The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net Title: The Lesson of the Master Author: Henry James Release Date: May 13, 2005 [eBook #898] Language: English Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII) ***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE LESSON OF THE MASTER***
Transcribed from the 1915 Martin Secker edition by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
He had been told the ladies were at church, but this was corrected by what he saw from the top of the steps—they descended from a great height in two arms, with a circular sweep of the most charming effect—at the threshold of the door which, from the long bright gallery, overlooked the immense lawn. Three gentlemen, on the grass, at a distance, sat under the great trees, while the fourth figure showed a crimson dress that told as a “bit of colour” amid the fresh rich green. The servant had so far accompanied Paul Overt as to introduce him to this view, after asking him if he wished first to go to his room. The young man declined that privilege, conscious of no disrepair from so short and easy a journey and always liking to take at once a general perceptive possession of a new scene. He stood there a little with his eyes on the group and on the admirable picture, the wide grounds of an old country-house near London—that only made it better—on a splendid Sunday in June. “But that lady, who’s she?” he said to the servant before the man left him.
“I think she’s Mrs. St. George, sir.”
“Mrs. St. George, the wife of the distinguished—” Then Paul Overt checked himself, doubting if a footman would know.
“Yes, sir—probably, sir,” said his guide, who appeared to wish to intimate that a person staying at Summersoft would naturally be, if only by alliance, distinguished. His tone, however, made poor Overt himself feel for the moment scantly so.
“And the gentlemen?” Overt went on.
“Well, sir, one of them’s General Fancourt.”
“Ah yes, I know; thank you.” General Fancourt was distinguished, there was no doubt of that, for something he had done, or perhaps even hadn’t done—the young man couldn’t remember which—some years before in India. The servant went away, leaving the glass doors open into the gallery, and Paul Overt remained at the head of the wide double staircase, saying to himself that the place was sweet and promised a pleasant visit, while he leaned on the balustrade of fine old ironwork which, like all the other details, was of the same period as the house. It all went together and spoke in one voice—a rich English voice of the early part of the eighteenth century. It might have been church-time on a summer’s day in the reign of Queen Anne; the stillness was too perfect to be modern, the nearness counted so as distance, and there was something so fresh and sound in the originality of the large smooth house, the expanse of beautiful brickwork that showed for pink rather than red and that had been kept clear of messy creepers by the law under which a woman with a rare complexion disdains a veil. When Paul Overt became aware that the people under the trees had noticed him he turned back through the open doors into the great gallery which was the pride of the place. It marched across from end to end and seemed—with its bright colours, its high panelled windows, its faded flowered chintzes, its quickly-recognised portraits and pictures, the blue-and-white china of its cabinets and the attenuated festoons and rosettes of its ceiling—a cheerful upholstered avenue into the other century.
Our friend was slightly nervous; that went with his character as a student of fine prose, went with the artist’s general disposition to vibrate; and there was a particular thrill in the idea that Henry St. George might be a member of the party. For the young aspirant he had remained a high literary figure, in spite of the lower range of production to which he had fallen after his first three great successes, the comparative absence of quality in his later work. There had been moments when Paul Overt almost shed tears for this; but now that he was near him—he had never met him—he was conscious only of the fine original source and of his own immense debt. After he had taken a turn or two up and down the gallery he came out again and descended the steps. He was but slenderly supplied with a certain social boldness—it was really a weakness in him—so that, conscious of a want of acquaintance with the four persons in the distance, he gave way to motions recommended by their not committing him to a positive approach. There was a fine English awkwardness in this—he felt that too as he sauntered vaguely and obliquely across the lawn, taking an independent line. Fortunately there was an equally fine English directness in the way one of the gentlemen presently rose and made as if to “stalk” him, though with an air of conciliation and reassurance. To this demonstration Paul Overt instantly responded, even if the gentleman were not his host. He was tall, straight and elderly and had, like the great house itself, a pink smiling face, and into the bargain a white moustache. Our young man met him halfway while he laughed and said: “Er—Lady Watermouth told us you were coming; she asked me just to look after you.” Paul Overt thanked him, liking him on the spot, and turned round with him to walk toward the others. “They’ve all gone to church—all except us,” the stranger continued as they went; “we’re just sitting here—it’s so jolly.” Overt pronounced it jolly indeed: it was such a lovely place. He mentioned that he was having the charming impression for the first time.
“Ah you’ve not been here before?” said his companion. “It’s a nice little place—not much to do, you know”. Overt wondered what he wanted to “do”—he felt that he himself was doing so much. By the time they came to where the others sat he had recognised his initiator for a military man and—such was the turn of Overt’s imagination—had found him thus still more sympathetic. He would naturally have a need for action, for deeds at variance with the pacific pastoral scene. He was evidently so good-natured, however, that he accepted the inglorious hour for what it was worth. Paul Overt shared it with him and with his companions for the next twenty minutes; the latter looked at him and he looked at them without knowing much who they were, while the talk went on without much telling him even what it meant. It seemed indeed to mean nothing in particular; it wandered, with casual pointless pauses and short terrestrial flights, amid names of persons and places—names which, for our friend, had no great power of evocation. It was all sociable and slow, as was right and natural of a warm Sunday morning.
His first attention was given to the question, privately considered, of whether one of the two younger men would be Henry St. George. He knew many of his distinguished contemporaries by their photographs, but had never, as happened, seen a portrait of the great misguided novelist. One of the gentlemen was unimaginable—he was too young; and the other scarcely looked clever enough, with such mild undiscriminating eyes. If those eyes were St. George’s the problem, presented by the ill-matched parts of his genius would be still more difficult of solution. Besides, the deportment of their proprietor was not, as regards the lady in the red dress, such as could be natural, toward the wife of his bosom, even to a writer accused by several critics of sacrificing too much to manner. Lastly Paul Overt had a vague sense that if the gentleman with the expressionless eyes bore the name that had set his heart beating faster (he also had contradictory conventional whiskers—the young admirer of the celebrity had never in a mental vision seen his face in so vulgar a frame) he would have given him a sign of recognition or of friendliness, would have heard of him a little, would know something about “Ginistrella,” would have an impression of how that fresh fiction had caught the eye of real criticism. Paul Overt had a dread of being grossly proud, but even morbid modesty might view the authorship of “Ginistrella” as constituting a degree of identity. His soldierly friend became clear enough: he was “Fancourt,” but was also “the General”; and he mentioned to the new visitor in the course of a few moments that he had but lately returned from twenty years service abroad.
“And now you remain in England?” the young man asked.
“Oh yes; I’ve bought a small house in London.”
“And I hope you like it,” said Overt, looking at Mrs. St. George.
“Well, a little house in Manchester Square—there’s a limit to the enthusiasm that inspires.”
“Oh I meant being at home again—being back in Piccadilly.”
“My daughter likes Piccadilly—that’s the main thing. She’s very fond of art and music and literature and all that kind of thing. She missed it in India and she finds it in London, or she hopes she’ll find it. Mr. St. George has promised to help her—he has been awfully kind to her. She has gone to church—she’s fond of that too—but they’ll all be back in a quarter of an hour. You must let me introduce you to her—she’ll be so glad to know you. I dare say she has read every blest word you’ve written.”
“I shall be delighted—I haven’t written so very many,” Overt pleaded, feeling, and without resentment, that the General at least was vagueness itself about that. But he wondered a little why, expressing this friendly disposition, it didn’t occur to the doubtless eminent soldier to pronounce the word that would put him in relation with Mrs. St. George. If it was a question of introductions Miss Fancourt—apparently as yet unmarried—was far away, while the wife of his illustrious confrère was almost between them. This lady struck Paul Overt as altogether pretty, with a surprising juvenility and a high smartness of aspect, something that—he could scarcely have said why—served for mystification. St. George certainly had every right to a charming wife, but he himself would never have imagined the important little woman in the aggressively Parisian dress the partner for life, the alter ego, of a man of letters. That partner in general, he knew, that second self, was far from presenting herself in a single type: observation had taught him that she was not inveterately, not necessarily plain. But he had never before seen her look so much as if her prosperity had deeper foundations than an ink-spotted study-table littered with proof-sheets. Mrs. St. George might have been the wife of a gentleman who “kept” books rather than wrote them, who carried on great affairs in the City and made better bargains than those that poets mostly make with publishers. With this she hinted at a success more personal—a success peculiarly stamping the age in which society, the world of conversation, is a great drawing-room with the City for its antechamber. Overt numbered her years at first as some thirty, and then ended by believing that she might approach her fiftieth. But she somehow in this case juggled away the excess and the difference—you only saw them in a rare glimpse, like the rabbit in the conjurer’s sleeve. She was extraordinarily white, and her every element and item was pretty; her eyes, her ears, her hair, her voice, her hands, her feet—to which her relaxed attitude in her wicker chair gave a great publicity—and the numerous ribbons and trinkets with which she was bedecked. She looked as if she had put on her best clothes to go to church and then had decided they were too good for that and had stayed at home. She told a story of some length about the shabby way Lady Jane had treated the Duchess, as well as an anecdote in relation to a purchase she had made in Paris—on her way back from Cannes; made for Lady Egbert, who had never refunded the money. Paul Overt suspected her of a tendency to figure great people as larger than life, until he noticed the manner in which she handled Lady Egbert, which was so sharply mutinous that it reassured him. He felt he should have understood her better if he might have met her eye; but she scarcely so much as glanced at him. “Ah here they come—all the good ones!” she said at last; and Paul Overt admired at his distance the return of the church-goers—several persons, in couples and threes, advancing in a flicker of sun and shade at the end of a large green vista formed by the level grass and the overarching boughs.
“If you mean to imply that we’re bad, I protest,” said one of the gentlemen—“after making one’s self agreeable all the morning!”
“Ah if they’ve found you agreeable—!” Mrs. St. George gaily cried. “But if we’re good the others are better.”
“They must be angels then,” said the amused General.
“Your husband was an angel, the way he went off at your bidding,” the gentleman who had first spoken declared to Mrs. St. George.
“At my bidding?”
“Didn’t you make him go to church?”
“I never made him do anything in my life but once—when I made him burn up a bad book. That’s all!” At her “That’s all!” our young friend broke into an irrepressible laugh; it lasted only a second, but it drew her eyes to him. His own met them, though not long enough to help him to understand her; unless it were a step towards this that he saw on the instant how the burnt book—the way she alluded to it!—would have been one of her husband’s finest things.
“A bad book?” her interlocutor repeated.
“I didn’t like it. He went to church because your daughter went,” she continued to General Fancourt. “I think it my duty to call your attention to his extraordinary demonstrations to your daughter.”
“Well, if you don’t mind them I don’t,” the General laughed.
“Il s’attache à ses pas. But I don’t wonder—she’s so charming.”
“I hope she won’t make him burn any books!” Paul Overt ventured to exclaim.
“If she’d make him write a few it would be more to the purpose,” said Mrs. St. George. “He has been of a laziness of late—!”
Our young man stared—he was so struck with the lady’s phraseology. Her “Write a few” seemed to him almost as good as her “That’s all.” Didn’t she, as the wife of a rare artist, know what it was to produce one perfect work of art? How in the world did she think they were turned off? His private conviction was that, admirably as Henry St. George wrote, he had written for the last ten years, and especially for the last five, only too much, and there was an instant during which he felt inwardly solicited to make this public. But before he had spoken a diversion was effected by the return of the absentees. They strolled up dispersedly—there were eight or ten of them—and the circle under the trees rearranged itself as they took their place in it. They made it much larger, so that Paul Overt could feel—he was always feeling that sort of thing, as he said to himself—that if the company had already been interesting to watch the interest would now become intense. He shook hands with his hostess, who welcomed him without many words, in the manner of a woman able to trust him to understand and conscious that so pleasant an occasion would in every way speak for itself. She offered him no particular facility for sitting by her, and when they had all subsided again he found himself still next General Fancourt, with an unknown lady on his other flank.
“That’s my daughter—that one opposite,” the General said to him without lose of time. Overt saw a tall girl, with magnificent red hair, in a dress of a pretty grey-green tint and of a limp silken texture, a garment that clearly shirked every modern effect. It had therefore somehow the stamp of the latest thing, so that our beholder quickly took her for nothing if not contemporaneous.
“She’s very handsome—very handsome,” he repeated while he considered her. There was something noble in her head, and she appeared fresh and strong.
Her good father surveyed her with complacency, remarking soon: “She looks too hot—that’s her walk. But she’ll be all right presently. Then I’ll make her come over and speak to you.”
“I should be sorry to give you that trouble. If you were to take me over there—!” the young man murmured.
“My dear sir, do you suppose I put myself out that way? I don’t mean for you, but for Marian,” the General added.
“I would put myself out for her soon enough,” Overt replied; after which he went on: “Will you be so good as to tell me which of those gentlemen is Henry St. George?”
“The fellow talking to my girl. By Jove, he is making up to her—they’re going off for another walk.”
“Ah is that he—really?” Our friend felt a certain surprise, for the personage before him seemed to trouble a vision which had been vague only while not confronted with the reality. As soon as the reality dawned the mental image, retiring with a sigh, became substantial enough to suffer a slight wrong. Overt, who had spent a considerable part of his short life in foreign lands, made now, but not for the first time, the reflexion that whereas in those countries he had almost always recognised the artist and the man of letters by his personal “type,” the mould of his face, the character of his head, the expression of his figure and even the indications of his dress, so in England this identification was as little as possible a matter of course, thanks to the greater conformity, the habit of sinking the profession instead of advertising it, the general diffusion of the air of the gentleman—the gentleman committed to no particular set of ideas. More than once, on returning to his own country, he had said to himself about people met in society: “One sees them in this place and that, and one even talks with them; but to find out what they do one would really have to be a detective.” In respect to several individuals whose work he was the opposite of “drawn to”—perhaps he was wrong—he found himself adding “No wonder they conceal it—when it’s so bad!” He noted that oftener than in France and in Germany his artist looked like a gentleman—that is like an English one—while, certainly outside a few exceptions, his gentlemen didn’t look like an artist. St. George was not one of the exceptions; that circumstance he definitely apprehended before the great man had turned his back to walk off with Miss Fancourt. He certainly looked better behind than any foreign man of letters—showed for beautifully correct in his tall black hat and his superior frock coat. Somehow, all the same, these very garments—he wouldn’t have minded them so much on a weekday—were disconcerting to Paul Overt, who forgot for the moment that the head of the profession was not a bit better dressed than himself. He had caught a glimpse of a regular face, a fresh colour, a brown moustache and a pair of eyes surely never visited by a fine frenzy, and he promised himself to study these denotements on the first occasion. His superficial sense was that their owner might have passed for a lucky stockbroker—a gentleman driving eastward every morning from a sanitary suburb in a smart dog-cart. That carried out the impression already derived from his wife. Paul’s glance, after a moment, travelled back to this lady, and he saw how her own had followed her husband as he moved off with Miss Fancourt. Overt permitted himself to wonder a little if she were jealous when another woman took him away. Then he made out that Mrs. St. George wasn’t glaring at the indifferent maiden. Her eyes rested but on her husband, and with unmistakeable serenity. That was the way she wanted him to be—she liked his conventional uniform. Overt longed to hear more about the book she had induced him to destroy.
As they all came out from luncheon General Fancourt took hold of him with an “I say, I want you to know my girl!” as if the idea had just occurred to him and he hadn’t spoken of it before. With the other hand he possessed himself all paternally of the young lady. “You know all about him. I’ve seen you with his books. She reads everything—everything!” he went on to Paul. The girl smiled at him and then laughed at her father. The General turned away and his daughter spoke—“Isn’t papa delightful?”
“He is indeed, Miss Fancourt.”
“As if I read you because I read ‘everything’!”
“Oh I don’t mean for saying that,” said Paul Overt. “I liked him from the moment he began to be kind to me. Then he promised me this privilege.”
“It isn’t for you he means it—it’s for me. If you flatter yourself that he thinks of anything in life but me you’ll find you’re mistaken. He introduces every one. He thinks me insatiable.”
“You speak just like him,” laughed our youth.
“Ah but sometimes I want to”—and the girl coloured. “I don’t read everything—I read very little. But I have read you.”
“Suppose we go into the gallery,” said Paul Overt. She pleased him greatly, not so much because of this last remark—though that of course was not too disconcerting—as because, seated opposite to him at luncheon, she had given him for half an hour the impression of her beautiful face. Something else had come with it—a sense of generosity, of an enthusiasm which, unlike many enthusiasms, was not all manner. That was not spoiled for him by his seeing that the repast had placed her again in familiar contact with Henry St. George. Sitting next her this celebrity was also opposite our young man, who had been able to note that he multiplied the attentions lately brought by his wife to the General’s notice. Paul Overt had gathered as well that this lady was not in the least discomposed by these fond excesses and that she gave every sign of an unclouded spirit. She had Lord Masham on one side of her and on the other the accomplished Mr. Mulliner, editor of the new high-class lively evening paper which was expected to meet a want felt in circles increasingly conscious that Conservatism must be made amusing, and unconvinced when assured by those of another political colour that it was already amusing enough. At the end of an hour spent in her company Paul Overt thought her still prettier than at the first radiation, and if her profane allusions to her husband’s work had not still rung in his ears he should have liked her—so far as it could be a question of that in connexion with a woman to whom he had not yet spoken and to whom probably he should never speak if it were left to her. Pretty women were a clear need to this genius, and for the hour it was Miss Fancourt who supplied the want. If Overt had promised himself a closer view the occasion was now of the best, and it brought consequences felt by the young man as important. He saw more in St. George’s face, which he liked the better for its not having told its whole story in the first three minutes. That story came out as one read, in short instalments—it was excusable that one’s analogies should be somewhat professional—and the text was a style considerably involved, a language not easy to translate at sight. There were shades of meaning in it and a vague perspective of history which receded as you advanced. Two facts Paul had particularly heeded. The first of these was that he liked the measured mask much better at inscrutable rest than in social agitation; its almost convulsive smile above all displeased him (as much as any impression from that source could), whereas the quiet face had a charm that grew in proportion as stillness settled again. The change to the expression of gaiety excited, he made out, very much the private protest of a person sitting gratefully in the twilight when the lamp is brought in too soon. His second reflexion was that, though generally averse to the flagrant use of ingratiating arts by a man of age “making up” to a pretty girl, he was not in this case too painfully affected: which seemed to prove either that St. George had a light hand or the air of being younger than he was, or else that Miss Fancourt’s own manner somehow made everything right.
Overt walked with her into the gallery, and they strolled to the end of it, looking at the pictures, the cabinets, the charming vista, which harmonised with the prospect of the summer afternoon, resembling it by a long brightness, with great divans and old chairs that figured hours of rest. Such a place as that had the added merit of giving those who came into it plenty to talk about. Miss Fancourt sat down with her new acquaintance on a flowered sofa, the cushions of which, very numerous, were tight ancient cubes of many sizes, and presently said: “I’m so glad to have a chance to thank you.”
“To thank me—?” He had to wonder.
“I liked your book so much. I think it splendid.”
She sat there smiling at him, and he never asked himself which book she meant; for after all he had written three or four. That seemed a vulgar detail, and he wasn’t even gratified by the idea of the pleasure she told him—her handsome bright face told him—he had given her. The feeling she appealed to, or at any rate the feeling she excited, was something larger, something that had little to do with any quickened pulsation of his own vanity. It was responsive admiration of the life she embodied, the young purity and richness of which appeared to imply that real success was to resemble that, to live, to bloom, to present the perfection of a fine type, not to have hammered out headachy fancies with a bent back at an ink-stained table. While her grey eyes rested on him—there was a wideish space between these, and the division of her rich-coloured hair, so thick that it ventured to be smooth, made a free arch above them—he was almost ashamed of that exercise of the pen which it was her present inclination to commend. He was conscious he should have liked better to please her in some other way. The lines of her face were those of a woman grown, but the child lingered on in her complexion and in the sweetness of her mouth. Above all she was natural—that was indubitable now; more natural than he had supposed at first, perhaps on account of her æsthetic toggery, which was conventionally unconventional, suggesting what he might have called a tortuous spontaneity. He had feared that sort of thing in other cases, and his fears had been justified; for, though he was an artist to the essence, the modern reactionary nymph, with the brambles of the woodland caught in her folds and a look as if the satyrs had toyed with her hair, made him shrink not as a man of starch and patent leather, but as a man potentially himself a poet or even a faun. The girl was really more candid than her costume, and the best proof of it was her supposing her liberal character suited by any uniform. This was a fallacy, since if she was draped as a pessimist he was sure she liked the taste of life. He thanked her for her appreciation—aware at the same time that he didn’t appear to thank her enough and that she might think him ungracious. He was afraid she would ask him to explain something he had written, and he always winced at that—perhaps too timidly—for to his own ear the explanation of a work of art sounded fatuous. But he liked her so much as to feel a confidence that in the long run he should be able to show her he wasn’t rudely evasive. Moreover she surely wasn’t quick to take offence, wasn’t irritable; she could be trusted to wait. So when he said to her, “Ah don’t talk of anything I’ve done, don’t talk of it here; there’s another man in the house who’s the actuality!”—when he uttered this short sincere protest it was with the sense that she would see in the words neither mock humility nor the impatience of a successful man bored with praise.
“You mean Mr. St. George—isn’t he delightful?”
Paul Overt met her eyes, which had a cool morning-light that would have half-broken his heart if he hadn’t been so young. “Alas I don’t know him. I only admire him at a distance.”
“Oh you must know him—he wants so to talk to you,” returned Miss Fancourt, who evidently had the habit of saying the things that, by her quick calculation, would give people pleasure. Paul saw how she would always calculate on everything’s being simple between others.
“I shouldn’t have supposed he knew anything about me,” he professed.
“He does then—everything. And if he didn’t I should be able to tell him.”
“To tell him everything?” our friend smiled.
“You talk just like the people in your book!” she answered.
“Then they must all talk alike.”
She thought a moment, not a bit disconcerted. “Well, it must be so difficult. Mr. St. George tells me it is—terribly. I’ve tried too—and I find it so. I’ve tried to write a novel.”
“Mr. St. George oughtn’t to discourage you,” Paul went so far as to say.
“You do much more—when you wear that expression.”
“Well, after all, why try to be an artist?” the young man pursued. “It’s so poor—so poor!”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Miss Fancourt, who looked grave.
“I mean as compared with being a person of action—as living your works.”
“But what’s art but an intense life—if it be real?” she asked. “I think it’s the only one—everything else is so clumsy!” Her companion laughed, and she brought out with her charming serenity what next struck her. “It’s so interesting to meet so many celebrated people.”
“So I should think—but surely it isn’t new to you.”
“Why I’ve never seen any one—any one: living always in Asia.”
The way she talked of Asia somehow enchanted him. “But doesn’t that continent swarm with great figures? Haven’t you administered provinces in India and had captive rajahs and tributary princes chained to your car?”
It was as if she didn’t care even should he amuse himself at her cost. “I was with my father, after I left school to go out there. It was delightful being with him—we’re alone together in the world, he and I—but there was none of the society I like best. One never heard of a picture—never of a book, except bad ones.”
“Never of a picture? Why, wasn’t all life a picture?”
She looked over the delightful place where they sat. “Nothing to compare to this. I adore England!” she cried.
It fairly stirred in him the sacred chord. “Ah of course I don’t deny that we must do something with her, poor old dear, yet.”
“She hasn’t been touched, really,” said the girl.
“Did Mr. St. George say that?”
There was a small and, as he felt, harmless spark of irony in his question; which, however, she answered very simply, not noticing the insinuation. “Yes, he says England hasn’t been touched—not considering all there is,” she went on eagerly. “He’s so interesting about our country. To listen to him makes one want so to do something.”
“It would make me want to,” said Paul Overt, feeling strongly, on the instant, the suggestion of what she said and that of the emotion with which she said it, and well aware of what an incentive, on St. George’s lips, such a speech might be.
“Oh you—as if you hadn’t! I should like so to hear you talk together,” she added ardently.
“That’s very genial of you; but he’d have it all his own way. I’m prostrate before him.”
She had an air of earnestness. “Do you think then he’s so perfect?”
“Far from it. Some of his later books seem to me of a queerness—!”
“Yes, yes—he knows that.”
Paul Overt stared. “That they seem to me of a queerness—!”
“Well yes, or at any rate that they’re not what they should be. He told me he didn’t esteem them. He has told me such wonderful things—he’s so interesting.”
There was a certain shock for Paul Overt in the knowledge that the fine genius they were talking of had been reduced to so explicit a confession and had made it, in his misery, to the first comer; for though Miss Fancourt was charming what was she after all but an immature girl encountered at a country-house? Yet precisely this was part of the sentiment he himself had just expressed: he would make way completely for the poor peccable great man not because he didn’t read him clear, but altogether because he did. His consideration was half composed of tenderness for superficialities which he was sure their perpetrator judged privately, judged more ferociously than any one, and which represented some tragic intellectual secret. He would have his reasons for his psychology à fleur de peau, and these reasons could only be cruel ones, such as would make him dearer to those who already were fond of him. “You excite my envy. I have my reserves, I discriminate—but I love him,” Paul said in a moment. “And seeing him for the first time this way is a great event for me.”
“How momentous—how magnificent!” cried the girl. “How delicious to bring you together!”
“Your doing it—that makes it perfect,” our friend returned.
“He’s as eager as you,” she went on. “But it’s so odd you shouldn’t have met.”
“It’s not really so odd as it strikes you. I’ve been out of England so much—made repeated absences all these last years.”
She took this in with interest. “And yet you write of it as well as if you were always here.”
“It’s just the being away perhaps. At any rate the best bits, I suspect, are those that were done in dreary places abroad.”
“And why were they dreary?”
“Because they were health-resorts—where my poor mother was dying.”
“Your poor mother?”—she was all sweet wonder.
“We went from place to place to help her to get better. But she never did. To the deadly Riviera (I hate it!) to the high Alps, to Algiers, and far away—a hideous journey—to Colorado.”
“And she isn’t better?” Miss Fancourt went on.
“She died a year ago.”
“Really?—like mine! Only that’s years since. Some day you must tell me about your mother,” she added.
He could at first, on this, only gaze at her. “What right things you say! If you say them to St. George I don’t wonder he’s in bondage.”
It pulled her up for a moment. “I don’t know what you mean. He doesn’t make speeches and professions at all—he isn’t ridiculous.”
“I’m afraid you consider then that I am.”
“No, I don’t”—she spoke it rather shortly. And then she added: “He understands—understands everything.”
The young man was on the point of saying jocosely: “And I don’t—is that it?” But these words, in time, changed themselves to others slightly less trivial: “Do you suppose he understands his wife?”
Miss Fancourt made no direct answer, but after a moment’s hesitation put it: “Isn’t she charming?”
“Not in the least!”
“Here he comes. Now you must know him,” she went on. A small group of visitors had gathered at the other end of the gallery and had been there overtaken by Henry St. George, who strolled in from a neighbouring room. He stood near them a moment, not falling into the talk but taking up an old miniature from a table and vaguely regarding it. At the end of a minute he became aware of Miss Fancourt and her companion in the distance; whereupon, laying down his miniature, he approached them with the same procrastinating air, his hands in his pockets and his eyes turned, right and left, to the pictures. The gallery was so long that this transit took some little time, especially as there was a moment when he stopped to admire the fine Gainsborough. “He says Mrs. St. George has been the making of him,” the girl continued in a voice slightly lowered.
“Ah he’s often obscure!” Paul laughed.
“Obscure?” she repeated as if she heard it for the first time. Her eyes rested on her other friend, and it wasn’t lost upon Paul that they appeared to send out great shafts of softness. “He’s going to speak to us!” she fondly breathed. There was a sort of rapture in her voice, and our friend was startled. “Bless my soul, does she care for him like that?—is she in love with him?” he mentally enquired. “Didn’t I tell you he was eager?” she had meanwhile asked of him.
“It’s eagerness dissimulated,” the young man returned as the subject of their observation lingered before his Gainsborough. “He edges toward us shyly. Does he mean that she saved him by burning that book?”
“That book? what book did she burn?” The girl quickly turned her face to him.
“Hasn’t he told you then?”
“Not a word.”
“Then he doesn’t tell you everything!” Paul had guessed that she pretty much supposed he did. The great man had now resumed his course and come nearer; in spite of which his more qualified admirer risked a profane observation: “St. George and the Dragon is what the anecdote suggests!”
His companion, however, didn’t hear it; she smiled at the dragon’s adversary. “He is eager—he is!” she insisted.
“Eager for you—yes.”
But meanwhile she had called out: “I’m sure you want to know Mr. Overt. You’ll be great friends, and it will always be delightful to me to remember I was here when you first met and that I had something to do with it.”
There was a freshness of intention in the words that carried them off; nevertheless our young man was sorry for Henry St. George, as he was sorry at any time for any person publicly invited to be responsive and delightful. He would have been so touched to believe that a man he deeply admired should care a straw for him that he wouldn’t play with such a presumption if it were possibly vain. In a single glance of the eye of the pardonable Master he read—having the sort of divination that belonged to his talent—that this personage had ever a store of friendly patience, which was part of his rich outfit, but was versed in no printed page of a rising scribbler. There was even a relief, a simplification, in that: liking him so much already for what he had done, how could one have liked him any more for a perception which must at the best have been vague? Paul Overt got up, trying to show his compassion, but at the same instant he found himself encompassed by St. George’s happy personal art—a manner of which it was the essence to conjure away false positions. It all took place in a moment. Paul was conscious that he knew him now, conscious of his handshake and of the very quality of his hand; of his face, seen nearer and consequently seen better, of a general fraternising assurance, and in particular of the circumstance that St. George didn’t dislike him (as yet at least) for being imposed by a charming but too gushing girl, attractive enough without such danglers. No irritation at any rate was reflected in the voice with which he questioned Miss Fancourt as to some project of a walk—a general walk of the company round the park. He had soon said something to Paul about a talk—“We must have a tremendous lot of talk; there are so many things, aren’t there?”—but our friend could see this idea wouldn’t in the present case take very immediate effect. All the same he was extremely happy, even after the matter of the walk had been settled—the three presently passed back to the other part of the gallery, where it was discussed with several members of the party; even when, after they had all gone out together, he found himself for half an hour conjoined with Mrs. St. George. Her husband had taken the advance with Miss Fancourt, and this pair were quite out of sight. It was the prettiest of rambles for a summer afternoon—a grassy circuit, of immense extent, skirting the limit of the park within. The park was completely surrounded by its old mottled but perfect red wall, which, all the way on their left, constituted in itself an object of interest. Mrs. St. George mentioned to him the surprising number of acres thus enclosed, together with numerous other facts relating to the property and the family, and the family’s other properties: she couldn’t too strongly urge on him the importance of seeing their other houses. She ran over the names of these and rang the changes on them with the facility of practice, making them appear an almost endless list. She had received Paul Overt very amiably on his breaking ground with her by the mention of his joy in having just made her husband’s acquaintance, and struck him as so alert and so accommodating a little woman that he was rather ashamed of his mot about her to Miss Fancourt; though he reflected that a hundred other people, on a hundred occasions, would have been sure to make it. He got on with Ms. St. George, in short, better than he expected; but this didn’t prevent her suddenly becoming aware that she was faint with fatigue and must take her way back to the house by the shortest cut. She professed that she hadn’t the strength of a kitten and was a miserable wreck; a character he had been too preoccupied to discern in her while he wondered in what sense she could be held to have been the making of her husband. He had arrived at a glimmering of the answer when she announced that she must leave him, though this perception was of course provisional. While he was in the very act of placing himself at her disposal for the return the situation underwent a change; Lord Masham had suddenly turned up, coming back to them, overtaking them, emerging from the shrubbery—Overt could scarcely have said how he appeared—and Mrs. St. George had protested that she wanted to be left alone and not to break up the party. A moment later she was walking off with Lord Masham. Our friend fell back and joined Lady Watermouth, to whom he presently mentioned that Mrs. St. George had been obliged to renounce the attempt to go further.
“She oughtn’t to have come out at all,” her ladyship rather grumpily remarked.
“Is she so very much of an invalid?”
“Very bad indeed.” And his hostess added with still greater austerity: “She oughtn’t really to come to one!” He wondered what was implied by this, and presently gathered that it was not a reflexion on the lady’s conduct or her moral nature: it only represented that her strength was not equal to her aspirations.
The smoking-room at Summersoft was on the scale of the rest of the place; high light commodious and decorated with such refined old carvings and mouldings that it seemed rather a bower for ladies who should sit at work at fading crewels than a parliament of gentlemen smoking strong cigars. The gentlemen mustered there in considerable force on the Sunday evening, collecting mainly at one end, in front of one of the cool fair fireplaces of white marble, the entablature of which was adorned with a delicate little Italian “subject.” There was another in the wall that faced it, and, thanks to the mild summer night, a fire in neither; but a nucleus for aggregation was furnished on one side by a table in the chimney-corner laden with bottles, decanters and tall tumblers. Paul Overt was a faithless smoker; he would puff a cigarette for reasons with which tobacco had nothing to do. This was particularly the case on the occasion of which I speak; his motive was the vision of a little direct talk with Henry St. George. The “tremendous” communion of which the great man had held out hopes to him earlier in the day had not yet come off, and this saddened him considerably, for the party was to go its several ways immediately after breakfast on the morrow. He had, however, the disappointment of finding that apparently the author of “Shadowmere” was not disposed to prolong his vigil. He wasn’t among the gentlemen assembled when Paul entered, nor was he one of those who turned up, in bright habiliments, during the next ten minutes. The young man waited a little, wondering if he had only gone to put on something extraordinary; this would account for his delay as well as contribute further to Overt’s impression of his tendency to do the approved superficial thing. But he didn’t arrive—he must have been putting on something more extraordinary than was probable. Our hero gave him up, feeling a little injured, a little wounded, at this loss of twenty coveted words. He wasn’t angry, but he puffed his cigarette sighingly, with the sense of something rare possibly missed. He wandered away with his regret and moved slowly round the room, looking at the old prints on the walls. In this attitude he presently felt a hand on his shoulder and a friendly voice in his ear “This is good. I hoped I should find you. I came down on purpose.” St. George was there without a change of dress and with a fine face—his graver one—to which our young man all in a flutter responded. He explained that it was only for the Master—the idea of a little talk—that he had sat up, and that, not finding him, he had been on the point of going to bed.
“Well, you know, I don’t smoke—my wife doesn’t let me,” said St. George, looking for a place to sit down. “It’s very good for me—very good for me. Let us take that sofa.”
“Do you mean smoking’s good for you?”
“No no—her not letting me. It’s a great thing to have a wife who’s so sure of all the things one can do without. One might never find them out one’s self. She doesn’t allow me to touch a cigarette.” They took possession of a sofa at a distance from the group of smokers, and St. George went on: “Have you got one yourself?”
“Do you mean a cigarette?”
“Dear no—a wife.”
“No; and yet I’d give up my cigarette for one.”
“You’d give up a good deal more than that,” St. George returned. “However, you’d get a great deal in return. There’s a something to be said for wives,” he added, folding his arms and crossing his outstretched legs. He declined tobacco altogether and sat there without returning fire. His companion stopped smoking, touched by his courtesy; and after all they were out of the fumes, their sofa was in a far-away corner. It would have been a mistake, St. George went on, a great mistake for them to have separated without a little chat; “for I know all about you,” he said, “I know you’re very remarkable. You’ve written a very distinguished book.”
“And how do you know it?” Paul asked.
“Why, my dear fellow, it’s in the air, it’s in the papers, it’s everywhere.” St. George spoke with the immediate familiarity of a confrère—a tone that seemed to his neighbour the very rustle of the laurel. “You’re on all men’s lips and, what’s better, on all women’s. And I’ve just been reading your book.”
“Just? You hadn’t read it this afternoon,” said Overt.
“How do you know that?”
“I think you should know how I know it,” the young man laughed.
“I suppose Miss Fancourt told you.”
“No indeed—she led me rather to suppose you had.”
“Yes—that’s much more what she’d do. Doesn’t she shed a rosy glow over life? But you didn’t believe her?” asked St. George.
“No, not when you came to us there.”
“Did I pretend? did I pretend badly?” But without waiting for an answer to this St. George went on: “You ought always to believe such a girl as that—always, always. Some women are meant to be taken with allowances and reserves; but you must take her just as she is.”
“I like her very much,” said Paul Overt.
Something in his tone appeared to excite on his companion’s part a momentary sense of the absurd; perhaps it was the air of deliberation attending this judgement. St. George broke into a laugh to reply. “It’s the best thing you can do with her. She’s a rare young lady! In point of fact, however, I confess I hadn’t read you this afternoon.”
“Then you see how right I was in this particular case not to believe Miss Fancourt.”
“How right? how can I agree to that when I lost credit by it?”
“Do you wish to pass exactly for what she represents you? Certainly you needn’t be afraid,” Paul said.
“Ah, my dear young man, don’t talk about passing—for the likes of me! I’m passing away—nothing else than that. She has a better use for her young imagination (isn’t it fine?) than in ‘representing’ in any way such a weary wasted used-up animal!” The Master spoke with a sudden sadness that produced a protest on Paul’s part; but before the protest could be uttered he went on, reverting to the latter’s striking novel: “I had no idea you were so good—one hears of so many things. But you’re surprisingly good.”
“I’m going to be surprisingly better,” Overt made bold to reply.
“I see that, and it’s what fetches me. I don’t see so much else—as one looks about—that’s going to be surprisingly better. They’re going to be consistently worse—most of the things. It’s so much easier to be worse—heaven knows I’ve found it so. I’m not in a great glow, you know, about what’s breaking out all over the place. But you must be better—you really must keep it up. I haven’t of course. It’s very difficult—that’s the devil of the whole thing, keeping it up. But I see you’ll be able to. It will be a great disgrace if you don’t.”
“It’s very interesting to hear you speak of yourself; but I don’t know what you mean by your allusions to your having fallen off,” Paul Overt observed with pardonable hypocrisy. He liked his companion so much now that the fact of any decline of talent or of care had ceased for the moment to be vivid to him.
“Don’t say that—don’t say that,” St. George returned gravely, his head resting on the top of the sofa-back and his eyes on the ceiling. “You know perfectly what I mean. I haven’t read twenty pages of your book without seeing that you can’t help it.”
“You make me very miserable,” Paul ecstatically breathed.
“I’m glad of that, for it may serve as a kind of warning. Shocking enough it must be, especially to a young fresh mind, full of faith—the spectacle of a man meant for better things sunk at my age in such dishonour.” St. George, in the same contemplative attitude, spoke softly but deliberately, and without perceptible emotion. His tone indeed suggested an impersonal lucidity that was practically cruel—cruel to himself—and made his young friend lay an argumentative hand on his arm. But he went on while his eyes seemed to follow the graces of the eighteenth-century ceiling: “Look at me well, take my lesson to heart—for it is a lesson. Let that good come of it at least that you shudder with your pitiful impression, and that this may help to keep you straight in the future. Don’t become in your old age what I have in mine—the depressing, the deplorable illustration of the worship of false gods!”
“What do you mean by your old age?” the young man asked.
“It has made me old. But I like your youth.”
Paul answered nothing—they sat for a minute in silence. They heard the others going on about the governmental majority. Then “What do you mean by false gods?” he enquired.
His companion had no difficulty whatever in saying, “The idols of the market; money and luxury and ‘the world;’ placing one’s children and dressing one’s wife; everything that drives one to the short and easy way. Ah the vile things they make one do!”
“But surely one’s right to want to place one’s children.”
“One has no business to have any children,” St. George placidly declared. “I mean of course if one wants to do anything good.”
“But aren’t they an inspiration—an incentive?”
“An incentive to damnation, artistically speaking.”
“You touch on very deep things—things I should like to discuss with you,” Paul said. “I should like you to tell me volumes about yourself. This is a great feast for me!”
“Of course it is, cruel youth. But to show you I’m still not incapable, degraded as I am, of an act of faith, I’ll tie my vanity to the stake for you and burn it to ashes. You must come and see me—you must come and see us,” the Master quickly substituted. “Mrs. St. George is charming; I don’t know whether you’ve had any opportunity to talk with her. She’ll be delighted to see you; she likes great celebrities, whether incipient or predominant. You must come and dine—my wife will write to you. Where are you to be found?”
“This is my little address”—and Overt drew out his pocketbook and extracted a visiting-card. On second thoughts, however, he kept it back, remarking that he wouldn’t trouble his friend to take charge of it but would come and see him straightway in London and leave it at his door if he should fail to obtain entrance.
“Ah you’ll probably fail; my wife’s always out—or when she isn’t out is knocked up from having been out. You must come and dine—though that won’t do much good either, for my wife insists on big dinners.” St. George turned it over further, but then went on: “You must come down and see us in the country, that’s the best way; we’ve plenty of room, and it isn’t bad.”
“You’ve a house in the country?” Paul asked enviously.
“Ah not like this! But we have a sort of place we go to—an hour from Euston. That’s one of the reasons.”
“One of the reasons?”
“Why my books are so bad.”
“You must tell me all the others!” Paul longingly laughed.
His friend made no direct rejoinder to this, but spoke again abruptly. “Why have I never seen you before?”
The tone of the question was singularly flattering to our hero, who felt it to imply the great man’s now perceiving he had for years missed something. “Partly, I suppose, because there has been no particular reason why you should see me. I haven’t lived in the world—in your world. I’ve spent many years out of England, in different places abroad.”
“Well, please don’t do it any more. You must do England—there’s such a lot of it.”
“Do you mean I must write about it?” and Paul struck the note of the listening candour of a child.
“Of course you must. And tremendously well, do you mind? That takes off a little of my esteem for this thing of yours—that it goes on abroad. Hang ‘abroad!’ Stay at home and do things here—do subjects we can measure.”
“I’ll do whatever you tell me,” Overt said, deeply attentive. “But pardon me if I say I don’t understand how you’ve been reading my book,” he added. “I’ve had you before me all the afternoon, first in that long walk, then at tea on the lawn, till we went to dress for dinner, and all the evening at dinner and in this place.”
St. George turned his face about with a smile. “I gave it but a quarter of an hour.”
“A quarter of an hour’s immense, but I don’t understand where you put it in. In the drawing-room after dinner you weren’t reading—you were talking to Miss Fancourt.”
“It comes to the same thing, because we talked about ‘Ginistrella.’ She described it to me—she lent me her copy.”
“Lent it to you?”
“She travels with it.”
“It’s incredible,” Paul blushed.
“It’s glorious for you, but it also turned out very well for me. When the ladies went off to bed she kindly offered to send the book down to me. Her maid brought it to me in the hall and I went to my room with it. I hadn’t thought of coming here, I do that so little. But I don’t sleep early, I always have to read an hour or two. I sat down to your novel on the spot, without undressing, without taking off anything but my coat. I think that’s a sign my curiosity had been strongly roused about it. I read a quarter of an hour, as I tell you, and even in a quarter of an hour I was greatly struck.”
“Ah the beginning isn’t very good—it’s the whole thing!” said Overt, who had listened to this recital with extreme interest. “And you laid down the book and came after me?” he asked.
“That’s the way it moved me. I said to myself ‘I see it’s off his own bat, and he’s there, by the way, and the day’s over and I haven’t said twenty words to him.’ It occurred to me that you’d probably be in the smoking-room and that it wouldn’t be too late to repair my omission. I wanted to do something civil to you, so I put on my coat and came down. I shall read your book again when I go up.”
Our friend faced round in his place—he was touched as he had scarce ever been by the picture of such a demonstration in his favour. “You’re really the kindest of men. Cela s’est passé comme ça?—and I’ve been sitting here with you all this time and never apprehended it and never thanked you!”
“Thank Miss Fancourt—it was she who wound me up. She has made me feel as if I had read your novel.”
“She’s an angel from heaven!” Paul declared.
“She is indeed. I’ve never seen any one like her. Her interest in literature’s touching—something quite peculiar to herself; she takes it all so seriously. She feels the arts and she wants to feel them more. To those who practise them it’s almost humiliating—her curiosity, her sympathy, her good faith. How can anything be as fine as she supposes it?”
“She’s a rare organisation,” the younger man sighed.
“The richest I’ve ever seen—an artistic intelligence really of the first order. And lodged in such a form!” St. George exclaimed.
“One would like to represent such a girl as that,” Paul continued.
“Ah there it is—there’s nothing like life!” said his companion. “When you’re finished, squeezed dry and used up and you think the sack’s empty, you’re still appealed to, you still get touches and thrills, the idea springs up—out of the lap of the actual—and shows you there’s always something to be done. But I shan’t do it—she’s not for me!”
“How do you mean, not for you?”
“Oh it’s all over—she’s for you, if you like.”
“Ah much less!” said Paul. “She’s not for a dingy little man of letters; she’s for the world, the bright rich world of bribes and rewards. And the world will take hold of her—it will carry her away.”
“It will try—but it’s just a case in which there may be a fight. It would be worth fighting, for a man who had it in him, with youth and talent on his side.”
These words rang not a little in Paul Overt’s consciousness—they held him briefly silent. “It’s a wonder she has remained as she is; giving herself away so—with so much to give away.”
“Remaining, you mean, so ingenuous—so natural? Oh she doesn’t care a straw—she gives away because she overflows. She has her own feelings, her own standards; she doesn’t keep remembering that she must be proud. And then she hasn’t been here long enough to be spoiled; she has picked up a fashion or two, but only the amusing ones. She’s a provincial—a provincial of genius,” St. George went on; “her very blunders are charming, her mistakes are interesting. She has come back from Asia with all sorts of excited curiosities and unappeased appetities. She’s first-rate herself and she expends herself on the second-rate. She’s life herself and she takes a rare interest in imitations. She mixes all things up, but there are none in regard to which she hasn’t perceptions. She sees things in a perspective—as if from the top of the Himalayas—and she enlarges everything she touches. Above all she exaggerates—to herself, I mean. She exaggerates you and me!”
There was nothing in that description to allay the agitation caused in our younger friend by such a sketch of a fine subject. It seemed to him to show the art of St. George’s admired hand, and he lost himself in gazing at the vision—this hovered there before him—of a woman’s figure which should be part of the glory of a novel. But at the end of a moment the thing had turned into smoke, and out of the smoke—the last puff of a big cigar—proceeded the voice of General Fancourt, who had left the others and come and planted himself before the gentlemen on the sofa. “I suppose that when you fellows get talking you sit up half the night.”
“Half the night?—jamais de la vie! I follow a hygiene”—and St. George rose to his feet.
“I see—you’re hothouse plants,” laughed the General. “That’s the way you produce your flowers.”
“I produce mine between ten and one every morning—I bloom with a regularity!” St. George went on.
“And with a splendour!” added the polite General, while Paul noted how little the author of “Shadowmere” minded, as he phrased it to himself, when addressed as a celebrated story-teller. The young man had an idea he should never get used to that; it would always make him uncomfortable—from the suspicion that people would think they had to—and he would want to prevent it. Evidently his great colleague had toughened and hardened—had made himself a surface. The group of men had finished their cigars and taken up their bedroom candlesticks; but before they all passed out Lord Watermouth invited the pair of guests who had been so absorbed together to “have” something. It happened that they both declined; upon which General Fancourt said: “Is that the hygiene? You don’t water the flowers?”
“Oh I should drown them!” St. George replied; but, leaving the room still at his young friend’s side, he added whimsically, for the latter’s benefit, in a lower tone: “My wife doesn’t let me.”
“Well I’m glad I’m not one of you fellows!” the General richly concluded.
The nearness of Summersoft to London had this consequence, chilling to a person who had had a vision of sociability in a railway-carriage, that most of the company, after breakfast, drove back to town, entering their own vehicles, which had come out to fetch them, while their servants returned by train with their luggage. Three or four young men, among whom was Paul Overt, also availed themselves of the common convenience; but they stood in the portico of the house and saw the others roll away. Miss Fancourt got into a victoria with her father after she had shaken hands with our hero and said, smiling in the frankest way in the world, “I must see you more. Mrs. St. George is so nice: she has promised to ask us both to dinner together.” This lady and her husband took their places in a perfectly-appointed brougham—she required a closed carriage—and as our young man waved his hat to them in response to their nods and flourishes he reflected that, taken together, they were an honourable image of success, of the material rewards and the social credit of literature. Such things were not the full measure, but he nevertheless felt a little proud for literature.
Before a week had elapsed he met Miss Fancourt in Bond Street, at a private view of the works of a young artist in “black-and-white” who had been so good as to invite him to the stuffy scene. The drawings were admirable, but the crowd in the one little room was so dense that he felt himself up to his neck in a sack of wool. A fringe of people at the outer edge endeavoured by curving forward their backs and presenting, below them, a still more convex surface of resistance to the pressure of the mass, to preserve an interval between their noses and the glazed mounts of the pictures; while the central body, in the comparative gloom projected by a wide horizontal screen hung under the skylight and allowing only a margin for the day, remained upright dense and vague, lost in the contemplation of its own ingredients. This contemplation sat especially in the sad eyes of certain female heads, surmounted with hats of strange convolution and plumage, which rose on long necks above the others. One of the heads Paul perceived, was much the so most beautiful of the collection, and his next discovery was that it belonged to Miss Fancourt. Its beauty was enhanced by the glad smile she sent him across surrounding obstructions, a smile that drew him to her as fast as he could make his way. He had seen for himself at Summersoft that the last thing her nature contained was an affectation of indifference; yet even with this circumspection he took a fresh satisfaction in her not having pretended to await his arrival with composure. She smiled as radiantly as if she wished to make him hurry, and as soon as he came within earshot she broke out in her voice of joy: “He’s here—he’s here—he’s coming back in a moment!”
“Ah your father?” Paul returned as she offered him her hand.
“Oh dear no, this isn’t in my poor father’s line. I mean Mr. St. George. He has just left me to speak to some one—he’s coming back. It’s he who brought me—wasn’t it charming?”
“Ah that gives him a pull over me—I couldn’t have ‘brought’ you, could I?”
“If you had been so kind as to propose it—why not you as well as he?” the girl returned with a face that, expressing no cheap coquetry, simply affirmed a happy fact.
“Why he’s a père de famille. They’ve privileges,” Paul explained. And then quickly: “Will you go to see places with me?” he asked.
“Anything you like!” she smiled. “I know what you mean, that girls have to have a lot of people—” Then she broke off: “I don’t know; I’m free. I’ve always been like that—I can go about with any one. I’m so glad to meet you,” she added with a sweet distinctness that made those near her turn round.
“Let me at least repay that speech by taking you out of this squash,” her friend said. “Surely people aren’t happy here!”
“No, they’re awfully mornes, aren’t they? But I’m very happy indeed and I promised Mr. St. George to remain in this spot till he comes back. He’s going to take me away. They send him invitations for things of this sort—more than he wants. It was so kind of him to think of me.”
“They also send me invitations of this kind—more than I want. And if thinking of you will do it—!” Paul went on.
“Oh I delight in them—everything that’s life—everything that’s London!”
“They don’t have private views in Asia, I suppose,” he laughed. “But what a pity that for this year, even in this gorged city, they’re pretty well over.”
“Well, next year will do, for I hope you believe we’re going to be friends always. Here he comes!” Miss Fancourt continued before Paul had time to respond.
He made out St. George in the gaps of the crowd, and this perhaps led to his hurrying a little to say: “I hope that doesn’t mean I’m to wait till next year to see you.”
“No, no—aren’t we to meet at dinner on the twenty-fifth?” she panted with an eagerness as happy as his own.
“That’s almost next year. Is there no means of seeing you before?”
She stared with all her brightness. “Do you mean you’d come?”
“Like a shot, if you’ll be so good as to ask me!”
“On Sunday then—this next Sunday?”
“What have I done that you should doubt it?” the young man asked with delight.
Miss Fancourt turned instantly to St. George, who had now joined them, and announced triumphantly: “He’s coming on Sunday—this next Sunday!”
“Ah my day—my day too!” said the famous novelist, laughing, to their companion.
“Yes, but not yours only. You shall meet in Manchester Square; you shall talk—you shall be wonderful!”
“We don’t meet often enough,” St. George allowed, shaking hands with his disciple. “Too many things—ah too many things! But we must make it up in the country in September. You won’t forget you’ve promised me that?”
“Why he’s coming on the twenty-fifth—you’ll see him then,” said the girl.
“On the twenty-fifth?” St. George asked vaguely.
“We dine with you; I hope you haven’t forgotten. He’s dining out that day,” she added gaily to Paul.
“Oh bless me, yes—that’s charming! And you’re coming? My wife didn’t tell me,” St. George said to him. “Too many things—too many things!” he repeated.
“Too many people—too many people!” Paul exclaimed, giving ground before the penetration of an elbow.
“You oughtn’t to say that. They all read you.”
“Me? I should like to see them! Only two or three at most,” the young man returned.
“Did you ever hear anything like that? He knows, haughtily, how good he is!” St. George declared, laughing to Miss Fancourt. “They read me, but that doesn’t make me like them any better. Come away from them, come away!” And he led the way out of the exhibition.
“He’s going to take me to the Park,” Miss Fancourt observed to Overt with elation as they passed along the corridor that led to the street.
“Ah does he go there?” Paul asked, taking the fact for a somewhat unexpected illustration of St. George’s moeurs.
“It’s a beautiful day—there’ll be a great crowd. We’re going to look at the people, to look at types,” the girl went on. “We shall sit under the trees; we shall walk by the Row.”
“I go once a year—on business,” said St. George, who had overheard Paul’s question.
“Or with a country cousin, didn’t you tell me? I’m the country cousin!” she continued over her shoulder to Paul as their friend drew her toward a hansom to which he had signalled. The young man watched them get in; he returned, as he stood there, the friendly wave of the hand with which, ensconced in the vehicle beside her, St. George took leave of him. He even lingered to see the vehicle start away and lose itself in the confusion of Bond Street. He followed it with his eyes; it put to him embarrassing things. “She’s not for me!” the great novelist had said emphatically at Summersoft; but his manner of conducting himself toward her appeared not quite in harmony with such a conviction. How could he have behaved differently if she had been for him? An indefinite envy rose in Paul Overt’s heart as he took his way on foot alone; a feeling addressed alike strangely enough, to each of the occupants of the hansom. How much he should like to rattle about London with such a girl! How much he should like to go and look at “types” with St. George!
The next Sunday at four o’clock he called in Manchester Square, where his secret wish was gratified by his finding Miss Fancourt alone. She was in a large bright friendly occupied room, which was painted red all over, draped with the quaint cheap florid stuffs that are represented as coming from southern and eastern countries, where they are fabled to serve as the counterpanes of the peasantry, and bedecked with pottery of vivid hues, ranged on casual shelves, and with many water-colour drawings from the hand (as the visitor learned) of the young lady herself, commemorating with a brave breadth the sunsets, the mountains, the temples and palaces of India. He sat an hour—more than an hour, two hours—and all the while no one came in. His hostess was so good as to remark, with her liberal humanity, that it was delightful they weren’t interrupted; it was so rare in London, especially at that season, that people got a good talk. But luckily now, of a fine Sunday, half the world went out of town, and that made it better for those who didn’t go, when these others were in sympathy. It was the defect of London—one of two or three, the very short list of those she recognised in the teeming world-city she adored—that there were too few good chances for talk; you never had time to carry anything far.
“Too many things—too many things!” Paul said, quoting St. George’s exclamation of a few days before.
“Ah yes, for him there are too many—his life’s too complicated.”
“Have you seen it near? That’s what I should like to do; it might explain some mysteries,” her visitor went on. She asked him what mysteries he meant, and he said: “Oh peculiarities of his work, inequalities, superficialities. For one who looks at it from the artistic point of view it contains a bottomless ambiguity.”
She became at this, on the spot, all intensity. “Ah do describe that more—it’s so interesting. There are no such suggestive questions. I’m so fond of them. He thinks he’s a failure—fancy!” she beautifully wailed.
“That depends on what his ideal may have been. With his gifts it ought to have been high. But till one knows what he really proposed to himself—? Do you know by chance?” the young man broke off.
“Oh he doesn’t talk to me about himself. I can’t make him. It’s too provoking.”
Paul was on the point of asking what then he did talk about, but discretion checked it and he said instead: “Do you think he’s unhappy at home?”
She seemed to wonder. “At home?”
“I mean in his relations with his wife. He has a mystifying little way of alluding to her.”
“Not to me,” said Marian Fancourt with her clear eyes. “That wouldn’t be right, would it?” she asked gravely.
“Not particularly; so I’m glad he doesn’t mention her to you. To praise her might bore you, and he has no business to do anything else. Yet he knows you better than me.”
“Ah but he respects you!” the girl cried as with envy.
Her visitor stared a moment, then broke into a laugh. “Doesn’t he respect you?”
“Of course, but not in the same way. He respects what you’ve done—he told me so, the other day.”
Paul drank it in, but retained his faculties. “When you went to look at types?”
“Yes—we found so many: he has such an observation of them! He talked a great deal about your book. He says it’s really important.”
“Important! Ah the grand creature!”—and the author of the work in question groaned for joy.
“He was wonderfully amusing, he was inexpressibly droll, while we walked about. He sees everything; he has so many comparisons and images, and they’re always exactly right. C’est d’un trouvé, as they say.”
“Yes, with his gifts, such things as he ought to have done!” Paul sighed.
“And don’t you think he has done them?”
Ah it was just the point. “A part of them, and of course even that part’s immense. But he might have been one of the greatest. However, let us not make this an hour of qualifications. Even as they stand,” our friend earnestly concluded, “his writings are a mine of gold.”
To this proposition she ardently responded, and for half an hour the pair talked over the Master’s principal productions. She knew them well—she knew them even better than her visitor, who was struck with her critical intelligence and with something large and bold in the movement in her mind. She said things that startled him and that evidently had come to her directly; they weren’t picked-up phrases—she placed them too well. St. George had been right about her being first-rate, about her not being afraid to gush, not remembering that she must be proud. Suddenly something came back to her, and she said: “I recollect that he did speak of Mrs. St. George to me once. He said, apropos of something or other, that she didn’t care for perfection.”
“That’s a great crime in an artist’s wife,” Paul returned.
“Yes, poor thing!” and the girl sighed with a suggestion of many reflexions, some of them mitigating. But she presently added: “Ah perfection, perfection—how one ought to go in for it! I wish I could.”
“Every one can in his way,” her companion opined.
“In his way, yes—but not in hers. Women are so hampered—so condemned! Yet it’s a kind of dishonour if you don’t, when you want to do something, isn’t it?” Miss Fancourt pursued, dropping one train in her quickness to take up another, an accident that was common with her. So these two young persons sat discussing high themes in their eclectic drawing-room, in their London “season”—discussing, with extreme seriousness, the high theme of perfection. It must be said in extenuation of this eccentricity that they were interested in the business. Their tone had truth and their emotion beauty; they weren’t posturing for each other or for some one else.
The subject was so wide that they found themselves reducing it; the perfection to which for the moment they agreed to confine their speculations was that of the valid, the exemplary work of art. Our young woman’s imagination, it appeared, had wandered far in that direction, and her guest had the rare delight of feeling in their conversation a full interchange. This episode will have lived for years in his memory and even in his wonder; it had the quality that fortune distils in a single drop at a time—the quality that lubricates many ensuing frictions. He still, whenever he likes, has a vision of the room, the bright red sociable talkative room with the curtains that, by a stroke of successful audacity, had the note of vivid blue. He remembers where certain things stood, the particular book open on the table and the almost intense odour of the flowers placed, at the left, somewhere behind him. These facts were the fringe, as it were, of a fine special agitation which had its birth in those two hours and of which perhaps the main sign was in its leading him inwardly and repeatedly to breathe “I had no idea there was any one like this—I had no idea there was any one like this!” Her freedom amazed him and charmed him—it seemed so to simplify the practical question. She was on the footing of an independent personage—a motherless girl who had passed out of her teens and had a position and responsibilities, who wasn’t held down to the limitations of a little miss. She came and went with no dragged duenna, she received people alone, and, though she was totally without hardness, the question of protection or patronage had no relevancy in regard to her. She gave such an impression of the clear and the noble combined with the easy and the natural that in spite of her eminent modern situation she suggested no sort of sister-hood with the “fast” girl. Modern she was indeed, and made Paul Overt, who loved old colour, the golden glaze of time, think with some alarm of the muddled palette of the future. He couldn’t get used to her interest in the arts he cared for; it seemed too good to be real—it was so unlikely an adventure to tumble into such a well of sympathy. One might stray into the desert easily—that was on the cards and that was the law of life; but it was too rare an accident to stumble on a crystal well. Yet if her aspirations seemed at one moment too extravagant to be real they struck him at the next as too intelligent to be false. They were both high and lame, and, whims for whims, he preferred them to any he had met in a like relation. It was probable enough she would leave them behind—exchange them for politics or “smartness” or mere prolific maternity, as was the custom of scribbling daubing educated flattered girls in an age of luxury and a society of leisure. He noted that the water-colours on the walls of the room she sat in had mainly the quality of being naïves, and reflected that naïveté in art is like a zero in a number: its importance depends on the figure it is united with. Meanwhile, however, he had fallen in love with her. Before he went away, at any rate, he said to her: “I thought St. George was coming to see you to-day, but he doesn’t turn up.”
For a moment he supposed she was going to cry “Comment donc? Did you come here only to meet him?” But the next he became aware of how little such a speech would have fallen in with any note of flirtation he had as yet perceived in her. She only replied: “Ah yes, but I don’t think he’ll come. He recommended me not to expect him.” Then she gaily but all gently added: “He said it wasn’t fair to you. But I think I could manage two.”
“So could I,” Paul Overt returned, stretching the point a little to meet her. In reality his appreciation of the occasion was so completely an appreciation of the woman before him that another figure in the scene, even so esteemed a one as St. George, might for the hour have appealed to him vainly. He left the house wondering what the great man had meant by its not being fair to him; and, still more than that, whether he had actually stayed away from the force of that idea. As he took his course through the Sunday solitude of Manchester Square, swinging his stick and with a good deal of emotion fermenting in his soul, it appeared to him he was living in a world strangely magnanimous. Miss Fancourt had told him it was possible she should be away, and that her father should be, on the following Sunday, but that she had the hope of a visit from him in the other event. She promised to let him know should their absence fail, and then he might act accordingly. After he had passed into one of the streets that open from the Square he stopped, without definite intentions, looking sceptically for a cab. In a moment he saw a hansom roll through the place from the other side and come a part of the way toward him. He was on the point of hailing the driver when he noticed a “fare” within; then he waited, seeing the man prepare to deposit his passenger by pulling up at one of the houses. The house was apparently the one he himself had just quitted; at least he drew that inference as he recognised Henry St. George in the person who stepped out of the hansom. Paul turned off as quickly as if he had been caught in the act of spying. He gave up his cab—he preferred to walk; he would go nowhere else. He was glad St. George hadn’t renounced his visit altogether—that would have been too absurd. Yes, the world was magnanimous, and even he himself felt so as, on looking at his watch, he noted but six o’clock, so that he could mentally congratulate his successor on having an hour still to sit in Miss Fancourt’s drawing-room. He himself might use that hour for another visit, but by the time he reached the Marble Arch the idea of such a course had become incongruous to him. He passed beneath that architectural effort and walked into the Park till he got upon the spreading grass. Here he continued to walk; he took his way across the elastic turf and came out by the Serpentine. He watched with a friendly eye the diversions of the London people, he bent a glance almost encouraging on the young ladies paddling their sweethearts about the lake and the guardsmen tickling tenderly with their bearskins the artificial flowers in the Sunday hats of their partners. He prolonged his meditative walk; he went into Kensington Gardens, he sat upon the penny chairs, he looked at the little sail-boats launched upon the round pond and was glad he had no engagement to dine. He repaired for this purpose, very late, to his club, where he found himself unable to order a repast and told the waiter to bring whatever there was. He didn’t even observe what he was served with, and he spent the evening in the library of the establishment, pretending to read an article in an American magazine. He failed to discover what it was about; it appeared in a dim way to be about Marian Fancourt.
Quite late in the week she wrote to him that she was not to go into the country—it had only just been settled. Her father, she added, would never settle anything, but put it all on her. She felt her responsibility—she had to—and since she was forced this was the way she had decided. She mentioned no reasons, which gave our friend all the clearer field for bold conjecture about them. In Manchester Square on this second Sunday he esteemed his fortune less good, for she had three or four other visitors. But there were three or four compensations; perhaps the greatest of which was that, learning how her father had after all, at the last hour, gone out of town alone, the bold conjecture I just now spoke of found itself becoming a shade more bold. And then her presence was her presence, and the personal red room was there and was full of it, whatever phantoms passed and vanished, emitting incomprehensible sounds. Lastly, he had the resource of staying till every one had come and gone and of believing this grateful to her, though she gave no particular sign. When they were alone together he came to his point. “But St. George did come—last Sunday. I saw him as I looked back.”
“Yes; but it was the last time.”
“The last time?”
“He said he would never come again.”
Paul Overt stared. “Does he mean he wishes to cease to see you?”
“I don’t know what he means,” the girl bravely smiled. “He won’t at any rate see me here.”
“And pray why not?”
“I haven’t the least idea,” said Marian Fancourt, whose visitor found her more perversely sublime than ever yet as she professed this clear helplessness.
“Oh I say, I want you to stop a little,” Henry St. George said to him at eleven o’clock the night he dined with the head of the profession. The company—none of it indeed of the profession—had been numerous and was taking its leave; our young man, after bidding good-night to his hostess, had put out his hand in farewell to the master of the house. Besides drawing from the latter the protest I have cited this movement provoked a further priceless word about their chance now to have a talk, their going into his room, his having still everything to say. Paul Overt was all delight at this kindness; nevertheless he mentioned in weak jocose qualification the bare fact that he had promised to go to another place which was at a considerable distance.
“Well then you’ll break your promise, that’s all. You quite awful humbug!” St. George added in a tone that confirmed our young man’s ease.
“Certainly I’ll break it—but it was a real promise.”
“Do you mean to Miss Fancourt? You’re following her?” his friend asked.
He answered by a question. “Oh is she going?”
“Base impostor!” his ironic host went on. “I’ve treated you handsomely on the article of that young lady: I won’t make another concession. Wait three minutes—I’ll be with you.” He gave himself to his departing guests, accompanied the long-trained ladies to the door. It was a hot night, the windows were open, the sound of the quick carriages and of the linkmen’s call came into the house. The affair had rather glittered; a sense of festal things was in the heavy air: not only the influence of that particular entertainment, but the suggestion of the wide hurry of pleasure which in London on summer nights fills so many of the happier quarters of the complicated town. Gradually Mrs. St. George’s drawing-room emptied itself; Paul was left alone with his hostess, to whom he explained the motive of his waiting. “Ah yes, some intellectual, some professional, talk,” she leered; “at this season doesn’t one miss it? Poor dear Henry, I’m so glad!” The young man looked out of the window a moment, at the called hansoms that lurched up, at the smooth broughams that rolled away. When he turned round Mrs. St. George had disappeared; her husband’s voice rose to him from below—he was laughing and talking, in the portico, with some lady who awaited her carriage. Paul had solitary possession, for some minutes, of the warm deserted rooms where the covered tinted lamplight was soft, the seats had been pushed about and the odour of flowers lingered. They were large, they were pretty, they contained objects of value; everything in the picture told of a “good house.” At the end of five minutes a servant came in with a request from the Master that he would join him downstairs; upon which, descending, he followed his conductor through a long passage to an apartment thrown out, in the rear of the habitation, for the special requirements, as he guessed, of a busy man of letters.
St. George was in his shirt-sleeves in the middle of a large high room—a room without windows, but with a wide skylight at the top, that of a place of exhibition. It was furnished as a library, and the serried bookshelves rose to the ceiling, a surface of incomparable tone produced by dimly-gilt “backs” interrupted here and there by the suspension of old prints and drawings. At the end furthest from the door of admission was a tall desk, of great extent, at which the person using it could write only in the erect posture of a clerk in a counting-house; and stretched from the entrance to this structure was a wide plain band of crimson cloth, as straight as a garden-path and almost as long, where, in his mind’s eye, Paul at once beheld the Master pace to and fro during vexed hours—hours, that is, of admirable composition. The servant gave him a coat, an old jacket with a hang of experience, from a cupboard in the wall, retiring afterwards with the garment he had taken off. Paul Overt welcomed the coat; it was a coat for talk, it promised confidences—having visibly received so many—and had tragic literary elbows. “Ah we’re practical—we’re practical!” St. George said as he saw his visitor look the place over. “Isn’t it a good big cage for going round and round? My wife invented it and she locks me up here every morning.”
Our young man breathed—by way of tribute—with a certain oppression. “You don’t miss a window—a place to look out?”
“I did at first awfully; but her calculation was just. It saves time, it has saved me many months in these ten years. Here I stand, under the eye of day—in London of course, very often, it’s rather a bleared old eye—walled in to my trade. I can’t get away—so the room’s a fine lesson in concentration. I’ve learnt the lesson, I think; look at that big bundle of proof and acknowledge it.” He pointed to a fat roll of papers, on one of the tables, which had not been undone.
“Are you bringing out another—?” Paul asked in a tone the fond deficiencies of which he didn’t recognise till his companion burst out laughing, and indeed scarce even then.
“You humbug, you humbug!”—St. George appeared to enjoy caressing him, as it were, with that opprobrium. “Don’t I know what you think of them?” he asked, standing there with his hands in his pockets and with a new kind of smile. It was as if he were going to let his young votary see him all now.
“Upon my word in that case you know more than I do!” the latter ventured to respond, revealing a part of the torment of being able neither clearly to esteem nor distinctly to renounce him.
“My dear fellow,” said the more and more interesting Master, “don’t imagine I talk about my books specifically; they’re not a decent subject—il ne manquerait plus que ça! I’m not so bad as you may apprehend! About myself, yes, a little, if you like; though it wasn’t for that I brought you down here. I want to ask you something—very much indeed; I value this chance. Therefore sit down. We’re practical, but there is a sofa, you see—for she does humour my poor bones so far. Like all really great administrators and disciplinarians she knows when wisely to relax.” Paul sank into the corner of a deep leathern couch, but his friend remained standing and explanatory. “If you don’t mind, in this room, this is my habit. From the door to the desk and from the desk to the door. That shakes up my imagination gently; and don’t you see what a good thing it is that there’s no window for her to fly out of? The eternal standing as I write (I stop at that bureau and put it down, when anything comes, and so we go on) was rather wearisome at first, but we adopted it with an eye to the long run; you’re in better order—if your legs don’t break down!—and you can keep it up for more years. Oh we’re practical—we’re practical!” St. George repeated, going to the table and taking up all mechanically the bundle of proofs. But, pulling off the wrapper, he had a change of attention that appealed afresh to our hero. He lost himself a moment, examining the sheets of his new book, while the younger man’s eyes wandered over the room again.
“Lord, what good things I should do if I had such a charming place as this to do them in!” Paul reflected. The outer world, the world of accident and ugliness, was so successfully excluded, and within the rich protecting square, beneath the patronising sky, the dream-figures, the summoned company, could hold their particular revel. It was a fond prevision of Overt’s rather than an observation on actual data, for which occasions had been too few, that the Master thus more closely viewed would have the quality, the charming gift, of flashing out, all surprisingly, in personal intercourse and at moments of suspended or perhaps even of diminished expectation. A happy relation with him would be a thing proceeding by jumps, not by traceable stages.
“Do you read them—really?” he asked, laying down the proofs on Paul’s enquiring of him how soon the work would be published. And when the young man answered “Oh yes, always,” he was moved to mirth again by something he caught in his manner of saying that. “You go to see your grandmother on her birthday—and very proper it is, especially as she won’t last for ever. She has lost every faculty and every sense; she neither sees, nor hears, nor speaks; but all customary pieties and kindly habits are respectable. Only you’re strong if you do read ’em! I couldn’t, my dear fellow. You are strong, I know; and that’s just a part of what I wanted to say to you. You’re very strong indeed. I’ve been going into your other things—they’ve interested me immensely. Some one ought to have told me about them before—some one I could believe. But whom can one believe? You’re wonderfully on the right road—it’s awfully decent work. Now do you mean to keep it up?—that’s what I want to ask you.”
“Do I mean to do others?” Paul asked, looking up from his sofa at his erect inquisitor and feeling partly like a happy little boy when the school-master is gay, and partly like some pilgrim of old who might have consulted a world-famous oracle. St. George’s own performance had been infirm, but as an adviser he would be infallible.
“Others—others? Ah the number won’t matter; one other would do, if it were really a further step—a throb of the same effort. What I mean is have you it in your heart to go in for some sort of decent perfection?”
“Ah decency, ah perfection—!” the young man sincerely sighed. “I talked of them the other Sunday with Miss Fancourt.”
It produced on the Master’s part a laugh of odd acrimony. “Yes, they’ll ‘talk’ of them as much as you like! But they’ll do little to help one to them. There’s no obligation of course; only you strike me as capable,” he went on. “You must have thought it all over. I can’t believe you’re without a plan. That’s the sensation you give me, and it’s so rare that it really stirs one up—it makes you remarkable. If you haven’t a plan, if you don’t mean to keep it up, surely you’re within your rights; it’s nobody’s business, no one can force you, and not more than two or three people will notice you don’t go straight. The others—all the rest, every blest soul in England, will think you do—will think you are keeping it up: upon my honour they will! I shall be one of the two or three who know better. Now the question is whether you can do it for two or three. Is that the stuff you’re made of?”
It locked his guest a minute as in closed throbbing arms. “I could do it for one, if you were the one.”
“Don’t say that; I don’t deserve it; it scorches me,” he protested with eyes suddenly grave and glowing. “The ‘one’ is of course one’s self, one’s conscience, one’s idea, the singleness of one’s aim. I think of that pure spirit as a man thinks of a woman he has in some detested hour of his youth loved and forsaken. She haunts him with reproachful eyes, she lives for ever before him. As an artist, you know, I’ve married for money.” Paul stared and even blushed a little, confounded by this avowal; whereupon his host, observing the expression of his face, dropped a quick laugh and pursued: “You don’t follow my figure. I’m not speaking of my dear wife, who had a small fortune—which, however, was not my bribe. I fell in love with her, as many other people have done. I refer to the mercenary muse whom I led to the altar of literature. Don’t, my boy, put your nose into that yoke. The awful jade will lead you a life!”
Our hero watched him, wondering and deeply touched. “Haven’t you been happy!”
“Happy? It’s a kind of hell.”
“There are things I should like to ask you,” Paul said after a pause.
“Ask me anything in all the world. I’d turn myself inside out to save you.”
“To ‘save’ me?” he quavered.
“To make you stick to it—to make you see it through. As I said to you the other night at Summersoft, let my example be vivid to you.”
“Why your books are not so bad as that,” said Paul, fairly laughing and feeling that if ever a fellow had breathed the air of art—!
“So bad as what?”
“Your talent’s so great that it’s in everything you do, in what’s less good as well as in what’s best. You’ve some forty volumes to show for it—forty volumes of wonderful life, of rare observation, of magnificent ability.”
“I’m very clever, of course I know that”—but it was a thing, in fine, this author made nothing of. “Lord, what rot they’d all be if I hadn’t been I’m a successful charlatan,” he went on—“I’ve been able to pass off my system. But do you know what it is? It’s cartonpierre.”
“Carton-pierre?” Paul was struck, and gaped.
“Ah don’t say such things—you make me bleed!” the younger man protested. “I see you in a beautiful fortunate home, living in comfort and honour.”
“Do you call it honour?”—his host took him up with an intonation that often comes back to him. “That’s what I want you to go in for. I mean the real thing. This is brummagem.”
“Brummagem?” Paul ejaculated while his eyes wandered, by a movement natural at the moment, over the luxurious room.
“Ah they make it so well to-day—it’s wonderfully deceptive!”
Our friend thrilled with the interest and perhaps even more with the pity of it. Yet he wasn’t afraid to seem to patronise when he could still so far envy. “Is it deceptive that I find you living with every appearance of domestic felicity—blest with a devoted, accomplished wife, with children whose acquaintance I haven’t yet had the pleasure of making, but who must be delightful young people, from what I know of their parents?”
St. George smiled as for the candour of his question. “It’s all excellent, my dear fellow—heaven forbid I should deny it. I’ve made a great deal of money; my wife has known how to take care of it, to use it without wasting it, to put a good bit of it by, to make it fructify. I’ve got a loaf on the shelf; I’ve got everything in fact but the great thing.”
“The great thing?” Paul kept echoing.
“The sense of having done the best—the sense which is the real life of the artist and the absence of which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played. He either does that or he doesn’t—and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth speaking of. Therefore, precisely, those who really know don’t speak of him. He may still hear a great chatter, but what he hears most is the incorruptible silence of Fame. I’ve squared her, you may say, for my little hour—but what’s my little hour? Don’t imagine for a moment,” the Master pursued, “that I’m such a cad as to have brought you down here to abuse or to complain of my wife to you. She’s a woman of distinguished qualities, to whom my obligations are immense; so that, if you please, we’ll say nothing about her. My boys—my children are all boys—are straight and strong, thank God, and have no poverty of growth about them, no penury of needs. I receive periodically the most satisfactory attestation from Harrow, from Oxford, from Sandhurst—oh we’ve done the best for them!—of their eminence as living thriving consuming organisms.”
“It must be delightful to feel that the son of one’s loins is at Sandhurst,” Paul remarked enthusiastically.
“It is—it’s charming. Oh I’m a patriot!”
The young man then could but have the greater tribute of questions to pay. “Then what did you mean—the other night at Summersoft—by saying that children are a curse?”
“My dear youth, on what basis are we talking?” and St. George dropped upon the sofa at a short distance from him. Sitting a little sideways he leaned back against the opposite arm with his hands raised and interlocked behind his head. “On the supposition that a certain perfection’s possible and even desirable—isn’t it so? Well, all I say is that one’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife interferes. Marriage interferes.”
“You think then the artist shouldn’t marry?”
“He does so at his peril—he does so at his cost.”
“Not even when his wife’s in sympathy with his work?”
“She never is—she can’t be! Women haven’t a conception of such things.”
“Surely they on occasion work themselves,” Paul objected.
“Yes, very badly indeed. Oh of course, often, they think they understand, they think they sympathise. Then it is they’re most dangerous. Their idea is that you shall do a great lot and get a great lot of money. Their great nobleness and virtue, their exemplary conscientiousness as British females, is in keeping you up to that. My wife makes all my bargains with my publishers for me, and has done so for twenty years. She does it consummately well—that’s why I’m really pretty well off. Aren’t you the father of their innocent babes, and will you withhold from them their natural sustenance? You asked me the other night if they’re not an immense incentive. Of course they are—there’s no doubt of that!”
Paul turned it over: it took, from eyes he had never felt open so wide, so much looking at. “For myself I’ve an idea I need incentives.”
“Ah well then, n’en parlons plus!” his companion handsomely smiled.
“You are an incentive, I maintain,” the young man went on. “You don’t affect me in the way you’d apparently like to. Your great success is what I see—the pomp of Ennismore Gardens!”
“Success?”—St. George’s eyes had a cold fine light. “Do you call it success to be spoken of as you’d speak of me if you were sitting here with another artist—a young man intelligent and sincere like yourself? Do you call it success to make you blush—as you would blush!—if some foreign critic (some fellow, of course I mean, who should know what he was talking about and should have shown you he did, as foreign critics like to show it) were to say to you: ‘He’s the one, in this country, whom they consider the most perfect, isn’t he?’ Is it success to be the occasion of a young Englishman’s having to stammer as you would have to stammer at such a moment for old England? No, no; success is to have made people wriggle to another tune. Do try it!”
Paul continued all gravely to glow. “Try what?”
“Try to do some really good work.”
“Oh I want to, heaven knows!”
“Well, you can’t do it without sacrifices—don’t believe that for a moment,” the Master said. “I’ve made none. I’ve had everything. In other words I’ve missed everything.”
“You’ve had the full rich masculine human general life, with all the responsibilities and duties and burdens and sorrows and joys—all the domestic and social initiations and complications. They must be immensely suggestive, immensely amusing,” Paul anxiously submitted.
“For a strong man—yes.”
“They’ve given me subjects without number, if that’s what you mean; but they’ve taken away at the same time the power to use them. I’ve touched a thousand things, but which one of them have I turned into gold? The artist has to do only with that—he knows nothing of any baser metal. I’ve led the life of the world, with my wife and my progeny; the clumsy conventional expensive materialised vulgarised brutalised life of London. We’ve got everything handsome, even a carriage—we’re perfect Philistines and prosperous hospitable eminent people. But, my dear fellow, don’t try to stultify yourself and pretend you don’t know what we haven’t got. It’s bigger than all the rest. Between artists—come!” the Master wound up. “You know as well as you sit there that you’d put a pistol-ball into your brain if you had written my books!”
It struck his listener that the tremendous talk promised by him at Summersoft had indeed come off, and with a promptitude, a fulness, with which the latter’s young imagination had scarcely reckoned. His impression fairly shook him and he throbbed with the excitement of such deep soundings and such strange confidences. He throbbed indeed with the conflict of his feelings—bewilderment and recognition and alarm, enjoyment and protest and assent, all commingled with tenderness (and a kind of shame in the participation) for the sores and bruises exhibited by so fine a creature, and with a sense of the tragic secret nursed under his trappings. The idea of his, Paul Overt’s, becoming the occasion of such an act of humility made him flush and pant, at the same time that his consciousness was in certain directions too much alive not to swallow—and not intensely to taste—every offered spoonful of the revelation. It had been his odd fortune to blow upon the deep waters, to make them surge and break in waves of strange eloquence. But how couldn’t he give out a passionate contradiction of his host’s last extravagance, how couldn’t he enumerate to him the parts of his work he loved, the splendid things he had found in it, beyond the compass of any other writer of the day? St. George listened a while, courteously; then he said, laying his hand on his visitor’s: “That’s all very well; and if your idea’s to do nothing better there’s no reason you shouldn’t have as many good things as I—as many human and material appendages, as many sons or daughters, a wife with as many gowns, a house with as many servants, a stable with as many horses, a heart with as many aches.” The Master got up when he had spoken thus—he stood a moment—near the sofa looking down on his agitated pupil. “Are you possessed of any property?” it occurred to him to ask.
“None to speak of.”
“Oh well then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make a goodish income—if you set about it the right way. Study me for that—study me well. You may really have horses.”
Paul sat there some minutes without speaking. He looked straight before him—he turned over many things. His friend had wandered away, taking up a parcel of letters from the table where the roll of proofs had lain. “What was the book Mrs. St. George made you burn—the one she didn’t like?” our young man brought out.
“The book she made me burn—how did you know that?” The Master looked up from his letters quite without the facial convulsion the pupil had feared.
“I heard her speak of it at Summersoft.”
“Ah yes—she’s proud of it. I don’t know—it was rather good.”
“What was it about?”
“Let me see.” And he seemed to make an effort to remember. “Oh yes—it was about myself.” Paul gave an irrepressible groan for the disappearance of such a production, and the elder man went on: “Oh but you should write it—you should do me.” And he pulled up—from the restless motion that had come upon him; his fine smile a generous glare. “There’s a subject, my boy: no end of stuff in it!”
Again Paul was silent, but it was all tormenting. “Are there no women who really understand—who can take part in a sacrifice?”
“How can they take part? They themselves are the sacrifice. They’re the idol and the altar and the flame.”
“Isn’t there even one who sees further?” Paul continued.
For a moment St. George made no answer; after which, having torn up his letters, he came back to the point all ironic. “Of course I know the one you mean. But not even Miss Fancourt.”
“I thought you admired her so much.”
“It’s impossible to admire her more. Are you in love with her?” St. George asked.
“Yes,” Paul Overt presently said.
“Well then give it up.”
Paul stared. “Give up my ‘love’?”
“Bless me, no. Your idea.” And then as our hero but still gazed: “The one you talked with her about. The idea of a decent perfection.”
“She’d help it—she’d help it!” the young man cried.
“For about a year—the first year, yes. After that she’d be as a millstone round its neck.”
Paul frankly wondered. “Why she has a passion for the real thing, for good work—for everything you and I care for most.”
“‘You and I’ is charming, my dear fellow!” his friend laughed. “She has it indeed, but she’d have a still greater passion for her children—and very proper too. She’d insist on everything’s being made comfortable, advantageous, propitious for them. That isn’t the artist’s business.”
“The artist—the artist! Isn’t he a man all the same?”
St. George had a grand grimace. “I mostly think not. You know as well as I what he has to do: the concentration, the finish, the independence he must strive for from the moment he begins to wish his work really decent. Ah my young friend, his relation to women, and especially to the one he’s most intimately concerned with, is at the mercy of the damning fact that whereas he can in the nature of things have but one standard, they have about fifty. That’s what makes them so superior,” St. George amusingly added. “Fancy an artist with a change of standards as you’d have a change of shirts or of dinner-plates. To do it—to do it and make it divine—is the only thing he has to think about. ‘Is it done or not?’ is his only question. Not ‘Is it done as well as a proper solicitude for my dear little family will allow?’ He has nothing to do with the relative—he has only to do with the absolute; and a dear little family may represent a dozen relatives.”
“Then you don’t allow him the common passions and affections of men?” Paul asked.
“Hasn’t he a passion, an affection, which includes all the rest? Besides, let him have all the passions he likes—if he only keeps his independence. He must be able to be poor.”
Paul slowly got up. “Why then did you advise me to make up to her?”
St. George laid his hand on his shoulder. “Because she’d make a splendid wife! And I hadn’t read you then.”
The young man had a strained smile. “I wish you had left me alone!”
“I didn’t know that that wasn’t good enough for you,” his host returned.
“What a false position, what a condemnation of the artist, that he’s a mere disfranchised monk and can produce his effect only by giving up personal happiness. What an arraignment of art!” Paul went on with a trembling voice.
“Ah you don’t imagine by chance that I’m defending art? ‘Arraignment’—I should think so! Happy the societies in which it hasn’t made its appearance, for from the moment it comes they have a consuming ache, they have an incurable corruption, in their breast. Most assuredly is the artist in a false position! But I thought we were taking him for granted. Pardon me,” St. George continued: “‘Ginistrella’ made me!”
Paul stood looking at the floor—one o’clock struck, in the stillness, from a neighbouring church-tower. “Do you think she’d ever look at me?” he put to his friend at last.
“Miss Fancourt—as a suitor? Why shouldn’t I think it? That’s why I’ve tried to favour you—I’ve had a little chance or two of bettering your opportunity.”
“Forgive my asking you, but do you mean by keeping away yourself?” Paul said with a blush.
“I’m an old idiot—my place isn’t there,” St. George stated gravely.
“I’m nothing yet, I’ve no fortune; and there must be so many others,” his companion pursued.
The Master took this considerably in, but made little of it. “You’re a gentleman and a man of genius. I think you might do something.”
“But if I must give that up—the genius?”
“Lots of people, you know, think I’ve kept mine,” St. George wonderfully grinned.
“You’ve a genius for mystification!” Paul declared; but grasping his hand gratefully in attenuation of this judgement.
“Poor dear boy, I do worry you! But try, try, all the same. I think your chances are good and you’ll win a great prize.”
Paul held fast the other’s hand a minute; he looked into the strange deep face. “No, I am an artist—I can’t help it!”
“Ah show it then!” St. George pleadingly broke out. “Let me see before I die the thing I most want, the thing I yearn for: a life in which the passion—ours—is really intense. If you can be rare don’t fail of it! Think what it is—how it counts—how it lives!”
They had moved to the door and he had closed both his hands over his companion’s. Here they paused again and our hero breathed deep. “I want to live!”
“In what sense?”
“In the greatest.”
“Well then stick to it—see it through.”
“With your sympathy—your help?”
“Count on that—you’ll be a great figure to me. Count on my highest appreciation, my devotion. You’ll give me satisfaction—if that has any weight with you.” After which, as Paul appeared still to waver, his host added: “Do you remember what you said to me at Summersoft?”
“Something infatuated, no doubt!”
“‘I’ll do anything in the world you tell me.’ You said that.”
“And you hold me to it?”
“Ah what am I?” the Master expressively sighed.
“Lord, what things I shall have to do!” Paul almost moaned as be departed.
“It goes on too much abroad—hang abroad!” These or something like them had been the Master’s remarkable words in relation to the action of “Ginistrella”; and yet, though they had made a sharp impression on the author of that work, like almost all spoken words from the same source, he a week after the conversation I have noted left England for a long absence and full of brave intentions. It is not a perversion of the truth to pronounce that encounter the direct cause of his departure. If the oral utterance of the eminent writer had the privilege of moving him deeply it was especially on his turning it over at leisure, hours and days later, that it appeared to yield him its full meaning and exhibit its extreme importance. He spent the summer in Switzerland and, having in September begun a new task, determined not to cross the Alps till he should have made a good start. To this end he returned to a quiet corner he knew well, on the edge of the Lake of Geneva and within sight of the towers of Chillon: a region and a view for which he had an affection that sprang from old associations and was capable of mysterious revivals and refreshments. Here he lingered late, till the snow was on the nearer hills, almost down to the limit to which he could climb when his stint, on the shortening afternoons, was performed. The autumn was fine, the lake was blue and his book took form and direction. These felicities, for the time, embroidered his life, which he suffered to cover him with its mantle. At the end of six weeks he felt he had learnt St. George’s lesson by heart, had tested and proved its doctrine. Nevertheless he did a very inconsistent thing: before crossing the Alps he wrote to Marian Fancourt. He was aware of the perversity of this act, and it was only as a luxury, an amusement, the reward of a strenuous autumn, that he justified it. She had asked of him no such favour when, shortly before he left London, three days after their dinner in Ennismore Gardens, he went to take leave of her. It was true she had had no ground—he hadn’t named his intention of absence. He had kept his counsel for want of due assurance: it was that particular visit that was, the next thing, to settle the matter. He had paid the visit to see how much he really cared for her, and quick departure, without so much as an explicit farewell, was the sequel to this enquiry, the answer to which had created within him a deep yearning. When he wrote her from Clarens he noted that he owed her an explanation (more than three months after!) for not having told her what he was doing.
She replied now briefly but promptly, and gave him a striking piece of news: that of the death, a week before, of Mrs. St. George. This exemplary woman had succumbed, in the country, to a violent attack of inflammation of the lungs—he would remember that for a long time she had been delicate. Miss Fancourt added that she believed her husband overwhelmed by the blow; he would miss her too terribly—she had been everything in life to him. Paul Overt, on this, immediately wrote to St. George. He would from the day of their parting have been glad to remain in communication with him, but had hitherto lacked the right excuse for troubling so busy a man. Their long nocturnal talk came back to him in every detail, but this was no bar to an expression of proper sympathy with the head of the profession, for hadn’t that very talk made it clear that the late accomplished lady was the influence that ruled his life? What catastrophe could be more cruel than the extinction of such an influence? This was to be exactly the tone taken by St. George in answering his young friend upwards of a month later. He made no allusion of course to their important discussion. He spoke of his wife as frankly and generously as if he had quite forgotten that occasion, and the feeling of deep bereavement was visible in his words. “She took everything off my hands—off my mind. She carried on our life with the greatest art, the rarest devotion, and I was free, as few men can have been, to drive my pen, to shut myself up with my trade. This was a rare service—the highest she could have rendered me. Would I could have acknowledged it more fitly!”
A certain bewilderment, for our hero, disengaged itself from these remarks: they struck him as a contradiction, a retractation, strange on the part of a man who hadn’t the excuse of witlessness. He had certainly not expected his correspondent to rejoice in the death of his wife, and it was perfectly in order that the rupture of a tie of more than twenty years should have left him sore. But if she had been so clear a blessing what in the name of consistency had the dear man meant by turning him upside down that night—by dosing him to that degree, at the most sensitive hour of his life, with the doctrine of renunciation? If Mrs. St. George was an irreparable loss, then her husband’s inspired advice had been a bad joke and renunciation was a mistake. Overt was on the point of rushing back to London to show that, for his part, he was perfectly willing to consider it so, and he went so far as to take the manuscript of the first chapters of his new book out of his table-drawer, to insert it into a pocket of his portmanteau. This led to his catching a glimpse of certain pages he hadn’t looked at for months, and that accident, in turn, to his being struck with the high promise they revealed—a rare result of such retrospections, which it was his habit to avoid as much as possible: they usually brought home to him that the glow of composition might be a purely subjective and misleading emotion. On this occasion a certain belief in himself disengaged itself whimsically from the serried erasures of his first draft, making him think it best after all to pursue his present trial to the end. If he could write as well under the rigour of privation it might be a mistake to change the conditions before that spell had spent itself. He would go back to London of course, but he would go back only when he should have finished his book. This was the vow he privately made, restoring his manuscript to the table-drawer. It may be added that it took him a long time to finish his book, for the subject was as difficult as it was fine, and he was literally embarrassed by the fulness of his notes. Something within him warned him that he must make it supremely good—otherwise he should lack, as regards his private behaviour, a handsome excuse. He had a horror of this deficiency and found himself as firm as need be on the question of the lamp and the file. He crossed the Alps at last and spent the winter, the spring, the ensuing summer, in Italy, where still, at the end of a twelvemonth, his task was unachieved. “Stick to it—see it through”: this general injunction of St. George’s was good also for the particular case. He applied it to the utmost, with the result that when in its slow order the summer had come round again he felt he had given all that was in him. This time he put his papers into his portmanteau, with the address of his publisher attached, and took his way northward.
He had been absent from London for two years—two years which, seeming to count as more, had made such a difference in his own life—through the production of a novel far stronger, he believed, than “Ginistrella”—that he turned out into Piccadilly, the morning after his arrival, with a vague expectation of changes, of finding great things had happened. But there were few transformations in Piccadilly—only three or four big red houses where there had been low black ones—and the brightness of the end of June peeped through the rusty railings of the Green Park and glittered in the varnish of the rolling carriages as he had seen it in other, more cursory Junes. It was a greeting he appreciated; it seemed friendly and pointed, added to the exhilaration of his finished book, of his having his own country and the huge oppressive amusing city that suggested everything, that contained everything, under his hand again. “Stay at home and do things here—do subjects we can measure,” St. George had said; and now it struck him he should ask nothing better than to stay at home for ever. Late in the afternoon he took his way to Manchester Square, looking out for a number he hadn’t forgotten. Miss Fancourt, however, was not at home, so that he turned rather dejectedly from the door. His movement brought him face to face with a gentleman just approaching it and recognised on another glance as Miss Fancourt’s father. Paul saluted this personage, and the General returned the greeting with his customary good manner—a manner so good, however, that you could never tell whether it meant he placed you. The disappointed caller felt the impulse to address him; then, hesitating, became both aware of having no particular remark to make, and convinced that though the old soldier remembered him he remembered him wrong. He therefore went his way without computing the irresistible effect his own evident recognition would have on the General, who never neglected a chance to gossip. Our young man’s face was expressive, and observation seldom let it pass. He hadn’t taken ten steps before he heard himself called after with a friendly semi-articulate “Er—I beg your pardon!” He turned round and the General, smiling at him from the porch, said: “Won’t you come in? I won’t leave you the advantage of me!” Paul declined to come in, and then felt regret, for Miss Fancourt, so late in the afternoon, might return at any moment. But her father gave him no second chance; he appeared mainly to wish not to have struck him as ungracious. A further look at the visitor had recalled something, enough at least to enable him to say: “You’ve come back, you’ve come back?” Paul was on the point of replying that he had come back the night before, but he suppressed, the next instant, this strong light on the immediacy of his visit and, giving merely a general assent, alluded to the young lady he deplored not having found. He had come late in the hope she would be in. “I’ll tell her—I’ll tell her,” said the old man; and then he added quickly, gallantly: “You’ll be giving us something new? It’s a long time, isn’t it?” Now he remembered him right.
“Rather long. I’m very slow.” Paul explained. “I met you at Summersoft a long time ago.”
“Oh yes—with Henry St. George. I remember very well. Before his poor wife—” General Fancourt paused a moment, smiling a little less. “I dare say you know.”
“About Mrs. St. George’s death? Certainly—I heard at the time.”
“Oh no, I mean—I mean he’s to be married.”
“Ah I’ve not heard that!” But just as Paul was about to add “To whom?” the General crossed his intention.
“When did you come back? I know you’ve been away—by my daughter. She was very sorry. You ought to give her something new.”
“I came back last night,” said our young man, to whom something had occurred which made his speech for the moment a little thick.
“Ah most kind of you to come so soon. Couldn’t you turn up at dinner?”
“At dinner?” Paul just mechanically repeated, not liking to ask whom St. George was going to marry, but thinking only of that.
“There are several people, I believe. Certainly St. George. Or afterwards if you like better. I believe my daughter expects—” He appeared to notice something in the visitor’s raised face (on his steps he stood higher) which led him to interrupt himself, and the interruption gave him a momentary sense of awkwardness, from which he sought a quick issue. “Perhaps then you haven’t heard she’s to be married.”
Paul gaped again. “To be married?”
“To Mr. St. George—it has just been settled. Odd marriage, isn’t it?” Our listener uttered no opinion on this point: he only continued to stare. “But I dare say it will do—she’s so awfully literary!” said the General.
Paul had turned very red. “Oh it’s a surprise—very interesting, very charming! I’m afraid I can’t dine—so many thanks!”
“Well, you must come to the wedding!” cried the General. “Oh I remember that day at Summersoft. He’s a great man, you know.”
“Charming—charming!” Paul stammered for retreat. He shook hands with the General and got off. His face was red and he had the sense of its growing more and more crimson. All the evening at home—he went straight to his rooms and remained there dinnerless—his cheek burned at intervals as if it had been smitten. He didn’t understand what had happened to him, what trick had been played him, what treachery practised. “None, none,” he said to himself. “I’ve nothing to do with it. I’m out of it—it’s none of my business.” But that bewildered murmur was followed again and again by the incongruous ejaculation: “Was it a plan—was it a plan?” Sometimes he cried to himself, breathless, “Have I been duped, sold, swindled?” If at all, he was an absurd, an abject victim. It was as if he hadn’t lost her till now. He had renounced her, yes; but that was another affair—that was a closed but not a locked door. Now he seemed to see the door quite slammed in his face. Did he expect her to wait—was she to give him his time like that: two years at a stretch? He didn’t know what he had expected—he only knew what he hadn’t. It wasn’t this—it wasn’t this. Mystification bitterness and wrath rose and boiled in him when he thought of the deference, the devotion, the credulity with which he had listened to St. George. The evening wore on and the light was long; but even when it had darkened he remained without a lamp. He had flung himself on the sofa, where he lay through the hours with his eyes either closed or gazing at the gloom, in the attitude of a man teaching himself to bear something, to bear having been made a fool of. He had made it too easy—that idea passed over him like a hot wave. Suddenly, as he heard eleven o’clock strike, he jumped up, remembering what General Fancourt had said about his coming after dinner. He’d go—he’d see her at least; perhaps he should see what it meant. He felt as if some of the elements of a hard sum had been given him and the others were wanting: he couldn’t do his sum till he had got all his figures.
He dressed and drove quickly, so that by half-past eleven he was at Manchester Square. There were a good many carriages at the door—a party was going on; a circumstance which at the last gave him a slight relief, for now he would rather see her in a crowd. People passed him on the staircase; they were going away, going “on” with the hunted herdlike movement of London society at night. But sundry groups remained in the drawing-room, and it was some minutes, as she didn’t hear him announced, before he discovered and spoke to her. In this short interval he had seen St. George talking to a lady before the fireplace; but he at once looked away, feeling unready for an encounter, and therefore couldn’t be sure the author of “Shadowmere” noticed him. At all events he didn’t come over though Miss Fancourt did as soon as she saw him—she almost rushed at him, smiling rustling radiant beautiful. He had forgotten what her head, what her face offered to the sight; she was in white, there were gold figures on her dress and her hair was a casque of gold. He saw in a single moment that she was happy, happy with an aggressive splendour. But she wouldn’t speak to him of that, she would speak only of himself.
“I’m so delighted; my father told me. How kind of you to come!” She struck him as so fresh and brave, while his eyes moved over her, that he said to himself irresistibly: “Why to him, why not to youth, to strength, to ambition, to a future? Why, in her rich young force, to failure, to abdication to superannuation?” In his thought at that sharp moment he blasphemed even against all that had been left of his faith in the peccable Master. “I’m so sorry I missed you,” she went on. “My father told me. How charming of you to have come so soon!”
“Does that surprise you?” Paul Overt asked.
“The first day? No, from you—nothing that’s nice.” She was interrupted by a lady who bade her good-night, and he seemed to read that it cost her nothing to speak to him in that tone; it was her old liberal lavish way, with a certain added amplitude that time had brought; and if this manner began to operate on the spot, at such a juncture in her history, perhaps in the other days too it had meant just as little or as much—a mere mechanical charity, with the difference now that she was satisfied, ready to give but in want of nothing. Oh she was satisfied—and why shouldn’t she be? Why shouldn’t she have been surprised at his coming the first day—for all the good she had ever got from him? As the lady continued to hold her attention Paul turned from her with a strange irritation in his complicated artistic soul and a sort of disinterested disappointment. She was so happy that it was almost stupid—a disproof of the extraordinary intelligence he had formerly found in her. Didn’t she know how bad St. George could be, hadn’t she recognised the awful thinness—? If she didn’t she was nothing, and if she did why such an insolence of serenity? This question expired as our young man’s eyes settled at last on the genius who had advised him in a great crisis. St. George was still before the chimney-piece, but now he was alone—fixed, waiting, as if he meant to stop after every one—and he met the clouded gaze of the young friend so troubled as to the degree of his right (the right his resentment would have enjoyed) to regard himself as a victim. Somehow the ravage of the question was checked by the Master’s radiance. It was as fine in its way as Marian Fancourt’s, it denoted the happy human being; but also it represented to Paul Overt that the author of “Shadowmere” had now definitely ceased to count—ceased to count as a writer. As he smiled a welcome across the place he was almost banal, was almost smug. Paul fancied that for a moment he hesitated to make a movement, as if for all the world he had his bad conscience; then they had already met in the middle of the room and had shaken hands—expressively, cordially on St. George’s part. With which they had passed back together to where the elder man had been standing, while St. George said: “I hope you’re never going away again. I’ve been dining here; the General told me.” He was handsome, he was young, he looked as if he had still a great fund of life. He bent the friendliest, most unconfessing eyes on his disciple of a couple of years before; asked him about everything, his health, his plans, his late occupations, the new book. “When will it be out—soon, soon, I hope? Splendid, eh? That’s right; you’re a comfort, you’re a luxury! I’ve read you all over again these last six months.” Paul waited to see if he would tell him what the General had told him in the afternoon and what Miss Fancourt, verbally at least, of course hadn’t. But as it didn’t come out he at last put the question.
“Is it true, the great news I hear—that you’re to be married?”
“Ah you have heard it then?”
“Didn’t the General tell you?” Paul asked.
The Master’s face was wonderful. “Tell me what?”
“That he mentioned it to me this afternoon?”
“My dear fellow, I don’t remember. We’ve been in the midst of people. I’m sorry, in that case, that I lose the pleasure, myself, of announcing to you a fact that touches me so nearly. It is a fact, strange as it may appear. It has only just become one. Isn’t it ridiculous?” St. George made this speech without confusion, but on the other hand, so far as our friend could judge, without latent impudence. It struck his interlocutor that, to talk so comfortably and coolly, he must simply have forgotten what had passed between them. His next words, however, showed he hadn’t, and they produced, as an appeal to Paul’s own memory, an effect which would have been ludicrous if it hadn’t been cruel. “Do you recall the talk we had at my house that night, into which Miss Fancourt’s name entered? I’ve often thought of it since.”
“Yes; no wonder you said what you did”—Paul was careful to meet his eyes.
“In the light of the present occasion? Ah but there was no light then. How could I have foreseen this hour?”
“Didn’t you think it probable?”
“Upon my honour, no,” said Henry St. George. “Certainly I owe you that assurance. Think how my situation has changed.”
“I see—I see,” our young man murmured.
His companion went on as if, now that the subject had been broached, he was, as a person of imagination and tact, quite ready to give every satisfaction—being both by his genius and his method so able to enter into everything another might feel. “But it’s not only that; for honestly, at my age, I never dreamed—a widower with big boys and with so little else! It has turned out differently from anything one could have dreamed, and I’m fortunate beyond all measure. She has been so free, and yet she consents. Better than any one else perhaps—for I remember how you liked her before you went away, and how she liked you—you can intelligently congratulate me.”
“She has been so free!” Those words made a great impression on Paul Overt, and he almost writhed under that irony in them as to which it so little mattered whether it was designed or casual. Of course she had been free, and appreciably perhaps by his own act; for wasn’t the Master’s allusion to her having liked him a part of the irony too? “I thought that by your theory you disapproved of a writer’s marrying.”
“Surely—surely. But you don’t call me a writer?”
“You ought to be ashamed,” said Paul.
“Ashamed of marrying again?”
“I won’t say that—but ashamed of your reasons.”
The elder man beautifully smiled. “You must let me judge of them, my good friend.”
“Yes; why not? For you judged wonderfully of mine.”
The tone of these words appeared suddenly, for St. George, to suggest the unsuspected. He stared as if divining a bitterness. “Don’t you think I’ve been straight?”
“You might have told me at the time perhaps.”
“My dear fellow, when I say I couldn’t pierce futurity—!”
“I mean afterwards.”
The Master wondered. “After my wife’s death?”
“When this idea came to you.”
“Ah never, never! I wanted to save you, rare and precious as you are.”
Poor Overt looked hard at him. “Are you marrying Miss Fancourt to save me?”
“Not absolutely, but it adds to the pleasure. I shall be the making of you,” St. George smiled. “I was greatly struck, after our talk, with the brave devoted way you quitted the country, and still more perhaps with your force of character in remaining abroad. You’re very strong—you’re wonderfully strong.”
Paul tried to sound his shining eyes; the strange thing was that he seemed sincere—not a mocking fiend. He turned away, and as he did so heard the Master say something about his giving them all the proof, being the joy of his old age. He faced him again, taking another look. “Do you mean to say you’ve stopped writing?”
“My dear fellow, of course I have. It’s too late. Didn’t I tell you?”
“I can’t believe it!”
“Of course you can’t—with your own talent! No, no; for the rest of my life I shall only read you.”
“Does she know that—Miss Fancourt?”
“She will—she will.” Did he mean this, our young man wondered, as a covert intimation that the assistance he should derive from that young lady’s fortune, moderate as it was, would make the difference of putting it in his power to cease to work ungratefully an exhausted vein? Somehow, standing there in the ripeness of his successful manhood, he didn’t suggest that any of his veins were exhausted. “Don’t you remember the moral I offered myself to you that night as pointing?” St. George continued. “Consider at any rate the warning I am at present.”
This was too much—he was the mocking fiend. Paul turned from him with a mere nod for good-night and the sense in a sore heart that he might come back to him and his easy grace, his fine way of arranging things, some time in the far future, but couldn’t fraternise with him now. It was necessary to his soreness to believe for the hour in the intensity of his grievance—all the more cruel for its not being a legal one. It was doubtless in the attitude of hugging this wrong that he descended the stairs without taking leave of Miss Fancourt, who hadn’t been in view at the moment he quitted the room. He was glad to get out into the honest dusky unsophisticating night, to move fast, to take his way home on foot. He walked a long time, going astray, paying no attention. He was thinking of too many other things. His steps recovered their direction, however, and at the end of an hour he found himself before his door in the small inexpensive empty street. He lingered, questioning himself still before going in, with nothing around and above him but moonless blackness, a bad lamp or two and a few far-away dim stars. To these last faint features he raised his eyes; he had been saying to himself that he should have been “sold” indeed, diabolically sold, if now, on his new foundation, at the end of a year, St. George were to put forth something of his prime quality—something of the type of “Shadowmere” and finer than his finest. Greatly as he admired his talent Paul literally hoped such an incident wouldn’t occur; it seemed to him just then that he shouldn’t be able to bear it. His late adviser’s words were still in his ears—“You’re very strong, wonderfully strong.” Was he really? Certainly he would have to be, and it might a little serve for revenge. Is he? the reader may ask in turn, if his interest has followed the perplexed young man so far. The best answer to that perhaps is that he’s doing his best, but that it’s too soon to say. When the new book came out in the autumn Mr. and Mrs. St. George found it really magnificent. The former still has published nothing but Paul doesn’t even yet feel safe. I may say for him, however, that if this event were to occur he would really be the very first to appreciate it: which is perhaps a proof that the Master was essentially right and that Nature had dedicated him to intellectual, not to personal passion.
***END OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE LESSON OF THE MASTER***