: I could see there were very few
moments of the day at which young men, these or others, would not be so
occupied. The people who approached took leave of their manners; every
one seemed to linger and gape. When she brought her face close to Mrs.
Mel-drum'sand she appeared to be always bringing it close to
somebody'sit was a marvel that objects so dissimilar should express
the same general identity, the unmistakable character of the English
gentlewoman. Mrs. Meldrum sustained the comparison with her usual
courage, but I wondered why she didn't introduce me: I should have had
no objection to the bringing of such a face close to mine. However,
when the young lady moved on with her escort she herself bequeathed me
a sense that some such rapprochement might still occur. Was this
by reason of the general frequency of encounters at Folkestone, or by
reason of a subtle acknowledgment that she contrived to make of the
rights, on the part of others, that such beauty as hers created? I was
in a position to answer that question after Mis. Meldrum had answered a
few of mine.
Flora Saunt, the only daughter of an old soldier, had lost both her
parents, her mother within a few months. Mrs. Meldrum had known them,
disapproved of them, considerably avoided them: she had watched the
girl, off and on, from her early childhood. Flora, just twenty, was
extraordinarily alone in the worldso alone that she had no natural
chaperon, no one to stay with but a mercenary stranger, Mrs. Hammond
Synge, the sister-in-law of one of the young men I had just seen. She
had lots of friends, but none of them nice: she kept picking up
impossible people. The Floyd-Taylors, with whom she had been at
Boulogne, were simply horrid. The Hammond Synges were perhaps not so
vulgar, but they had no conscience in their dealings with her.
She knows what I think of them, said Mrs. Meldrum, and indeed she
knows what I think of most things.
She shares that privilege with most of your friends! I replied
No doubt; but possibly to some of my friends it makes a little
difference. That girl doesn't care a button. She knows best of all what
I think of Flora Saunt.
And what may your opinion be?
Why, that she's not worth talking aboutan idiot too abysmal.
Doesn't she care for that?
Just enough, as you saw, to hug me till I cry out. She's too
pleased with herself for anything else to matter.
Surely, my dear friend, I rejoined, she has a good deal to be
So every one tells her, and so you would have told her if I had
given you a chance. However, that doesn't signify either, for her
vanity is beyond all making or mending. She believes in herself, and
she's welcome, after all, poor dear, having only herself to look to.
I've seldom met a young woman more completely at liberty to be silly.
She has a clear courseshe'll make a showy finish.
Well, I replied, as she probably will reduce many persons to the
same degraded state, her partaking of it won't stand out so much.
If you mean that the world's full of twaddlers I quite agree with
you! cried Mrs. Meldrum, trumpeting her laugh half across the Channel.
I had after this to consider a little what she would call my
mother's son, but I didn't let it prevent me from insisting on her
making me acquainted with Flora Saunt; indeed I took the bull by the
horns, urging that she had drawn the portrait of a nature which common
charity now demanded that she should put into relation with a character
really fine. Such a frail creature was just an object of pity. This
contention on my part had at first of course been jocular; but strange
to say it was quite the ground I found myself taking with regard to our
young lady after I had begun to know her. I couldn't have said what I
felt about her except that she was undefended; from the first of my
sitting with her there after dinner, under the starsthat was a week
at Folkestone of balmy nights and muffled tides and crowded chairsI
became aware both that protection was wholly absent from her life and
that she was wholly indifferent to its absence.
The odd thing was that she was not appealing: she was abjectly,
divinely conceited, absurdly, fantastically happy. Her beauty was as
yet all the world to her, a world she had plenty to do to live in. Mrs.
Meldrum told me more about her, and there was nothing that, as the
centre of a group of giggling, nudging spectators, she was not ready to
tell about herself. She held her little court in the crowd, upon the
grass, playing her light over Jews and Gentiles, completely at ease in
all promiscuities. It was an effect of these things that from the very
first, with every one listening, I could mention that my main business
with her would be just to have a go at her head and to arrange in that
view for an early sitting. It would have been as impossible, I think,
to be impertinent to her as it would have been to throw a stone at a
plate-glass window; so any talk that went forward on the basis of her
loveliness was the most natural thing in the world and immediately
became the most general and sociable. It was when I saw all this that I
judged how, though it was the last thing she asked for, what one would
ever most have at her service was a curious compassion. That sentiment
was coloured by the vision of the dire exposure of a being whom vanity
had put so off her guard. Hers was the only vanity I have ever known
that made its possessor superlatively soft. Mrs. Meldrum's further
information contributed moreover to these indulgencesher account of
the girl's neglected childhood and queer continental relegations, with
straying, squabbling, Monte-Carlo-haunting parents; the more invidious
picture, above all, of her pecuniary arrangement, still in force, with
the Hammond Synges, who really, though they never took her
outpractically she went out alonehad their hands half the time in
her pocket. She had to pay for everything, down to her share of the
wine-bills and the horses' fodder, down to Bertie Hammond Synge's fare
in the Underground when he went to the City for her. She had been
left with just money enough to turn her head; and it hadn't even been
put in trust, nothing prudent or proper had been done with it. She
could spend her capital, and at the rate she was going, expensive,
extravagant and with a swarm of parasites to help, it certainly
wouldn't last very long.
Couldn't you perhaps take her, independent, unencumbered as
you are? I asked of Mrs. Meldrum. You're probably, with one
exception, the sanest person she knows, and you at least wouldn't
scandalously fleece her.
How do you know what I wouldn't do? my humorous friend demanded.
Of course I've thought how I can help herit has kept me awake at
night. But I can't help her at all; she'll take nothing from me. You
know what she doesshe hugs me and runs away. She has an instinct
about me, she feels that I've one about her. And then she dislikes me
for another reason that I'm not quite clear about, but that I'm well
aware of and that I shall find out some day. So far as her settling
with me goes it would be impossible moreover here: she wants naturally
enough a much wider field. She must live in Londonher game is there.
So she takes the line of adoring me, of saying she can never forget
that I was devoted to her motherwhich I wouldn't for the world have
beenand of giving me a wide berth. I think she positively dislikes to
look at me. It's all right; there's no obligation; though people in
general can't take their eyes off me.
I see that at this moment, I replied. But what does it matter
where or how, for the present, she lives? She'll marry infallibly,
marry early, and everything then will change.
Whom will she marry? my companion gloomily asked.
Any one she likes. She's so abnormally pretty she can do anything.
She'll fascinate some nabob or some prince.
She'll fascinate him first and bore him afterwards. Moreover she's
not so pretty as you make her out; she has a scrappy little figure.
No doubt; but one doesn't in the least notice it.
Not now, said Mrs. Meldrum, but one will when she's older.
When she's older she'll be a princess, so it won't matter.
She has other drawbacks, my companion went on. Those wonderful
eyes are good for nothing but to roll about like sugar-ballswhich
they greatly resemblein a child's mouth. She can't use them.
Use them? Why, she does nothing else.
To make fools of young men, but not to read or write, not to do any
sort of work. She never opens a book, and her maid writes her notes.
You'll say that those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
Of course I know that if I didn't wear my goggles I shouldn't be good
Do you mean that Miss Saunt ought to sport such things? I
exclaimed with more horror than I meant to show.
I don't prescribe for her; I don't know that they're what she
What's the matter with her eyes? I asked after a moment.
I don't exactly know; but I heard from her mother years ago that
even as a child they had had for a while to put her into spectacles and
that, though she hated them and had been in a fury of disgust, she
would always have to be extremely careful. I'm sure I hope she is!
I echoed the hope, but I remember well the impression this made upon
memy immediate pang of resentment, a disgust almost equal to Flora's
own. I felt as if a great rare sapphire had split in my hand.
This conversation occurred the night before I went back to town. I
settled on the morrow to take a late train, so that I had still my
morning to spend at Folkestone, where during the greater part of it I
was out with my mother. Every one in the place was as usual out with
some one else, and even had I been free to go and take leave of her I
should have been sure that Flora Saunt would not be at home. Just where
she was I presently discovered: she was at the far end of the cliff,
the point at which it overhangs the pretty view of Sandgate and Hythe.
Her back however was turned to this attraction; it rested with the aid
of her elbows, thrust slightly behind her so that her scanty little
shoulders were raised toward her ears, on the high rail that inclosed
the down. Two gentlemen stood before her whose faces we couldn't see
but who even as observed from the rear were visibly absorbed in the
charming figure-piece submitted to them. I was freshly struck with the
fact that this meagre and defective little person, with the cock of her
hat and the flutter of her crape, with her eternal idleness, her
eternal happiness, her absence of moods and mysteries and the pretty
presentation of her feet, which especially now in the supported slope
of her posture occupied with their imperceptibility so much of the
foregroundI was reminded anew, I say, how our young lady dazzled by
some art that the enumeration of her merits didn't explain and that the
mention of her lapses didn't affect. Where she was amiss nothing
counted, and where she was right everything did. I say she was wanting
in mystery, but that after all was her secret. This happened to be my
first chance of introducing her to my mother, who had not much left in
life but the quiet look from under the hood of her chair at the things
which, when she should have quitted those she loved, she could still
trust to make the world good for them. I wondered an instant how much
she might be moved to trust Flora Saunt, and then while the chair stood
still and she waited I went over and asked the girl to come and speak
to her. In this way I saw that if one of Flora's attendants was the
inevitable young Hammond Synge, master of ceremonies of her regular
court, always offering the use of a telescope and accepting that of a
cigar, the other was a personage I had not yet encountered, a small
pale youth in showy knickerbockers, whose eyebrows and nose and the
glued points of whose little moustache were extraordinarily uplifted
and sustained. I remember taking him at first for a foreigner and for
something of a pretender: I scarcely know why, unless because of the
motive I felt in the stare he fixed on me when I asked Miss Saunt to
come away. He struck me a little as a young man practising the social
art of impertinence; but it didn't matter, for Flora came away with
alacrity, bringing all her prettiness and pleasure and gliding over the
grass in that rustle of delicate mourning which made the endless
variety of her garments, as a painter could take heed, strike one
always as the same obscure elegance. She seated herself on the floor of
my mother's chair, a little too much on her right instep as I
afterwards gathered, caressing her stiff hand, smiling up into her cold
face, commending and approving her without a reserve and without a
doubt. She told her immediately, as if it were something for her to
hold on by, that she was soon to sit to me for a likeness, and these
words gave me a chance to inquire if it would be the fate of the
picture, should I finish it, to be presented to the young man in the
knickerbockers. Her lips, at this, parted in a stare; her eyes darkened
to the purple of one of the shadow-patches on the sea. She showed for
the passing instant the face of some splendid tragic mask, and I
remembered for the inconsequence of it what Mrs. Meldrum had said about
her sight. I had derived from this lady a worrying impulse to catechise
her, but that didn't seem exactly kind; so I substituted another
question, inquired who the pretty young man in knickerbockers might
happen to be.
Oh, a gentleman I met at Boulogne. He has come over to see me.
After a moment she added: He's Lord Iffield.
I had never heard of Lord Iffield, but her mention of his having
been at Boulogne helped me to give him a niche. Mrs. Meldrum had
incidentally thrown a certain light on the manners of Mrs.
Floyd-Taylor, Flora's recent hostess in that charming town, a lady who,
it appeared, had a special vocation for helping rich young men to find
a use for their leisure. She had always one or other in hand and she
had apparently on this occasion pointed her lesson at the rare creature
on the opposite coast. I had a vague idea that Boulogne was not a
resort of the aristocracy; at the same time there might very well have
been a strong attraction there even for one of the darlings of fortune.
I could perfectly understand in any case that such a darling should be
drawn to Folkestone by Flora Saunt. But it was not in truth of these
things I was thinking; what was uppermost in my mind was a matter
which, though it had no sort of keeping, insisted just then on coming
Is it true, Miss Saunt, I suddenly demanded, that you're so
unfortunate as to have had some warning about your beautiful eyes?
I was startled by the effect of my words; the girl threw back her
head, changing colour from brow to chin. True? Who in the world says
so? I repented of my question in a flash; the way she met it made it
seem cruel, and I saw that my mother looked at me in some surprise. I
took care, in answer to Flora's challenge, not to incriminate Mrs.
Meldrum. I answered that the rumour had reached me only in the vaguest
form and that if I had been moved to put it to the test my very real
interest in her must be held responsible. Her blush died away, but a
pair of still prettier tears glistened in its track. If you ever hear
such a thing said again you can say it's a horrid lie! I had brought
on a commotion deeper than any I was prepared for; but it was explained
in some degree by the next words she uttered: I'm happy to say there's
nothing the matter with any part of my body; not the least little
thing! She spoke with her habitual complacency, with triumphant
assurance; she smiled again, and I could see that she was already sorry
she had shown herself too disconcerted. She turned it off with a laugh.
I've good eyes, good teeth, a good digestion and a good temper. I'm
sound of wind and limb! Nothing could have been more characteristic
than her blush and her tears, nothing less acceptable to her than to be
thought not perfect in every particular. She couldn't submit to the
imputation of a flaw. I expressed my delight in what she told me,
assuring her I should always do battle for her; and as if to rejoin her
companions she got up from her place on my mother's toes. The young men
presented their backs to us; they were leaning on the rail of the
cliff. Our incident had produced a certain awkwardness, and while I was
thinking of what next to say she exclaimed irrelevantly: Don't you
know? He'll be Lord Considine. At that moment the youth marked for
this high destiny turned round, and she went on, to my mother: I'll
introduce him to youhe's awfully nice. She beckoned and invited him
with her parasol; the movement struck me as taking everything for
granted. I had heard of Lord Considine and if I had not been able to
place Lord Iffield it was because I didn't know the name of his eldest
son. The young man took no notice of Miss Saunt's appeal; he only
stared a moment and then on her repeating it quietly turned his back.
She was an odd creature: she didn't blush at this; she only said to my
mother apologetically, but with the frankest, sweetest amusement: You
don't mind, do you? He's a monster of shyness! It was as if she were
sorry for every onefor Lord Iffield, the victim of a complaint so
painful, and for my mother, the object of a trifling incivility. I'm
sure I don't want him! said my mother; but Flora added some remark
about the rebuke she would give him for slighting us. She would clearly
never explain anything by any failure of her own power. There rolled
over me while she took leave of us and floated back to her friends a
wave of tenderness superstitious and silly. I seemed somehow to see her
go forth to her fate; and yet what should fill out this orb of a high
destiny if not such beauty and such joy? I had a dim idea that Lord
Considine was a great proprietor, and though there mingled with it a
faint impression that I shouldn't like his son the result of the two
images was a whimsical prayer that the girl mightn't miss her possible
One day in the course of the following June there was ushered into
my studio a gentleman whom I had not yet seen but with whom I had been
very briefly in correspondence. A letter from him had expressed to me
some days before his regret on learning that my splendid portrait of
Titras Flora Louisa Saunt, whose full name figured by her own wish in
the catalogue of the exhibition of the Academy, had found a purchaser
before the close of the private view. He took the liberty of inquiring
whether I might have at his service some other memorial of the same
lovely head, some preliminary sketch, some study for the picture. I had
replied that I had indeed painted Miss Saunt more than once and that if
he were interested in my work I should be happy to show him what I had
done. Mr. Geoffrey Dawling, the person thus introduced to me, stumbled
into my room with awkward movements and equivocal soundsa long, lean,
confused, confusing young man, with a bad complexion and large,
protrusive teeth. He bore in its most indelible pressure the postmark,
as it were, of Oxford, and as soon as he opened his mouth I perceived,
in addition to a remarkable revelation of gums, that the text of the
queer communication matched the registered envelope. He was full of
refinements and angles, of dreary and distinguished knowledge. Of his
unconscious drollery his dress freely partook; it seemed, from the gold
ring into which his red necktie was passed to the square toe-caps of
his boots, to conform with a high sense of modernness to the fashion
before the last. There were moments when his overdone urbanity, all
suggestive stammers and interrogative quavers, made him scarcely
intelligible; but I felt him to be a gentleman and I liked the honesty
of his errand and the expression of his good green eyes.
As a worshipper at the shrine of beauty however he needed
explaining, especially when I found he had no acquaintance with my
brilliant model; had on the mere evidence of my picture taken, as he
said, a tremendous fancy to her face. I ought doubtless to have been
humiliated by the simplicity of his judgment of it, a judgment for
which the rendering was lost in the subject, quite leaving out the
element of art. He was like the innocent reader for whom the story is
really true and the author a negligible quantity. He had come to me
only because he wanted to purchase, and I remember being so amused at
his attitude, which I had never seen equally marked in a person of
education, that I asked him why, for the sort of enjoyment he desired,
it wouldn't be more to the point to deal directly with the lady. He
stared and blushed at this: it was plain the idea frightened him. He
was an extraordinary casepersonally so modest that I could see it had
never occurred to him. He had fallen in love with a painted sign and
seemed content just to dream of what it stood for. He was the young
prince in the legend or the comedy who loses his heart to the miniature
of the out-land princess. Until I knew him better this puzzled me
muchthe link was so missing between his sensibility and his type. He
was of course bewildered by my sketches, which implied in the beholder
some sense of intention and quality; but for one of them, a comparative
failure, he ended by conceiving a preference so arbitrary and so lively
that, taking no second look at the others, he expressed the wish to
possess it and fell into the extremity of confusion over the question
of the price. I simplified that problem, and he went off without having
asked me a direct question about Miss Saunt, yet with his acquisition
under his arm. His delicacy was such that he evidently considered his
rights to be limited; he had acquired none at all in regard to the
original of the picture. There were othersfor I was curious about
himthat I wanted him to feel I conceded: I should have been glad of
his carrying away a sense of ground acquired for coming back. To insure
this I had probably only to invite him, and I perfectly recall the
impulse that made me forbear. It operated suddenly from within while he
hung about the door and in spite of the diffident appeal that blinked
in his gentle grin. If he was smitten with Flora's ghost what mightn't
be the direct force of the luminary that could cast such a shadow? This
source of radiance, flooding my poor place, might very well happen to
be present the next time he should turn up. The idea was sharp within
me that there were complications it was no mission of mine to bring
about. If they were to occur they might occur by a logic of their own.
Let me say at once that they did occur and that I perhaps after all
had something to do with it. If Mr. Dawling had departed without a
fresh appointment he was to reappear six months later under protection
no less adequate than that of our young lady herself. I had seen her
repeatedly for months: she had grown to regard my studio as the
tabernacle of her face. This prodigy was frankly there the sole object
of interest; in other places there were occasionally other objects. The
freedom of her manners continued to be stupefying; there was nothing so
extraordinary save the absence in connection with it of any
catastrophe. She was kept innocent by her egotism, but she was helped
also, though she had now put off her mourning, by the attitude of the
lone orphan who had to be a law unto herself. It was as a lone orphan
that she came and went, as a lone orphan that she was the centre of a
crush. The neglect of the Hammond Synges gave relief to this character,
and she paid them handsomely to be, as every one said, shocking. Lord
Iffield had gone to India to shoot tigers, but he returned in time for
the private view: it was he who had snapped up, as Flora called it, the
gem of the exhibition.
My hope for the girl's future had slipped ignominiously off his
back, but after his purchase of the portrait I tried to cultivate a new
faith. The girl's own faith was wonderful. It couldn't however be
contagious: too great was the limit of her sense of what painters call
values. Her colours were laid on like blankets on a cold night. How
indeed could a person speak the truth who was always posturing and
bragging? She was after all vulgar enough, and by the time I had
mastered her profile and could almost with my eyes shut do it in a
single line I was decidedly tired of her perfection. There grew to be
something silly in its eternal smoothness. One moved with her moreover
among phenomena mismated and unrelated; nothing in her talk ever
matched with anything out of it. Lord Iffield was dying of love for
her, but his family was leading him a life. His mother, horrid woman,
had told some one that she would rather he should be swallowed by a
tiger than marry a girl not absolutely one of themselves. He had given
his young friend unmistakable signs, but he was lying low, gaining
time: it was in his father's power to be, both in personal and in
pecuniary ways, excessively nasty to him. His father wouldn't last for
everquite the contrary; and he knew how thoroughly, in spite of her
youth, her beauty and the swarm of her admirers, some of them
positively threatening in their passion, he could trust her to hold
out. There were richer, cleverer men, there were greater personages
too, but she liked her little viscount just as he was, and liked to
think that, bullied and persecuted, he had her there so luxuriously to
rest upon. She came back to me with tale upon tale, and it all might be
or mightn't. I never met my pretty model in the worldshe moved, it
appeared, in exalted circlesand could only admire, in her wealth of
illustration, the grandeur of her life and the freedom of her hand.
I had on the first opportunity spoken to her of Geoffrey Dawling,
and she had listened to my story so far as she had the art of such
patience, asking me indeed more questions about him than I could
answer; then she had capped my anecdote with others much more striking,
revelations of effects produced in the most extraordinary quarters: on
people who had followed her into railway-carriages; guards and porters
even who had literally stuck there; others who had spoken to her in
shops and hung about her house-door; cabmen, upon her honour, in
London, who, to gaze their fill at her, had found excuses to thrust
their petrifaction through the very glasses of four-wheelers. She lost
herself in these reminiscences, the moral of which was that poor Mr.
Dawling was only one of a million. When therefore the next autumn she
flourished into my studio with her odd companion at her heels her first
care was to make clear to me that if he was now in servitude it wasn't
because she had run after him. Dawling hilariously explained that when
one wished very much to get anything one usually ended by doing soa
proposition which led me wholly to dissent and our young lady to
asseverate that she hadn't in the least wished to get Mr. Dawling. She
mightn't have wished to get him, but she wished to show him, and I
seemed to read that if she could treat him as a trophy her affairs were
rather at the ebb. True there always hung from her belt a promiscuous
fringe of scalps. Much at any rate would have come and gone since our
separation in July. She had spent four months abroad, where, on Swiss
and Italian lakes, in German cities, in Paris, many accidents might
I had been again with my mother, but except Mrs. Meldrum and the
gleam of France had not found at Folkestone my old resources and
pastimes. Mrs. Meldrum, much edified by my report of the performances,
as she called them, in my studio, had told me that to her knowledge
Flora would soon be on the straw: she had cut from her capital such
fine fat slices that there was almost nothing more left to swallow.
Perched on her breezy cliff the good lady dazzled me as usual by her
universal light: she knew so much more about everything and everybody
than I could ever squeeze out of my colour-tubes. She knew that Flora
was acting on system and absolutely declined to be interfered with: her
precious reasoning was that her money would last as long as she should
need it, that a magnificent marriage would crown her charms before she
should be really pinched. She had a sum put by for a liberal outfit;
meanwhile the proper use of the rest was to decorate her for the
approaches to the altar, keep her afloat in the society in which she
would most naturally meet her match. Lord Iffield had been seen with
her at Lucerne, at Cadenabbia; but it was Mrs. Meldrum's conviction
that nothing was to be expected of him but the most futile flirtation.
The girl had a certain hold of him, but with a great deal of swagger he
hadn't the spirit of a sheep: he was in fear of his father and would
never commit himself in Lord Considine's lifetime. The most Flora might
achieve would be that he wouldn't marry some one else. Geoffrey
Dawling, to Mrs. Meldrum's knowledge (I had told her of the young man's
visit) had attached himself on the way back from Italy to the Hammond
Synge group. My informant was in a position to be definite about this
dangler; she knew about his people: she had heard of him before. Hadn't
he been, at Oxford, a friend of one of her nephews? Hadn't he spent the
Christmas holidays precisely three years before at her brother-in-law's
in Yorkshire, taking that occasion to get himself refused with derision
by wilful Betty, the second daughter of the house? Her sister, who
liked the floundering youth, had written to her to complain of Betty,
and that the young man should now turn up as an appendage of Flora's
was one of those oft-cited proofs that the world is small and that
there are not enough people to go round. His father had been something
or other in the Treasury; his grandfather, on the mother's side, had
been something or other in the Church. He had come into the paternal
estate, two or three thousand a year in Hampshire; but he had let the
place advantageously and was generous to four ugly sisters who lived at
Bournemouth and adored him. The family was hideous all round, but the
salt of the earth. He was supposed to be unspeakably clever; he was
fond of London, fond of books, of intellectual society and of the idea
of a political career. That such a man should be at the same time fond
of Flora Saunt attested, as the phrase in the first volume of Gibbon
has it, the variety of his inclinations. I was soon to learn that he
was fonder of her than of all the other things together. Betty, one of
five and with views above her station, was at any rate felt at home to
have dished herself by her perversity. Of course no one had looked at
her since and no one would ever look at her again. It would be
eminently desirable that Flora should learn the lesson of Betty's fate.
I was not struck, I confess, with all this in my mind, by any
symptoms on our young lady's part of that sort of meditation. The only
moral she saw in anything was that of her incomparable countenance,
which Mr. Dawling, smitten even like the railway porters and the cabmen
by the doom-dealing gods, had followed from London to Venice and from
Venice back to London again. I afterwards learned that her version of
this episode was profusely inexact: his personal acquaintance with her
had been determined by an accident remarkable enough, I admit, in
connection with what had gone beforea coincidence at all events
superficially striking. At Munich, returning from a tour in the Tyrol
with two of his sisters, he had found himself at the table d'hôte
of his inn opposite to the full presentment of that face of which the
mere clumsy copy had made him dream and desire. He had been tossed by
it to a height so vertiginous as to involve a retreat from the table;
but the next day he had dropped with a resounding thud at the very feet
of his apparition. On the following, with an equal incoherence, a
sacrifice even of his bewildered sisters, whom he left behind, he made
an heroic effort to escape by flight from a fate of which he already
felt the cold breath. That fate, in London, very little later, drove
him straight before itdrove him one Sunday afternoon, in the rain, to
the door of the Hammond Synges. He marched in other words close up to
the cannon that was to blow him to pieces. But three weeks, when he
reappeared to me, had elapsed since then, yet (to vary my metaphor) the
burden he was to carry for the rest of his days was firmly lashed to
his back. I don't mean by this that Flora had been persuaded to
contract her scope; I mean that he had been treated to the
unconditional snub which, as the event was to show, couldn't have been
bettered as a means of securing him. She hadn't calculated, but she had
said Never! and that word had made a bed big enough for his
long-legged patience. He became from this moment to my mind the
interesting figure in the piece.
Now that he had acted without my aid I was free to show him this,
and having on his own side something to show me he repeatedly knocked
at my door. What he brought with him on these occasions was a
simplicity so huge that, as I turn my ear to the past, I seem even now
to hear it bumping up and down my stairs. That was really what I saw of
him in the light of his behaviour. He had fallen in love as he might
have broken his leg, and the fracture was of a sort that would make him
permanently lame. It was the whole man who limped and lurched, with
nothing of him left in the same position as before. The tremendous
cleverness, the literary society, the political ambition, the
Bournemouth sisters all seemed to flop with his every movement a little
nearer to the floor. I hadn't had an Oxford training and I had never
encountered the great man at whose feet poor Dawling had most
submissively sat and who had addressed him his most destructive sniffs;
but I remember asking myself if such privileges had been an
indispensable preparation to the career on which my friend appeared now
to have embarked. I remember too making up my mind about the
cleverness, which had its uses and I suppose in impenetrable shades
even its critics, but from which the friction of mere personal
intercourse was not the sort of process to extract a revealing spark.
He accepted without a question both his fever and his chill, and the
only thing he showed any subtlety about was this convenience of my
friendship. He doubtless told me his simple story, but the matter comes
back to me in a kind of sense of my being rather the mouthpiece,
of my having had to thresh it out for him. He took it from me without a
groan, and I gave it to him, as we used to say, pretty hot; he took it
again and again, spending his odd half-hours with me as if for the very
purpose of learning how idiotically he was in love. He told me I made
him see things: to begin with, hadn't I first made him see Flora Saunt?
I wanted him to give her up and luminously informed him why; on which
he never protested nor contradicted, never was even so alembicated as
to declare just for the sake of the drama that he wouldn't. He simply
and undramatically didn't, and when at the end of three months I asked
him what was the use of talking with such a fellow his nearest approach
to a justification was to say that what made him want to help her was
just the deficiencies I dwelt on. I could only reply without pointing
the moral: Oh, if you're as sorry for her as that! I too was nearly
as sorry for her as that, but it only led me to be sorrier still for
other victims of this compassion. With Dawling as with me the
compassion was at first in excess of any visible motive; so that when
eventually the motive was supplied each could to a certain extent
compliment the other on the fineness of his foresight.
After he had begun to haunt my studio Miss Saunt quite gave it up,
and I finally learned that she accused me of conspiring with him to put
pressure on her to marry him. She didn't know I would take it that way;
else she wouldn't have brought him to see me. It was in her view a part
of the conspiracy; that to show him a kindness I asked him at last to
sit to me. I daresay moreover she was disgusted to hear that I had
ended by attempting almost as many sketches of his beauty as I had
attempted of hers. What was the value of tributes to beauty by a hand
that luxuriated in ugliness? My relation to poor Dawling's want of
modelling was simple enough. I was really digging in that sandy desert
for the buried treasure of his soul.
It befell at this period, just before Christmas, that on my having
gone under pressure of the season into a great shop to buy a toy or
two, my eye, fleeing from superfluity, lighted at a distance on the
bright concretion of Flora Saunt, an exhibitability that held its own
even against the most plausible pinkness of the most developed dolls. A
huge quarter of the place, the biggest bazaar on earth, was peopled
with these and other effigies and fantasies, as well as with purchasers
and vendors, haggard alike in the blaze of the gas with hesitations. I
was just about to appeal to Flora to avert that stage of my errand when
I saw that she was accompanied by a gentleman whose identity,'though
more than a year had elapsed, came back to me from the Folkestone
cliff.' It had been associated in that scene with showy knickerbockers;
at present it overflowed more splendidly into a fur-trimmed overcoat.
Lord Iffield's presence made me waver an instant before crossing over;
and during that instant Flora, blank and undistinguishing, as if she
too were after all weary of alternatives, looked straight across at me.
I was on the point of raising my hat to her when I observed that her
face gave no sign. I was exactly in the line of her vision, but she
either didn't see me or didn't recognise me, or else had a reason to
pretend she didn't. Was her reason that I had displeased her and that
she wished to punish me? I had always thought it one of her merits that
she wasn't vindictive. She at any rate simply looked away; and at this
moment one of the shop-girls, who had apparently gone off in search of
it, bustled up to her with a small mechanical toy. It so happened that
I followed closely what then took place, afterwards recognising that I
had been led to do so, led even through the crowd to press nearer for
the purpose, by an impression of which in the act I was not fully
Flora, with the toy in her hand, looked round at her companion; then
seeing his attention had been solicited in another quarter she moved
away with the shop-girl, who had evidently offered to conduct her into
the presence of more objects of the same sort. When she reached the
indicated spot I was in a position still to observe her. She had asked
some question about the working of the toy, and the girl, taking it
herself, began to explain the little secret. Flora bent her head over
it, but she clearly didn't understand. I saw her, in a manner that
quickened my curiosity, give a glance back at the place from which she
had come. Lord Iffield was talking with another young person: she
satisfied herself of this by the aid of a question addressed to her own
attendant. She then drew closer to the table near which she stood and,
turning her back to me, bent her head lower over the collection of toys
and more particularly over the small object the girl had attempted to
explain. She took it back and, after a moment, with her face well
averted, made an odd motion of her arms and a significant little duck
of her head. These slight signs, singular as it may appear, produced in
my bosom an agitation so great that I failed to notice Lord Iffield's
whereabouts. He had rejoined her; he was close upon her before I knew
it or before she knew it herself. I felt at that instant the strangest
of all impulses: if it could have operated more rapidly it would have
caused me to dash between them in some such manner as to give Flora a
warning. In fact as it was I think I could have done this in time had I
not been checked by a curiosity stronger still than my impulse. There
were three seconds during which I saw the young man and yet let him
come on. Didn't I make the quick calculation that if he didn't catch
what Flora was doing I too might perhaps not catch it? She at any rate
herself took the alarm. On perceiving her companion's nearness she
made, still averted, another duck of her head and a shuffle of her
hands so precipitate that a little tin steamboat she had been holding
escaped from them and rattled down to the floor with a sharpness that I
hear at this hour. Lord Iffield had already seized her arm; with a
violent jerk he brought her round toward him. Then it was that there
met my eyes a quite distressing sight: this exquisite creature,
blushing, glaring, exposed, with a pair of big black-rimmed eyeglasses,
defacing her by their position, crookedly astride of her beautiful
nose. She made a grab at them with her free hand while I turned
I don't remember how soon it was I spoke to Geoffrey Dawling; his
sittings were irregular, but it was certainly the very next time he
gave me one.
Has any rumour ever reached you of Miss Saunt's having anything the
matter with her eyes? He stared with a candour that was a sufficient
answer to my question, backing it up with a shocked and mystified
Never! Then I asked him if he had observed in her any symptom,
however disguised, of embarrassed sight: on which, after a moment's
thought, he exclaimed Disguised? as if my use of that word had
vaguely awakened a train. She's not a bit myopic, he said; she
doesn't blink or contract her lids. I fully recognised this and I
mentioned that she altogether denied the impeachment; owing it to him
moreover to explain the ground of my inquiry, I gave him a sketch of
the incident that had taken place before me at the shop. He knew all
about Lord Iffield: that nobleman had figured freely in our
conversation as his preferred, his injurious rival. Poor Daw-ling's
contention was that if there had been a definite engagement between his
lordship and the young lady, the sort of thing that was announced in
The Morning Post, renunciation and retirement would be
comparatively easy to him; but that having waited in vain for any such
assurance he was entitled to act as if the door were not really closed
or were at any rate not cruelly locked. He was naturally much struck
with my anecdote and still more with my interpretation of it.
There is something, there is somethingpossibly
something very grave, certainly something that requires she should make
use of artificial aids. She won't admit it publicly, because with her
idolatry of her beauty, the feeling she is all made up of, she sees in
such aids nothing but the humiliation and the disfigurement. She has
used them in secret, but that is evidently not enough, for the
affection she suffers from, apparently some definite ailment, has
lately grown much worse. She looked straight at me in the shop, which
was violently lighted, without seeing it was I. At the same distance,
at Folkestone, where as you know I first met her, where I heard this
mystery hinted at and where she indignantly denied the thing, she
appeared easily enough to recognise people. At present she couldn't
really make out anything the shop-girl showed her. She has successfully
concealed from the man I saw her with that she resorts in private to a
pince-nez and that she does so not only under the strictest orders from
an oculist, but because literally the poor thing can't accomplish
without such help half the business of life. Iffield however has
suspected something, and his suspicions, whether expressed or kept to
himself, have put him on the watch. I happened to have a glimpse of the
movement at which he pounced on her and caught her in the act.
I had thought it all out; my idea explained many things, and Dawling
turned pale as he listened to me.
Was he rough with her? he anxiously asked.
How can I tell what passed between them? I fled from the place.
My companion stared at me a moment. Do you mean to say her
Heaven forbid! In that case how could she take life as she does?
How does she take life? That's the question! He sat there
bewilderedly brooding; the tears had come into his eyes; they reminded
me of those I had seen in Flora's the day I risked my inquiry. The
question he had asked was one that to my own satisfaction I was ready
to answer, but I hesitated to let him hear as yet all that my
reflections had suggested. I was indeed privately astonished at their
ingenuity. For the present I only rejoined that it struck me she was
playing a particular game; at which he went on as if he hadn't heard
me, suddenly haunted with a fear, lost in the dark possibility I had
opened up: Do you mean there's a danger of anything very bad? My
dear fellow, you must ask her oculist. Who in the world is her
oculist? I haven't a conception. But we mustn't get too excited. My
impression would be that she has only to observe a few ordinary rules,
to exercise a little common sense.
Dawling jumped at this. I seeto stick to the pince-nez.
To follow to the letter her oculist's prescription, whatever it is
and at whatever cost to her prettiness. It's not a thing to be trifled
Upon my honour it shan't be trifled with! he roundly
declared; and he adjusted himself to his position again as if we had
quite settled the business. After a considerable interval, while I
botched away, he suddenly said: Did they make a great difference?
A great difference?
Those things she had put on.
Oh, the glassesin her beauty? She looked queer of course, but it
was partly because one was unaccustomed. There are women who look
charming in nippers. What, at any rate, if she does look queer? She
must be mad not to accept that alternative.
She is mad, said Geoffrey Dawling.
Mad to refuse you, I grant. Besides, I went on, the pince-nez,
which was a large and peculiar one, was all awry: she had half pulled
it off, but it continued to stick, and she was crimson, she was angry.
It must have been horrible! my companion murmured.
It was horrible. But it's still more horrible to defy all
warnings; it's still more horrible to be landed in Without saying in
what I disgustedly shrugged my shoulders.
After a glance at me Dawling jerked round. Then you do believe that
she may be?
I hesitated. The thing would be to make her believe it. She
only needs a good scare.
But if that fellow is shocked at the precautions she does take?
Oh, who knows? I rejoined with small sincerity. I don't suppose
Iffield is absolutely a brute.
I would take her with leather blinders, like a shying mare! cried
I had an impression that Iffield wouldn't, but I didn't communicate
it, for I wanted to pacify my friend, whom I had discomposed too much
for the purposes of my sitting. I recollect that I did some good work
that morning, but it also comes back to me that before we separated he
had practically revealed to me that my anecdote, connecting itself in
his mind with a series of observations at the time unconscious and
unregistered, had covered with light the subject of our colloquy. He
had had a formless perception of some secret that drove Miss Saunt to
subterfuges, and the more he thought of it the more he guessed this
secret to be the practice of making believe she saw when she didn't and
of cleverly keeping people from finding out how little she saw. When
one patched things together it was astonishing what ground they
covered. Just as he was going away he asked me from what source, at
Folkestone, the horrid tale had proceeded. When I had given him, as I
saw no reason not to do, the name of Mrs. Meldrum, he exclaimed: Oh, I
know all about her; she's a friend of some friends of mine! At this I
remembered wilful Betty and said to myself that I knew some one who
would probably prove more wilful still.
A few days later I again heard Dawling on my stairs, and even before
he passed my threshold I knew he had something to tell me.
I've been down to Folkestoneit was necessary I should see her! I
forget whether he had come straight from the station; he was at any
rate out of breath with his news, which it took me however a minute to
You mean that you've been with Mrs. Mel-drum?
Yes; to ask her what she knows and how she comes to know it. It
worked upon me awfullyI mean what you told me. He made a visible
effort to seem quieter than he was, and it showed me sufficiently that
he had not been reassured. I laid, to comfort him and smiling at a
venture, a friendly hand on his arm, and he dropped into my eyes,
fixing them an instant, a strange, distended look which might have
expressed the cold clearness of all that was to come. I know
now! he said with an emphasis he rarely used.
What then did Mrs. Meldrum tell you?
Only one thing that signified, for she has no real knowledge. But
that one thing was everything.
What is it then?
Why, that she can't bear the sight of her. His pronouns required
some arranging, but after I had successfully dealt with them I replied
that I knew perfectly Miss Saunt had a trick of turning her back on the
good lady of Folkestone. But what did that prove? Have you never
guessed? I guessed as soon as she spoke! Dawling towered over me in
dismal triumph. It was the first time in our acquaintance that,
intellectually speaking, this had occurred; but even so remarkable an
incident still left me sufficiently at sea to cause him to continue:
Why, the effect of those spectacles!
I seemed to catch the tail of his idea. Mrs. Meldrum's?
They're so awfully ugly and they increase so the dear woman's
ugliness. This remark began to flash a light, and when he quickly
added She sees herself, she sees her own fate! my response was so
immediate that I had almost taken the words out of his mouth. While I
tried to fix this sudden image of Flora's face glazed in and
cross-barred even as Mrs. Meldrum's was glazed and barred, he went on
to assert that only the horror of that image, looming out at herself,
could be the reason of her avoiding such a monitress. The fact he had
encountered made everything hideously vivid and more vivid than
anything else that just such another pair of goggles was what would
have been prescribed to Flora.
I seeI see, I presently rejoined. What would become of Lord
Iffield if she were suddenly to come out in them? What indeed would
become of every one, what would become of everything? This was
an inquiry that Dawling was evidently unprepared to meet, and I
completed it by saying at last: My dear fellow, for that matter, what
would become of you?
Once more he turned on me his good green eyes. Oh, I shouldn't
The tone of his words somehow made his ugly face beautiful, and I
felt that there dated from this moment in my heart a confirmed
affection for him. None the less, at the same time, perversely and
rudely, I became aware of a certain drollery in our discussion of such
alternatives. It made me laugh out and say to him while I laughed:
You'd take her even with those things of Mrs. Meldrum's?
He remained mournfully grave; I could see that he was surprised at
my rude mirth. But he summoned back a vision of the lady at Folkestone
and conscientiously replied: Even with those things of Mrs.
Meldrum's. I begged him not to think my laughter in bad taste: it was
only a practical recognition of the fact that we had built a monstrous
castle in the air. Didn't he see on what flimsy ground the structure
rested? The evidence was preposterously small. He believed the worst,
but we were utterly ignorant.
I shall find out the truth, he promptly replied.
How can you? If you question her you'll simply drive her to perjure
herself. Wherein after all does it concern you to know the truth? It's
the girl's own affair.
Then why did you tell me your story?
I was a trifle embarrassed. To warn you off, I returned smiling.
He took no more notice of these words than presently to remark that
Lord Iffield had no serious intentions. Very possibly, I said. But
you mustn't speak as if Lord Iffield and you were her only
Dawling thought a moment. Wouldn't the people she has consulted
give some information? She must have been to people. How else can she
have been condemned?
Condemned to what? Condemned to perpetual nippers? Of course she
has consulted some of the big specialists, but she has done it, you may
be sure, in the most clandestine manner; and even if it were supposable
that they would tell you anythingwhich I altogether doubtyou would
have great difficulty in finding out which men they are. Therefore
leave it alone; never show her what you suspect.
I even, before he quitted me, asked him to promise me this. All
right, I promise, he said gloomily enough. He was a lover who could
tacitly grant the proposition that there was no limit to the deceit his
loved one was ready to practise: it made so remarkably little
difference. I could see that from this moment he would be filled with a
passionate pity ever so little qualified by a sense of the girl's
fatuity and folly. She was always accessible to himthat I knew; for
if she had told him he was an idiot to dream she could dream of him,
she would have resented the imputation of having failed to make it
clear that she would always be glad to regard him as a friend. What
were most of her friendswhat were all of thembut repudiated idiots?
I was perfectly aware that in her conversations and confidences I
myself for instance had a niche in the gallery. As regards poor Dawling
I knew how often he still called on the Hammond Synges. It was not
there but under the wing of the Floyd-Taylors that her intimacy with
Lord Iffield most flourished. At all events when a week after the visit
I have just summarised Flora's name was one morning brought up to me I
jumped at the conclusion that Dawling had been with her and even I fear
briefly entertained the thought that he had broken his word.
She left me, after she had been introduced, in no suspense about her
present motive; she was on the contrary in a visible fever to enlighten
me; but I promptly learned that for the alarm with which she pitiably
panted our young man was not accountable. She had but one thought in
the world, and that thought was for Lord Iffield. I had the strangest,
saddest scene with her, and if it did me no other good it at least made
me at last completely understand why insidiously, from the first, she
had struck me as a creature of tragedy. In showing me the whole of her
folly it lifted the curtain of her misery. I don't know how much she
meant to tell me when she cameI think she had had plans of elaborate
misrepresentation; at any rate she found it at the end of ten minutes
the simplest way to break down and sob, to be wretched and true. When
she had once begun to let herself go the movement took her off her
feet: the relief of it was like the cessation of a cramp. She shared in
a word her long secret; she shifted her sharp pain. She brought, I
confess, tears to my own eyes, tears of helpless tenderness for her
helpless poverty. Her visit however was not quite so memorable in
itself as in some of its consequences, the most immediate of which was
that I went that afternoon to see Geoffrey Dawling, who had in those
days rooms in Welbeck Street, where I presented myself at an hour late
enough to warrant the supposition that he might have come in. He had
not come in, but he was expected, and I was invited to enter and wait
for him: a lady, I was informed, was already in his sitting-room. I
hesitated, a little at a loss: it had wildly coursed through my brain
that the lady was perhaps Flora Saunt. But when I asked if she were
young and remarkably pretty I received so significant a No, sir! that
I risked an advance and after a minute in this manner found myself, to
my astonishment, face to face with Mrs. Meldrum. Oh, you dear thing,
she exclaimed, I'm delighted to see you: you spare me another
compromising démarche! But for this I should have called on you
also. Know the worst at once: if you see me here it's at least
deliberateit's planned, plotted, shameless. I came up on purpose to
see him; upon my word, I'm in love with him. Why, if you valued my
peace of mind, did you let him, the other day at Folkestone, dawn upon
my delighted eyes? I took there in half an hour the most extraordinary
fancy to him. With a perfect sense of everything that can be urged
against him, I find him none the less the very pearl of men. However, I
haven't come up to declare my passionI've come to bring him news that
will interest him much more. Above all I've come to urge upon him to be
About Flora Saunt?
About what he says and does: he must be as still as a mouse! She's
at last really engaged.
But it's a tremendous secret? I was moved to merriment.
Precisely: she telegraphed me this noon, and spent another shilling
to tell me that not a creature in the world is yet to know it.
She had better have spent it to tell you that she had just passed
an hour with the creature you see before you.
She has just passed an hour with every one in the place! Mrs.
Meldrum cried. They've vital reasons, she wired, for it's not coming
out for a month. Then it will be formally announced, but meanwhile her
happiness is delirious. I daresay Mr. Dawling already knows, and he
may, as it's nearly seven o'clock, have jumped off London Bridge; but
an effect of the talk I had with him the other day was to make me, on
receipt of my telegram, feel it to be my duty to warn him in person
against taking action, as it were, on the horrid certitude which I
could see he carried away with him. I had added somehow to that
certitude. He told me what you had told him you had seen in your shop.
Mrs. Meldrum, I perceived, had come to Welbeck Street on an errand
identical with my owna circumstance indicating her rare sagacity,
inasmuch as her ground for undertaking it was a very different thing
from what Flora's wonderful visit had made of mine. I remarked to her
that what I had seen in the shop was sufficiently striking, but that I
had seen a great deal more that morning in my studio. In short, I
said, I've seen everything.
She was mystified. Everything?
The poor creature is under the darkest of clouds. Oh, she came to
triumph, but she remained to talk something approaching to sense! She
put herself completely in my handsshe does me the honour to intimate
that of all her friends I'm the most disinterested. After she had
announced to me that Lord Iffield was bound hands and feet and that for
the present I was absolutely the only person in the secret, she arrived
at her real business. She had had a suspicion of me ever since the day,
at Folkestone, I asked her for the truth about her eyes. The truth is
what you and I both guessed. She has no end of a danger hanging over
But from what cause? I, who by God's mercy have kept mine, know
everything that can be known about eyes, said Mrs. Meldrum.
She might have kept hers if she had profited by God's mercy, if she
had done in time, done years ago, what was imperatively ordered her; if
she hadn't in fine been cursed with the loveliness that was to make her
behaviour a thing of fable. She may keep them still if she'll
sacrificeand after all so littlethat purely superficial charm. She
must do as you've done; she must wear, dear lady, what you wear!
What my companion wore glittered for the moment like a melon-frame
in August. Heaven forgive hernow I understand! She turned pale.
But I wasn't afraid of the effect on her good nature of her thus
seeing, through her great goggles, why it had always been that Flora
held her at such a distance. I can't tell you, I said, from what
special affection, what state of the eye, her danger proceeds: that's
the one thing she succeeded this morning in keeping from me. She knows
it herself perfectly; she has had the best advice in Europe. 'It's a
thing that's awful, simply awful'that was the only account she would
give me. Year before last, while she was at Boulogne, she went for
three days with Mrs. Floyd-Taylor to Paris. She there surreptitiously
consulted the greatest maneven Mrs. Floyd-Taylor doesn't know. Last
autumn, in Germany, she did the same. 'First put on certain special
spectacles with a straight bar in the middle: then we'll talk'that's
practically what they say. What she says is that she'll put on
anything in nature when she's married, but that she must get married
first. She has always meant to do everything as soon as she's married.
Then and then only she'll be safe. How will any one ever look at her if
she makes herself a fright? How could she ever have got engaged if she
had made herself a fright from the first? It's no use to insist that
with her beauty she can never be a fright. She said to me this
morning, poor girl, the most characteristic, the most harrowing things.
'My face is all I haveand such a face! I knew from the first I
could do anything with it. But I needed it allI need it still, every
exquisite inch of it. It isn't as if I had a figure or anything else.
Oh, if God had only given me a figure too, I don't say! Yes, with a
figure, a really good one, like Fanny Floyd-Taylor's, who's hideous,
I'd have risked plain glasses. Que voulez-vous? No one is
perfect.' She says she still has money left, but I don't believe a word
of it. She has been speculating on her impunity, on the idea that her
danger would hold off: she has literally been running a race with it.
Her theory has been, as you from the first so clearly saw, that she'd
get in ahead. She swears to me that though the 'bar' is too cruel she
wears when she's alone what she has been ordered to wear. But when the
deuce is she alone? It's herself of course that she has swindled worst:
she has put herself off, so insanely that even her vanity but half
accounts for it, with little inadequate concessions, little false
measures and preposterous evasions and childish hopes. Her great terror
is now that Iffield, who already has suspicions, who has found out her
pince-nez but whom she has beguiled with some unblushing hocus-pocus,
may discover the dreadful facts; and the essence of what she wanted
this morning was in that interest to square me, to get me to deny
indignantly and authoritatively (for isn't she my 'favourite sitter'?)
that she has anything whatever the matter with any part of her. She
sobbed, she 'went on,' she entreated; after we got talking her
extraordinary nerve left her and she showed me what she has been
throughshowed me also all her terror of the harm I could do her.
'Wait till I'm married! wait till I'm married!' She took hold of me,
she almost sank on her knees. It seems to me highly immoral, one's
participation in her fraud; but there's no doubt that she must
be married: I don't know what I don't see behind it! Therefore, I
wound up, Dawling must keep his hands off.
Mrs. Meldrum had held her breath; she exhaled a long moan. Well,
that's exactly what I came here to tell him.
Then here he is. Our unconscious host had just opened the door.
Immensely startled at finding us he turned a frightened look from one
to the other, as if to guess what disaster we were there to announce or
Mrs. Meldrum, on the spot, was all gaiety. I've come to return your
sweet visit. Ah, she laughed, I mean to keep up the acquaintance!
Dodo, he murmured mechanically and absently, continuing to look
at us. Then abruptly he broke out: He's going to marry her.
I was surprised. You already know?
He had had in his hand an evening newspaper; he tossed it down on
the table. It's in that.
Publishedalready? I was still more surprised.
Oh, Flora can't keep a secret! Mrs. Meldrum humorously declared.
She went up to poor Dawling and laid a motherly hand upon him. It's
all rightit's just as it ought to be: don't think about her ever any
more. Then as he met this adjuration with a dismal stare in which the
thought of her was as abnormally vivid as the colour of the pupil, the
excellent woman put up her funny face and tenderly kissed him on the
I have spoken of these reminiscences as of a row of coloured beads,
and I confess that as I continue to straighten out my chaplet I am
rather proud of the comparison. The beads are all there, as I
saidthey slip along the string in their small, smooth roundness.
Geoffrey Daw-ling accepted like a gentleman the event his evening paper
had proclaimed; in view of which I snatched a moment to murmur him a
hint to offer Mrs. Meldrum his hand. He returned me a heavy head-shake,
and I judged that marriage would henceforth strike him very much as the
traffic of the street may strike some poor incurable at the window of
an hospital. Circumstances arising at this time promptly led to my
making an absence from England, and circumstances already existing
offered him a solid basis for similar action. He had after all the
usual resource of a Britonhe could take to his boats.
He started on a journey round the globe, and I was left with nothing
but my inference as to what might have happened. Later observation
however only confirmed my belief that if at any time during the couple
of months that followed Flora Saunt's brilliant engagement he had made
up, as they say, to the good lady of Folkestone, that good lady would
not have pushed him over the cliff. Strange as she was to behold I knew
of cases in which she had been obliged to administer that shove. I went
to New York to paint a couple of portraits; but I found, once on the
spot, that I had counted without Chicago, where I was invited to blot
out this harsh discrimination by the production of no less than ten. I
spent a year in America and should probably have spent a second had I
not been summoned back to England by alarming news from my mother. Her
strength had failed, and as soon as I reached London I hurried down to
Folkestone, arriving just at the moment to offer a welcome to some
slight symptom of a rally. She had been much worse, but she was now a
little better; and though I found nothing but satisfaction in having
come to her I saw after a few hours that my London studio, where
arrears of work had already met me, would be my place to await whatever
might next occur. Before returning to town however I had every reason
to sally forth in search of Mrs. Meldrum, from whom, in so many months,
I had not had a line, and my view of whom, with the adjacent objects,
as I had left them, had been intercepted by a luxuriant foreground.
Before I had gained her house I met her, as I supposed, coming
toward me across the down, greeting me from afar with the familiar
twinkle of her great vitreous badge; and as it was late in the autumn
and the esplanade was a blank I was free to acknowledge this signal by
cutting a caper on the grass. My enthusiasm dropped indeed the next
moment, for it had taken me but a few seconds to perceive that the
person thus assaulted had by no means the figure of my military friend.
I felt a shock much greater than any I should have thought possible as
on this person's drawing near I identified her as poor little Flora
Saunt. At what moment Flora had recognised me belonged to an order of
mysteries over which, it quickly came home to me, one would never
linger again: I could intensely reflect that once we were face to face
it chiefly mattered that I should succeed in looking still more
intensely unastonished. All I saw at first was the big gold bar
crossing each of her lenses, over which something convex and grotesque,
like the eyes of a large insect, something that now represented her
whole personality, seemed, as out of the orifice of a prison, to strain
forward and press. The face had shrunk away: it looked smaller,
appeared even to look plain; it was at all events, so far as the effect
on a spectator was concerned, wholly sacrificed to this huge apparatus
of sight. There was no smile in it, and she made no motion to take my
I had no idea you were down here! I exclaimed; and I wondered
whether she didn't know me at all or knew me only by my voice.
You thought I was Mrs. Meldrum, she very quietly remarked.
It was the quietness itself that made me feel the necessity of an
answer almost violently gay. Oh yes, I laughed, you have a
tremendous deal in common with Mrs. Meldrum! I've just returned to
England after a long absence and I'm on my way to see her. Won't you
come with me? It struck me that her old reason for keeping clear of
our friend was well disposed of now.
I've just left her; I'm staying with her. She stood solemnly
fixing me with her goggles. Would you like to paint me now?
she asked. She seemed to speak, with intense gravity, from behind a
mask or a cage.
There was nothing to do but to treat the question with the same
exuberance. It would be a fascinating little artistic problem! That
something was wrong it was not difficult to perceive; but a good deal
more than met the eye might be presumed to be wrong if Flora was under
Mrs. Meldrum's roof. I had not for a year had much time to think of
her, but my imagination had had sufficient warrant for lodging her in
more gilded halls. One of the last things I had heard before leaving
England was that in commemoration of the new relationship she had gone
to stay with Lady Considine. This had made me take everything else for
granted, and the noisy American world had deafened my ears to possible
contradictions. Her spectacles were at present a direct contradiction;
they seemed a negation not only of new relationships but of every old
one as well. I remember nevertheless that when after a moment she
walked beside me on the grass I found myself nervously hoping she
wouldn't as yet at any rate tell me anything very dreadful; so that to
stave off this danger I harried her with questions about Mrs. Meldrum
and, without waiting for replies, became profuse on the subject of my
own doings. My companion was completely silent, and I felt both as if
she were watching my nervousness with a sort of sinister irony and as
if I were talking to some different, strange person. Flora plain and
obscure and soundless was no Flora at all. At Mrs. Meldrum's door she
turned off with the observation that as there was certainly a great
deal I should have to say to our friend she had better not go in with
me. I looked at her againI had been keeping my eyes away from
herbut only to meet her magnified stare. I greatly desired in truth
to see Mrs. Meldrum alone, but there was something so pitiful in the
girl's predicament that I hesitated to fall in with this idea of
dropping her. Yet one couldn't express a compassion without seeming to
take too much wretchedness for granted. I reflected that I must really
figure to her as a fool, which was an entertainment I had never
expected to give her. It rolled over me there for the first timeit
has come back to me sincethat there is, strangely, in very deep
misfortune a dignity finer even than in the most inveterate habit of
being all right. I couldn't have to her the manner of treating it as a
mere detail that I was face to face with a part of what, at our last
meeting, we had had such a scene about; but while I was trying to think
of some manner that I could have she said quite colourlessly,
yet somehow as if she might never see me again: Goodbye. I'm going to
take my walk.
She looked round the great bleak cliff-top. With whom should I go?
Besides, I like to be alonefor the present.
This gave me the glimmer of a vision that she regarded her
disfigurement as temporary, and the confidence came to me that she
would never, for her happiness, cease to be a creature of illusions. It
enabled me to exclaim, smiling brightly and feeling indeed idiotic:
Oh, I shall see you again! But I hope you'll have a very pleasant
All my walks are very pleasant, thank youthey do me such a lot of
good. She was as quiet as a mouse, and her words seemed to me
stupendous in their wisdom. I take several a day, she continued. She
might have been an ancient woman responding with humility at the church
door to the patronage of the parson. The more I take the better I
feel. I'm ordered by the doctors to keep all the while in the air and
go in for plenty of exercise. It keeps up my general health, you know,
and if that goes on improving as it has lately done everything will
soon be all right. All that was the matter with me beforeand always;
it was too reckless!was that I neglected my general health. It acts
directly on the state of the particular organ. So I'm going three
I grinned at her from the doorstep while Mrs. Meldrum's maid stood
there to admit me. Oh, I'm so glad, I said, looking at her as she
paced away with the pretty flutter she had kept and remembering the day
when, while she rejoined Lord Iffield, I had indulged in the same
observation. Her air of assurance was on this occasion not less than it
had been on that; but I recalled that she had then struck me as
marching off to her doom. Was she really now marching away from it?
As soon as I saw Mrs. Meldrum I broke out to her. Is there anything
in it? Is her general health?
Mrs. Meldrum interrupted me with her great amused blare. You've
already seen her and she has told you her wondrous tale? What's 'in it'
is what has been in everything she has ever donethe most comical,
tragical belief in herself. She thinks she's doing a 'cure.'
And what does her husband think?
Her husband? What husband?
Hasn't she then married Lord Iffield?
Vous-en-êtes là? cried my hostess. He behaved like a
How should I know? You never wrote to me.
Mrs. Meldrum hesitated, covering me with what poor Flora called the
particular organ. No, I didn't write to you; and I abstained on
purpose. If I didn't I thought you mightn't, over there, hear what had
happened. If you should hear I was afraid you would stir up Mr.
Stir him up?
Urge him to fly to the rescue; write out to him that there was
another chance for him.
I wouldn't have done it, I said.
Well, Mrs. Meldrum replied, it was not my business to give you an
In short you were afraid of it.
Again she hesitated and though it may have been only my fancy I
thought she considerably reddened. At all events she laughed out. Then
I was afraid of it! she very honestly answered.
But doesn't he know? Has he given no sign?
Every sign in lifehe came straight back to her. He did everything
to get her to listen to him; but she hasn't the smallest idea of it.
Has he seen her as she is now? I presently and just a trifle
Indeed he has, and borne it like a hero. He told me all about it.
How much you've all been through! I ventured to ejaculate. Then
what has become of him?
He's at home in Hampshire. He has got back his old place and I
believe by this time his old sisters. It's not half a bad little
Yet its attractions say nothing to Flora?
Oh, Flora's by no means on her back! my interlocutress laughed.
She's not on her back because she's on yours. Have you got her for
the rest of your life?
Once more my hostess genially glared at me. Did she tell you how
much the Hammond Synges have kindly left her to live on? Not quite
eighty pounds a year.
That's a good deal, but it won't pay the oculist. What was it that
at last induced her to submit to him?
Her general collapse after that brute of an Iffield's rupture. She
cried her eyes outshe passed through a horror of black darkness. Then
came a gleam of light, and the light appears to have broadened. She
went into goggles as repentant Magdalens go into the Catholic Church.
Yet you don't think she'll be saved?
She thinks she willthat's all I can tell you. There's no
doubt that when once she brought herself to accept her real remedy, as
she calls it, she began to enjoy a relief that she had never known.
That feeling, very new and in spite of what she pays for it most
refreshing, has given her something to hold on by, begotten in her
foolish little mind a belief that, as she says, she's on the mend and
that in the course of time, if she leads a tremendously healthy life,
she'll be able to take off her muzzle and become as dangerous again as
ever. It keeps her going.
And what keeps you? You're good until the parties begin
Oh, she doesn't object to me now! smiled Mrs. Meldrum. I'm going
to take her abroad; we shall be a pretty pair. I was struck with this
energy and after a moment I inquired the reason of it. It's to divert
her mind, my friend replied, reddening again, I thought, a little. We
shall go next week: I've only waited, to start, to see how your mother
would be. I expressed to her hereupon my sense of her extraordinary
merit and also that of the inconceivability of Flora's fancying herself
still in a situation not to jump at the chance of marrying a man like
Dawling. She says he's too ugly; she says he's too dreary; she says in
fact he's 'nobody,' Mrs. Meldrum pursued. She says above all that
he's not 'her own sort.' She doesn't deny that he's good, but she
insists on the fact that he's grotesque. He's quite the last person she
would ever dream of. I was almost disposed on hearing this to protest
that if the girl had so little proper feeling her noble suitor had
perhaps served her right; but after a while my curiosity as to just how
her noble suitor had served her got the better of that emotion,
and I asked a question or two which led my companion again to apply to
him the invidious epithet I have already quoted. What had happened was
simply that Flora had at the eleventh hour broken down in the attempt
to put him off with an uncandid account of her infirmity and that his
lordship's interest in her had not been proof against the discovery of
the way she had practised on him. Her dissimulation, he was obliged to
perceive, had been infernally deep. The future in short assumed a new
complexion for him when looked at through the grim glasses of a bride
who, as he had said to some one, couldn't really, when you came to find
out, see her hand before her face. He had conducted himself like any
other jockeyed customerhe had returned the animal as unsound. He had
backed out in his own way, giving the business, by some sharp shuffle,
such a turn as to make the rupture ostensibly Flora's, but he had none
the less remorselessly and basely backed out. He had cared for her
lovely face, cared for it in the amused and haunted way it had been her
poor little delusive gift to make men care; and her lovely face, damn
it, with the monstrous gear she had begun to rig upon it, was just what
had let him in. He had in the judgment of his family done everything
that could be expected of him; he had madeMrs. Meldrum had herself
seen the lettera handsome offer of pecuniary compensation. Oh, if
Flora, with her incredible buoyancy, was in a manner on her feet again
now, it was not that she had not for weeks and weeks been prone in the
dust. Strange were the humiliations, the prostrations it was given to
some natures to survive. That Flora had survived was perhaps after all
a sort of sign that she was reserved for some final mercy. But she has
been in the abysses at any rate, said Mrs. Meldrum, and I really
don't think I can tell you what pulled her through.
I think I can tell you, I said. What in the world but Mrs.
At the end of an hour Flora had not come in, and I was obliged to
announce that I should have but time to reach the station, where, in
charge of my mother's servant, I was to find my luggage. Mrs. Meldrum
put before me the question of waiting till a later train, so as not to
lose our young lady; but I confess I gave this alternative a
consideration less profound than I pretended. Somehow I didn't care if
I did lose our young lady. Now that I knew the worst that had befallen
her it struck me still less as possible to meet her on the ground of
condolence; and with the melancholy aspect she wore to me what other
ground was left? I lost her, but I caught my train. In truth she was so
changed that one hated to see it; and now that she was in charitable
hands one didn't feel compelled to make great efforts. I had studied
her face for a particular beauty; I had lived with that beauty and
reproduced it; but I knew what belonged to my trade well enough to be
sure it was gone for ever.
I was soon called back to Folkestone; but Mrs. Meldrum and her young
friend had already left England, finding to that end every convenience
on the spot and not having had to come up to town. My thoughts however
were so painfully engaged there that I should in any case have had
little attention for them: the event occurred that was to bring my
series of visits to a close. When this high tide had ebbed I returned
to America and to my interrupted work, which had opened out on such a
scale that, with a deep plunge into a great chance, I was three good
years in rising again to the surface. There are nymphs and naiads
moreover in the American depths: they may have had something to do with
the duration of my dive. I mention them to account for a grave
misdemeanourthe fact that after the first year I rudely neglected
Mrs. Meldrum. She had written to me from Florence after my mother's
death and had mentioned in a postscript that in our young lady's
calculations the lowest numbers were now Italian counts. This was a
good omen, and if in subsequent letters there was no news of a sequel I
was content to accept small things and to believe that grave tidings,
should there be any, would come to me in due course. The gravity of
what might happen to a featherweight became indeed with time and
distance less appreciable, and I was not without an impression that
Mrs. Meldrum, whose sense of proportion was not the least of her
merits, had no idea of boring the world with the ups and downs of her
pensioner. The poor girl grew dusky and dim, a small fitful memory, a
regret tempered by the comfortable consciousness of how kind Mrs.
Meldrum would always be to her. I was professionally more preoccupied
than I had ever been, and I had swarms of pretty faces in my eyes and a
chorus of high voices in my ears. Geoffrey Dawling had on his return to
England written me two or three letters: his last information had been
that he was going into the figures of rural illiteracy. I was delighted
to receive it and had no doubt that if he should go into figures they
would, as they are said to be able to prove anything, prove at least
that my advice was sound and that he had wasted time enough. This
quickened on my part another hope, a hope suggested by some roundabout
rumourI forget how it reached methat he was engaged to a girl down
in Hampshire. He turned out not to be, but I felt sure that if only he
went into figures deep enough he would become, among the girls down in
Hampshire or elsewhere, one of those numerous prizes of battle whose
defences are practically not on the scale of their provocations. I
nursed in short the thought that it was probably open to him to become
one of the types as to which, as the years go on, frivolous and
superficial spectators lose themselves in the wonder that they ever
succeeded in winning even the least winsome mates. He never alluded to
Flora Saunt; and there was in his silence about her, quite as in Mrs.
Meldrum's, an element of instinctive tact, a brief implication that if
you didn't happen to have been in love with her she was not an
Within a week after my return to London I went to the opera, of
which I had always been much of a devotee. I arrived too late for the
first act of Lohengrin, but the second was just beginning, and I gave
myself up to it with no more than a glance at the house. When it was
over I treated myself, with my glass, from my place in the stalls, to a
general survey of the boxes, making doubtless on their contents the
reflections, pointed by comparison, that are most familiar to the
wanderer restored to London. There was a certain proportion of pretty
women, but I suddenly became aware that one of these was far prettier
than the others. This lady, alone in one of the smaller receptacles of
the grand tier and already the aim of fifty tentative glasses, which
she sustained with admirable serenitythis single exquisite figure,
placed in the quarter furthest removed from my stall, was a person, I
immediately felt, to cause one's curiosity to linger. Dressed in white,
with diamonds in her hair and pearls on her neck, she had a pale
radiance of beauty which even at that distance made her a distinguished
presence and, with the air that easily attaches to lonely loveliness in
public places, an agreeable mystery. A mystery however she remained to
me only for a minute after I had levelled my glass at her: I feel to
this moment the startled thrill, the shock almost of joy with which I
suddenly encountered in her vague brightness a rich revival of Flora
Saunt. I say a revival because, to put it crudely, I had on that last
occasion left poor Flora for dead. At present perfectly alive again,
she was altered only, as it were, by resurrection. A little older, a
little quieter, a little finer and a good deal fairer, she was simply
transfigured by recovery. Sustained by the reflection that even
recovery wouldn't enable her to distinguish me in the crowd, I was free
to look at her well. Then it was it came home to me that my vision of
her in her great goggles had been cruelly final. As her beauty was all
there was of her, that machinery had extinguished her, and so far as I
had thought of her in the interval I had thought of her as buried in
the tomb her stern specialist had built. With the sense that she had
escaped from it came a lively wish to return to her; and if I didn't
straightway leave my place and rush round the theatre and up to her box
it was because I was fixed to the spot some moments longer by the
simple inability to cease looking at her.
She had been from the first of my seeing her practically motionless,
leaning back in her chair with a kind of thoughtful grace and with her
eyes vaguely directed, as it seemed to me, to one of the boxes on my
side of the house and consequently over my head and out of my sight.
The only movement she made for some time was to finger with an ungloved
hand and as if with the habit of fondness the row of pearls on her
neck, which my glass showed me to be large and splendid. Her diamonds
and pearls, in her solitude, mystified me, making me, as she had had no
such brave jewels in the days of the Hammond Synges, wonder what
undreamt-of improvement had taken place in her fortunes. The ghost of a
question hovered there a moment: could anything so prodigious have
happened as that on her tested and proved amendment Lord Iffield had
taken her back? This could not have occurred without my hearing of it;
and moreover if she had become a person of such fashion where was the
little court one would naturally see at her elbow? Her isolation was
puzzling, though it could easily suggest that she was but momentarily
alone. If she had come with Mrs. Mel-drum that lady would have taken
advantage of the interval to pay a visit to some other boxdoubtless
the box at which Flora had just been looking. Mrs. Meldrum didn't
account for the jewels, but the refreshment of Flora's beauty accounted
for anything. She presently moved her eyes over the house, and I felt
them brush me again like the wings of a dove. I don't know what quick
pleasure flickered into the hope that she would at last see me. She did
see me: she suddenly bent forward to take up the little
double-barrelled ivory glass that rested on the edge of the box and, to
all appearance, fix me with it. I smiled from my place straight up at
the searching lenses, and after an instant she dropped them and smiled
as straight back at me. Oh, her smile: it was her old smile, her young
smile, her peculiar smile made perfect! I instantly left my stall and
hurried off for a nearer view of it; quite flushed, I remember, as I
went, with the annoyance of having happened to think of the idiotic way
I had tried to paint her. Poor Iffield with his sample of that error,
and still poorer Dawling in particular with his! I hadn't touched her,
I was professionally humiliated, and as the attendant in the lobby
opened her box for me I felt that the very first thing I should have to
say to her would be that she must absolutely sit to me again.
She gave me the smile once more as over her shoulder, from her
chair, she turned her face to me. Here you are again! she exclaimed
with her disgloved hand put up a little backward for me to take. I
dropped into a chair just behind her and, having taken it and noted
that one of the curtains of the box would make the demonstration
sufficiently private, bent my lips over it and impressed them on its
finger-tips. It was given me however, to my astonishment, to feel next
that all the privacy in the world couldn't have sufficed to mitigate
the start with which she greeted this free application of my moustache:
the blood had jumped to her face, she quickly recovered her hand and
jerked at me, twisting herself round, a vacant, challenging stare.
During the next few instants several extraordinary things happened, the
first of which was that now I was close to them the eyes of loveliness
I had come up to look into didn't show at all the conscious light I had
just been pleased to see them flash across the house: they showed on
the contrary, to my confusion, a strange, sweet blankness, an
expression I failed to give a meaning to until, without delay, I felt
on my arm, directed to it as if instantly to efface the effect of her
start, the grasp of the hand she had impulsively snatched from me. It
was the irrepressible question in this grasp that stopped on my lips
all sound of salutation. She had mistaken my entrance for that of
another person, a pair of lips without a moustache. She was feeling me
to see who I was! With the perception of this and of her not seeing me
I sat gaping at her and at the wild word that didn't come, the right
word to express or to disguise my stupefaction. What was the right word
to commemorate one's sudden discovery, at the very moment too at which
one had been most encouraged to count on better things, that one's dear
old friend had gone blind? Before the answer to this question dropped
upon meand the moving moments, though few, seemed manyI heard, with
the sound of voices, the click of the attendant's key on the other side
of the door. Poor Flora heard also, and with the hearing, still with
her hand on my arm, she brightened again as I had a minute since seen
her brighten across the house: she had the sense of the return of the
person she had taken me forthe person with the right pair of lips, as
to whom I was for that matter much more in the dark than she. I gasped,
but my word had come: if she had lost her sight it was in this very
loss that she had found again her beauty. I managed to speak while we
were still alone, before her companion had appeared. You're lovelier
at this day than you have ever been in your life! At the sound of my
voice and that of the opening of the door her excitement broke into
audible joy. She sprang up, recognising me, always holding me, and
gleefully cried to a gentleman who was arrested in the doorway by the
sight of me: He has come back, he has come back, and you should have
heard what he says of me! The gentleman was Geoffrey Dawling, and I
thought it best to let him hear on the spot. How beautiful she is, my
dear manbut how extraordinarily beautiful! More beautiful at this
hour than ever, ever before!
It gave them almost equal pleasure and made Dawling blush up to his
eyes; while this in turn produced, in spite of deepened astonishment, a
blessed snap of the strain that I had been under for some moments. I
wanted to embrace them both, and while the opening bars of another
scene rose from the orchestra I almost did embrace Dawling, whose first
emotion on beholding me had visibly and ever so oddly been a
consciousness of guilt. I had caught him somehow in the act, though
that was as yet all I knew; but by the time we had sunk noiselessly
into our chairs again (for the music was supreme, Wagner passed first)
my demonstration ought pretty well to have given him the limit of the
criticism he had to fear. I myself indeed, while the opera blazed, was
only too afraid he might divine in our silent closeness the very moral
of my optimism, which was simply the comfort I had gathered from seeing
that if our companion's beauty lived again her vanity partook of its
life. I had hit on the right notethat was what eased me off: it drew
all pain for the next half-hour from the sense of the deep darkness in
which the stricken woman sat there. If the music, in that darkness,
happily soared and swelled for her, it beat its wings in unison with
those of a gratified passion. A great deal came and went between us
without profaning the occasion, so that I could feel at the end of
twenty minutes as if I knew almost everything he might in kindness have
to tell me; knew even why Flora, while I stared at her from the stalls,
had misled me by the use of ivory and crystal and by appearing to
recognise me and smile. She leaned back in her chair in luxurious ease:
I had from the first become aware that the way she fingered her pearls
was a sharp image of the wedded state. Nothing of old had seemed
wanting to her assurance; but I hadn't then dreamed of the art with
which she would wear that assurance as a married woman. She had taken
him when everything had failed; he had taken her when she herself had
done so. His embarrassed eyes confessed it all, confessed the deep
peace he found in it. They only didn't tell me why he had not written
to me, nor clear up as yet a minor obscurity. Flora after a while again
lifted the glass from the ledge of the box and elegantly swept the
house with it. Then, by the mere instinct of her grace, a motion but
half conscious, she inclined her head into the void with the sketch of
a salute, producing, I could see, a perfect imitation of a response to
some homage. Dawling and I looked at each other again: the tears came
into his eyes. She was playing at perfection still, and her misfortune
only simplified the process.
I recognised that this was as near as I should ever come, certainly
as I should come that night, to pressing on her misfortune. Neither of
us would name it more than we were doing then, and Flora would never
name it at all. Little by little I perceived that what had occurred
was, strange as it might appear, the best thing for her happiness. The
question was now only of her beauty and her being seen and marvelled
at: with Dawling to do for her everything in life her activity was
limited to that. Such an activity was all within her scope: it asked
nothing of her that she couldn't splendidly give. As from time to time
in our delicate communion she turned her face to me with the parody of
a look I lost none of the signs of its strange new glory. The
expression of the eyes was a bit of pastel put in by a master's thumb;
the whole head, stamped with a sort of showy suffering, had gained a
fineness from what she had passed through. Yes, Flora was settled for
lifenothing could hurt her further. I foresaw the particular praise
she would mostly incurshe would be incomparably interesting. She
would charm with her pathos more even than she had charmed with her
pleasure. For herself above all she was fixed for ever, rescued from
all change and ransomed from all doubt. Her old certainties, her old
vanities were justified and sanctified, and in the darkness that had
closed upon her one object remained clear. That object, as unfading as
a mosaic mask, was fortunately the loveliest she could possibly look
upon. The greatest blessing of all was of course that Dawling thought
so. Her future was ruled with the straightest line, and so for that
matter was his. There were two facts to which before I left my friends
I gave time to sink into my spirit. One of them was that he had changed
by some process as effective as Flora's change; had been simplified
somehow into service as she had been simplified into success. He was
such a picture of inspired intervention as I had never yet encountered:
he would exist henceforth for the sole purpose of rendering
unnecessary, or rather impossible, any reference even on her own part
to his wife's infirmity. Oh yes, how little desire he would ever give
me to refer to it! He principally after a while made me feeland
this was my second lessonthat, good-natured as he was, my being there
to see it all oppressed him; so that by the time the act ended I
recognised that I too had filled out my hour. Dawling remembered
things; I think he caught in my very face the irony of old judgments:
they made him thresh about in his chair. I said to Flora as I took
leave of her that I would come to see her; but I may mention that I
never went. I'll go to-morrow if I hear she wants me; but what in the
world can she ever want? As I quitted them I laid my hand on Dawling's
arm and drew him for a moment into the lobby.
Why did you never write to me of your marriage?
He smiled uncomfortably, showing his long yellow teeth and something
more. I don't knowthe whole thing gave me such a tremendous lot to
This was the first dishonest speech I had heard him make: he really
hadn't written to me because he had an idea I would think him a still
bigger fool than before. I didn't insist, but I tried there, in the
lobby, so far as a pressure of his hand could serve me, to give him a
notion of what I thought him. I can't at any rate make out, I said,
why I didn't hear from Mrs. Mel-drum.
She didn't write to you?
Never a word. What has become of her?
I think she's at Folkestone, Dawling returned; but I'm sorry to
say that practically she has ceased to see us.
You haven't quarrelled with her?
How could we? Think of all we owe her. At the time of our
marriage, and for months before, she did everything for us: I don't
know how we should have managed without her. But since then she has
never been near us and has given us rather markedly little
encouragement to try and keep up our relations with her.
I was struck with this though of course I admit I am struck with all
sorts of things. Well, I said after a moment, even if I could
imagine a reason for that attitude it wouldn't explain why she
shouldn't have taken account of my natural interest.
Just so. Dawling's face was a windowless wall. He could contribute
nothing to the mystery, and, quitting him, I carried it away. It was
not till I went down to see Mrs. Meldrum that it was really dispelled.
She didn't want to hear of them or to talk of them, not a bit, and it
was just in the same spirit that she hadn't wanted to write of them.
She had done everything in the world for them, but now, thank heaven,
the hard business was over. After I had taken this in, which I was
quick to do, we quite avoided the subject. She simply couldn't bear it.
THE NEXT TIME
Mrs. Highmore's errand this morning was odd enough to deserve
commemoration: she came to ask me to write a notice of her great
forthcoming work. Her great works have come forth so frequently without
my assistance that I was sufficiently entitled on this occasion to open
my eyes; but what really made me stare was the ground on which her
request reposed, and what leads me to record the incident is the train
of memory lighted by that explanation. Poor Ray Limbert, while we
talked, seemed to sit there between us: she reminded me that my
acquaintance with him had begun, eighteen years ago, with her having
come in precisely as she came in this morning to bespeak my charity for
him. If she didn't know then how little my charity was worth she is at
least enlightened about it to-day, and this is just the circumstance
that makes the drollery of her visit. As I hold up the torch to the
dusky yearsby which I mean as I cipher up with a pen that stumbles
and stops the figured column of my reminiscencesI see that Lim-bert's
public hour, or at least my small apprehension of it, is rounded by
those two occasions. It was finis, with a little moralising
flourish, that Mrs. Highmore seemed to trace to-day at the bottom of
the page. One of the most voluminous writers of the time, she has
often repeated this sign; but never, I daresay, in spite of her
professional command of appropriate emotion, with an equal sense of
that mystery and that sadness of things which to people of imagination
generally hover over the close of human histories. This romance at any
rate is bracketed by her early and her late appeal; and when its
melancholy protrusions had caught the declining light again from my
half-hour's talk with her I took a private vow to recover while that
light still lingers something of the delicate flush, to pick out with a
brief patience the perplexing lesson.
It was wonderful to observe how for herself Mrs. Highmore had
already done so: she wouldn't have hesitated to announce to me what was
the matter with Ralph Limbert, or at all events to give me a glimpse of
the high admonition she had read in his career. There could have been
no better proof of the vividness of this parable, which we were really
in our pleasant sympathy quite at one about, than that Mrs. Highmore,
of all hardened sinners, should have been converted. This indeed was
not news to me: she impressed upon me that for the last ten years she
had wanted to do something artistic, something as to which she was
prepared not to care a rap whether or no it should sell. She brought
home to me further that it had been mainly seeing what her
brother-in-law did and how he did it that had wedded her to this
perversity. As he didn't sell, dear soul, and as several
persons, of whom I was one, thought highly of that, the fancy had taken
hertaken her even quite early in her prolific courseof reaching, if
only once, the same heroic eminence. She yearned to be, like Lim-bert,
but of course only once, an exquisite failure. There was something a
failure was, a failure in the market, that a success somehow wasn't. A
success was as prosaic as a good dinner: there was nothing more to be
said about it than that you had had it. Who but vulgar people, in such
a case, made gloating remarks about the courses? It was often by such
vulgar people that a success was attested. It made if you came to look
at it nothing but money; that is it made so much that any other result
showed small in comparison. A failure now could makeoh, with the aid
of immense talent of course, for there were failures and failuressuch
a reputation! She did me the honourshe had often done itto intimate
that what she meant by reputation was seeing me toss a flower.
If it took a failure to catch a failure I was by my own admission well
qualified to place the laurel. It was because she had made so much
money and Mr. Highmore had taken such care of it that she could treat
herself to an hour of pure glory. She perfectly remembered that as
often as I had heard her heave that sigh I had been prompt with my
declaration that a book sold might easily be as glorious as a book
unsold. Of course she knew this, but she knew also that it was the age
of trash triumphant and that she had never heard me speak of anything
that had done well exactly as she had sometimes heard me speak of
something that hadn'twith just two or three words of respect which,
when I used them, seemed to convey more than they commonly stood for,
seemed to hush up the discussion a little, as if for the very beauty of
I may declare in regard to these allusions that, whatever I then
thought of myself as a holder of the scales I had never scrupled to
laugh out at the humour of Mrs. Highmore's pursuit of quality at any
price. It had never rescued her even for a day from the hard doom of
popularity, and though I never gave her my word for it there was no
reason at all why it should. The public would have her, as her
husband used roguishly to remark; not indeed that, making her bargains,
standing up to her publishers and even, in his higher flights, to her
reviewers, he ever had a glimpse of her attempted conspiracy against
her genius, or rather as I may say against mine. It was not that when
she tried to be what she called subtle (for wasn't Limbert subtle, and
wasn't I?) her fond consumers, bless them, didn't suspect the trick nor
show what they thought of it: they straightway rose on the contrary to
the morsel she had hoped to hold too high, and, making but a big,
cheerful bite of it, wagged their great collective tail artlessly for
more. It was not given to her not to please, nor granted even to her
best refinements to affright. I have always respected the mystery of
those humiliations, but I was fully aware this morning that they were
practically the reason why she had come to me. Therefore when she said
with the flush of a bold joke in her kind, coarse face What I feel is,
you know, that you could settle me if you only would. I knew
quite well what she meant. She meant that of old it had always appeared
to be the fine blade, as some one had hyperbolically called it, of my
particular opinion that snapped the silken thread by which Limbert's
chance in the market was wont to hang. She meant that my favour was
compromising, that my praise indeed was fatal. I had made myself a
little specialty of seeing nothing in certain celebrities, of seeing
overmuch in an occasional nobody, and of judging from a point of view
that, say what I would for it (and I had a monstrous deal to say)
remained perverse and obscure. Mine was in short the love that killed,
for my subtlety, unlike Mrs. Highmore's, produced no tremor of the
public tail. She had not forgotten how, toward the end, when his case
was worst, Limbert would absolutely come to me with a funny, shy pathos
in his eyes and say: My dear fellow, I think I've done it this time,
if you'll only keep quiet. If my keeping quiet in those days was to
help him to appear to have hit the usual taste, for the want of which
he was starving, so now my breaking out was to help Mrs. Highmore to
appear to have hit the unusual.
The moral of all this was that I had frightened the public too much
for our late friend, but that as she was not starving this was exactly
what her grosser reputation required. And then, she good-naturedly and
delicately intimated, there would always be, if further reasons were
wanting, the price of my clever little article. I think she gave that
hint with a flattering impressionspoiled child of the booksellers as
she isthat the price of my clever little articles is high. Whatever
it is, at any rate, she had evidently reflected that poor Limbert's
anxiety for his own profit used to involve my sacrificing mine. Any
inconvenience that my obliging her might entail would not in fine be
pecuniary. Her appeal, her motive, her fantastic thirst for quality and
her ingenious theory of my influence struck me all as excellent comedy,
and when I consented contingently to oblige her she left me the sheets
of her new novel. I could plead no inconvenience and have been looking
them over; but I am frankly appalled at what she expects of me. What is
she thinking of, poor dear, and what has put it into her head that
quality has descended upon her? Why does she suppose that she has
been artistic? She hasn't been anything whatever, I surmise, that she
has not inveterately been. What does she imagine she has left out? What
does she conceive she has put in? She has neither left out nor put in
anything. I shall have to write her an embarrassed note. The book
doesn't exist, and there's nothing in life to say about it. How can
there be anything but the same old faithful rush for it?
This rush had already begun when, early in the seventies, in the
interest of her prospective brother-in-law, she approached me on the
singular ground of the unencouraged sentiment I had entertained for her
sister. Pretty pink Maud had cast me out, but I appear to have passed
in the flurried little circle for a magnanimous youth. Pretty pink
Maud, so lovely then, before her troubles, that dusky Jane was
gratefully conscious of all she made up for, Maud Stannace, very
literary too, very languishing and extremely bullied by her mother, had
yielded, invidiously as it might have struck me, to Ray Limbert's suit,
which Mrs. Stannace was not the woman to stomach. Mrs. Stannace was
seldom the woman to do anything: she had been shocked at the way her
children, with the grubby taint of their father's blood (he had
published pale Remains or flat Conversations of his father)
breathed the alien air of authorship. If not the daughter, nor even the
niece, she was, if I am not mistaken, the second cousin of a hundred
earls and a great stickler for relationship, so that she had other
views for her brilliant child, especially after her quiet one (such had
been her original discreet forecast of the producer of eighty volumes)
became the second wife of an ex-army-surgeon, already the father of
four children. Mrs. Stannace had too manifestly dreamed it would be
given to pretty pink Maud to detach some one of the hundred, who
wouldn't be missed, from the cluster. It was because she cared only for
cousins that I unlearnt the way to her house, which she had once
reminded me was one of the few paths of gentility I could hope to
tread. Ralph Limbert, who belonged to nobody and had done
nothingnothing even at Cambridgehad only the uncanny spell he had
cast upon her younger daughter to recommend him; but if her younger
daughter had a spark of filial feeling she wouldn't commit the
indecency of deserting for his sake a deeply dependent and intensely
These things I learned from Jane Highmore, who, as if her books had
been babies (they remained her only ones) had waited till after
marriage to show what she could do and now bade fair to surround her
satisfied spouse (he took for some mysterious reason, a part of the
credit) with a little family, in sets of triplets, which properly
handled would be the support of his declining years. The young couple,
neither of whom had a penny, were now virtually engaged: the thing was
subject to Ralph's putting his hand on some regular employment. People
more enamoured couldn't be conceived, and Mrs. Highmore, honest woman,
who had moreover a professional sense for a love-story, was eager to
take them under her wing. What was wanted was a decent opening for
Limbert, which it had occurred to her I might assist her to find,
though indeed I had not yet found any such matter for myself. But it
was well known that I was too particular, whereas poor Ralph, with the
easy manners of genius, was ready to accept almost anything to which a
salary, even a small one, was attached. If he could only for instance
get a place on a newspaper the rest of his maintenance would come
freely enough. It was true that his two novels, one of which she had
brought to leave with me, had passed unperceived and that to her, Mrs.
Highmore personally, they didn't irresistibly appeal; but she could all
the same assure me that I should have only to spend ten minutes with
him (and our encounter must speedily take place) to receive an
impression of latent power.
Our encounter took place soon after I had read the volumes Mrs.
Highmore had left with me, in which I recognised an intention of a sort
that I had then pretty well given up the hope of meeting. I daresay
that without knowing it I had been looking out rather hungrily for an
altar of sacrifice: however that may be I submitted when I came across
Ralph Limbert to one of the rarest emotions of my literary life, the
sense of an activity in which I could critically rest. The rest was
deep and salutary, and it has not been disturbed to this hour. It has
been a long, large surrender, the luxury of dropped discriminations. He
couldn't trouble me, whatever he did, for I practically enjoyed him as
much when he was worse as when he was better. It was a case, I suppose,
of natural prearrangement, in which, I hasten to add, I keep excellent
company. We are a numerous band, partakers of the same repose, who sit
together in the shade of the tree, by the plash of the fountain, with
the glare of the desert around us and no great vice that I know of but
the habit perhaps of estimating people a little too much by what they
think of a certain style. If it had been laid upon these few pages,
none the less, to be the history of an enthusiasm, I should not have
undertaken them: they are concerned with Ralph Limbert in relations to
which I was a stranger or in which I participated only by sympathy. I
used to talk about his work, but I seldom talk now: the brotherhood of
the faith have become, like the Trappists, a silent order. If to the
day of his death, after mortal disenchantments, the impression he first
produced always evoked the word ingenuous, those to whom his face was
familiar can easily imagine what it must have been when it still had
the light of youth. I had never seen a man of genius look so passive, a
man of experience so off his guard. At the period I made his
acquaintance this freshness was all un-brushed. His foot had begun to
stumble, but he was full of big intentions and of sweet Maud Stannace.
Black-haired and pale, deceptively languid, he had the eyes of a clever
child and the voice of a bronze bell. He saw more even than I had done
in the girl he was engaged to; as time went on I became conscious that
we had both, properly enough, seen rather more than there was. Our odd
situation, that of the three of us, became perfectly possible from the
moment I observed that he had more patience with her than I should have
had. I was happy at not having to supply this quantity, and she, on her
side, found pleasure in being able to be impertinent to me without
incurring the reproach of a bad wife.
Limbert's novels appeared to have brought him no money: they had
only brought him, so far as I could then make out, tributes that took
up his time. These indeed brought him from several quarters some other
things, and on my part at the end of three months The Blackport
Beacon. I don't to-day remember how I obtained for him the London
correspondence of the great northern organ, unless it was through
somebody's having obtained it for myself. I seem to recall that I got
rid of it in Limbert's interest, persuaded the editor that he was much
the better man. The better man was naturally the man who had pledged
himself to support a charming wife. We were neither of us good, as the
event proved, but he had a finer sort of badness. The Blackport
Beacon had two London correspondentsone a supposed haunter of
political circles, the other a votary of questions sketchily classified
as literary. They were both expected to be lively, and what was held
out to each was that it was honourably open to him to be livelier than
the other. I recollect the political correspondent of that period and
how the problem offered to Ray Limbert was to try to be livelier than
Pat Moyle. He had not yet seemed to me so candid as when he undertook
this exploit, which brought matters to a head with Mrs. Stannace,
inasmuch as her opposition to the marriage now logically fell to the
ground. It's all tears and laughter as I look back upon that admirable
time, in which nothing was so romantic as our intense vision of the
real. No fool's paradise ever rustled such a cradle-song. It was
anything but Bohemiait was the very temple of Mrs. Grundy. We knew we
were too critical, and that made us sublimely indulgent; we believed we
did our duty or wanted to, and that made us free to dream. But we
dreamed over the multiplication-table; we were nothing if not
practical. Oh, the long smokes and sudden ideas, the knowing hints and
banished scruples! The great thing was for Limbert to bring out his
next book, which was just what his delightful engagement with the
Beacon would give him leisure and liberty to do. The kind of work,
all human and elastic and suggestive, was capital experience: in
picking up things for his bi-weekly letter he would pick up life as
well, he would pick up literature. The new publications, the new
pictures, the new peoplethere would be nothing too novel for us and
nobody too sacred. We introduced everything and everybody into Mrs.
Stannace's drawing-room, of which I again became a familiar.
Mrs. Stannace, it was true, thought herself in strange company; she
didn't particularly mind the new books, though some of them seemed
queer enough, but to the new people she had decided objections. It was
notorious however that poor Lady Robeck secretly wrote for one of the
papers, and the thing had certainly, in its glance at the doings of the
great world, a side that might be made attractive. But we were going to
make every side attractive, and we had everything to say about the sort
of thing a paper like the Beacon would want. To give it what it
would want and to give it nothing else was not doubtless an inspiring,
but it was a perfectly respectable task, especially for a man with an
appealing bride and a contentious mother-in-law. I thought Lambert's
first letters as charming as the type allowed, though I won't deny that
in spite of my sense of the importance of concessions I was just a
trifle disconcerted at the way he had caught the tone. The tone was of
course to be caught, but need it have been caught so in the act? The
creature was even cleverer, as Maud Stannace said, than she had
ventured to hope. Verily it was a good thing to have a dose of the
wisdom of the serpent. If it had to be journalismwell, it was
journalism. If he had to be chatty well, he was chatty. Now
and then he made a hit thatit was stupid of mebrought the blood to
my face. I hated him to be so personal; but still, if it would make his
fortune! It wouldn't of course directly, but the book would,
practically and in the sense to which our pure ideas of fortune were
confined; and these things were all for the book. The daily balm
meanwhile was in what one knew of the bookthere were exquisite things
to know; in the quiet monthly cheques from Blackport and in the deeper
rose of Maud's little preparations, which were as dainty, on their tiny
scale, as if she had been a humming-bird building a nest. When at the
end of three months her betrothed had fairly settled down to his
correspondencein which Mrs. Highmore was the only person, so far as
we could discover, disappointed, even she moreover being in this
particular tortuous and possibly jealous; when the situation had
assumed such a comfortable shape it was quite time to prepare. I
published at that moment my first volume, mere faded ink to-day, a
little collection of literary impressions, odds and ends of criticism
contributed to a journal less remunerative but also less chatty than
the Beacon, small ironies and ecstasies, great phrases and
mistakes; and the very week it came out poor Limbert devoted half of
one of his letters to it, with the happy sense this time of gratifying
both himself and me as well as the Blackport breakfast-tables. I
remember his saying it wasn't literature, the stuff, superficial stuff,
he had to write about me; but what did that matter if it came back, as
we knew, to the making for literature in the roundabout way? I sold the
thing, I remember, for ten pounds, and with the money I bought in Vigo
Street a quaint piece of old silver for Maud Stannace, which I carried
to her with my own hand as a wedding-gift. In her mother's small
drawing-room, a faded bower of photography fenced in and bedimmed by
folding screens out of which sallow persons of fashion with dashing
signatures looked at you from retouched eyes and little windows of
plush, I was left to wait long enough to feel in the air of the house a
hushed vibration of disaster. When our young lady came in she was very
pale and her eyes too had been retouched.
Something horrid has happened, I immediately said; and having
really all along but half believed in her mother's meagre permission I
risked with an unguarded groan the introduction of Mrs. Stannace's
Yes, she has made a dreadful scene; she insists on our putting it
off again. We're very unhappy: poor Ray has been turned off. Her tears
began to flow again.
I had such a good conscience that I stared. Turned off what?
Why, his paper of course. The Beacon has given him what he
calls the sack. They don't like his letters: they're not the style of
thing they want.
My blankness could only deepen. Then what style of thing do
Something more chatty.
More? I cried, aghast.
More gossipy, more personal. They want 'journalism.' They want
Why, that's just what his letters have been! I broke out.
This was strong, and I caught myself up, but the girl offered me the
pardon of a beautiful wan smile. So Ray himself declares. He says he
has stooped so low.
Very wellhe must stoop lower. He must keep the place.
He can't! poor Maud wailed. He says he has tried all he knows,
has been abject, has gone on all fours, and that if they don't like
He accepts his dismissal? I interposed in dismay.
She gave a tragic shrug. What other course is open to him? He wrote
to them that such work as he has done is the very worst he can do for
Therefore, I inquired with a flash of hope, they'll offer him
more for worse?
No indeed, she answered, they haven't even offered him to go on
at a reduction. He isn't funny enough.
I reflected a moment. But surely such a thing as his notice of my
It was your wretched book that was the last straw! He should have
treated it superficially.
Well, if he didn't! I began. Then I
checked myself. Je vous porte malheur.
She didn't deny this; she only went, on: What on earth is he to
He's to do better than the monkeys! He's to write!
But what on earth are we to marry on?
I considered once more. You're to marry on The Major Key.
The Major Key was the new novel, and the great thing
accordingly was to finish it; a consummation for which three months of
the Beacon had in some degree prepared the way. The action of
that journal was indeed a shock, but I didn't know then the worst,
didn't know that in addition to being a shock it was also a symptom. It
was the first hint of the difficulty to which poor Limbert was
eventually to succumb. His state was the happier of a truth for his not
immediately seeing all that it meant. Difficulty was the law of life,
but one could thank heaven it was exceptionally present in that horrid
quarter. There was the difficulty that inspired, the difficulty of
The Major Key to wit, which it was after all base to sacrifice to
the turning of somersaults for pennies. These convictions Ray Limbert
beguiled his fresh wait by blandly entertaining: not indeed, I think,
that the failure of his attempt to be chatty didn't leave him slightly
humiliated. If it was bad enough to have grinned through a horse-collar
it was very bad indeed to have grinned in vain. Well, he would try no
more grinning or at least no more horse-collars. The only success worth
one's powder was success in the line of one's idiosyncrasy. Consistency
was in itself distinction, and what was talent but the art of being
completely whatever it was that one happened to be? One's things were
characteristic or they were nothing. I look back rather fondly on our
having exchanged in those days these admirable remarks and many others;
on our having been very happy too, in spite of postponements and
obscurities, in spite also of such occasional hauntings as could spring
from our lurid glimpse of the fact that even twaddle cunningly
calculated was far above people's heads. It was easy to wave away
spectres by the reflection that all one had to do was not to write for
people; it was certainly not for people that Limbert wrote while he
hammered at The Major Key. The taint of literature was fatal
only in a certain kind of air, which was precisely the kind against
which we had now closed our window. Mrs. Stannace rose from her
crumpled cushions as soon as she had obtained an adjournment, and Maud
looked pale and proud, quite victorious and superior, at her having
obtained nothing more. Maud behaved well, I thought, to her mother, and
well indeed for a girl who had mainly been taught to be flowerlike to
every one. What she gave Ray Limbert her fine, abundant needs made him
then and ever pay for; but the gift was liberal, almost wonderfulan
assertion I make even while remembering to how many clever women, early
and late, his work has been dear. It was not only that the woman he was
to marry was in love with him, but that (this was the strangeness) she
had really seen almost better than any one what he could do. The
greatest strangeness was that she didn't want him to do something
different. This boundless belief was indeed the main way of her
devotion; and as an act of faith it naturally asked for miracles. She
was a rare wife for a poet if she was not perhaps the best who could
have been picked out for a poor man.
Well, we were to have the miracles at all events and we were in a
perfect state of mind to receive them. There were more of us every day,
and we thought highly even of our friend's odd jobs and pot-boilers.
The Beacon had had no successor, but he found some quiet comers
and stray chances. Perpetually poking the fire and looking out of the
window, he was certainly not a monster of facility, but he was, thanks
perhaps to a certain method in that madness, a monster of certainty. It
wasn't every one however who knew him for this: many editors printed
him but once. He was getting a small reputation as a man it was well to
have the first time; he created obscure apprehensions as to what might
happen the second. He was good for making an impression, but no one
seemed exactly to know what the impression was good for when made. The
reason was simply that they had not seen yet The Major Key that
fiery-hearted rose as to which we watched in private the formation of
petal after petal and flame after flame. Nothing mattered but this, for
it had already elicited a splendid bid, much talked about in Mrs.
High-more's drawing-room, where at this point my reminiscences grow
particularly thick. Her roses bloomed all the year and her
sociability increased with her row of prizes. We had an idea that we
met every one thereso we naturally thought when we met each other.
Between our hostess and Ray Limbert flourished the happiest relation,
the only cloud on which was that her husband eyed him rather askance.
When he was called clever this personage wanted to know what he had to
show; and it was certain that he showed nothing that could compare
with Jane Highmore. Mr. Highmore took his stand on accomplished work
and, turning up his coat-tails, warmed his rear with a good conscience
at the neat bookcase in which the generations of triplets were
chronologically arranged. The harmony between his companions rested on
the fact that, as I have already hinted, each would have liked so much
to be the other. Limbert couldn't but have a feeling about a woman who
in addition to being the best creature and her sister's backer would
have made, could she have condescended, such a success with the
Beacon. On the other hand Mrs. Highmore used freely to say: Do you
know, he'll do exactly the thing that I want to do? I shall
never do it myself, but he'll do it instead. Yes, he'll do my
thing, and I shall hate him for itthe wretch. Hating him was her
pleasant humour, for the wretch was personally to her taste.
She prevailed on her own publisher to promise to take The Major
Key and to engage to pay a considerable sum down, as the phrase is,
on the presumption of its attracting attention. This was good news for
the evening's end at Mrs. Highmore's when there were only four or five
left and cigarettes ran low; but there was better news to come, and I
have never forgotten how, as it was I who had the good fortune to bring
it, I kept it back on one of those occasions, for the sake of my
effect, till only the right people remained. The right people were now
more and more numerous, but this was a revelation addressed only to a
choice residuuma residuum including of course Limbert himself, with
whom I haggled for another cigarette before I announced that as a
consequence of an interview I had had with him that afternoon, and of a
subtle argument I had brought to bear, Mrs. Highmore's pearl of
publishers had agreed to put forth the new book as a serial. He was to
run it in his magazine and he was to pay ever so much more for the
privilege. I produced a fine gasp which presently found a more
articulate relief, but poor Limbert's voice failed him once for all (he
knew he was to walk away with me) and it was some one else who asked me
in what my subtle argument had resided. I forget what florid
description I then gave of it: to-day I have no reason not to confess
that it had resided in the simple plea that the book was exquisite. I
had said: Come, my dear friend, be original; just risk it for that!
My dear friend seemed to rise to the chance, and I followed up my
advantage, permitting him honestly no illusion as to the quality of the
work. He clutched interrogatively at two or three attenuations, but I
dashed them aside, leaving him face to face with the formidable truth.
It was just a pure gem: was he the man not to flinch? His danger
appeared to have acted upon him as the anaconda acts upon the rabbit;
fascinated and paralysed, he had been engulfed in the long pink throat.
When a week before, at my request, Limbert had let me possess for a day
the complete manuscript, beautifully copied out by Maud Stannace, I had
flushed with indignation at its having to be said of the author of such
pages that he hadn't the common means to marry. I had taken the field
in a great glow to repair this scandal, and it was therefore quite
directly my fault if three months later, when The Major Key
began to run, Mrs. Stannace was driven to the wall. She had made a
condition of a fixed income; and at last a fixed income was achieved.
She had to recognise it, and after much prostration among the
photographs she recognised it to the extent of accepting some of the
convenience of it in the form of a project for a common household, to
the expenses of which each party should proportionately contribute.
Jane Highmore made a great point of her not being left alone, but Mrs.
Stannace herself determined the proportion, which on Limbert's side at
least and in spite of many other fluctuations was never altered. His
income had been fixed with a vengeance: having painfully stooped to
the comprehension of it Mrs. Stannace rested on this effort to the end
and asked no further question on the subject. The Major Key in
other words ran ever so long, and before it was half out Limbert and
Maud had been married and the common household set up. These first
months were probably the happiest in the family annals, with
wedding-bells and budding laurels, the quiet, assured course of the
book and the friendly, familiar note, round the corner, of Mrs.
Highmore's big guns. They gave Ralph time to block in another picture
as well as to let me know after a while that he had the happy prospect
of becoming a father. We had at times some dispute as to whether The
Major Key was making an impression, but our contention could only
be futile so long as we were not agreed as to what an impression
consisted of. Several persons wrote to the author and several others
asked to be introduced to him: wasn't that an impression? One of the
lively weeklies, snapping at the deadly monthlies, said the whole
thing was grossly inartisticwasn't that? It was somewhere else
proclaimed a wonderfully subtle character-studywasn't that too? The
strongest effect doubtless was produced on the publisher when, in its
lemon-coloured volumes, like a little dish of three custards, the book
was at last served cold: he never got his money back and so far as I
know has never got it back to this day. The Major Key was rather
a great performance than a great success. It converted readers into
friends and friends into lovers; it placed the author, as the phrase
isplaced him all too definitely; but it shrank to obscurity in the
account of sales eventually rendered. It was in short an exquisite
thing, but it was scarcely a thing to have published and certainly not
a thing to have married on. I heard all about the matter, for my
intervention had much exposed me. Mrs. Highmore said the second volume
had given her ideas, and the ideas are probably to be found in some of
her works, to the circulation of which they have even perhaps
contributed. This was not absolutely yet the very thing she wanted to
do, but it was on the way to it. So much, she informed me, she
particularly perceived in the light of a critical study which I put
forth in a little magazine; which the publisher in his advertisements
quoted from profusely; and as to which there sprang up some absurd
story that Limbert himself had written it. I remember that on my asking
some one why such an idiotic thing had been said my interlocutor
replied: Oh, because, you know, it's just the way he would have
written! My spirit sank a little perhaps as I reflected that with such
analogies in our manner there might prove to be some in our fate.
It was during the next four or five years that our eyes were open to
what, unless something could be done, that fate, at least on Limbert's
part, might be. The thing to be done was of course to write the book,
the book that would make the difference, really justify the burden he
had accepted and consummately express his power. For the works that
followed upon The Major Key he had inevitably to accept
conditions the reverse of brilliant, at a time too when the strain upon
his resources had begun to show sharpness. With three babies in due
course, an ailing wife and a complication still greater than these, it
became highly important that a man should do only his best. Whatever
Limbert did was his best; so at least each time I thought and so I
unfailingly said somewhere, though it was not my saying it, heaven
knows, that made the desired difference. Every one else indeed said it,
and there was among multiplied worries always the comfort that his
position was quite assured. The two books that followed The Major
Key did more than anything else to assure it, and Jane Highmore was
always crying out: You stand alone, dear Ray; you stand absolutely
alone! Dear Ray used to tell me that he felt the truth of this in
feebly attempted discussions with his bookseller. His sister-in-law
gave him good advice into the bargain; she was a repository of knowing
hints, of esoteric learning. These things were doubtless not the less
valuable to him for bearing wholly on the question of how a reputation
might be with a little gumption, as Mrs. Highmore said, worked. Save
when she occasionally bore testimony to her desire to do, as Limbert
did, something some day for her own very self, I never heard her speak
of the literary motive as if it were distinguishable from the
pecuniary. She cocked up his hat, she pricked up his prudence for him,
reminding him that as one seemed to take one's self so the silly world
was ready to take one. It was a fatal mistake to be too candid even
with those who were all rightnot to look and to talk prosperous, not
at least to pretend that one had beautiful sales. To listen to her you
would have thought the profession of letters a wonderful game of bluff.
Wherever one's idea began it ended somehow in inspired paragraphs in
the newspapers. I pretend, I assure you, that you are going off
like wildfireI can at least do that for you! she often declared,
prevented as she was from doing much else by Mr. Highmore's
insurmountable objection to their taking Mrs. Stannace.
I couldn't help regarding the presence of this latter lady in
Limbert's life as the major complication: whatever he attempted it
appeared given to him to achieve as best he could in the mere margin of
the space in which she swung her petticoats. I may err in the belief
that she practically lived on him, for though it was not in him to
follow adequately Mrs. Highmore's counsel there were exasperated
confessions he never made, scanty domestic curtains he rattled on their
rings. I may exaggerate in the retrospect his apparent anxieties, for
these after all were the years when his talent was freshest and when as
a writer he most laid down his line. It wasn't of Mrs. Stannace nor
even as time went on of Mrs. Limbert that we mainly talked when I got
at longer intervals a smokier hour in the little grey den from which we
could step out, as we used to say, to the lawn. The lawn was the
back-garden, and Limbert's study was behind the dining-room, with
folding doors not impervious to the clatter of the children's tea. We
sometimes took refuge from it in the depthsa bush and a half deepof
the shrubbery, where was a bench that gave us a view while we gossiped
of Mrs. Stannace's tiara-like headdress nodding at an upper window.
Within doors and without Limbert's life was overhung by an awful region
that figured in his conversation, comprehensively and with
unpremeditated art, as Upstairs. It was Upstairs that the thunder
gathered, that Mrs. Stannace kept her accounts and her state, that Mrs.
Limbert had her babies and her headaches, that the bells for ever
jangled at the maids, that everything imperative in short took
placeeverything that he had somehow, pen in hand, to meet and dispose
of in the little room on the garden-level. I don't think he liked to go
Upstairs, but no special burst of confidence was needed to make me feel
that a terrible deal of service went. It was the habit of the ladies of
the Stannace family to be extremely waited on, and I've never been in a
house where three maids and a nursery-governess gave such an impression
of a retinue. Oh, they're so deucedly, so hereditarily fine!I
remember how that dropped from him in some worried hour. Well, it was
because Maud was so universally fine that we had both been in love with
her. It was not an air moreover for the plaintive note: no private
inconvenience could long outweigh for him the great happiness of these
yearsthe happiness that sat with us when we talked and that made it
always amusing to talk, the sense of his being on the heels of success,
coming closer and closer, touching it at last, knowing that he should
touch it again and hold it fast and hold it high. Of course when we
said success we didn't mean exactly what Mrs. Highmore for instance
meant. He used to quote at me as a definition something from a nameless
page of my own, some stray dictum to the effect that the man of his
craft had achieved it when of a beautiful subject his expression was
complete. Well, wasn't Limbert's in all conscience complete?
It was bang upon this completeness all the same that the turn
arrived, the turn I can't say of his fortunefor what was that?but
of his confidence, of his spirits and, what was more to the point, of
his system. The whole occasion on which the first symptom flared out is
before me as I write. I had met them both at dinner: they were diners
who had reached the penultimate stagethe stage which in theory is a
rigid selection and in practice a wan submission. It was late in the
season and stronger spirits than theirs were broken; the night was
close and the air of the banquet such as to restrict conversation to
the refusal of dishes and consumption to the sniffing of a flower. It
struck me all the more that Mrs. Limbert was flying her flag. As vivid
as a page of her husband's prose, she had one of those flickers of
freshness that are the miracle of her sex and one of those expensive
dresses that are the miracle of ours. She had also a neat brougham in
which she had offered to rescue an old lady from the possibilities of a
queer cab-horse; so that when she had rolled away with her charge I
proposed a walk home with her husband, whom I had overtaken on the
doorstep. Before I had gone far with him he told me he had news for
mehe had accepted, of all people and of all things, an editorial
position. It had come to pass that very day, from one hour to another,
without time for appeals or ponderations: Mr. Bousefield, the
proprietor of a high-class monthly, making, as they said, a sudden
change, had dropped on him heavily out of the blue. It was all
rightthere was a salary and an idea, and both of them, as such things
went, rather high. We took our way slowly through the vacant streets,
and in the explanations and revelations that as we lingered under
lamp-posts I drew from him I found with an apprehension that I tried to
gulp down a foretaste of the bitter end. He told me more than he had
ever told me yet. He couldn't balance accountsthat was the trouble:
his expenses were too rising a tide. It was absolutely necessary that
he should at last make money, and now he must work only for that. The
need this last year had gathered the force of a crusher: it had rolled
over him and laid him on his back. He had his scheme; this time he knew
what he was about; on some good occasion, with leisure to talk it over,
he would tell me the blessed whole. His editorship would help him, and
for the rest he must help himself. If he couldn't they would have to do
something fundamentalchange their life altogether, give up London,
move into the country, take a house at thirty pounds a year, send their
children to the Board-school. I saw that he was excited, and he
admitted that he was: he had waked out of a trance. He had been on the
wrong tack; he had piled mistake on mistake. It was the vision of his
remedy that now excited him: ineffably, grotesquely simple, it had yet
come to him only within a day or two. No, he wouldn't tell me what it
was; he would give me the night to guess, and if I shouldn't guess it
would be because I was as big an ass as himself. However, a lone man
might be an ass: he had room in his life for his ears. Ray had a burden
that demanded a back: the back must therefore now be properly
instituted. As to the editorship, it was simply heaven-sent, being not
at all another case of The Blackport Beacon but a case of the
very opposite. The proprietor, the great Mr. Bousefield, had approached
him precisely because his name, which was to be on the cover, didn't
represent the chatty. The whole thing was to beoh, on fiddling little
lines of coursea protest against the chatty. Bousefield wanted him to
be himself; it was for himself Bousefield had picked him out. Wasn't it
beautiful and brave of Bousefield? He wanted literature, he saw the
great reaction coming, the way the cat was going to jump. Where will
you get literature? I wofully asked; to which he replied with a laugh
that what he had to get was not literature but only what Bousefield
would take for it.
In that single phrase without more ado I discovered his famous
remedy. What was before him for the future was not to do his work but
to do what somebody else would take for it. I had the question out with
him on the next opportunity, and of all the lively discussions into
which we had been destined to drift it lingers in my mind as the
liveliest. This was not, I hasten to add, because I disputed his
conclusions: it was an effect of the very force with which, when I had
fathomed his wretched premises, I took them to my soul. It was very
well to talk with Jane Highmore about his standing alone: the eminent
relief of this position had brought him to the verge of ruin. Several
persons admired his booksnothing was less contestable; but they
appeared to have a mortal objection to acquiring them by subscription
or by purchase: they begged or borrowed or stole, they delegated one of
the party perhaps to commit the volumes to memory and repeat them, like
the bards of old, to listening multitudes. Some ingenious theory was
required at any rate to account for the inexorable limits of his
circulation. It wasn't a thing for five people to live on; therefore
either the objects circulated must change their nature or the organisms
to be nourished must. The former change was perhaps the easier to
consider first. Limbert considered it with extraordinary ingenuity from
that time on, and the ingenuity, greater even than any I had yet had
occasion to admire in him, made the whole next stage of his career rich
in curiosity and suspense.
I have been butting my skull against a wall, he had said in those
hours of confidence; and, to be as sublime a blockhead, if you'll
allow me the word, you, my dear fellow, have kept sounding the charge.
We've sat prating here of 'success,' heaven help us, like chanting
monks in a cloister, hugging the sweet delusion that it lies somewhere
in the work itself, in the expression, as you said, of one's subject or
the intensification, as somebody else somewhere says, of one's note.
One has been going on in short as if the only thing to do were to
accept the law of one's talent and thinking that if certain
consequences didn't follow it was only because one wasn't logical
enough. My disaster has served me rightI mean for using that ignoble
word at all. It's a mere distributor's, a mere hawker's word. What
is 'success' anyhow? When a book's right, it's rightshame to it
surely if it isn't. When it sells it sellsit brings money like
potatoes or beer. If there's dishonour one way and inconvenience the
other, it certainly is comfortable, but it as certainly isn't glorious
to have escaped them. People of delicacy don't brag either about their
probity or about their luck. Success be hanged!I want to sell. It's a
question of life and death. I must study the way. I've studied too much
the other wayI know the other way now, every inch of it. I must
cultivate the marketit's a science like another. I must go in for an
infernal cunning. It will be very amusing, I foresee that; I shall lead
a dashing life and drive a roaring trade. I haven't been obviousI
must be obvious. I haven't been popularI must be
popular. It's another artor perhaps it isn't an art at all. It's
something else; one must find out what it is. Is it something awfully
queer?you blush!something barely decent? All the greater incentive
to curiosity! Curiosity's an immense motive; we shall have tremendous
sport. They all do it; it's only a question of how. Of course I've
everything to unlearn; but what is life, as Jane Highmore says, but a
lesson? I must get all I can, all she can give me, from Jane. She can't
explain herself much; she's all intuition; her processes are obscure;
it's the spirit that swoops down and catches her up. But I must study
her reverently in her works. Yes, you've defied me before, but now my
loins are girded: I declare I'll read one of themI really will: I'll
put it through if I perish!
I won't pretend that he made all these remarks at once; but there
wasn't one that he didn't make at one time or another, for suggestion
and occasion were plentiful enough, his life being now given up
altogether to his new necessity. It wasn't a question of his having or
not having, as they say, my intellectual sympathy: the brute force of
the pressure left no room for judgment; it made all emotion a mere
recourse to the spyglass. I watched him as I should have watched a long
race or a long chase, irresistibly siding with him but much occupied
with the calculation of odds. I confess indeed that my heart, for the
endless stretch that he covered so fast, was often in my throat. I saw
him peg away over the sun-dappled plain, I saw him double and wind and
gain and lose; and all the while I secretly entertained a conviction. I
wanted him to feed his many mouths, but at the bottom of all things was
my sense that if he should succeed in doing so in this particular way I
should think less well of him. Now I had an absolute terror of that.
Meanwhile so far as I could I backed him up, I helped him: all the more
that I had warned him immensely at first, smiled with a compassion it
was very good of him not to have found exasperating over the
complacency of his assumption that a man could escape from himself. Ray
Limbert at all events would certainly never escape; but one could make
believe for him, make believe very hardan undertaking in which at
first Mr. Bousefield was visibly a blessing. Limbert was delightful on
the business of this being at last my chance toomy chance, so
miraculously vouchsafed, to appear with a certain luxuriance. He didn't
care how often he printed me, for wasn't it exactly in my direction Mr.
Bousefield held that the cat was going to jump? This was the least he
could do for me. I might write on anything I likedon anything at
least but Mr. Limbert's second manner. He didn't wish attention
strikingly called to his second manner; it was to operate insidiously;
people were to be left to believe they had discovered it long ago.
Ralph Limbert? Why, when did we ever live without him?that's what
he wanted them to say. Besides, they hated mannerslet sleeping dogs
lie. His understanding with Mr. Bousefieldon which he had had not at
all to insist; it was the excellent man who insistedwas that he
should run one of his beautiful stories in the magazine. As to the
beauty of his story however Limbert was going to be less admirably
straight than as to the beauty of everything else. That was another
reason why I mustn't write about his new line: Mr. Bousefield was not
to be too definitely warned that such a periodical was exposed to
prostitution. By the time he should find it out for himself the
publicle gros publicwould have bitten, and then perhaps he
would be conciliated and forgive. Everything else would be literary in
short, and above all I would be; only Ralph Limbert
wouldn'the'd chuck up the whole thing sooner. He'd be vulgar, he'd be
rudimentary, he'd be atrocious: he'd be elaborately what he hadn't been
before. I duly noticed that he had more trouble in making everything
else literary than he had at first allowed for; but this was largely
counteracted by the ease with which he was able to obtain that his mark
should not be overshot. He had taken well to heart the old lesson of
the Beacon; he remembered that he was after all there to keep
his contributors down much rather than to keep them up. I thought at
times that he kept them down a trifle too far, but he assured me that I
needn't be nervous: he had his limithis limit was inexorable. He
would reserve pure vulgarity for his serial, over which he was sweating
blood and water; elsewhere it should be qualified by the prime
qualification, the mediocrity that attaches, that endears. Bousefield,
he allowed, was proud, was difficult: nothing was really good enough
for him but the middling good; but he himself was prepared for adverse
comment, resolute for his noble course. Hadn't Limbert moreover in the
event of a charge of laxity from headquarters the great strength of
being able to point to my contributions? Therefore I must let myself
go, I must abound in my peculiar sense, I must be a resource in case of
accidents. Lim-bert's vision of accidents hovered mainly over the
sudden awakening of Mr. Bousefield to the stuff that in the department
of fiction his editor was palming off. He would then have to confess in
all humility that this was not what the good old man wanted, but I
should be all the more there as a salutary specimen. I would cross the
scent with something showily impossible, splendidly unpopularI must
be sure to have something on hand. I always had plenty on handpoor
Limbert needn't have worried: the magazine was forearmed each month by
my care with a retort to any possible accusation of trifling with Mr.
Bousefield's standard. He had admitted to Limbert, after much
consideration indeed, that he was prepared to be perfectly human; but
he had added that he was not prepared for an abuse of this admission.
The thing in the world I think I least felt myself was an abuse, even
though (as I had never mentioned to my friendly editor) I too had my
project for a bigger reverberation. I daresay I trusted mine more than
I trusted Limbert's; at all events the golden mean in which in the
special case he saw his salvation as an editor was something I should
be most sure of if I were to exhibit it myself. I exhibited it month
after month in the form of a monstrous levity, only praying heaven that
my editor might now not tell me, as he had so often told me, that my
result was awfully good. I knew what that would signifyit would
signify, sketchily speaking, disaster. What he did tell me heartily was
that it was just what his game required: his new line had brought with
it an earnest assumptionearnest save when we privately laughed about
itof the locutions proper to real bold enterprise. If I tried to keep
him in the dark even as he kept Mr. Bousefield there was nothing to
show that I was not tolerably successful: each case therefore presented
a promising analogy for the other. He never noticed my descent, and it
was accordingly possible that Mr. Bousefield would never notice his.
But would nobody notice it at all?that was a question that added a
prospective zest to one's possession of a critical sense. So much
depended upon it that I was rather relieved than otherwise not to know
the answer too soon. I waited in fact a yearthe year for which
Limbert had cannily engaged on trial with Mr. Bousefield; the year as
to which through the same sharpened shrewdness it had been conveyed in
the agreement between them that Mr. Bousefield was not to intermeddle.
It had been Limbert's general prayer that we would during this period
let him quite alone. His terror of my direct rays was a droll, dreadful
force that always operated: he explained it by the fact that I
understood him too well, expressed too much of his intention, saved him
too little from himself. The less he was saved the more he didn't sell:
I literally interpreted, and that was simply fatal.
I held my breath accordingly; I did moreI closed my eyes, I
guarded my treacherous ears. He induced several of us to do that (of
such devotions we were capable) so that not even glancing at the thing
from month to month, and having nothing but his shamed, anxious silence
to go by, I participated only vaguely in the little hum that surrounded
his act of sacrifice. It was blown about the town that the public would
be surprised; it was hinted, it was printed that he was making a
desperate bid. His new work was spoken of as more calculated for
general acceptance. These tidings produced in some quarters much
reprobation, and nowhere more, I think, than on the part of certain
persons who had never read a word of him, or assuredly had never spent
a shilling on him, and who hung for hours over the other attractions of
the newspaper that announced his abasement. So much asperity cheered me
a littleseemed to signify that he might really be doing something. On
the other hand I had a distinct alarm; some one sent me for some alien
reason an American journal (containing frankly more than that source of
affliction) in which was quoted a passage from our friend's last
instalment. The passageI couldn't for my life help reading itwas
simply superb. Ah, he would have to move to the country if that
was the worst he could do! It gave me a pang to see how little after
all he had improved since the days of his competition with Pat Moyle.
There was nothing in the passage quoted in the American paper that Pat
would for a moment have owned. During the last weeks, as the
opportunity of reading the complete thing drew near, one's suspense was
barely endurable, and I shall never forget the July evening on which I
put it to rout. Coming home to dinner I found the two volumes on my
table, and I sat up with them half the night, dazed, bewildered,
rubbing my eyes, wondering at the monstrous joke. Was it a
monstrous joke, his second mannerwas this the new line, the
desperate bid, the scheme for more general acceptance and the remedy
for material failure? Had he made a fool of all his following, or had
he most injuriously made a still bigger fool of himself?
Obvious?where the deuce was it obvious? Popular?how on earth could
it be popular? The thing was charming with all his charm and powerful
with all his power: it was an unscrupulous, an unsparing, a shameless,
merciless masterpiece. It was, no doubt, like the old letters to the
Beacon, the worst he could do; but the perversity of the effort,
even though heroic, had been frustrated by the purity of the gift.
Under what illusion had he laboured, with what wavering, treacherous
compass had he steered? His honour was inviolable, his measurements
were all wrong. I was thrilled with the whole impression and with all
that came crowding in its train. It was too grand a collapseit was
too hideous a triumph; I exalted almost with tearsI lamented with a
strange delight. Indeed as the short night waned and, threshing about
in my emotion, I fidgeted to my high-perched window for a glimpse of
the summer dawn, I became at last aware that I was staring at it out of
eyes that had compassionately and admiringly filled. The eastern sky,
over the London housetops, had a wonderful tragic crimson. That was the
colour of his magnificent mistake.
If something less had depended on my impression I daresay I should
have communicated it as soon as I had swallowed my breakfast; but the
case was so embarrassing that I spent the first half of the day in
reconsidering it, dipping into the book again, almost feverishly
turning its leaves and trying to extract from them, for my friend's
benefit, some symptom of reassurance, some ground for felicitation.
This rash challenge had consequences merely dreadful; the wretched
volumes, imperturbable and impeccable, with their shyer secrets and
their second line of defence, were like a beautiful woman more denuded
or a great symphony on a new hearing. There was something quite
sinister in the way they stood up to me. I couldn't however be
dumbthat was to give the wrong tinge to my disappointment; so that
later in the afternoon, taking my courage in both hands, I approached
with a vain tortuosity poor Limbert's door. A smart victoria waited
before it in which from the bottom of the street I saw that a lady who
had apparently just issued from the house was settling herself. I
recognised Jane Highmore and instantly paused till she should drive
down to me. She presently met me half-way and as soon as she saw me
stopped her carriage in agitation. This was a reliefit postponed a
moment the sight of that pale, fine face of our friend's fronting me
for the right verdict. I gathered from the flushed eagerness with which
Mrs. Highmore asked me if I had heard the news that a verdict of some
sort had already been rendered.
What news?about the book?
About that horrid magazine. They're shockingly upset. He has lost
his positionhe has had a fearful flare-up with Mr. Bousefield.
I stood there blank, but not unaware in my blankness of how history
repeats itself. There came to me across the years Maud's announcement
of their ejection from the Beacon, and dimly, confusedly the
same explanation was in the air. This time however I had been on my
guard; I had had my suspicion. He has made it too flippant? I found
breath after an instant to inquire.
Mrs. Highmore's vacuity exceeded my own. Too 'flippant'? He has
made it too oracular. Mr. Bousefield says he has killed it. Then
perceiving my stupefaction: Don't you know what has happened? she
pursued; isn't it because in his trouble, poor love, he has sent for
you that you've come? You've heard nothing at all? Then you had better
know before you see them. Get in here with meI'll take you a turn and
tell you. We were close to the Park, the Regent's, and when with
extreme alacrity I had placed myself beside her and the carriage had
begun to enter it she went on: It was what I feared, you know. It
reeked with culture. He keyed it up too high.
I felt myself sinking in the general collapse. What are you talking
Why, about that beastly magazine. They're all on the streets. I
shall have to take mamma.
I pulled myself together. What on earth then did Bousefield want?
He said he wanted intellectual power.
Yes, but Ray overdid it.
Why, Bousefield said it was a thing he couldn't overdo.
Well, Ray managed: he took Mr. Bousefield too literally. It appears
the thing has been doing dreadfully, but the proprietor couldn't say
anything, because he had covenanted to leave the editor quite free. He
describes himself as having stood there in a fever and seen his ship go
down. A day or two ago the year was up, so he could at last break out.
Maud says he did break out quite fearfully; he came to the house and
let poor Ray have it. Ray gave it to him back; he reminded him of his
own idea of the way the cat was going to jump.
I gasped with dismay. Has Bousefield abandoned that idea? Isn't the
cat going to jump?
Mrs. Highmore hesitated. It appears that she doesn't seem in a
hurry. Ray at any rate has jumped too far ahead of her. He should have
temporised a little, Mr. Bousefield says; but I'm beginning to think,
you know, said my companion, that Ray can't temporise. Fresh
from my emotions of the previous twenty-four hours I was scarcely in a
position to disagree with her. He published too much pure thought.
Pure thought? I cried. Why, it struck me so oftencertainly in a
due proportion of casesas pure drivel!
Oh, you're more keyed up than he! Mr. Bousefield says that of
course he wanted things that were suggestive and clever, things that he
could point to with pride. But he contends that Ray didn't allow for
human weakness. He gave everything in too stiff doses.
Sensibly, I fear, to my neighbour I winced at her words; I felt a
prick that made me meditate. Then I said: Is that, by chance, the way
he gave me? Mrs. Highmore remained silent so long that I had
somehow the sense of a fresh pang; and after a minute, turning in my
seat, I laid my hand on her arm, fixed my eyes upon her face and
pursued pressingly: Do you suppose it to be to my 'Occasional Remarks'
that Mr. Bousefield refers?
At last she met my look. Can you bear to hear it?
I think I can bear anything now.
Well then, it was really what I wanted to give you an inkling of.
It's largely over you that they've quarrelled. Mr. Bousefield wants him
to chuck you.
I grabbed her arm again. And Limbert won't?
He seems to cling to you. Mr. Bousefield says no magazine can
I gave a laugh that agitated the very coachman. Why, my dear lady,
has he any idea of my price?
It isn't your pricehe says you're dear at any price; you do so
much to sink the ship. Your 'Remarks' are called 'Occasional,' but
nothing could be more deadly regular: you're there month after month
and you're never anywhere else. And you supply no public want.
I supply the most delicious irony.
So Ray appears to have declared. Mr. Bousefield says that's not in
the least a public want. No one can make out what you're talking about
and no one would care if he could. I'm only quoting him, mind.
Quote, quoteif Limbert holds out. I think I must leave you now,
please: I must rush back to express to him what I feel.
I'll drive you to his door. That isn't all, said Mrs. Highmore.
And on the way, when the carriage had turned, she communicated the
rest. Mr. Bousefield really arrived with an ultimatum: it had the form
of something or other by Minnie Meadows.
Minnie Meadows? I was stupefied.
The new lady-humourist every one is talking about. It's the first
of a series of screaming sketches for which poor Ray was to find a
place. Is that Mr. Bousefield's idea of literature? No, but
he says it's the public's, and you've got to take some account
of the public. Aux grands maux les grands remèdes. They had a
tremendous lot of ground to make up, and no one would make it up like
Minnie. She would be the best concession they could make to human
weakness; she would strike at least this note of showing that it was
not going to be quite allwell, all you. Now Ray draws the line
at Minnie; he won't stoop to Minnie; he declines to touch, to look at
Minnie. When Mr. Bousefieldrather imperiously, I believemade Minnie
a sine quâ non of his retention of his post he said something
rather violent, told him to go to some unmentionable place and take
Minnie with him. That of course put the fat on the fire. They had
really a considerable scene.
So had he with the Beacon man, I musingly replied. Poor
dear, he seems born for considerable scenes! It's on Minnie, then, that
they've really split? Mrs. Highmore exhaled her despair in a sound
which I took for an assent, and when we had rolled a little further I
rather in-consequently and to her visible surprise broke out of my
reverie. It will never do in the worldhe must stoop to
It's too lateand what I've told you still isn't all. Mr.
Bousefield raises another objection.
What other, pray?
Can't you guess?
I wondered. No more of Ray's fiction?
Not a line. That's something else no magazine can stand. Now that
his novel has run its course Mr. Bousefield is distinctly
I fairly bounded in my place. Then it may do?
Mrs. Highmore looked bewildered. Why so, if he finds it too dull?
Dull? Ralph Limbert? He's as fine as a needle!
It comes to the same thinghe won't penetrate leather. Mr.
Bousefield had counted on something that would, on something
that would have a wider acceptance. Ray says he wants iron pegs. I
collapsed again; my flicker of elation dropped to a throb of quieter
comfort; and after a moment's silence I asked my neighbour if she had
herself read the work our friend had just put forth. No, she replied,
I gave him my word at the beginning, on his urgent request, that I
Not even as a book?
He begged me never to look at it at all. He said he was trying a
low experiment. Of course I knew what he meant and I entreated him to
let me just for curiosity take a peep. But he was firm, he declared he
couldn't bear the thought that a woman like me should see him in the
He's only, thank God, in the depths of distress, I replied. His
experiment's nothing worse than a failure.
Then Bousefield is righthis circulation won't budge?
It won't move one, as they say in Fleet Street. The book has
Poor duckafter trying so hard! Jane Highmore sighed with real
tenderness. What will then become of them?
I was silent an instant. You must take your mother.
She was silent too. I must speak of it to Cecil! she presently
said. Cecil is Mr. Highmore, who then entertained, I knew, strong views
on the inadjustability of circumstances in general to the
idiosyncrasies of Mrs. Stannace. He held it supremely happy that in an
important relation she should have met her match. Her match was Ray
Limbertnot much of a writer but a practical man. The dear things
still think, you know, my companion continued, that the book will be
the beginning of their fortune. Their illusion, if you're right, will
be rudely dispelled.
That's what makes me dread to face them. I've just spent with his
volumes an unforgettable night. His illusion has lasted because so many
of us have been pledged till this moment to turn our faces the other
way. We haven't known the truth and have therefore had nothing to say.
Now that we do know it indeed we have practically quite as little. I
hang back from the threshold. How can I follow up with a burst of
enthusiasm such a catastrophe as Mr. Bousefield's visit?
As I turned uneasily about my neighbour more comfortably snuggled.
Well, I'm glad then I haven't read him and have nothing unpleasant to
say! We had come back to Limbert's door, and I made the coachman stop
short of it. But he'll try again, with that determination of his:
he'll build his hopes on the next time.
On what else has he built them from the very first? It's never the
present for him that bears the fruit; that's always postponed and for
somebody else: there has always to be another try. I admit that his
idea of a 'new line' has made him try harder than ever. It makes no
difference, I brooded, still timorously lingering; his achievement of
his necessity, his hope of a market will continue to attach themselves
to the future. But the next time will disappoint him as each last time
has doneand then the next and the next and the next!
I found myself seeing it all with a clearness almost inspired: it
evidently cast a chill on Mrs. Highmore. Then what on earth will
become of him? she plaintively asked.
I don't think I particularly care what may become of him, I
returned with a conscious, reckless increase of my exaltation; I feel
it almost enough to be concerned with what may become of one's
enjoyment of him. I don't know in short what will become of his
circulation; I am only quite at my ease as to what will become of his
work. It will simply keep all its quality. He'll try again for the
common with what he'll believe to be a still more infernal cunning, and
again the common will fatally elude him, for his infernal cunning will
have been only his genius in an ineffectual disguise. We sat drawn up
by the pavement, facing poor Limbert's future as I saw it. It relieved
me in a manner to know the worst, and I prophesied with an assurance
which as I look back upon it strikes me as rather remarkable. Que
voulez-vous? I went on; you can't make a sow's ear of a silk
purse! It's grievous indeed if you likethere are people who can't be
vulgar for trying. He can'tit wouldn't come off, I promise
you, even once. It takes more than tryingit comes by grace. It
happens not to be given to Limbert to fall. He belongs to the
heightshe breathes there, he lives there, and it's accordingly to the
heights I must ascend, I said as I took leave of my conductress, to
carry him this wretched news from where we move!
A few months were sufficient to show how right I had been about his
circulation. It didn't move one, as I had said; it stopped short in the
same place, fell off in a sheer descent, like some precipice gaped up
at by tourists. The public in other words drew the line for him as
sharply as he had drawn it for Minnie Meadows. Minnie has skipped with
a flouncing caper over his line, however; whereas the mark traced by a
lustier cudgel has been a barrier insurmountable to Limbert. Those next
times I had spoken of to Jane Highmore, I see them simplified by
retrocession. Again and again he made his desperate bidagain and
again he tried to. His rupture with Mr. Bousefield caused him, I fear,
in professional circles to be thought impracticable, and I am perfectly
aware, to speak candidly, that no sordid advantage ever accrued to him
from such public patronage of my performances as he had occasionally
been in a position to offer. I reflect for my comfort that any injury I
may have done him by untimely application of a faculty of analysis
which could point to no converts gained by honourable exercise was at
least equalled by the injury he did himself. More than once, as I have
hinted, I held my tongue at his request, but my frequent plea that such
favours weren't politic never found him, when in other connections
there was an opportunity to give me a lift, anything but indifferent to
the danger of the association. He let them have me in a word whenever
he could; sometimes in periodicals in which he had credit, sometimes
only at dinner. He talked about me when he couldn't get me in, but it
was always part of the bargain that I shouldn't make him a topic. How
can I successfully serve you if you do? he used to ask: he was more
afraid than I thought he ought to have been of the charge of tit for
tat. I didn't care, for I never could distinguish tat from tit; but as
I have intimated I dropped into silence really more than anything else
because there was a certain fascinated observation of his course which
was quite testimony enough and to which in this huddled conclusion of
it he practically reduced me.
I see it all foreshortened, his wonderful remaindersee it from the
end backward, with the direction widening toward me as if on a level
with the eye. The migration to the country promised him at first great
thingssmaller expenses, larger leisure, conditions eminently
conducive on each occasion to the possible triumph of the next time.
Mrs. Stannace, who altogether disapproved of it, gave as one of her
reasons that her son-in-law, living mainly in a village on the edge of
a goose-green, would be deprived of that contact with the great world
which was indispensable to the painter of manners. She had the showiest
arguments for keeping him in touch, as she called it, with good
society; wishing to know with some force where, from the moment he
ceased to represent it from observation, the novelist could be said to
be. In London fortunately a clever man was just a clever man; there
were charming houses in which a person of Ray's undoubted ability, even
though without the knack of making the best use of it, could always be
sure of a quiet corner for watching decorously the social kaleidoscope.
But the kaleidoscope of the goose-green, what in the world was that,
and what such delusive thrift as drives about the land (with a fearful
account for flys from the inn) to leave cards on the country magnates?
This solicitude for Limbert's subject-matter was the specious colour
with which, deeply determined not to affront mere tolerance in a
cottage, Mrs. Stannace overlaid her indisposition to place herself
under the heel of Cecil Highmore. She knew that he ruled Upstairs as
well as down, and she clung to the fable of the association of
interests in the north of London. The Highmores had a better
addressthey lived now in Stanhope Gardens; but Cecil was fearfully
artfulhe wouldn't hear of an association of interests nor treat with
his mother-in-law save as a visitor. She didn't like false positions;
but on the other hand she didn't like the sacrifice of everything she
was accustomed to. Her universe at all events was a universe full of
card-leavings and charming houses, and it was fortunate that she
couldn't Upstairs catch the sound of the doom to which, in his little
grey den, describing to me his diplomacy, Limbert consigned alike the
country magnates and the opportunities of London. Despoiled of every
guarantee she went to Stanhope Gardens like a mere maidservant, with
restrictions on her very luggage, while during the year that followed
this upheaval Limbert, strolling with me on the goose-green, to which I
often ran down, played extravagantly over the theme that with what he
was now going in for it was a positive comfort not to have the social
kaleidoscope. With a cold-blooded trick in view what had life or
manners or the best society or flys from the inn to say to the
question? It was as good a place as another to play his new game. He
had found a quieter corner than any corner of the great world, and a
damp old house at sixpence a year, which, beside leaving him all his
margin to educate his children, would allow of the supreme luxury of
his frankly presenting himself as a poor man. This was a convenience
that ces dames, as he called them, had never yet fully permitted
It rankled in me at first to see his reward so meagre, his conquest
so mean; but the simplification effected had a charm that I finally
felt; it was a forcing-house for the three or four other fine
miscarriages to which his scheme was evidently condemned. I limited him
to three or four, having had my sharp impression, in spite of the
perpetual broad joke of the thing, that a spring had really snapped in
him on the occasion of that deeply disconcerting sequel to the episode
of his editorship. He never lost his sense of the grotesque want, in
the difference made, of adequate relation to the effort that had been
the intensest of his life. He had from that moment a charge of shot in
him, and it slowly worked its way to a vital part. As he met his
embarrassments each year with his punctual false remedy I wondered
periodically where he found the energy to return to the attack. He did
it every time with a rage more blanched, but it was clear to me that
the tension must finally snap the cord. We got again and again the
irrepressible work of art, but what did he get, poor man, who
wanted something so different? There were likewise odder questions than
this in the matter, phenomena more curious and mysteries more puzzling,
which often for sympathy if not for illumination I intimately discussed
with Mrs. Limbert. She had her burdens, dear lady: after the removal
from London and a considerable interval she twice again became a
mother. Mrs. Stannace too, in a more restricted sense, exhibited
afresh, in relation to the home she had abandoned, the same exemplary
character. In her poverty of guarantees at Stanhope Gardens there had
been least of all, it appeared, a proviso that she shouldn't
resentfully revert again from Goneril to Regan. She came down to the
goose-green like Lear himself, with fewer knights, or at least
baronets, and the joint household was at last patched up. It fell to
pieces and was put together on various occasions before Ray Limbert
died. He was ridden to the end by the superstition that he had broken
up Mrs. Stannace's original home on pretences that had proved hollow
and that if he hadn't given Maud what she might have had he could at
least give her back her mother. I was always sure that a sense of the
compensations he owed was half the motive of the dogged pride with
which he tried to wake up the libraries. I believed Mrs. Stan-nace
still had money, though she pretended that, called upon at every turn
to retrieve deficits, she had long since poured it into the general
fund. This conviction haunted me; I suspected her of secret hoards, and
I said to myself that she couldn't be so infamous as not some day on
her deathbed to leave everything to her less opulent daughter. My
compassion for the Limberts led me to hover perhaps indiscreetly round
that closing scene, to dream of some happy time when such an accession
of means would make up a little for their present penury.
This however was crude comfort, as in the first place I had nothing
definite to go by and in the second I held it for more and more
indicated that Ray wouldn't outlive her. I never ventured to sound him
as to what in this particular he hoped or feared, for after the crisis
marked by his leaving London I had new scruples about suffering him to
be reminded of where he fell short. The poor man was in truth
humiliated, and there were things as to which that kept us both silent.
In proportion as he tried more fiercely for the market the old
plaintiff arithmetic, fertile in jokes, dropped from our conversation.
We joked immensely still about the process, but our treatment of the
results became sparing and superficial. He talked as much as ever, with
monstrous arts and borrowed hints, of the traps he kept setting, but we
all agreed to take merely for granted that the animal was caught. This
propriety had really dawned upon me the day that after Mr. Bousefield's
visit Mrs. Highmore put me down at his door. Mr. Bousefield in that
juncture had been served up to me anew, but after we had disposed of
him we came to the book, which I was obliged to confess I had already
rushed through. It was from this momentthe moment at which my
terrible impression of it had blinked out at his anxious querythat
the image of his scared face was to abide with me. I couldn't attenuate
thenthe cat was out of the bag; but later, each of the next times, I
did, I acknowledge, attenuate. We all did religiously, so far as was
possible; we cast ingenious ambiguities over the strong places, the
beauties that betrayed him most, and found ourselves in the queer
position of admirers banded to mislead a confiding artist. If we
stifled our cheers however and dissimulated our joy our fond hypocrisy
accomplished little, for Limbert's finger was on a pulse that told a
plainer story. It was a satisfaction to have secured a greater freedom
with his wife, who at last, much to her honour, entered into the
conspiracy and whose sense of responsibility was flattered by the
frequency of our united appeal to her for some answer to the marvellous
riddle. We had all turned it over till we were tired of it, threshing
out the question why the note he strained every chord to pitch for
common ears should invariably insist on addressing itself to the
angels. Being, as it were, ourselves the angels we had only a limited
quarrel in each case with the event; but its inconsequent character,
given the forces set in motion, was peculiarly baffling. It was like an
interminable sum that wouldn't come straight; nobody had the time to
handle so many figures. Limbert gathered, to make his pudding, dry
bones and dead husks; how then was one to formulate the law that made
the dish prove a feast? What was the cerebral treachery that defied his
own vigilance? There was some obscure interference of taste, some
obsession of the exquisite. All one could say was that genius was a
fatal disturber or that the unhappy man had no effectual flair.
When he went abroad to gather garlic he came home with heliotrope.
I hasten to add that if Mrs. Limbert was not directly illuminating
she was yet rich in anecdote and example, having found a refuge from
mystification exactly where the rest of us had found it, in a more
devoted embrace and the sense of a finer glory. Her disappointments and
eventually her privations had been many, her discipline severe; but she
had ended by accepting the long grind of life and was now quite willing
to take her turn at the mill. She was essentially one of usshe always
understood. Touching and admirable at the last, when through the
unmistakable change in Limbert's health her troubles were thickest, was
the spectacle of the particular pride that she wouldn't have exchanged
for prosperity. She had said to me onceonly once, in a gloomy hour in
London days when things were not going at allthat one really had to
think him a very great man because if one didn't one would be rather
ashamed of him. She had distinctly felt it at firstand in a very
tender placethat almost every one passed him on the road; but I
believe that in these final years she would almost have been ashamed of
him if he had suddenly gone into editions. It is certain indeed that
her complacency was not subjected to that shock. She would have liked
the money immensely, but she would have missed something she had taught
herself to regard as rather rare. There is another remark I remember
her making, a remark to the effect that of course if she could have
chosen she would have liked him to be Shakespeare or Scott, but that
failing this she was very glad he wasn'twell, she named the two
gentlemen, but I won't. I daresay she sometimes laughed out to escape
an alternative. She contributed passionately to the capture of the
second manner, foraging for him further afield than he could
conveniently go, gleaning in the barest stubble, picking up shreds to
build the nest and in particular in the study of the great secret of
how, as we always said, they all did it laying waste the circulating
libraries. If Limbert had a weakness he rather broke down in his
reading. It was fortunately not till after the appearance of The
Hidden Heart that he broke down in everything else. He had had
rheumatic fever in the spring, when the book was but half finished, and
this ordeal in addition to interrupting his work had enfeebled his
powers of resistance and greatly reduced his vitality. He recovered
from the fever and was able to take up the book again, but the organ of
life was pronounced ominously weak and it was enjoined upon him with
some sharpness that he should lend himself to no worries. It might have
struck me as on the cards that his worries would now be surmountable,
for when he began to mend he expressed to me a conviction almost
contagious that he had never yet made so adroit a bid as in the idea of
The Hidden Heart. It is grimly droll to reflect that this superb
little composition, the shortest of his novels but perhaps the
loveliest, was planned from the first as an adventure-story on
approved lines. It was the way they all did the adventure-story that he
tried most dauntlessly to emulate. I wonder how many readers ever
divined to which of their book-shelves The Hidden Heart was so
exclusively addressed. High medical advice early in the summer had been
quite viciously clear as to the inconvenience that might ensue to him
should he neglect to spend the winter in Egypt. He was not a man to
neglect anything; but Egypt seemed to us all then as unattainable as a
second edition. He finished The Hidden Heart with the energy of
apprehension and desire, for if the book should happen to do what
books of that class, as the publisher said, sometimes did he might
well have a fund to draw on. As soon as I read the deep and delicate
thing I knew, as I had known in each case before, exactly how well it
would do. Poor Limbert in this long business always figured to me an
undiscourageable parent to whom only girls kept being born. A bouncing
boy, a son and heir was devoutly prayed for and almanacks and old wives
consulted; but the spell was inveterate, incurable, and The Hidden
Heart proved, so to speak, but another female child. When the
winter arrived accordingly Egypt was out of the question. Jane
Highmore, to my knowledge, wanted to lend him money, and there were
even greater devotees who did their best to induce him to lean on them.
There was so marked a movement among his friends that a very
considerable sum would have been at his disposal; but his stiffness was
invincible: it had its root, I think, in his sense, on his own side, of
sacrifices already made. He had sacrificed honour and pride, and he had
sacrificed them precisely to the question of money. He would evidently,
should he be able to go on, have to continue to sacrifice them, but it
must be all in the way to which he had now, as he considered, hardened
himself. He had spent years in plotting for favour, and since on favour
he must live it could only be as a bargain and a price.
He got through the early part of the season better than we feared,
and I went down in great elation to spend Christmas on the goose-green.
He told me late on Christmas eve, after our simple domestic revels
had sunk to rest and we sat together by the fire, that he had been
visited the night before in wakeful hours by the finest fancy for a
really good thing that he had ever felt descend in the darkness. It's
just the vision of a situation that contains, upon my honour,
everything, he said, and I wonder that I've never thought of it
before. He didn't describe it further, contrary to his common
practice, and I only knew later, by Mrs. Limbert, that he had begun
Derogation and that he was completely full of his subject. It was a
subject however that he was not to live to treat. The work went on for
a couple of months in happy mystery, without revelations even to his
wife. He had not invited her to help him to get up his caseshe had
not taken the field with him as on his previous campaigns. We only knew
he was at it again but that less even than ever had been said about the
impression to be made on the market. I saw him in February and thought
him sufficiently at ease. The great thing was that he was immensely
interested and was pleased with the omens. I got a strange, stirring
sense that he had not consulted the usual ones and indeed that he had
floated away into a grand indifference, into a reckless consciousness
of art. The voice of the market had suddenly grown faint and far: he
had come back at the last, as people so often do, to one of the moods,
the sincerities of his prime. Was he really with a blurred sense of the
urgent doing something now only for himself? We wondered and waitedwe
felt that he was a little confused. What had happened, I was afterwards
satisfied, was that he had quite forgotten whether he generally sold or
not. He had merely waked up one morning again in the country of the
blue and had stayed there with a good conscience and a great idea. He
stayed till death knocked at the gate, for the pen dropped from his
hand only at the moment when from sudden failure of the heart his eyes,
as he sank back in his chair, closed for ever. Derogation is a
splendid fragment; it evidently would have been one of his high
successes. I am not prepared to say it would have waked up the
THE WAY IT CAME
I find, as you prophesied, much that's interesting, but little that
helps the delicate questionthe possibility of publication. Her
diaries are less systematic than I hoped; she only had a blessed habit
of noting and narrating. She summarised, she saved; she appears seldom
indeed to have let a good story pass without catching it on the wing. I
allude of course not so much to things she heard as to things she saw
and felt. She writes sometimes of herself, sometimes of others,
sometimes of the combination. It's under this last rubric that she's
usually most vivid. But it's not, you will understand, when she's most
vivid that she's always most publish-able. To tell the truth she's
fearfully indiscreet, or has at least all the material for making me
so. Take as an instance the fragment I send you, after dividing it for
your convenience into several small chapters. It is the contents of a
thin blank-book which I have had copied out and which has the merit of
being nearly enough a rounded thing, an intelligible whole. These pages
evidently date from years ago. I've read with the liveliest wonder the
statement they so circumstantially make and done my best to swallow the
prodigy they leave to be inferred. These things would be striking,
wouldn't they? to any reader; but can you imagine for a moment my
placing such a document before the world, even though, as if she
herself had desired the world should have the benefit of it, she has
given her friends neither name nor initials? Have you any sort of clue
to their identity? I leave her the floor.
I know perfectly of course that I brought it upon myself; but that
doesn't make it any better. I was the first to speak of her to himhe
had never even heard her mentioned. Even if I had happened not to speak
some one else would have made up for it: I tried afterwards to find
comfort in that reflection. But the comfort of reflections is thin: the
only comfort that counts in life is not to have been a fool. That's a
beatitude I shall doubtless never enjoy. Why, you ought to meet her
and talk it over, is what I immediately said. Birds of a feather
flock together. I told him who she was and that they were birds of a
feather because if he had had in youth a strange adventure she had had
about the same time just such another. It was well known to her
friendsan incident she was constantly called on to describe. She was
charming, clever, pretty, unhappy; but it was none the less the thing
to which she had originally owed her reputation.
Being at the age of eighteen somewhere abroad with an aunt she had
had a vision of one of her parents at the moment of death. The parent
was in England, hundreds of miles away and so far as she knew neither
dying nor dead. It was by day, in the museum of some great foreign
town. She had passed alone, in advance of her companions, into a small
room containing some famous work of art and occupied at that moment by
two other persons. One of these was an old custodian; the second,
before observing him, she took for a stranger, a tourist. She was
merely conscious that he was bareheaded and seated on a bench. The
instant her eyes rested on him however she beheld to her amazement her
father, who, as if he had long waited for her, looked at her in
singular distress, with an impatience that was akin to reproach. She
rushed to him with a bewildered cry, Papa, what is it? but
this was followed by an exhibition of still livelier feeling when on
her movement he simply vanished, leaving the custodian and her
relations, who were at her heels, to gather round her in dismay. These
persons, the official, the aunt, the cousins were therefore in a manner
witnesses of the factthe fact at least of the impression made on her;
and there was the further testimony of a doctor who was attending one
of the party and to whom it was immediately afterwards communicated. He
gave her a remedy for hysterics but said to the aunt privately: Wait
and see if something doesn't happen at home. Something had
happenedthe poor father, suddenly and violently seized, had died that
morning. The aunt, the mother's sister, received before the day was out
a telegram announcing the event and requesting her to prepare her niece
for it. Her niece was already prepared, and the girl's sense of this
visitation remained of course indelible. We had all as her friends had
it conveyed to us and had conveyed it creepily to each other. Twelve
years had elapsed and as a woman who had made an unhappy marriage and
lived apart from her husband she had become interesting from other
sources; but since the name she now bore was a name frequently borne,
and since moreover her judicial separation, as things were going, could
hardly count as a distinction, it was usual to qualify her as the one,
you know, who saw her father's ghost.
As for him, dear man, he had seen his mother's. I had never heard of
that till this occasion on which our closer, our pleasanter
acquaintance led him, through some turn of the subject of our talk, to
mention it and to inspire me in so doing with the impulse to let him
know that he had a rival in the fielda person with whom he could
compare notes. Later on his story became for him, perhaps because of my
unduly repeating it, likewise a convenient wordly label; but it had not
a year before been the ground on which he was introduced to me. He had
other merits, just as she, poor thing! had others. I can honestly say
that I was quite aware of them from the firstI discovered them sooner
than he discovered mine. I remember how it struck me even at the time
that his sense of mine was quickened by my having been able to match,
though not indeed straight from my own experience, his curious
anecdote. It dated, this anecdote, as hers did, from some dozen years
beforea year in which, at Oxford, he had for some reason of his own
been staying on into the Long. He had been in the August afternoon on
the river. Coming back into his room while it was still distinct
daylight he found his mother standing there as if her eyes had been
fixed on the door. He had had a letter from her that morning out of
Wales, where she was staying with her father. At the sight of him she
smiled with extraordinary radiance and extended her arms to him, and
then as he sprang forward and joyfully opened his own she vanished from
the place. He wrote to her that night, telling her what had happened;
the letter had been carefully preserved. The next morning he heard of
her death. He was through this chance of our talk extremely struck with
the little prodigy I was able to produce for him. He had never
encountered another case. Certainly they ought to meet, my friend and
he; certainly they would have something in common. I would arrange
this, wouldn't I?if she didn't mind; for himself he didn't
mind in the least. I had promised to speak to her of the matter as soon
as possible, and within the week I was able to do so. She minded as
little as he; she was perfectly willing to see him. And yet no meeting
was to occuras meetings are commonly understood.
That's just half my talethe extraordinary way it was hindered.
This was the fault of a series of accidents; but the accidents
continued for years and became, for me and for others, a subject of
hilarity with either party. They were droll enough at first; then they
grew rather a bore. The odd thing was that both parties were amenable:
it wasn't a case of their being indifferent, much less of their being
indisposed. It was one of the caprices of chance, aided I suppose by
some opposition of their interests and habits. His were centred in his
office, his eternal inspectorship, which left him small leisure,
constantly calling him away and making him break engagements. He liked
society, but he found it everywhere and took it at a run. I never knew
at a given moment where he was, and there were times when for months
together I never saw him. She was on her side practically suburban: she
lived at Richmond and never went out. She was a woman of distinction,
but not of fashion, and felt, as people said, her situation. Decidedly
proud and rather whimsical she lived her life as she had planned it.
There were things one could do with her, but one couldn't make her come
to one's parties. One went indeed a little more than seemed quite
convenient to hers, which consisted of her cousin, a cup of tea and the
view. The tea was good; but the view was familiar, though perhaps not,
like the cousina disagreeable old maid who had been of the group at
the museum and with whom she now livedoffensively so. This connection
with an inferior relative, which had partly an economical motiveshe
proclaimed her companion a marvellous managerwas one of the little
perversities we had to forgive her. Another was her estimate of the
proprieties created by her rupture with her husband. That was
extrememany persons called it even morbid. She made no advances; she
cultivated scruples; she suspected, or I should perhaps rather say she
remembered slights: she was one of the few women I have known whom that
particular predicament had rendered modest rather than bold. Dear
thing! she had some delicacy. Especially marked were the limits she had
set to possible attentions from men: it was always her thought that her
husband was waiting to pounce on her. She discouraged if she didn't
forbid the visits of male persons not senile: she said she could never
be too careful.
When I first mentioned to her that I had a friend whom fate had
distinguished in the same weird way as herself I put her quite at
liberty to say Oh, bring him out to see me! I should probably have
been able to bring him, and a situation perfectly innocent or at any
rate comparatively simple would have been created. But she uttered no
such word; she only said: I must meet him certainly; yes, I shall look
out for him! That caused the first delay, and meanwhile various things
happened. One of them was that as time went on she made, charming as
she was, more and more friends, and that it regularly befell that these
friends were sufficiently also friends of his to bring him up in
conversation. It was odd that without belonging, as it were, to the
same world or, according to the horrid term, the same set, my baffled
pair should have happened in so many cases to fall in with the same
people and make them join in the funny chorus. She had friends who
didn't know each other but who inevitably and punctually recommended
him. She had also the sort of originality, the intrinsic interest
that led her to be kept by each of us as a kind of private resource,
cultivated jealously, more or less in secret, as a person whom one
didn't meet in society, whom it was not for every onewhom it was not
for the vulgarto approach, and with whom therefore acquaintance was
particularly difficult and particularly precious. We saw her
separately, with appointments and conditions, and found it made on the
whole for harmony not to tell each other. Somebody had always had a
note from her still later than somebody else. There was some silly
woman who for a long time, among the unprivileged, owed to three simple
visits to Richmond a reputation for being intimate with lots of
awfully clever out-of-the-way people.
Every one has had friends it has seemed a happy thought to bring
together, and every one remembers that his happiest thoughts have not
been his greatest successes; but I doubt if there was ever a case in
which the failure was in such direct proportion to the quantity of
influence set in motion. It is really perhaps here the quantity of
influence that was most remarkable. My lady and gentleman each declared
to me and others that it was like the subject of a roaring farce. The
reason first given had with time dropped-out of sight and fifty better
ones flourished on top of it. They were so awfully alike: they had the
same ideas and tricks and tastes, the same prejudices and superstitions
and heresies; they said the same things and sometimes did them; they
liked and disliked the same persons and places, the same books, authors
and styles; any one could see a certain identity even in their looks
and their features. It established much of a propriety that they were
in common parlance equally nice and almost equally handsome. But the
great sameness, for wonder and chatter, was their rare perversity in
regard to being photographed. They were the only persons ever heard of
who had never been taken and who had a passionate objection to it.
They just wouldn't be, for anything any one could say. I had
loudly complained of this; him in particular I had so vainly desired to
be able to show on my drawing-room chimney-piece in a Bond Street
frame. It was at any rate the very liveliest of all the reasons why
they ought to know each otherall the lively reasons reduced to naught
by the strange law that had made them bang so many doors in each
other's face, made them the buckets in the well, the two ends of the
see-saw, the two parties in the state, so that when one was up the
other was down, when one was out the other was in; neither by any
possibility entering a house till the other had left it, or leaving it,
all unawares, till the other was at hand. They only arrived when they
had been given up, which was precisely also when they departed. They
were in a word alternate and incompatible; they missed each other with
an inveteracy that could be explained only by its being preconcerted.
It was however so far from preconcerted that it had endedliterally
after several yearsby disappointing and annoying them. I don't think
their curiosity was lively till it had been proved utterly vain. A
great deal was of course done to help them, but it merely laid wires
for them to trip. To give examples I should have to have taken notes;
but I happen to remember that neither had ever been able to dine on the
right occasion. The right occasion for each was the occasion that would
be wrong for the other. On the wrong one they were most punctual, and
there were never any but wrong ones. The very elements conspired and
the constitution of man reinforced them. A cold, a headache, a
bereavement, a storm, a fog, an earthquake, a cataclysm infallibly
intervened. The whole business was beyond a joke.
Yet as a joke it had still to be taken, though one couldn't help
feeling that the joke had made the situation serious, had produced on
the part of each a consciousness, an awkwardness, a positive dread of
the last accident of all, the only one with any freshness left, the
accident that would bring them face to face. The final effect of its
predecessors had been to kindle this instinct. They were quite
ashamedperhaps even a little of each other. So much preparation, so
much frustration: what indeed could be good enough for it all to lead
up to? A mere meeting would be mere flatness. Did I see them at the end
of years, they often asked, just stupidly confronted? If they were
bored by the joke they might be worse bored by something else. They
made exactly the same reflections, and each in some manner was sure to
hear of the other's.
I really think it was this peculiar diffidence that finally
controlled the situation. I mean that if they had failed for the first
year or two because they couldn't help it they kept up the habit
because they hadwhat shall I call it?grown nervous. It really took
some lurking volition to account for anything so absurd.
When to crown our long acquaintance I accepted his renewed offer of
marriage it was humorously said, I know, that I had made the gift of
his photograph a condition. This was so far true that I had refused to
give him mine without it. At any rate I had him at last, in his high
distinction, on the chimney-piece, where the day she called to
congratulate me she came nearer than she had ever done to seeing him.
He had set her in being taken an example which I invited her to follow;
he had sacrificed his perversitywouldn't she sacrifice hers? She too
must give me something on my engagementwouldn't she give me the
companion-piece? She laughed and shook her head; she had headshakes
whose impulse seemed to come from as far away as the breeze that stirs
a flower. The companion-piece to the portrait of my future husband was
the portrait of his future wife. She had taken her standshe could
depart from it as little as she could explain it. It was a prejudice,
an entêtement, a vowshe would live and die unphotographed. Now
too she was alone in that state: this was what she liked; it made her
so much more original. She rejoiced in the fall of her late associate
and looked a long time at his picture, about which she made no
memorable remark, though she even turned it over to see the back. About
our engagement she was charmingfull of cordiality and sympathy.
You've known him even longer than I've not? she said, and
that seems a very long time. She understood how we had jogged together
over hill and dale and how inevitable it was that we should now rest
together. I'm definite about all this because what followed is so
strange that it's a kind of relief to me to mark the point up to which
our relations were as natural as ever. It was I myself who in a sudden
madness altered and destroyed them. I see now that she gave me no
pretext and that I only found one in the way she looked at the fine
face in the Bond Street frame. How then would I have had her look at
it? What I had wanted from the first was to make her care for him.
Well, that was what I still wantedup to the moment of her having
promised me that he would on this occasion really aid me to break the
silly spell that had kept them asunder. I had arranged with him to do
his part if she would as triumphantly do hers. I was on a different
footing nowI was on a footing to answer for him. I would positively
engage that at five on the following Saturday he would be on that spot.
He was out of town on pressing business; but pledged to keep his
promise to the letter he would return on purpose and in abundant time.
Are you perfectly sure? I remember she asked, looking grave and
considering: I thought she had turned a little pale. She was tired, she
was indisposed: it was a pity he was to see her after all at so poor a
moment. If he only could have seen her five years before!
However, I replied that this time I was sure and that success therefore
depended simply on herself. At five o'clock on the Saturday she would
find him in a particular chair I pointed out, the one in which he
usually sat and in whichthough this I didn't mentionhe had been
sitting when, the week before, he put the question of our future to me
in the way that had brought me round. She looked at it in silence, just
as she had looked at the photograph, while I repeated for the twentieth
time that it was too preposterous it shouldn't somehow be feasible to
introduce to one's dearest friend one's second self. Am I your
dearest friend? she asked with a smile that for a moment brought back
her beauty. I replied by pressing her to my bosom; after which she
said: Well, I'll come. I'm extraordinarily afraid, but you may count
When she had left me I began to wonder what she was afraid of, for
she had spoken as if she fully meant it. The next day, late in the
afternoon, I had three lines from her: she had found on getting home
the announcement of her husband's death. She had not seen him for seven
years, but she wished me to know it in this way before I should hear of
it in another. It made however in her life, strange and sad to say, so
little difference that she would scrupulously keep her appointment. I
rejoiced for herI supposed it would make at least the difference of
her having more money; but even in this diversion, far from forgetting
that she had said she was afraid, I seemed to catch sight of a reason
for her being so. Her fear as the evening went on became contagious,
and the contagion took in my breast the form of a sudden panic. It
wasn't jealousyit was the dread of jealousy. I called myself a fool
for not having been quiet till we were man and wife. After that I
should somehow feel secure. It was only a question of waiting another
montha trifle surely for people who had waited so long. It had been
plain enough she was nervous, and now that she was free she naturally
wouldn't be less so. What was her nervousness therefore but a
presentiment? She had been hitherto the victim of interference, but it
was quite possible she would henceforth be the source of it. The victim
in that case would be my simple self. What had the interference been
but the finger of providence pointing out a danger? The danger was of
course for poor me. It had been kept at bay by a series of
accidents unexampled in their frequency; but the reign of accident was
now visibly at an end. I had an intimate conviction that both parties
would keep the tryst. It was more and more impressed upon me that they
were approaching, converging. We had talked about breaking the spell;
well, it would be effectually brokenunless indeed it should merely
take another form and overdo their encounters as it had overdone their
This was something I couldn't sit still for thinking of; it kept me
awakeat midnight I was full of unrest. At last I felt there was only
one way of laying the ghost. If the reign of accident was over I must
just take up the succession. I sat down and wrote a hurried note which
would meet him on his return and which as the servants had gone to bed
I sallied forth bareheaded into the empty, gusty street to drop into
the nearest pillar-box. It was to tell him that I shouldn't be able to
be at home in the afternoon as I had hoped and that he must postpone
his visit till dinner-time. This was an implication that he would find
When accordingly at five she presented herself I naturally felt
false and base. My act had been a momentary madness, but I had at least
to be consistent. She remained an hour; he of course never came; and I
could only persist in my perfidy. I had thought it best to let her
come; singular as this now seems to me I thought it diminished my
guilt. Yet as she sat there so visibly white and weary, stricken with a
sense of everything her husband's death had opened up, I felt an almost
intolerable pang of pity and remorse. If I didn't tell her on the spot
what I had done it was because I was too ashamed. I feigned
astonishmentI feigned it to the end; I protested that if ever I had
had confidence I had had it that day. I blush as I tell my storyI
take it as my penance. There was nothing indignant I didn't say about
him; I invented suppositions, attenuations; I admitted in stupefaction,
as the hands of the clock travelled, that their luck hadn't turned. She
smiled at this vision of their luck, but she looked anxiousshe
looked unusual: the only thing that kept me up was the fact that, oddly
enough, she wore mourningno great depths of crape, but simple and
scrupulous black. She had in her bonnet three small black feathers. She
carried a little muff of astrachan. This put me by the aid of some
acute reflection a little in the right, She had written to me that the
sudden event made no difference for her, but apparently it made as much
difference as that. If she was inclined to the usual forms why didn't
she observe that of not going the first day or two out to tea? There
was some one she wanted so much to see that she couldn't wait till her
husband was buried. Such a betrayal of eagerness made me hard and cruel
enough to practise my odious deceit, though at the same time, as the
hour waxed and waned, I suspected in her something deeper still than
disappointment and somewhat less successfully concealed. I mean a
strange underlying relief, the soft, low emission of the breath that
comes when a danger is past. What happened as she spent her barren hour
with me was that at last she gave him up. She let him go for ever. She
made the most graceful joke of it that I've ever seen made of anything;
but it was for all that a great date in her life. She spoke with her
mild gaiety of all the other vain times, the long game of
hide-and-seek, the unprecedented queerness of such a relation. For it
was, or had been, a relation, wasn't it, hadn't it? That was just the
absurd part of it. When she got up to go I said to her that it was more
a relation than ever, but that I hadn't the face after what had
occurred to propose to her for the present another opportunity. It was
plain that the only valid opportunity would be my accomplished
marriage. Of course she would be at my wedding? It was even to be hoped
that he would.
If I am, he won't be! she declared with a laugh. I admitted
there might be something in that. The thing was therefore to get us
safely married first. That won't help us. Nothing will help us! she
said as she kissed me farewell. I shall never, never see him! It was
with those words she left me.
I could bear her disappointment as I've called it; but when a couple
of hours later I received him at dinner I found that I couldn't bear
his. The way my manoeuvre might have affected him had not been
particularly present to me; but the result of it was the first word of
reproach that had ever yet dropped from him. I say reproach because
that expression is scarcely too strong for the terms in which he
conveyed to me his surprise that under the extraordinary circumstances
I should not have found some means not to deprive him of such an
occasion. I might really have managed either not to be obliged to go
out or to let their meeting take place all the same. They would
probably have got on in my drawing-room without me. At this I quite
broke downI confessed my iniquity and the miserable reason of it. I
had not put her off and I had not gone out; she had been there and
after waiting for him an hour had departed in the belief that he had
been absent by his own fault.
She must think me a precious brute! he exclaimed. Did she say of
mewhat she had a right to say?
I assure you she said nothing that showed the least feeling. She
looked at your photograph, she even turned round the back of it, on
which your address happens to be inscribed. Yet it provoked her to no
demonstration. She doesn't care so much as all that.
Then why are you afraid of her?
It was not of her I was afraid. It was of you.
Did you think I would fall in love with her? You never alluded to
such a possibility before, he went on as I remained silent. Admirable
person as you pronounced her, that wasn't the light in which you showed
her to me.
Do you mean that if it had been you would have managed by
this time to catch a glimpse of her? I didn't fear things then, I
added. I hadn't the same reason.
He kissed me at this, and when I remembered that she had done so an
hour or two before I felt for an instant as if he were taking from my
lips the very pressure of hers. In spite of kisses the incident had
shed a certain chill, and I suffered horribly from the sense that he
had seen me guilty of a fraud. He had seen it only through my frank
avowal, but I was as unhappy as if I had a stain to efface. I couldn't
get over the manner of his looking at me when I spoke of her apparent
indifference to his not having come.
For the first time since I had known him he seemed to have expressed
a doubt of my word. Before we parted I told him that I would undeceive
her, start the first thing in the morning for Richmond and there let
her know that he had been blameless. At this he kissed me again. I
would expiate my sin, I said; I would humble myself in the dust; I
would confess and ask to be forgiven. At this he kissed me once more.
In the train the next day this struck me as a good deal for him to
have consented to; but my purpose was firm enough to carry me on. I
mounted the long hill to where the view begins, and then I knocked at
her door. I was a trifle mystified by the fact that her blinds were
still drawn, reflecting that if in the stress of my compunction I had
come early I had certainly yet allowed people time to get up.
At home, mum? She has left home for ever.
I was extraordinarily startled by this announcement of the elderly
parlour-maid. She has gone away?
She's dead, mum, please. Then as I gasped at the horrible word:
She died last night.
The loud cry that escaped me sounded even in my own ears like some
harsh violation of the hour. I felt for the moment as if I had killed
her; I turned faint and saw through a vagueness the woman hold out her
arms to me. Of what next happened I have no recollection, nor of
anything but my friend's poor stupid cousin, in a darkened room, after
an interval that I suppose very brief, sobbing at me in a smothered
accusatory way. I can't say how long it took me to understand, to
believe and then to press back with an immense effort that pang of
responsibility which, superstitiously, insanely had been at first
almost all I was conscious of. The doctor, after the fact, had been
superlatively wise and clear: he was satisfied of a long-latent
weakness of the heart, determined probably years before by the
agitations and terrors to which her marriage had introduced her. She
had had in those days cruel scenes with her husband, she had been in
fear of her life. All emotion, everything in the nature of anxiety and
suspense had been after that to be strongly deprecated, as in her
marked cultivation of a quiet life she was evidently well aware; but
who could say that any one, especially a real lady, could be
successfully protected from every little rub? She had had one a day or
two before in the news of her husband's death; for there were shocks of
all kinds, not only those of grief and surprise. For that matter she
had never dreamed of so near a release; it had looked uncommonly as if
he would live as long as herself. Then in the evening, in town, she had
manifestly had another: something must have happened there which it
would be indispensable to clear up. She had come back very lateit was
past eleven o'clock, and on being met in the hall by her cousin, who
was extremely anxious, had said that she was tired and must rest a
moment before mounting the stairs. They had passed together into the
dining-room, her companion proposing a glass of wine and bustling to
the sideboard to pour it out. This took but a moment, and when my
informant turned round our poor friend had not had time to seat
herself. Suddenly, with a little moan that was barely audible, she
dropped upon the sofa. She was dead. What unknown little rub had
dealt her the blow? What shock, in the name of wonder, had she
had in town? I mentioned immediately the only one I could imagineher
having failed to meet at my house, to which by invitation for the
purpose she had come at five o'clock, the gentleman I was to be married
to, who had been accidentally kept away and with whom she had no
acquaintance whatever. This obviously counted for little; but something
else might easily have occurred; nothing in the London streets was more
possible than an accident, especially an accident in those desperate
cabs. What had she done, where had she gone on leaving my house? I had
taken for granted she had gone straight home. We both presently
remembered that in her excursions to town she sometimes, for
convenience, for refreshment, spent an hour or two at the
Gentlewomen, the quiet little ladies' club, and I promised that it
should be my first care to make at that establishment thorough inquiry.
Then we entered the dim and dreadful chamber where she lay locked up in
death and where, asking after a little to be left alone with her, I
remained for half an hour. Death had made her, had kept her beautiful;
but I felt above all, as I kneeled at her bed, that it had made her,
had kept her silent. It had turned the key on something I was concerned
On my return from Richmond and after another duty had been performed
I drove to his chambers. It was the first time, but I had often wanted
to see them. On the staircase, which, as the house contained twenty
sets of rooms, was unrestrictedly public, I met his servant, who went
back with me and ushered me in. At the sound of my entrance he appeared
in the doorway of a further room, and the instant we were alone I
produced my news: She's dead!
He was tremendously struck, and I observed that he had no need to
ask whom, in this abruptness, I meant.
She died last eveningjust after leaving me.
He stared with the strangest expression, his eyes searching mine as
if they were looking for a trap. Last eveningafter leaving you? He
repeated my words in stupefaction. Then he brought out so that it was
in stupefaction I heard: Impossible! I saw her.
You 'saw' her?
On that spotwhere you stand.
This brought back to me after an instant, as if to help me to take
it in, the memory of the strange warning of his youth. In the hour of
deathI understand: as you so beautifully saw your mother.
Ah! not as I saw my mothernot that way, not that way! He
was deeply moved by my newsfar more moved, I perceived, than he would
have been the day before: it gave me a vivid sense that, as I had then
said to myself, there was indeed a relation between them and that he
had actually been face to face with her. Such an idea, by its
reassertion of his extraordinary privilege, would have suddenly
presented him as painfully abnormal had he not so vehemently insisted
on the difference. I saw her livingI saw her to speak to herI saw
her as I see you now!
It is remarkable that for a moment, though only for a moment, I
found relief in the more personal, as it were, but also the more
natural of the two phenomena. The next, as I embraced this image of her
having come to him on leaving me and of just what it accounted for in
the disposal of her time, I demanded with a shade of harshness of which
I was awareWhat on earth did she come for? He had now had a minute
to thinkto recover himself and judge of effects, so that if it was
still with excited eyes he spoke he showed a conscious redness and made
an inconsequent attempt to smile away the gravity of his words.
She came just to see me. She cameafter what had passed at your
houseso that we should, after all, at last meet. The impulse
seemed to me exquisite, and that was the way I took it.
I looked round the room where she had beenwhere she had been and I
never had been.
And was the way you took it the way she expressed it?
She only expressed it by being here and by letting me look at her.
That was enough! he exclaimed with a singular laugh.
I wondered more and more. You mean she didn't speak to you?
She said nothing. She only looked at me as I looked at her.
And you didn't speak either?
He gave me again his painful smile. I thought of you. The
situation was every way delicate. I used the finest tact. But she saw
she had pleased me. He even repeated his dissonant laugh.
She evidently pleased you! Then I thought a moment. How long did
How can I say? It seemed twenty minutes, but it was probably a good
Twenty minutes of silence! I began to have my definite view and
now in fact quite to clutch at it. Do you know you're telling me a
story positively monstrous?
He had been standing with his back to the fire; at this, with a
pleading look, he came to me. I beseech you, dearest, to take it
I could take it kindly, and I signified as much; but I couldn't
somehow, as he rather awkwardly opened his arms, let him draw me to
him. So there fell between us for an appreciable time the discomfort of
a great silence.
He broke it presently by saying: There's absolutely no doubt of her
Unfortunately none. I've just risen from my knees by the bed where
they've laid her out.
He fixed his eyes hard on the floor; then he raised them to mine.
How does she look?
She looksat peace.
He turned away again, while I watched him; but after a moment he
began: At what hour, then?
It must have been near midnight. She dropped as she reached her
housefrom an affection of the heart which she knew herself and her
physician knew her to have, but of which, patiently, bravely she had
never spoken to me.
He listened intently and for a minute he was unable to speak. At
last he broke out with an accent of which the almost boyish confidence,
the really sublime simplicity rings in my ears as I write: Wasn't she
wonderful! Even at the time I was able to do it justice enough to
remark in reply that I had always told him so; but the next minute, as
if after speaking he had caught a glimpse of what he might have made me
feel, he went on quickly: You see that if she didn't get home till
I instantly took him up. There was plenty of time for you to have
seen her? How so, I inquired, when you didn't leave my house till
late? I don't remember the very momentI was preoccupied. But you know
that though you said you had lots to do you sat for some time after
dinner. She, on her side, was all the evening at the 'Gentlewomen.'
I've just come from thereI've ascertained. She had tea there; she
remained a long, long time.
What was she doing all the long, long time? I saw that he was
eager to challenge at every step my account of the matter; and the more
he showed this the more I found myself disposed to insist on that
account, to prefer, with apparent perversity, an explanation which only
deepened the marvel and the mystery, but which, of the two prodigies it
had to choose from, my reviving jealousy found easiest to accept. He
stood there pleading with a candour that now seems to me beautiful for
the privilege of having in spite of supreme defeat known the living
woman; while I, with a passion I wonder at to-day, though it still
smoulders in a manner in its ashes, could only reply that, through a
strange gift shared by her with his mother and on her own side likewise
hereditary, the miracle of his youth had been renewed for him, the
miracle of hers for her. She had been to himyes, and by an impulse as
charming as he liked; but oh! she had not been in the body. It was a
simple question of evidence. I had had, I assured him, a definite
statement of what she had donemost of the timeat the little club.
The place was almost empty, but the servants had noticed her. She had
sat motionless in a deep chair by the drawing-room fire; she had leaned
back her head, she had closed her eyes, she had seemed softly to sleep.
I see. But till what o'clock?
There, I was obliged to answer, the servants fail me a little.
The portress in particular is unfortunately a fool, though even she too
is supposed to be a Gentlewoman. She was evidently at that period of
the evening, without a substitute and, against regulations, absent for
some little time from the cage in which it's her business to watch the
comings and goings. She's muddled, she palpably prevaricates; so I
can't positively, from her observation, give you an hour. But it was
remarked toward half-past ten that our poor friend was no longer in the
She came straight here; and from here she went straight to the
She couldn't have run it so close, I declared. That was a thing
she particularly never did.
There was no need of running it close, my dearshe had plenty of
time. Your memory is at fault about my having left you late: I left
you, as it happens, unusually early. I'm sorry my stay with you seemed
long; for I was back here by ten.
To put yourself into your slippers, I rejoined, and fall asleep
in your chair. You slept till morningyou saw her in a dream! He
looked at me in silence and with sombre eyeseyes that showed me he
had some irritation to repress. Presently I went on: You had a visit,
at an extraordinary hour, from a ladysoit: nothing in the
world is more probable. But there are ladies and ladies. How in the
name of goodness, if she was unannounced and dumb and you had into the
bargain never seen the least portrait of herhow could you identify
the person we're talking of?
Haven't I to absolute satiety heard her described? I'll describe
her for you in every particular.
Don't! I exclaimed with a promptness that made him laugh once
more. I coloured at this, but I continued: Did your servant introduce
He wasn't herehe's always away when he's wanted. One of the
features of this big house is that from the street-door the different
floors are accessible practically without challenge. My servant makes
love to a young person employed in the rooms above these, and he had a
long bout of it last evening. When he's out on that job he leaves my
outer door, on the staircase, so much ajar as to enable him to slip
back without a sound. The door then only requires a push. She pushed
itthat simply took a little courage.
A little? It took tons! And it took all sorts of impossible
Well, she had themshe made them. Mind you, I don't deny for a
moment, he added, that it was very, very wonderful!
Something in his tone prevented me for a while from trusting myself
to speak. At last I said: How did she come to know where you live?
By remembering the address on the little label the shop-people
happily left sticking to the frame I had had made for my photograph.
And how was she dressed?
In mourning, my own dear. No great depths of crape, but simple and
scrupulous black. She had in her bonnet three small black feathers. She
carried a little muff of astrachan. She has near the left eye, he
continued, a tiny vertical scar
I stopped him short. The mark of a caress from her husband. Then I
added: How close you must have been to her! He made no answer to
this, and I thought he blushed, observing which I broke straight off.
You won't stay a little? He came to me again tenderly, and this
time I suffered him. Her visit had its beauty, he murmured as he held
me, but yours has a greater one.
I let him kiss me, but I remembered, as I had remembered the day
before, that the last kiss she had given, as I supposed, in this world
had been for the lips he touched.
I'm life, you see, I answered. What you saw last night was
It was lifeit was life!
He spoke with a kind of soft stubbornness, and I disengaged myself.
We stood looking at each other hard.
You describe the sceneso far as you describe it at allin terms
that are incomprehensible. She was in the room before you knew it?
I looked up from my letter-writingat that table under the lamp, I
had been wholly absorbed in itand she stood before me.
Then what did you do?
I sprang up with an ejaculation, and she, with a smile, laid her
finger, ever so warningly, yet with a sort of delicate dignity, to her
lips. I knew it meant silence, but the strange thing was that it seemed
immediately to explain and to justify her. We, at any rate, stood for a
time that, as I've told you, I can't calculate, face to face. It was
just as you and I stand now.
He impatiently protested. Ah! we're not staring!
Yes, but we're talking.
Well, we wereafter a fashion. He lost himself in the
memory of it. It was as friendly as this. I had it on my tongue's end
to ask if that were saying much for it, but I remarked instead that
what they had evidently done was to gaze in mutual admiration. Then I
inquired whether his recognition of her had been immediate. Not
quite, he replied, for, of course, I didn't expect her; but it came
to me long before she went who she waswho she could only be.
I thought a little. And how did she at last go?
Just as she arrived. The door was open behind her, and she passed
Was she rapidslow?
Rather quick. But looking behind her, he added, with a smile. I
let her go, for I perfectly understood that I was to take it as she
I was conscious of exhaling a long, vague sigh. Well, you must take
it now as I wishyou must let me go.
At this he drew near me again, detaining and persuading me,
declaring with all due gallantry that I was a very different matter. I
would have given anything to have been able to ask him if he had
touched her, but the words refused to form themselves: I knew well
enough how horrid and vulgar they would sound. I said something elseI
forget exactly what; it was feebly tortuous, and intended to make him
tell me without my putting the question. But he didn't tell me; he only
repeated, as if from a glimpse of the propriety of soothing and
consoling me, the sense of his declaration of some minutes beforethe
assurance that she was indeed exquisite, as I had always insisted, but
that I was his real friend and his very own for ever. This led me to
reassert, in the spirit of my previous rejoinder, that I had at least
the merit of being alive; which in turn drew from him again the flash
of contradiction I dreaded. Oh, she was alive! she was, she
She was dead! she was dead! I asseverated with an energy, a
determination that it should be so, which comes back to me now almost
as grotesque. But the sound of the word, as it rang out, filled me
suddenly with horror, and all the natural emotion the meaning of it
might have evoked in other conditions gathered and broke in a flood. It
rolled over me that here was a great affection quenched, and how much I
had loved and trusted her. I had a vision at the same time of the
lonely beauty of her end. She's goneshe's lost to us for ever! I
burst into sobs.
That's exactly what I feel, he exclaimed, speaking with extreme
kindness and pressing me to him for comfort. She's gone; she's lost to
us for ever: so what does it matter now? He bent over me, and when his
face had touched mine I scarcely knew if it were wet with my tears or
with his own.
It was my theory, my conviction, it became, as I may say, my
attitude, that they had still never met; and it was just on this
ground that I said to myself it would be generous to ask him to stand
with me beside her grave. He did so, very modestly and tenderly, and I
assumed, though he himself clearly cared nothing for the danger, that
the solemnity of the occasion, largely made up of persons who had known
them both and had a sense of the long joke, would sufficiently deprive
his presence of all light association. On the question of what had
happened the evening of her death little more passed between us; I had
been overtaken by a horror of the element of evidence. It seemed gross
and prying on either hypothesis. He, on his side, had none to produce,
none at least but a statement of his house-porteron his own admission
a most casual and intermittent personagethat between the hours of ten
o'clock and midnight no less than three ladies in deep black had
flitted in and out of the place. This proved far too much; we had
neither of us any use for three. He knew that I considered I had
accounted for every fragment of her time, and we dropped the matter as
settled; we abstained from further discussion. What I knew however was
that he abstained to please me rather than because he yielded to my
reasons. He didn't yieldhe was only indulgent; he clung to his
interpretation because he liked it better. He liked it better, I held,
because it had more to say to his vanity. That, in a similar position,
would not have been its effect on me, though I had doubtless quite as
much; but these are things of individual humour, as to which no person
can judge for another. I should have supposed it more gratifying to be
the subject of one of those inexplicable occurrences that are
chronicled in thrilling books and disputed about at learned meetings; I
could conceive, on the part of a being just engulfed in the infinite
and still vibrating with human emotion, of nothing more fine and pure,
more high and august than such an impulse of reparation, of admonition
or even of curiosity. That was beautiful, if one would, and I
should in his place have thought more of myself for being so
distinguished. It was public that he had already, that he had long been
distinguished, and what was this in itself but almost a proof? Each of
the strange visitations contributed to establish the other. He had a
different feeling; but he had also, I hasten to add, an unmistakable
desire not to make a stand or, as they say, a fuss about it. I might
believe what I likedthe more so that the whole thing was in a manner
a mystery of my producing. It was an event of my history, a puzzle of
my consciousness, not of his; therefore he would take about it any tone
that struck me as convenient. We had both at all events other business
on hand; we were pressed with preparations for our marriage.
Mine were assuredly urgent, but I found as the days went on that to
believe what I liked was to believe what I was more and more
intimately convinced of. I found also that I didn't like it so much as
that came to, or that the pleasure at all events was far from being the
cause of my conviction. My obsession, as I may really call it and as I
began to perceive, refused to be elbowed away, as I had hoped, by my
sense of paramount duties. If I had a great deal to do I had still more
to think about, and the moment came when my occupations were gravely
menaced by my thoughts. I see it all now, I feel it, I live it over.
It's terribly void of joy, it's full indeed to overflowing of
bitterness; and yet I must do myself justiceI couldn't possibly be
other than I was. The same strange impressions, had I to meet them
again,'would produce the same deep anguish, the same sharp doubts, the
same still sharper certainties. Oh, it's all easier to remember than to
write, but even if I could retrace the business hour by hour, could
find terms for the inexpressible, the ugliness and the pain would
quickly stay my hand. Let me then note very simply and briefly that a
week before our wedding-day, three weeks after her death, I became
fully aware that I had something very serious to look in the face, and
that if I was to make this effort I must make it on the spot and before
another hour should elapse. My unextinguished jealousythat was
the Medusa-mask. It hadn't died with her death, it had lividly
survived, and it was fed by suspicions unspeakable. They would
be unspeakable to-day, that is, if I hadn't felt the sharp need of
uttering them at the time.
This need took possession of meto save me, as it appeared, from my
fate. When once it had done so I sawin the urgency of the case, the
diminishing hours and shrinking intervalonly one issue, that of
absolute promptness and frankness. I could at least not do him the
wrong of delaying another day, I could at least treat my difficulty as
too fine for a subterfuge. Therefore very quietly, but none the less
abruptly and hideously, I put it before him on a certain evening that
we must reconsider our situation and recognise that it had completely
He stared bravely. How has it altered? Another person has come
between us. He hesitated a moment. I won't pretend not to know whom
you mean. He smiled in pity for my aberration, but he meant to be
kind. A woman dead and buried!
She's buried, but she's not dead. She's dead for the worldshe's
dead for me. But she's not dead for you.
You hark back to the different construction we put on her
appearance that evening?
No, I answered, I hark back to nothing. I've no need of it. I've
more than enough with what's before me.
And pray, darling, what is that?
You're completely changed.
By that absurdity? he laughed.
Not so much by that one as by other absurdities that have followed
And what may they have been?
We had faced each other fairly, with eyes that didn't flinch; but
his had a dim, strange light, and my certitude triumphed in his
perceptible paleness. Do you really pretend, I asked, not to know
what they are?
My dear child, he replied, you describe them too sketchily!
I considered a moment. One may well be embarrassed to finish the
picture! But from that point of viewand from the beginningwhat was
ever more embarrassing than your idiosyncrasy?
He was extremely vague. My idiosyncrasy?
Your notorious, your peculiar power.
He gave a great shrug of impatience, a groan of overdone disdain.
Oh, my peculiar power!
Your accessibility to forms of life, I coldly went on, your
command of impressions, appearances, contacts closedfor our gain or
our lossto the rest of us. That was originally a part of the deep
interest with which you inspired meone of the reasons I was amused, I
was indeed positively proud to know you. It was a magnificent
distinction; it's a magnificent distinction still. But of course I had
no prevision then of the way it would operate now; and even had that
been the case I should have had none of the extraordinary way in which
its action would affect me.
To what in the name of goodness, he pleadingly inquired, are you
fantastically alluding? Then as I remained silent, gathering a tone
for my charge, How in the world does it operate? he went on;
and how in the world are you affected?
She missed you for five years, I said, but she never misses you
now. You're making it up!
Making it up? He had begun to turn from white to red.
You see heryou see her: you see her every night! He gave a loud
sound of derision, but it was not a genuine one. She comes to you as
she came that evening, I declared; having tried it she found she
liked it! I was able, with God's help, to speak without blind passion
or vulgar violence; but those were the exact wordsand far from
sketchy they then appeared to methat I uttered. He had turned away
in his laughter, clapping his hands at my folly, but in an instant he
faced me again, with a change of expression that struck me. Do you
dare to deny, I asked, that you habitually see her?
He had taken the line of indulgence, of meeting me halfway and
kindly humouring me. At all events, to my astonishment, he suddenly
said: Well, my dear, what if I do?
It's your natural right; it belongs to your constitution and to
your wonderful, if not perhaps quite enviable fortune. But you will
easily understand that it separates us. I unconditionally release you.
You must choose between me and her.
He looked at me hard. I see. Then he walked away a little, as if
grasping what I had said and thinking how he had best treat it. At last
he turned upon me afresh. How on earth do you know such an awfully
You mean because you've tried so hard to hide it? It is
awfully private, and you may believe I shall never betray you. You've
done your best, you've acted your part, you've behaved, poor dear!
loyally and admirably. Therefore I've watched you in silence, playing
my part too; I've noted every drop in your voice, every absence in your
eyes, every effort in your indifferent hand: I've waited till I was
utterly sure and miserably unhappy. How can you hide it when
you're abjectly in love with her, when you're sick almost to death with
the joy of what she gives you? I checked his quick protest with a
quicker gesture. You love her as you've never loved, and,
passion for passion, she gives it straight back! She rules you, she
holds you, she has you all! A woman, in such a case as mine, divines
and feels and sees; she's not an idiot who has to be credibly informed.
You come to me mechanically, compunctiously, with the dregs of your
tenderness and the remnant of your life. I can renounce you, but I
can't share you; the best of you is hers; I know what it is and I
freely give you up to her for ever!
He made a gallant fight, but it couldn't be patched up; he repeated
his denial, he retracted his admission, he ridiculed my charge, of
which I freely granted him moreover the indefensible extravagance. I
didn't pretend for a moment that we were talking of common things; I
didn't pretend for a moment that he and she were common people. Pray,
if they had been, how should I ever have cared for them? They
had enjoyed a rare extension of being and they had caught me up in
their flight; only I couldn't breathe in such an air and I promptly
asked to be set down. Everything in the facts was monstrous, and most
of all my lucid perception of them; the only thing allied to nature and
truth was my having to act on that perception. I felt after I had
spoken in this sense that my assurance was complete; nothing had been
wanting to it but the sight of my effect on him. He disguised indeed
the effect in a cloud of chaff, a diversion that gained him time and
covered his retreat. He challenged my sincerity, my sanity, almost my
humanity, and that of course widened our breach and confirmed our
rupture. He did everything in short but convince me either that I was
wrong or that he was unhappy; we separated, and I left him to his
He never married, any more than I've done. When six years later, in
solitude and silence, I heard of his death I hailed it as a direct
contribution to my theory. It was sudden, it was never properly
accounted for, it was surrounded by circumstances in whichfor oh, I
took them to pieces!I distinctly read an intention, the mark of his
own hidden hand. It was the result of a long necessity, of an
unquenchable desire. To say exactly what I mean, it was a response to
an irresistible call.