by Vernon Lee
The church of the Salute, with its cupolas and volutes, stared in at the long windows, white, luminous, spectral. A white carpet of moonlight stretched to where they were sitting, with only one lamp lit, for fear of mosquitoes. All the remoter parts of the vast drawing-room were deep in gloom; you were somehow conscious of the paintings and stuccos of the walls and vaulted ceilings without seeing them. From the canal rose plash of oar, gondolier’s cry, and distant guitar twang and quaver of song; and from the balconies came a murmur of voices and women’s laughter. The heavy scent of some flower, vague, white, southern, mingled with the cigarette smoke in that hot evening air, which seemed, by contrast to the Venetian day, almost cool.
As Jervase Marion lolled back (that lolling of his always struck one as out of keeping with his well-adjusted speech, his precise mind, the something conventional about him) on the ottoman in the shadow, he was conscious of a queer feeling, as if, instead of having arrived from London only two hours ago, he had never ceased to be here at Venice, and under Miss Vanderwerf’s hospitable stuccoed roof. All those years of work, of success, of experience (or was it not rather of study?) of others, bringing with them a certain heaviness, baldness, and scepticism, had become almost a dream, and this present moment and the similar moment twelve years ago remaining as the only reality. Except his hostess, whose round, unchangeable face, the face of a world-wise, kind but somewhat frivolous baby, was lit up faintly by the regular puffs of her cigarette, all the people in the room were strangers to Marion: yet he knew them so well, he had known them so long.
There was the old peeress, her head tied up in a white pocket-handkerchief, and lolling from side to side with narcoticised benevolence, who, as it was getting on towards other people’s bedtime, was gradually beginning to wake up from the day’s slumber, and to murmur eighteenth-century witticisms and Blessingtonian anecdotes. There was the American Senator, seated with postage-stamp profile and the attitude of a bronze statesman, against the moonlight, one hand in his waistcoat, the other incessantly raised to his ear as in a stately “Beg pardon?” There was the depressed Venetian naval officer who always made the little joke about not being ill when offered tea; the Roumanian Princess who cultivated the reputation of saying spiteful things cleverly, and wore all her pearls for fear of their tarnishing; the English cosmopolitan who was one day on the Bosphorus and the next in Bond Street, and was wise about singing and acting; the well turned out, subdued, Parisian-American æsthete talking with an English accent about modern pictures and ladies’ dresses; and the awkward, enthusiastic English æsthete, who considered Ruskin a ranter and creaked over the marble floors with dusty, seven-mile boots. There was a solitary spinster fresh from higher efforts of some sort, unconscious that no one in Venice appreciated her classic profile, and that everyone in Venice stared at her mediæval dress and collar of coins from the British Museum. There was the usual bevy of tight-waisted Anglo-Italian girls ready to play the guitar and sing, and the usual supply of shy, young artists from the three-franc pensions, wandering round the room, candle in hand, with the niece of the house, looking with shy intentness at every picture and sketch and bronze statuette and china bowl and lacquer box.
The smoke of the cigarettes mingled with the heavy scent of the flowers; the plash of oar and snatch of song rose from the canal; the murmur and laughter entered from the balcony. The old peeress lolled out her Blessingtonian anecdotes; the Senator raised his hand to his ear and said “Beg pardon?” the Roumanian Princess laughed shrilly at her own malignant sayings; the hostess’s face was periodically illumined by her cigarette and the hostess’s voice periodically burst into a childlike: “Why, you don’t mean it!” The young men and women flirted in undertones about Symonds, Whistler, Tolstoy, and the way of rowing gondolas, with an occasional chord struck on the piano, an occasional string twanged on the guitar. The Salute, with its cupolas and volutes, loomed spectral in at the windows; the moonlight spread in a soft, shining carpet to their feet.
Jervase Marion knew it all so well, so well, this half-fashionable, half-artistic Anglo-American idleness of Venice, with its poetic setting and its prosaic reality. He would have known it, he felt, intimately, even if he had never seen it before; known it so as to be able to make each of these people say in print what they did really say. There is something in being a psychological novelist, and something in being a cosmopolitan American, something in being an inmate of the world of Henry James and a kind of Henry James, of a lesser magnitude, yourself: one has the pleasure of understanding so much, one loses the pleasure of misunderstanding so much more.
A singing boat came under the windows of Palazzo Bragadin, and as much of the company as could, squeezed on to the cushioned gothic balconies, much to the annoyance of such as were flirting outside, and to the satisfaction of such as were flirting within. Marion—who, much to poor Miss Vanderwerf’s disgust, had asked to be introduced to no one as yet, but to be allowed to realise that evening, as he daintily put it, that Venice was the same and he a good bit changed—Marion leaned upon the parapet of a comparatively empty balcony and looked down at the canal. The moonbeams were weaving a strange, intricate pattern, like some old Persian tissue, in the dark water; further off the yellow and red lanterns of the singing boat were surrounded by black gondolas, each with its crimson, unsteady prow-light; and beyond, mysterious in the moonlight, rose the tower and cupola of St. George, the rigging of ships, and stretched a shimmering band of lagoon.
He had come to give himself a complete holiday here, after the grind of furnishing a three-volume novel for Blackwood (Why did he write so much? he asked himself; he had enough of his own, and to spare, for a dainty but frugal bachelor); and already vague notions of new stories began to arrive in his mind. He determined to make a note of them and dismiss them for the time. He had determined to be idle; and he was a very methodical man, valuing above everything (even above his consciousness of being a man of the world) his steady health, steady, slightly depressed spirits, and steady, monotonous, but not unmanly nor unenjoyable routine of existence.
Jervase Marion was thinking of this, and the necessity of giving himself a complete rest, not letting himself be dragged off into new studies of mankind and womankind; and listening, at the same time, half-unconsciously, to the scraps of conversation which came from the other little balconies, where a lot of heads were grouped, dark in the moonlight.
“I do hope it will turn out well—at least not too utterly awful,” said the languid voice of a young English manufacturer’s heir, reported to live exclusively off bread and butter and sardines, and to have no further desires in the world save those of the amiable people who condescended to shoot on his moors, yacht in his yachts, and generally devour his millions, “it’s ever so long since I’ve been wanting a sideboard. It’s rather hard lines for a poor fellow to be unable to find a sideboard ready made, isn’t it? And I have my doubts about it even now.”
There was a faint sarcastic tinge in the languid voice; the eater of bread and butter occasionally felt vague amusement at his own ineptness.
“Nonsense, my dear boy,” answered the cosmopolitan, who knew all about acting and singing; “it’s sure to be beautiful. Only you must not let them put on that rococo cornice, quite out of character, my dear boy.”
“A real rococo cornice is a precious lot better, I guess, than a beastly imitation Renaissance frieze cut with an oyster knife,” put in a gruff New York voice. “That’s my view, leastways.”
“I think Mr. Clarence had best have it made in slices, and each of you gentlemen design him a slice—that’s what’s called original nowadays—c’est notre façon d’entendre l’art aujourd’hui,” said the Roumanian Princess.
A little feeble laugh proceeded from Mr. Clarence. “Oh,” he said, “I shouldn’t mind that at all. I’m not afraid of my friends. I’m afraid of myself, of my fickleness and weak-mindedness. At this rate I shall never have a sideboard at all, I fear.”
“There’s a very good one, with three drawers and knobs, and a ticket ‘garantito vero noce a lire 45,’ in a joiner’s shop at San Vio, which I pass every morning. You’d much better have that, Mr. Clarence. And it would be a new departure in art and taste, you know.”
The voice was a woman’s; a little masculine, and the more so for a certain falsetto pitch. It struck Marion by its resolution, a sort of highbred bullying and a little hardness about it.
“Come, don’t be cruel to poor Clarence, Tal darling,” cried Miss Vanderwerf, with her kind, infantine laugh.
“Why, what have I been saying, my dear thing?” asked the voice, with mock humility; “I only want to help the poor man in his difficulties.”
“By the way, Lady Tal, will you allow me to take you to Rietti’s one day?” added an æsthetic young American, with a shadowy Boston accent; “he has some things you ought really to see, some quite good tapestries, a capital Gubbio vase. And he has a carved nigger really by Brustolon, which you ought to get for your red room at Rome. He’d look superb. The head’s restored and one of the legs, so Rietti’d let him go for very little. He really is an awfully jolly bit of carving—and in that red room of yours——;”
“Thanks, Julian. I don’t think I seem to care much about him. The fact is, I have to see such a lot of ugly white men in my drawing-room, I feel I really couldn’t stand an ugly black one into the bargain.”
Here Miss Vanderwerf, despite her solemn promise, insisted on introducing Jervase Marion to a lady of high literary tastes, who proceeded forthwith to congratulate him as the author of a novel by Randolph Tomkins, whom he abominated most of all living writers.
Presently there was a stir in the company, those of the balcony came trooping into the drawing-room, four or five young men and girls, surrounding a tall woman in a black walking-dress; people dropped in to these open evenings of Mrs. Vanderwerf’s from their row on the lagoon or stroll at St. Mark’s.
Miss Vanderwerf jumped up.
“You aren’t surely going yet, dearest?” she cried effusively. “My darling child, it isn’t half-past ten yet.”
“I must go; poor Gerty’s in bed with a cold, and I must go and look after her.”
“Bother Gerty!” ejaculated one of the well turned out æsthetic young men.
The tall young woman gave him what Marion noted as a shutting-up look.
“Learn to respect my belongings,” she answered, “I must really go back to my cousin.”
Jervase Marion had immediately identified her as the owner of that rather masculine voice with the falsetto tone; and apart from the voice, he would have identified her as the lady who had bullied the poor young man in distress about his sideboard. She was very tall, straight, and strongly built, the sort of woman whom you instinctively think of as dazzlingly fine in a ball frock; but at the same time active and stalwart, suggestive of long rides and drives and walks. She had handsome aquiline features, just a trifle wooden in their statuesque fineness, abundant fair hair, and a complexion, pure pink and white, which told of superb health. Marion knew the type well. It was one which, despite all the years he had lived in England, made him feel American, impressing him as something almost exotic. This great strength, size, cleanness of outline and complexion, this look of carefully selected breed, of carefully fostered health, was to him the perfect flower of the aristocratic civilization of England. There were more beautiful types, certainly, and, intellectually, higher ones (his experience was that such women were shrewd, practical, and quite deficient in soul), but there was no type more well-defined and striking, in his eyes. This woman did not seem an individual at all.
“I must go,” insisted the tall lady, despite the prayers of her hostess and the assembled guests. “I really can’t leave that poor creature alone a minute longer.”
“Order the gondola, Kennedy; call Titta, please,” cried Miss Vanderwerf to one of the many youths whom the kindly old maid ordered about with motherly familiarity.
“Mayn’t I have the honour of offering mine?” piped the young man.
“Thanks, it isn’t worth while. I shall walk.” Here came a chorus of protestations, following the tall young woman into the outer drawing-room, through the hall, to the head of the great flight of open-air stairs.
Marion had mechanically followed the noisy, squabbling, laughing crew. The departure of this lady suggested to him that he would slip away to his inn.
“Do let me have the pleasure of accompanying you,” cried one young man after another.
“Do take Clarence or Kennedy or Piccinillo, darling,” implored Mrs. Vanderwerf. “You can’t really walk home alone.”
“It’s not three steps from here,” answered the tall one. “And I’m sure it’s much more proper for a matron of ever so many years standing to go home alone than accompanied by a lot of fascinating young creatures.”
“But, dear, you really don’t know Venice; suppose you were spoken to! Just think.”
“Well, beloved friend, I know enough Italian to be able to answer.”
The tall lady raised one beautifully pencilled eyebrow, slightly, with a contemptuous little look. “Besides, I’m big enough to defend myself, and see, here’s an umbrella with a silver knob, or what passes for such in these degenerate days. Nobody will come near that.”
And she took the weapon from a rack in the hall, where the big seventeenth-century lamp flickered on the portraits of doges in crimson and senators in ermine.
“As you like, dearest. I know that wilful must have her own way,” sighed Miss Vanderwerf, rising on tiptoe and kissing her on both cheeks.
“Mayn’t I really accompany you?” repeated the various young men.
She shook her head, with the tall, pointed hat on it.
“No, you mayn’t; good-night, dear friends,” and she brandished her umbrella over her head and descended the stairs, which went sheer down into the moonlit yard. The young men bowed. One, with the air of a devotee in St. Mark’s, kissed her hand at the bottom of the flight of steps, while the gondolier unlocked the gate. They could see him standing in the moonlight and hear him say earnestly:
“I leave for Paris to-morrow; good-night.”
She did not answer him, but making a gesture with her umbrella to those above, she cried: “Good-night.”
“Good-night,” answered the chorus above the stairs, watching the tall figure pass beneath the gate and into the moonlit square.
“Well now,” said Miss Vanderwerf, settling herself on her ottoman again, and fanning herself after her exertions in the drawing-room, “there is no denying that she’s a strange creature, dear thing.”
“A fine figure-head cut out of oak, with a good, solid, wooden heart,” said the Roumanian Princess.
“No, no,” exclaimed the lady of the house. “She’s just as good as gold,—poor Lady Tal!”
“Tal?” asked Marion.
“Tal. Her name’s Atalanta, Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw—but everyone calls her Tal—Lady Tal. She’s the daughter of Lord Ossian, you know.”
“And who is or was Walkenshaw?—is, I presume, otherwise she’d have married somebody else by this time.”
“Poor Tal!” mused Miss Vanderwerf. “I’m sure she would have no difficulty in finding another husband to make up for that fearful old Walkenshaw creature. But she’s in a very sad position for so young a creature, poor girl.”
“Ah!” ejaculated Marion, familiar with ladies thus to be commiserated, and remembering his friend’s passion for romance, unquenchable by many seriocomic disenchantments, “separated from her husband—that sort of thing! I thought so.”
“Now, why did you think that, you horrid creature?” asked his hostess eagerly. “Well, now, there’s no saying that you’re not real psychological, Jervase. Now do tell what made you think of such a thing.”
“I don’t know, I’m sure,” answered Marion, suppressing a yawn. He hated people who pried into his novelist consciousness, all the more so that he couldn’t in the least explain its contents. “Something about her—or nothing about her—a mere guess, a stupid random shot that happens to have hit right.”
“Why, that’s just the thing, that you haven’t hit quite right. That is, it’s right in one way, and wrong in another. Oh, my! how difficult it is just to explain, when one isn’t a clever creature like you? Well, Lady Tal isn’t separated from her husband, but it’s just the same as if she were——;”
“I see. Mad? Poor thing!” exclaimed Marion with that air of concern which always left you in doubt whether it was utterly conventional, or might not contain a grain of sympathy after all.
“No, he’s not mad. He’s dead—been dead ever so long. She’s one and thirty, you know—doesn’t look it, does she?—and was married at eighteen. But she can’t marry again, for all that, because if she marries all his money goes elsewhere, and she’s not a penny to bless herself with.”
“Ah—and why didn’t she have proper settlements made?” asked Marion.
“That’s just it. Because old Walkenshaw, who was a beast—just a beast—had a prejudice against settlements, and said he’d do much better for his wife than that—leave her everything, if only they didn’t plague him. And then, when the old wretch died, after they’d been married a year or so, it turned out that he had left her everything, but only on condition of her not marrying again. If she did, it would all go to the next of kin. He hated the next of kin, too, they say, and wanted to keep the money away from him as long as possible, horrid old wretch! So there poor Tal is a widow, but unable to marry again.”
“Dear me!” ejaculated Marion, looking at the patterns which the moonlight, falling between the gothic balcony balustrade, was making on the shining marble floor; and reflecting upon the neat way in which the late Walkenshaw had repaid his wife for marrying him for his money; for of course she had married him for his money. Marion was not a stoic, or a cynic, or a philosopher of any kind. He fully accepted the fact that the daughters of Scotch lords should marry for money, he even hated all sorts of sentimental twaddle about human dignity. But he rather sympathised with this old Walkenshaw, whoever Walkenshaw might have been, who had just served a mercenary young lady as was right.
“I don’t see that it’s so hard, aunt,” said Miss Vanderwerf’s niece, who was deeply in love with Bill Nettle, a penniless etcher. “Lady Tal might marry again if she’d learn to do without all that money.”
“If she would be satisfied with only a little less,” interrupted the sharp-featured Parisian-American whom Mrs. Vanderwerf wanted for a nephew-in-law. “Why, there are dozens of men with plenty of money who have been wanting to marry her. There was Sir Titus Farrinder, only last year. He mayn’t have had as much as old Walkenshaw, but he had a jolly bit of money, certainly.”
“Besides, after all,” put in the millionaire in distraction about the sideboard, “why should Lady Tal want to marry again? She’s got a lovely house at Rome.”
“Oh, come, come, Clarence!” interrupted Kennedy horrified; “why, it’s nothing but Japanese leather paper and Chinese fans.”
“I don’t know,” said Clarence, crestfallen. “Perhaps it isn’t lovely. I thought it rather pretty—don’t you really think it rather nice, Miss Vanderwerf?”
“Any house would be nice enough with such a splendid creature inside it,” put in Marion. These sort of conversations always interested him; it was the best way of studying human nature.
“Besides,” remarked the Roumanian Princess, “Lady Tal may have had enough of the married state. And why indeed should a beautiful creature like that get married? She’s got every one at her feet. It’s much more amusing like that——;”
“Well, all the same, I do think it’s just terribly sad, to see a creature like that condemned to lead such a life, without anyone to care for or protect her, now poor Gerald Burne’s dead.”
“Oh, her brother—her brother—do you suppose she cared for him?” asked the niece, pouring out the iced lemonade and Cyprus wine. She always rebelled against her aunt’s romanticalness.
“Gerald Burne!” said Marion, collecting his thoughts, and suddenly seeing in his mind a certain keen-featured face, a certain wide curl of blond hair, not seen for many a long year. “Gerald Burne! Do you mean an awfully handsome young Scotchman, who did something very distinguished in Afghanistan? You don’t mean to say he was any relation of Lady Atalanta’s? I never heard of his being dead, either. I thought he must be somewhere in India.”
“Gerald Burne was Lady Tal’s half-brother—her mother had married a Colonel Burne before her marriage with Lord Ossian. He got a spear-wound or something out in Afghanistan,” explained one of the company.
“I thought it was his horse,” interrupted another.
“Anyhow,” resumed Miss Vanderwerf, “poor Gerald was crippled for life—a sort of spinal disease, you know. That was just after old Sir Thomas Walkenshaw departed, so Tal and he lived together and went travelling from one place to another, consulting doctors, and that sort of thing, until they settled in Rome. And now poor Gerald is dead—he died two years ago—Tal’s all alone in the world, for Lord Ossian’s a wretched, tipsy, bankrupt old creature, and the other sisters are married. Gerald was just an angel, and you’ve no idea how devoted poor Tal was to him—he was just her life, I do believe.”
The young man called Ted looked contemptuously at his optimistic hostess.
“Well,” he said, “I don’t know whether Lady Tal cared much for her brother while he was alive. My belief is she never cared a jackstraw for anyone. Anyway, if she did care for him you must admit she didn’t show it after his death. I never saw a woman look so utterly indifferent and heartless as when I saw her a month later. She made jokes, I remember, and asked me to take her to a curiosity shop. And she went to balls in London not a year afterwards.”
The niece nodded. “Exactly. I always thought it perfectly indecent. Of course Aunt says it’s Tal’s way of showing her grief, but it’s a very funny one, anyhow.”
“I’m sure Lady Tal must regret her brother,” said the Roumanian Princess. “Just think how convenient for a young widow to be able to say to all the men she likes: ‘Oh, do come and see poor Gerald.'”
“Well, well!” remarked Miss Vanderwerf. “Of course she did take her brother’s death in a very unusual way. But still I maintain she’s not heartless for all that.”
“Hasn’t a pretty woman a right to be heartless, after all?” put in Marion.
“Oh, I don’t care a fig whether Lady Tal is heartless or not,” answered Ted brusquely. “Heartlessness isn’t a social offence. What I object to most in Lady Tal is her being so frightfully mean.”
“Why, yes; avaricious. With all those thousands, that woman manages to spend barely more than a few hundreds.”
“Well, but if she’s got simple tastes?” suggested Marion.
“She hasn’t. No woman was ever further from it. And of course it’s so evident what her game is! She just wants to feather her nest against a rainy day. She’s putting by five-sixths of old Walkenshaw’s money, so as to make herself a nice little dot, to marry someone else upon one of these days.”
“A judicious young lady!” observed Marion.
“Well, really, Mr. Kennedy,” exclaimed the Roumanian Princess, “you are ingenious and ingenuous! Do you suppose that our dear Tal is putting by money in order to marry some starving genius, to do love in a cottage with? Why, if she’s not married yet, it’s merely because she’s not met a sufficient parti. She wants something very grand—a Pezzo Grosso, as they say here.”
“She couldn’t marry as long as she had Gerald to look after,” said Miss Vanderwerf, fanning herself in the moonlight. “She was too fond of Gerald.”
“She was afraid of Gerald, that’s my belief, too,” corrected the niece. “Those big creatures are always cowards. And Gerald hated the notion of her making another money marriage, though he seems to have arranged pretty well to live on old Walkenshaw’s thousands.”
“Of course Gerald wanted to keep her all for himself; that was quite natural,” said Miss Vanderwerf; “but I think that as long as he was alive she did not want anyone else. She thought only of him, poor creature——;”
“And of a score of ball and dinner-parties and a few hundred acquaintances,” put in Ted, making rings with the smoke of his cigarette.
“And now,” said the Princess, “she’s waiting to find her Pezzo Grosso. And she wants money because she knows that a Pezzo Grosso will marry a penniless girl of eighteen, but won’t marry a penniless woman of thirty; she must make up for being a little passée by loving him for his own sake, and for that, she must have money.”
“For all that, poor Tal’s very simple,” wheezed the old peeress, apparently awakening from a narcotic slumber. “She always reminds me of an anecdote poor dear Palmerston used to tell——;”
“Anyhow,” said Kennedy, “Lady Tal’s a riddle, and I pity the man who tries to guess it. Good-night, dear Miss Vanderwerf—good-night, Miss Bessy. It’s all settled about dining at the Lido, I hope. And you’ll come, too, I hope, Mr. Marion.”
“I’ll come with pleasure, particularly if you ask the enigmatic Lady Tal.”
“Much good it is to live in Venice,” thought Jervase Marion, looking out of his window on to the canal, “if one spends two hours discussing a young woman six foot high looking out for a duke.”
Jervase Marion had registered three separate, well-defined, and solemn vows, which I recapitulate in the inverse order to their importance. The first was: Not to be enticed into paying calls during that month at Venice; the second, Not to drift into studying any individual character while on a holiday; and the third, a vow dating from more years back than he cared to think of, and resulting from infinite bitterness of spirit, Never to be entrapped, beguiled, or bullied into looking at the manuscript of an amateur novelist. And now he had not been in Venice ten days before he had broken each of these vows in succession; and broken them on behalf, too, of one and the same individual.
The individual in question was Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw, or, as he had already got accustomed to call her, Lady Tal. He had called upon Lady Tal; he had begun studying Lady Tal; and now he was actually untying the string which fastened Lady Tal’s first attempt at a novel.
Why on earth had he done any of these things, much less all? Jervase Marion asked himself, leaving the folded parcel unopened on the large round table, covered with a black and red table-cloth, on which were neatly spread out his writing-case, blotter, inkstand, paper-cutter, sundry packets of envelopes, and boxes of cigarettes, two uncut Athenæums, three dog-eared French novels (Marion secretly despised all English ones, and was for ever coveting that exquisite artistic sense, that admirable insincerity of the younger Frenchmen), a Baedeker, a Bradshaw, the photograph, done just before her death, of his mother in her picturesque, Puritan-looking widow’s cap, and a little portfolio for unanswered letters, with flowers painted on it by his old friend, Biddy Lothrop.
Marion gave the parcel, addressed in a large, quill-pen hand, a look of utter despair, and thrusting his hands ungracefully but desperately into the armhole of his alpaca writing-jacket, paced slowly up and down his darkened room on a side canal. He had chosen that room, rather than one on the Riva, thinking it would be less noisy. But it seemed to him now, in one of his nervous fits, as if all the noises of the world had concentrated on to that side canal to distract his brain, weaken his will, and generally render him incapable of coping with his own detestable weakness and Lady Tal’s terrible determination. There was a plash of oar, a grind of keel, in that side canal, a cry of Stali or Premè from the gondoliers, only the more worrying for its comparative rareness. There was an exasperating blackbird who sang Garibaldi’s hymn, in separate fragments, a few doors off, and an even more exasperating kitchen-maid, who sang the first bars of the umbrella trio of Boccaccio, without getting any further, while scouring her brasses at the window opposite, and rinsing out her saucepans, with a furtive splash into the canal. There was the bugle of the barracks, the bell of the parish church, the dog yelping on the boats of the Riva; everything in short which could madden a poor nervous novelist who has the crowning misfortune of looking delightfully placid.
Why on earth, or rather how on earth, had he let himself in for all this? “All this” being the horrible business of Lady Atalanta, the visits to pay her, the manuscript to read, the judgment to pass, the advice to give, the lies to tell, all vaguely complicated with the song of that blackbird, the jar of that gondola keel, the jangle of those church bells. How on earth could he have been such a miserable worm? Marion asked himself, pacing up and down his large, bare room, mopping his head, and casting despairing glances at the mosquito curtains, the bulging yellow chest of drawers painted over with nosegays, the iron clothes-horse, the towel-stand, the large printed card setting forth in various tongues the necessity of travellers consigning all jewels and valuables to the secretary of the hotel at the Bureau.
He could not, at present, understand in the very least why he had given that young woman any encouragement; for he must evidently have given her some encouragement before she could have gone to the length of asking so great a favour of a comparative stranger. And the odd part of it was, that when he looked into the past, that past of a few days only, it seemed as if, so far from his having encouraged Lady Tal, it had been Lady Tal who had encouraged him. He saw her, the more he looked, in the attitude of a woman granting a favour, not asking one. He couldn’t even explain to himself how the matter of the novel had ever come up. He certainly couldn’t remember having said: “I wish you would let me see your novel, Lady Tal,” or “I should be curious to have a look at that novel of yours;” such a thing would have been too absurd on the part of a man who had always fled from manuscripts as from the plague. At the same time he seemed to have no recollection either of her having said the other thing, the more or less humble request for a reading. He recollected her saying: “Mind you tell me the exact truth—and don’t be afraid of telling me if it’s all disgusting rubbish.” Indeed he could see something vaguely amused, mischievous, and a little contemptuous in the handsome, regular Scotch face; but that had been afterwards, after he had already settled the matter with her.
It was the sense of having been got the better of, and in a wholly unintelligible way, which greatly aggravated the matter. For Marion did not feel the very faintest desire to do Lady Atalanta a service. He would not have minded so much if she had wheedled him into it,—no man thinks the worse of himself for having been wheedled by a handsome young woman of fashion,—or if she had been an appealing or pathetic creature, one of those who seem to suggest that this is just all that can be done for them, and that perhaps one may regret not having done it over their early grave.
Lady Tal was not at all an appealing woman; she looked three times as strong, both in body and in mind, with her huge, strongly-knit frame, and clear, pink complexion, and eyes which evaded you, as himself and most of his acquaintances. And as to wheedling, how could she wheedle, this woman with her rather angular movements, brusque, sarcastic, bantering speech, and look of counting all the world as dust for an Ossian to trample underfoot? Moreover, Marion was distinctly aware of the fact that he rather disliked Lady Tal. It was not anything people said about her (although they seemed to say plenty), nor anything she said herself; it was a vague repulsion due to her dreadful strength, her appearance of never having felt anything, the hardness of those blue, bold eyes, the resolution of that well-cut, firmly closing mouth, the bantering tone of that voice, and the consequent impression which she left on him of being able to take care of herself to an extent almost dangerous to her fellow-creatures. Marion was not a sentimental novelist; his books turned mainly upon the little intrigues and struggles of the highly civilized portion of society, in which only the fittest have survived, by virtue of talon and beak. Yet he owned to himself, in the presence of Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw, or rather behind her back, that he did like human beings, and especially women, to have a soul; implying thereby that the lady in question affected him as being hampered by no such impediment to digestion, sleep, and worldly distinction.
It was this want of soul which constituted the strength of Lady Tal. This negative quality had much more than the value of a positive one. And it was Lady Tal’s want of soul which had, somehow, got the better of him, pushed him, bullied him, without any external manifestation, and by a mere hidden force, into accepting, or offering to read that manuscript.
Jervase Marion was a methodical man, full of unformulated principles of existence. One of these consisted in always doing unpleasant duties at once, unless they were so unpleasant that he never did them at all. Accordingly, after a turn or two more up and down the room, and a minute or two lolling out of the window, and looking into that kitchen on the other side of the canal, with the bright saucepans in the background, and the pipkins with carnations and sweet basil on the sill, Marion cut the strings of the manuscript, rolled it backwards to make it lie flat, and with a melancholy little moan, began reading Lady Tal’s novel.
“Violet——;” it began.
“Violet! and her name’s Violet too!” ejaculated Marion to himself.
“Violet is seated in a low chair in the gloom in the big bow window at Kieldar—the big bow window encircled by ivy and constructed it is said by Earl Rufus before he went to the crusades and from which you command a magnificent prospect of the broad champaign country extending for many miles, all dotted with oaks and farmhouses and bounded on the horizon by the blue line of the hills of B——;shire—the window in which she had sat so often and cried as a child when her father Lord Rufus had married again and brought home that handsome Jewish wife with the fardée face and the exquisite dresses from Worth—Violet had taken refuge in that window in order to think over the events of the previous evening and that offer of marriage which her cousin Marmaduke had just made to her——;”
“Bless the woman!” exclaimed Marion, “what on earth is it all about?” And he registered the remark, to be used upon the earliest occasion in one of his own novels, that highly-connected and well-dressed young women of the present generation, appear to leave commas and semicolons, all in fact except full stops and dashes, to their social inferiors.
The remark consoled him, also, by its practical bearing on the present situation, for it would enable him to throw the weight of his criticisms on this part of Lady Tal’s performance.
“You must try, my dear Lady Atalanta,” he would say very gravely, “to cultivate a—a—somewhat more lucid style—to cut down your sentences a little—in fact to do what we pedantic folk call break up the members of a period. In order to do so, you must turn your attention very seriously to the subject of punctuation, which you seem to have—a—well—rather neglected hitherto. I will send for an invaluable little work on the subject—’Stops: and how to manage them,’ which will give you all necessary information. Also, if you can find it in the library of any of our friends here, I should recommend your studying a book which I used in my boyhood,—a great many years ago, alas!—called ‘Blair’s Rhetoric.'”
If that didn’t quench Lady Tal’s literary ardour, nothing ever would. But all the same he felt bound to read on a little, in order to be able to say he had done so.
Jervase Marion fixed his eyes, the eyes of the spirit particularly, upon Lady Tal, as he sat opposite her, the next day, at the round dinner table, in Palazzo Bragadin.
He was trying to make out how on earth this woman had come to write the novel he had been reading. That Lady Tal should possess considerable knowledge of the world, and of men and women, did not surprise him in the least. He had recognised, in the course of various conversations, that this young lady formed an exception to the rule that splendid big creatures with regular features and superb complexions are invariably idiots.
That Lady Tal should even have a certain talent—about as cultivated as that of the little boys who draw horses on their copy books—for plot and dialogue, was not astonishing at all, any more than that her sentences invariably consisted either of three words, or of twenty-seven lines, and that her grammar and spelling were nowhere. All this was quite consonant with Lady Tal’s history, manner, talk, and with that particular beauty of hers—the handsome aquiline features, too clean-cut for anything save wood or stone, the bright, cold, blue eyes, which looked you in the face when you expected it least, and which looked away from you when you expected it least, also; the absence of any of those little subtle lines which tell of feeling and thought, and which complete visible beauty, while suggesting a beauty transcending mere visible things. There was nothing at all surprising in this. But Jervase Marion had found in this manuscript something quite distinct and unconnected with such matters: he had found the indications of a soul, a very decided and unmistakable soul.
And now, looking across the fruit and flowers, and the set out of old Venetian glass on Miss Vanderwerf’s hospitable table, he asked himself in what portion of the magnificent person of Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw that soul could possibly be located.
Lady Tal was seated, as I have remarked, immediately opposite Marion, and between a rather battered cosmopolitan diplomatist and the young millionaire who had been in distress about a sideboard. Further along was the Roumanian Princess, and opposite, on the other side of Marion, an elderly American siren, in an extremely simple white muslin frock, at the first glance the work of the nursery maid, at the second of Worth, and symbolising the strange, dangerous fascination of a lady whom you took at first for a Puritan and a frump. On the other sat Miss Gertrude Ossian, Lady Tal’s cousin, a huge young woman with splendid arms and shoulders and atrocious manners, who thought Venice such a bore because it was too hot to play at tennis and you couldn’t ride on canals, and consoled herself by attempting to learn the guitar from various effete Italian youths, whom she alarmed and delighted in turn.
Among this interesting company Lady Tal was seated with that indefinable look of being a great deal too large, too strong, too highly connected, and too satisfied with herself and all things, for this miserable, effete, plebeian, and self-conscious universe.
She wore a beautifully-made dress of beautifully-shining silk, and her shoulders and throat and arms were as beautifully made and as shining as her dress; and her blond hair was as elaborately and perfectly arranged as it was possible to conceive. That blond hair, verging upon golden, piled up in smooth and regular plaits and rolls till it formed a kind of hard and fantastic helmet about her very oval face, and arranged in a close row of symmetrical little curls upon the high, white, unmarked forehead, and about the thin, black, perfectly-arched eyebrows—that hair of Lady Tal’s symbolised, in the thought of Marion, all that was magnificent, conventional, and impassive in this creature. Those blue eyes also, which looked at you and away from you, when you expected each least, were too large, under the immense arch of eyebrow, to do more than look out indifferently upon the world. The mouth was too small in its beautiful shape for any contraction or expression of feeling, and when she smiled, those tiny white teeth seemed still to shut it. And altogether, with its finely-moulded nostrils, which were never dilated, and its very oval outline, the whole face affected Marion as a huge and handsome mask, as something clapped on and intended to conceal. To conceal what? It seemed to the novelist, as he listened to the stream of animated conventionalities, of jokes unconnected with any high spirits, that the mask of Lady Atalanta’s face, like those great stone masks in Roman galleries and gardens, concealed the mere absence of everything. As Marion contemplated Lady Tal, he reviewed mentally that manuscript novel written in a hand as worn down as that of a journalist, and with rather less grammar and spelling than might be expected from a nursery maid; and he tried to connect the impression it had left on his mind with the impression which its author was making at the present moment.
The novel had taken him by surprise by its subject, and even more by its particular moral attitude. The story was no story at all, merely the unnoticed martyrdom of a delicate and scrupulous woman tied to a vain, mean, and frivolous man; the long starvation of a little soul which required affections and duties among the unrealities of the world. Not at all an uncommon subject nowadays; in fact, Marion could have counted you off a score of well-known novels on similar or nearly similar themes.
There was nothing at all surprising in the novel, the surprising point lay in its having this particular author.
Little by little, as the impression of the book became fainter, and the impression of the writer more vivid, Marion began to settle his psychological problem. Or rather he began to settle that there was no psychological problem at all. This particular theme was in vogue nowadays, this particular moral view was rife in the world; Lady Tal had read other people’s books, and had herself written a book which was extremely like theirs. It was a case of unconscious, complete imitation. The explanation of Lady Tal’s having produced a novel so very different from herself, was simply that, as a matter of fact, she had not produced that novel at all. It was unlike herself because it belonged to other people, that was all.
“Tell me about my novel,” she said after dinner, beckoning Marion into one of the little gothic balconies overhanging the grand canal; the little balconies upon whose cushions and beneath whose drawn-up awning there is room for two, just out of earshot of any two others on the other balconies beyond.
Places for flirtation. But Lady Tal, Marion had instinctively understood, was not a woman who flirted. Her power over men, if she had any, or chose to exert it, must be of the sledge-hammer sort. And how she could possibly have any power over anything save a mere gaping masher, over anything that had, below its starched shirt front, sensitiveness, curiosity, and imagination, Marion at this moment utterly failed to understand.
The tone of this woman’s voice, the very rustle of her dress, as she leaned upon the balcony and shook the sparks from her cigarette into the dark sky and the dark water, seemed to mean business and nothing but business.
“Tell me all about my novel. I don’t intend to be put off with mere remarks about grammar and stops. One may learn all about that; or can’t all that, and style, and so forth, be put in for one, by the printer’s devil? I haven’t a very clear notion what a printer’s devil is, except that he’s a person with a thumb. But he might see to such details, or somebody else of the same sort.”
“Quite so. A novelist of some slight established reputation would do as well, Lady Tal.”
Marion wondered why he had made that answer; Lady Tal’s remark was impertinent only inasmuch as he chose to admit that she could be impertinent to him.
Lady Tal, he felt, but could not see, slightly raised one of those immensely curved eyebrows of hers in the darkness.
“I thought that you, for instance, might get me through all that,” she answered; “or some other novelist, as you say, of established reputation, who was benevolently inclined towards a poor, helpless ignoramus with literary aspirations.”
“Quite apart from such matters—and you are perfectly correct in supposing that there must be lots of professed novelists who would most gladly assist you with them—quite apart from such matters, your novel, if you will allow me to say a rude thing, is utterly impossible. You are perpetually taking all sorts of knowledge for granted in your reader. Your characters don’t sufficiently explain themselves; you write as if your reader had witnessed the whole thing and merely required reminding. I almost doubt whether you have fully realized for yourself a great part of the situation; one would think you were repeating things from hearsay, without quite understanding them.”
Marion felt a twinge of conscience: that wasn’t the impression left by the novel, but the impression due to the discrepancy between the novel and its author. That hateful habit of studying people, of turning them round, prodding and cutting them to see what was inside, why couldn’t he leave it behind for awhile? Had he not come to Venice with the avowed intention of suspending all such studies?
Lady Tal laughed. The laugh was a little harsh. “You say that because of the modelling of my face—I know all about modelling of faces, and facial angles, and cheek-bones, and eye cavities: I once learned to draw—people always judge of me by the modelling of my face. Perhaps they are right, perhaps they are wrong. I daresay I have taken too much for granted. One ought never to take anything for granted, in the way of human insight, ought one? Anyhow, perhaps you will show me when I have gone wrong, will you?”
“It will require a good deal of patience——;” began Marion.
“On your part, of course. But then it all turns to profit with you novelists; and it’s men’s business to be patient, just because they never are.”
“I meant on your part, Lady Tal. I question whether you have any notion of what it means to recast a novel—to alter it throughout, perhaps not only once, but twice, or three times.”
“Make me a note of the main wrongness, and send me the MS., will you? I’ll set about altering it at once, you’ll see. I’m a great deal more patient than you imagine, Mr. Marion, when I want a thing—and I do want this—I want to write novels. I want the occupation, the interest, the excitement. Perhaps some day I shall want the money too. One makes pots of money in your business, doesn’t one?”
Lady Atalanta laughed. She threw her cigarette into the canal, and with a crackle and a rustle of her light dress, straightened her huge person, and after looking for a moment into the blue darkness full of dim houses and irregularly scattered lights, she swept back into the hum of voices and shimmer of white dresses of Miss Vanderwerf’s big drawing-room.
Jervase Marion remained leaning on the balcony, listening to the plash of oar and the bursts of hoarse voices and shrill fiddles from the distant music boats.
The temptations of that demon of psychological study proved too great for Marion; particularly when that tempter allied himself to an equally stubborn though less insidious demon apparently residing in Lady Atalanta: the demon of amateur authorship. So that, by the end of ten days, there was established, between Lady Tal’s lodgings and Marion’s hotel, a lively interchange of communication, porters and gondoliers for ever running to and fro between “that usual tall young lady at San Vio,” and “that usual short, bald gentleman on the Riva.” The number of parcels must have been particularly mysterious to these messengers, unless the proverbially rapid intuition (inherited during centuries of intrigue and spying) of Venetian underlings arrived at the fact that the seemingly numberless packets were in reality always one and the same, or portions of one and the same: the celebrated novel travelling to and fro, with perpetual criticisms from Marion and corrections from Lady Atalanta. This method of intercourse was, however, daily supplemented by sundry notes, in the delicate, neat little hand of the novelist, or the splashing writing of the lady, saying with little variation—”Dear Lady Atalanta, I fear I may not have made my meaning very clear with respect to Chapter I, II, III, IV—or whatever it might be—will you allow me to give you some verbal explanations on the subject?” and “Dear Mr. Marion,—Do come at once. I’ve got stuck over that beastly chapter V, VI, or VII, and positively must see you about it.”
“Well, I never!” politely ejaculated Miss Vanderwerf regularly every evening—”if that Marion isn’t the most really kind and patient creature on this earth!”
To which her friend the Princess, the other arbitress of Venetian society in virtue of her palace, her bric-à-brac, and that knowledge of Marie Corelli and Mrs. Campbell-Praed which balanced Miss Vanderwerf’s capacity for grasping the meaning of Gyp—invariably answered in her best English colloquial:
“Well, my word! If that Lady Tal’s not the most impudent amateur scribble-scrabble of all the amateur scribble-scrabbles that England produces.”
Remarks which immediately produced a lively discussion of Lady Tal and of Marion, including the toilettes of the one and the books of the other, with the result that neither retained a single moral, intellectual, or physical advantage; and the obvious corollary, in the mind of the impartial listener, that Jervase Marion evidently gave up much more of his time to Lady Tal and her novel than to Miss Vanderwerf and the Princess and their respective salons.
As a matter of fact, however, although a degree of impudence more politely described as energy and determination, on the part of Lady Tal; and of kindness, more correctly designated as feebleness of spirit, on the part of Marion, had undoubtedly been necessary in the first stages of this intercourse, yet nothing of either of these valuable social qualities had been necessary for its continuation. Although maintaining that manner of hers expressive of the complete rights which her name of Ossian and her additional inches constituted over all things and people, Lady Tal had become so genuinely enthusiastic for the novelist’s art as revealed by Marion, that her perpetual intrusion upon his leisure was that merely of an ardent if somewhat inconsiderate disciple. In the eyes of this young lady, development of character, foreshortening of narrative, construction, syntax, nay, even grammar and punctuation, had become inexhaustible subjects of meditation and discussion, upon which every experience of life could be brought to bear.
So much for Lady Tal. As regards Marion, he had, not without considerable self-contempt, surrendered himself to the demon of character study. This passion for investigating into the feelings and motives of his neighbours was at once the joy, the pride, and the bane and humiliation of Marion’s placid life. He was aware that he had, for years and years, cultivated this tendency to the utmost; and he was fully convinced that to study other folks and embody his studies in the most lucid form was the one mission of his life, and a mission in nowise inferior to that of any other highly gifted class of creatures. Indeed, if Jervase Marion, ever since his earliest manhood, had given way to a tendency to withdraw from all personal concerns, from all emotion or action, it was mainly because he conceived that this shrinkingness of nature (which foolish persons called egoism) was the necessary complement to his power of intellectual analysis; and that any departure from the position of dispassioned spectator of the world’s follies and miseries would mean also a departure from his real duty as a novelist. To be brought into contact with people more closely than was necessary or advantageous for their intellectual comprehension; to think about them, feel about them, mistress, wife, son, or daughter, the bare thought of such a thing jarred upon Marion’s nerves. So, the better to study, the better to be solitary, he had expatriated himself, leaving brothers, sisters (now his mother was dead), friends of childhood, all those things which invade a man’s consciousness without any psychological profit; he had condemned himself to live in a world of acquaintances, of indifference; and, for sole diversion, he permitted himself, every now and then, to come abroad to places where he had not even acquaintances, where he could look at faces which had no associations for him, and speculate upon the character of total strangers. Only, being a methodical man, and much concerned for his bodily and intellectual health, he occasionally thought fit to suspend even this contact with mankind, and to spend six weeks, as he had intended spending those six weeks at Venice, in the contemplation of only bricks and mortar.
And now, that demon of psychological study had got the better of his determination. Marion understood it all now from the beginning: that astonishing feebleness of his towards Lady Atalanta, that extraordinary submission to this imperious and audacious young aristocrat’s orders. The explanation was simple, though curious. He had divined in Lady Atalanta a very interesting psychological problem, considerably before he had been able to formulate the fact to himself: his novelist’s intuition, like the scent of a dog, had set him on the track even before he knew the nature of the game, or the desire to pursue. Before even beginning to think about Lady Atalanta, he had begun to watch her; he was watching her now consciously; indeed all his existence was engrossed in such watching, so that the hours he spent away from her company, or the company of her novel, were so many gaps in his life.
Jervase Marion, as a result both of that shrinkingness of nature, and of a very delicate artistic instinct, had an aversion of such coarse methods of study as consist in sitting down in front of a human being and staring, in a metaphorical sense, at him or her. He was not a man of theories (their cut-and-driedness offending his subtlety); but had he been forced to formulate his ideas, he would have said that in order to perceive the real values (in pictorial language) of any individual, you must beware of isolating him or her; you must merely look attentively at the moving ocean of human faces, watching for the one face more particularly interesting than the rest, and catching glimpses of its fleeting expression, and of the expression of its neighbours as it appears and reappears. Perhaps, however, Marion’s other reason against the sit-down-and-stare or walk-round-and-pray system of psychological study was really the stronger one in his nature, the more so that he would probably not have admitted its superior validity. This other reason was a kind of moral scruple against getting to know the secret mechanism of a soul, especially if such knowledge involved an appearance of intimacy with a person in whom he could never take more than a merely abstract, artistic interest. It was a mean taking advantage of superior strength, or the raising of expectations which could not be fulfilled; for Marion, although the most benevolent and serviceable of mortals, did not give his heart, perhaps because he had none to give, to anybody.
This scruple had occurred to Marion almost as soon as he discovered himself to be studying Lady Tal; and it occurred to him once or twice afterwards. But he despatched it satisfactorily. Lady Tal, in the first place, was making use of him in the most outrageous way, without scruple or excuse; it was only just that he, in his turn, should turn her to profit with equal freedom. This reason, however, savoured slightly of intellectual caddishness, and Marion rejected it with scorn. The real one, he came to perceive, was that Lady Tal gratuitously offered herself for study by her quiet, aggressive assumption of inscrutability. She really thrust her inscrutability down one’s throat; her face, her manner, her every remark, her very novel, were all so many audacious challenges to the more psychological members of the community. She seemed to be playing on a gong and crying: “Does anyone feel inclined to solve a riddle? Is there any person who thinks himself sufficiently clever to understand me?” And when a woman takes up such an attitude, it is only natural, human and proper that the first novelist who comes along that way should stop and say: “I intend to get to the bottom of you; one, two, three, I am going to begin.”
So Jervase Marion assiduously cultivated the society of Lady Atalanta, and spent most of his time instructing her in the art of the novelist.
One morning Marion, by way of exception, saw and studied Lady Tal without the usual medium of the famous novel. It was early, with the very first autumn crispness in the blue morning, in the bright sun which would soon burn, but as yet barely warmed. Marion was taking his usual ramble through the tortuous Venetian alleys, and as usual he had found himself in one of his favourite haunts, the market on the further slope of the Rialto.
That market—the yellow and white awnings, and the white houses against the delicate blue sky; the bales and festoons of red and green and blue and purple cotton stuffs outside the little shops, and below that the shawled women pattering down the bridge steps towards it; the monumental display of piled up peaches and pears, and heaped up pumpkins and mysterious unknown cognate vegetables, round and long, purple, yellow, red, grey, among the bay leaves, the great, huge, smooth, green-striped things, cut open to show their red pulp, the huger things looking as if nature had tried to gild and silver them unsuccessfully, tumbled on to the pavement; the butchers’ shops with the gorgeous bullocks’ hearts and sacrificial fleeced lambs; the endless hams and sausages—all this market, under the blue sky, with this lazy, active, noisy, brawling, friendly population jerking and lolling about it, always seemed to Marion one of the delightful spots of Venice, pleasing him with a sense (although he knew it to be all false) that here was a place where people could eat and drink and laugh and live without any psychological troubles.
On this particular morning, as this impression with the knowledge of its falseness was as usual invading Marion’s consciousness, he experienced a little shock of surprise, incongruity, and the sudden extinction of a pleasingly unreal mood, on perceiving, coming towards him, with hand cavalierly on hip and umbrella firmly hitting the ground, the stately and faultlessly coated and shirted and necktied figure of Lady Atalanta.
“I have had a go already at Christina,” she said, after extending to Marion an angular though friendly handshake, and a cheerful frank inscrutable smile of her big blue eyes and her little red mouth. “That novel is turning me into another woman: the power of sinning, as the Salvationists say, has been extracted out of my nature even by the rootlets; I sat up till two last night after returning from the Lido, and got up this morning at six, all for the love of Christina and literature. I expect Dawson will give me warning; she told me yesterday that she ‘had never know any other lady that writes so much or used them big sheets of paper, quite henormous, my lady.’ Dear old place, isn’t it? Ever tasted any of that fried pumpkin? It’s rather nasty but quite good; have some? I wonder we’ve not met here before; I come here twice a week to shop. You don’t mind carrying parcels, do you?” Lady Tal had stopped at one of the front stalls, and having had three vast yellow paper bags filled with oranges and lemons, she handed the two largest to Marion.
“You’ll carry them for me, won’t you, there’s a good creature: like that I shall be able to get rather more rolls than I usually can. It’s astonishing how much sick folk care for rolls. I ought to explain I’m going to see some creatures at the hospital. It takes too long going there in the gondola from my place, so I walk. If you were to put those bags well on your chest like that, under your chin, they’d be easier to hold, and there’d be less chance of the oranges bobbing out.”
At a baker’s in one of the little narrow streets near the church of the Miracoli, Lady Atalanta provided herself with a bag of rolls, which she swung by the string to her wrist. Marion then perceived that she was carrying under her arm a parcel of paper-covered books, fastened with an elastic band.
“Now we shall have got everything except some flowers, which I daresay we can get somewhere on the way,” remarked Lady Tal. “Do you mind coming in here?” and she entered one of those little grocer’s shops, dignified with the arms of Savoy in virtue of the sale of salt and tobacco, and where a little knot of vague, wide-collared individuals usually hang about among the various-shaped liqueur bottles in an atmosphere of stale cigar, brandy and water, and kitchen soap.
“May—I—a—a—ask for anything for you, Lady Tal?” requested Marion, taken completely by surprise by the rapidity of his companion’s movements. “You want stamps, I presume; may I have the honour of assisting you in your purchase?”
“Thanks, it isn’t stamps; it’s snuff, and you wouldn’t know what sort to get.” And Lady Tal, making her stately way through the crowd of surprised loafers, put a franc on the counter and requested the presiding female to give her four ounces of Semolino, but of the good sort——;”It’s astonishing how faddy those old creatures are about their snuff!” remarked Lady Tal, pocketing her change. “Would you put this snuff in your pocket for me? Thanks. The other sort’s called Bacubino, it’s dark and clammy, and it looks nasty. Have you ever taken snuff? I do sometimes to please my old creatures; it makes me sneeze, you know, and they think that awful fun.”
As they went along Lady Atalanta suddenly perceived, in a little green den, something which attracted her attention.
“I wonder whether they’re fresh?” she mused. “I suppose you can’t tell a fresh egg when you see it, can you, Mr. Marion? Never mind, I’ll risk it. If you’ll take this third bag of oranges, I’ll carry the eggs—they might come to grief in your hands, you know.”
“What an odious, odious creature a woman is,” thought Marion. He wondered, considerably out of temper, why he should feel so miserable at having to carry all those oranges. Of course with three gaping bags piled on his chest there was the explanation of acute physical discomfort; but that wasn’t sufficient. It seemed as if this terrible, aristocratic giantess were doing it all on purpose to make him miserable. He saw that he was intensely ridiculous in her eyes, with those yellow bags against his white waistcoat and the parcel of snuff in his coat pocket; his face was also, he thought, streaming with perspiration, and he couldn’t get at his handkerchief. It was childish, absurd of him to mind; for, after all, wasn’t Lady Atalanta equally burdened? But she, with her packets of rolls, and packet of books, and basket of eggs, and her umbrella tucked under her arm, looked serene and even triumphant in her striped flannel.
“I beg your pardon—would you allow me to stop a minute and shift the bags to the other arm?” Marion could no longer resist that fearful agony. “If you go on I’ll catch you up in a second.”
But just as Marion was about to rest the bags upon the marble balustrade of a bridge, his paralysed arm gave an unaccountable jerk, and out flew one of the oranges, and rolled slowly down the stone steps of the bridge.
“I say, don’t do that! You’ll have them all in the canal!” cried Lady Atalanta, as Marion quickly stooped in vain pursuit of the escaped orange, the movement naturally, and as if it were being done on purpose, causing another orange to fly out in its turn; a small number of spectators, gondoliers and workmen from under the bridge, women nursing babies at neighbouring windows, and barefooted urchins from nowhere in particular, starting up to enjoy the extraordinary complicated conjuring tricks which the stout gentleman in the linen coat and Panama hat had suddenly fallen to execute.
“Damn the beastly things!” ejaculated Marion, forgetful of Lady Atalanta and good breeding, and perceiving only the oranges jumping and rolling about, and feeling his face grow redder and hotter in the glare on that white stone bridge. At that moment, as he raised his eyes, he saw, passing along, a large party of Americans from his hotel; Americans whom he had avoided like the plague, who, he felt sure, would go home and represent him as a poor creature and a snob disavowing his “people.” He could hear them, in fancy, describing how at Venice he had turned flunky to one of your English aristocrats, who stood looking and making game of him while he ran after her oranges, “and merely because she’s the daughter of an Earl or Marquis or such like.”
“Bless my heart, how helpless is genius when it comes to practical matters!” exclaimed Lady Atalanta. And putting her various packages down carefully on the parapet, she calmly collected the bounding oranges, wiped them with her handkerchief, and restored them to Marion, recommending him to “stick them loose in his pockets.”
Marion had never been in a hospital (he had been only a boy, and in Europe with his mother, a Southern refugee, at the time of the War), the fact striking him as an omission in his novelist’s education. But he felt as if he would never wish to describe the one into which he mechanically followed Lady Tal. With its immense, immensely lofty wards, filled with greyish light, and radiating like the nave and transepts of a vast church from an altar with flickering lights and kneeling figures, it struck Marion, while he breathed that hot, thick air, sickly with carbolic and chloride of lime, as a most gruesome and quite objectionably picturesque place. He had a vague notion that the creatures in the rows and rows of greyish white beds ought to have St. Vitus’s dance or leprosy or some similar mediæval disease. They were nasty enough objects, he thought, as he timidly followed Lady Tal’s rapid and resounding footsteps, for anything. He had, for all the prosaic quality of his writings, the easily roused imagination of a nervous man: and it seemed to him as if they were all of them either skeletons gibbering and screeching in bed, or frightful yellow and red tumid creatures, covered with plasters and ligatures, or old ladies recently liberated from the cellar in which, as you may periodically read in certain public prints, they had been kept by barbarous nephews or grandchildren——;
“Dear me, dear me, what a dreadful place!” he kept ejaculating, as he followed Lady Atalanta, carrying her bags of oranges and rolls, among the vociferating, grabbing beldames in bed, and the indifferent nuns and serving wenches toiling about noisily: Lady Tal going methodically her way, businesslike, cheerful, giving to one some snuff, to another an orange or a book, laughing, joking in her bad Italian, settling the creatures’ disagreeable bed-clothes and pillows for them, as if instead of cosseting dying folk, she was going round to the counters of some huge shop. A most painful exhibition, thought Marion.
“I say, suppose you talk to her, she’s a nice little commonplace creature who wanted to be a school-mistress and is awfully fond of reading novels—tell her—I don’t know how to explain it—that you write novels. See, Teresina, this gentleman and I are writing a book together, all about a lady who married a silly husband—would you like to hear about it?”
Stroking the thin white face, with the wide forget-me-not eyes, of the pretty, thin little blonde, Lady Tal left Marion, to his extreme discomfort, seated on the edge of a straw chair by the side of the bed, a bag of oranges on his knees and absolutely no ideas in his head.
“She is so good,” remarked the little girl, opening and shutting a little fan which Lady Tal had just given her, “and so beautiful. Is she your sister? She told me she had a brother whom she was very fond of, but I thought he was dead. She’s like an angel in Paradise.”
“Precisely, precisely,” answered Marion, thinking at the same time what an uncommonly uncomfortable place Paradise must, in that case, be. All this was not at all what he had imagined when he had occasionally written about young ladies consoling the sick; this businesslike, bouncing, cheerful shake-up-your-pillows and shake-up-your-soul mode of proceeding.
Lady Tal, he decided within himself, had emphatically no soul; all he had just witnessed, proved it.
“Why do you do it?” he suddenly asked, as they emerged from the hospital cloisters. He knew quite well: merely because she was so abominably active.
“I don’t know. I like ill folk. I’m always so disgustingly well myself; and you see with my poor brother, I’d got accustomed to ill folk, so I suppose I can’t do without. I should like to settle in England—if it weren’t for all those hateful relations of mine and of my husband’s—and go and live in the East End and look after sick creatures. At least I think I should; but I know I shouldn’t.”
“Why not?” asked Marion.
“Why? Oh, well, it’s making oneself conspicuous, you know, and all that. One hates to be thought eccentric, of course. And then, if I went to England, of course I should have to go into society, otherwise people would go and say that I was out of it and had been up to something or other. And if I went into society, that would mean doing simply nothing else, not even the little I do here. You see I’m not an independent woman; all my husband’s relations are perpetually ready to pull me to pieces on account of his money! There’s nothing they’re not prepared to invent about me. I’m too poor and too expensive to do without it, and as long as I take his money, I must see to no one being able to say anything that would have annoyed him—see?”
“I see,” answered Marion.
At that moment Lady Atalanta perceived a gondola turning a corner, and in it the young millionaire whom she had chaffed about his sideboard.
“Hi, hi! Mr. Clarence!” she cried, waving her umbrella. “Will you take me to that curiosity-dealer’s this afternoon?”
Marion looked at her, standing there on the little wharf, waving her red umbrella and shouting to the gondola; her magnificent rather wooden figure more impeccably magnificent, uninteresting in her mannish flannel garments, her handsome pink and white face, as she smiled that inexpressive smile with all the pearl-like little teeth, more than ever like a big mask——;
“No soul, decidedly no soul,” said the novelist to himself. And he reflected that women without souls were vaguely odious.
“I have been wondering of late why I liked you?” said Lady Tal one morning at lunch, addressing the remark to Marion, and cut short in her speech by a burst of laughter from that odious tomboy of a cousin of hers (how could she endure that girl? Marion reflected) who exclaimed, with an affectation of milkmaid archness:
“Oh, Tal! how can you be so rude to the gentleman? You oughtn’t to say to people you wonder why you like them. Ought she, Mr. Marion?”
Marion was silent. He felt a weak worm for disliking this big blond girl with the atrocious manners, who insisted on pronouncing his name Mary Anne, with unfailing relish of the joke. Lady Tal did not heed the interruption, but repeated pensively, leaning her handsome cleft chin on her hand, and hacking at a peach with her knife: “I have been wondering why I like you, Mr. Marion (I usedn’t to, but made up to you for Christina’s benefit), because you are not a bit like poor Gerald. But I’ve found out now and I’m pleased. There’s nothing so pleasant in this world as finding out why one thinks or does things, is there? Indeed it’s the only pleasant thing, besides riding in the Campagna and drinking iced water on a hot day. The reason I like you is because you have seen a lot of the world and of people, and still take nice views of them. The people one meets always think to show their cleverness by explaining everything by nasty little motives; and you don’t. It’s nice of you, and it’s clever. It’s cleverer than your books even, you know.”
In making this remark (and she made it with an aristocratic indifference to being personal) Lady Atalanta had most certainly hit the right nail on the head. That gift, a rare one, of seeing the simple, wholesome, and even comparatively noble, side of things; of being, although a pessimist, no misanthrope, was the most remarkable characteristic of Jervase Marion; it was the one which made him, for all his old bachelor ways and his shrinking from close personal contact, a man and a manly man, giving this analytical and nervous person a certain calmness and gentleness and strength.
But Lady Tal’s remark, although in the main singularly correct, smote him like a rod. For it so happened that for once in his life Marion had not been looking with impartial, serene, and unsuspecting eyes upon one of his fellow-sufferers in this melancholy world; and that one creature to whom he was not so good as he might be, was just Lady Tal.
He could not really have explained how it was. But there was the certainty, that while recognising in Lady Tal’s conversation, in her novel, in the little she told him of her life, a great deal which was delicate, and even noble, wherewithal to make up a somewhat unusual and perhaps not very superficially attractive, but certainly an original and desirable personality, he had got into the habit of explaining whatever in her was obscure and contradictory by unworthy reasons; and even of making allowance for the possibility of all the seeming good points proving, some day, to be a delusion and a snare. Perhaps it depended upon the constant criticisms he was hearing on all sides of Lady Atalanta’s character and conduct: the story of her mercenary marriage, the recital of the astounding want of feeling displayed upon the occasion of her brother’s death, and that perpetual, and apparently too well founded suggestion that this young lady, who possessed fifteen thousand a year and apparently spent about two, must be feathering her nest and neatly evading the intentions of her late lamented. Moreover there was something vaguely disagreeable in the extraordinary absence of human emotion displayed in such portion of her biography as might be considered public property.
Marion, heaven knows, didn’t like women who went in for grande passion; in fact passion, which he had neither experienced nor described, was distinctly repulsive to him. But, after all, Lady Tal was young, Lady Tal was beautiful, and Lady Tal had for years and years been a real and undoubted widow; and it was therefore distinctly inhuman on the part of Lady Tal to have met no temptations to part with her heart, and with her jointure. It was ugly; there was no doubt it was ugly. The world, after all, has a right to demand that a young lady of good birth and average education should have a heart. It was doubtless also, he said to himself, the fault of Lady Atalanta’s physique, this suspicious attitude of his; nature had bestowed upon her a face like a mask, muscles which never flinched, nerves apparently hidden many inches deeper than most folk’s: she was enigmatic, and a man has a right to pause before an enigma. Furthermore——;But Marion could not quite understand that furthermore.
He understood it a few days later. They had had the usual séance over Christina that morning; and now it was evening, and three or four people had dropped in at Lady Tal’s after the usual stroll at Saint Mark’s. Lady Tal had hired a small house, dignified with the title of Palazzina, on the Zattere. It was modern, and the æsthetic colony at Venice sneered at a woman with that amount of money inhabiting anything short of a palace. They themselves being mainly Americans, declared they couldn’t feel like home in a dwelling which was not possessed of historical reminiscences. The point of Lady Tal’s little place, as she called it, was that it possessed a garden; small indeed, but round which, as she remarked, one solitary female could walk. In this garden she and Marion were at this moment walking. The ground floor windows were open, and there issued from the drawing-room a sound of cups and saucers, of guitar strumming and laughter, above which rose the loud voice, the aristocratic kitchen-maid pronunciation of Lady Atalanta’s tomboy cousin.
“Where’s Tal? I declare if Tal hasn’t gone off with Mary Anne! Poor Mary Anne! She’s tellin’ him all about Christina, you know; how she can’t manage that row between Christina and Christina’s mother-in-law, and the semicolons and all that. Christina’s the novel, you know. You’ll be expected to ask for Christina at your club, you know, when it comes out, Mr. Clarence. I’ve already written to all my cousins to get it from Mudie’s——;”
Marion gave a little frown, as if his boot pinched him, as he walked on the gravel down there, among the dark bushes, the spectral little terra-cotta statues, with the rigging of the ships on the Giudecca canal black against the blue evening sky, with a vague, sweet, heady smell of Olea fragrans all round. Confound that girl! Why couldn’t he take a stroll in a garden with a handsome woman of thirty without the company being informed that it was only on account of Lady Tal’s novel. That novel, that position of literary adviser, of a kind of male daily governess, would make him ridiculous. Of course Lady Tal was continually making use of him, merely making use of him in her barefaced and brutal manner: of course she didn’t care a hang about him except to help her with that novel: of course as soon as that novel was done with she would drop him. He knew all that, and it was natural. But he really didn’t see the joke of being made conspicuous and grotesque before all Venice——;
“Shan’t we go in, Lady Tal?” he said sharply, throwing away his cigarette. “Your other guests are doubtless sighing for your presence.”
“And this guest here is not. Oh dear, no; there’s Gertrude to look after them and see to their being happy; besides, I don’t care whether they are. I want to speak to you. I can’t understand your thinking that situation strained. I should have thought it the commonest thing in the world, I mean, gracious——; I can’t understand your not understanding!”
Jervase Marion was in the humour when he considered Lady Tal a legitimate subject of study, and intellectual vivisection a praiseworthy employment. Such study implies, as a rule, a good deal of duplicity on the part of the observer; duplicity doubtless sanctified, like all the rest, by the high mission of prying into one’s neighbour’s soul.
“Well,” answered Marion—he positively hated that good French Alabama name of his, since hearing it turned into Mary Anne—”of course one understands a woman avoiding, for many reasons, the temptation of one individual passion; but a woman who makes up her mind to avoid the temptation of all passion in the abstract, and what is more, acts consistently and persistently with this object in view, particularly when she has never experienced passion at all, when she has not even burnt the tips of her fingers once in her life——;; that does seem rather far fetched, you must admit.”
Lady Tal was not silent for a moment, as he expected she would be. She did not seem to see the danger of having the secret of her life extracted out of her.
“I don’t see why you should say so, merely because the person’s a woman. I’m sure you must have met examples enough of men who, without ever having been in love, or in danger of being in love—poor little things—have gone through life with a resolute policy of never placing themselves in danger, of never so much as taking their heart out of their waistcoat pockets to look at it, lest it might suddenly be jerked out of their possession.”
It was Marion who was silent. Had it not been dark, Lady Tal might have seen him wince and redden; and he might have seen Lady Tal smile a very odd but not disagreeable smile. And they fell to discussing the technicalities of that famous novel.
Marion outstayed for a moment or two the other guests. The facetious cousin was strumming in the next room, trying over a Venetian song which the naval captain had taught her. Marion was slowly taking a third cup of tea—he wondered why he should be taking so much tea, it was very bad for his nerves,—seated among the flowering shrubs, the bits of old brocade and embroidery, the various pieces of bric-à-brac which made the drawing-room of Lady Tal look, as all distinguished modern drawing-rooms should, like a cross between a flower show and a pawnbroker’s, and as if the height of modern upholstery consisted in avoiding the use of needles and nails, and enabling the visitors to sit in a little heap of variegated rags. Lady Tal was arranging a lamp, which burned, or rather smoked, at this moment, surrounded by lace petticoats on a carved column.
“Ah,” she suddenly said, “it’s extraordinary how difficult it is to get oneself understood in this world. I’m thinking about Christina, you know. I never do expect any one to understand anything, as a matter of fact. But I thought that was probably because all my friends hitherto have been all frivolous poops who read only the Peerage and the sporting papers. I should have thought, now, that writing novels would have made you different. I suppose, after all, it’s all a question of physical constitution and blood relationship—being able to understand other folk, I mean. If one’s molecules aren’t precisely the same and in the same place (don’t be surprised, I’ve been reading Carpenter’s ‘Mental Physiology’), it’s no good. It’s certain that the only person in the world who has ever understood me one bit was Gerald.”
Lady Tal’s back was turned to Marion, her tall figure a mere dark mass against the light of the lamp, and the lit-up white wall behind.
“And still,” suddenly remarked Marion, “you were not—not—very much attached to your brother, were you?”
The words were not out of Marion’s mouth before he positively trembled at them. Good God! what had he allowed himself to say? But he had no time to think of his own words. Lady Tal had turned round, her eyes fell upon him. Her face was pale, very quiet; not angry, but disdainful. With one hand she continued to adjust the lamp.
“I see,” she said coldly, “you have heard all about my extraordinary behaviour, or want of extraordinary behaviour. It appears I did surprise and shock my acquaintances very much by my proceedings after Gerald’s death. I suppose it really is the right thing for a woman to go into hysterics and take to her bed and shut herself up for three months at least, when her only brother dies. I didn’t think of that at the time; otherwise I should have conformed, of course. It’s my policy always to conform, you know. I see now that I made a mistake, showed a want of savoir-vivre, and all that—I stupidly consulted my own preferences, and I happened to prefer keeping myself well in hand. I didn’t seem to like people’s sympathy; now the world, you know, has a right to give one its sympathies under certain circumstances, just as a foreign man has a right to leave his card when he’s been introduced. Also, I knew that Gerald would have just hated my making myself a motley to the view—you mightn’t think it, but we used to read Shakespeare’s sonnets, he and I—and, you see, I cared for only one mortal thing in the world, to do what Gerald wanted. I never have cared for any other thing, really; after all, if I don’t want to be conspicuous, it’s because Gerald would have hated it—I never shall care for anything in the world besides that. All the rest’s mere unreality. One thinks one’s alive, but one isn’t.”
Lady Atalanta had left off fidgeting with the lamp. Her big blue eyes had all at once brightened with tears which did not fall; but as she spoke the last words, in a voice suddenly husky, she looked down at Marion with an odd smile, tearing a paper spill with her large, well-shaped fingers as she did so.
“Do you see?” she added, with that half-contemptuous smile, calmly mopping her eyes. “That’s how it is, Mr. Marion.”
A sudden light illuminated Marion’s mind; a light, and with it something else, he knew not what, something akin to music, to perfume, beautiful, delightful, but solemn. He was aware of being moved, horribly grieved, but at the same moment intensely glad; he was on the point of saying he didn’t know beforehand what, something which, however, would be all right, natural, like the things, suddenly improvised, which one says occasionally to children.
“My dear young lady——;”
But the words did not pass Marion’s lips. He remembered suddenly by what means and in what spirit he had elicited this unexpected burst of feeling on the part of Lady Tal. He could not let her go on, he could not take advantage of her; he had not the courage to say: “Lady Tal, I am a miserable cad who was prying into your feelings; I’m not fit to be spoken to!” And with the intolerable shame at his own caddishness came that old shrinking from any sort of spiritual contact with others.
“Quite so, quite so,” he merely answered, looking at his boots and moving that ring of his mother’s up and down his watch chain. “I quite understand. And as a matter of fact you are quite correct in your remark about our not being always alive. Or rather we are usually alive, when we are living our humdrum little natural existence, full of nothing at all; and during the moments when we do really seem to be alive, to be feeling, living, we are not ourselves, but somebody else.”
Marion had had no intention of making a cynical speech. He had been aware of having behaved like a cad to Lady Tal, and in consequence, had somehow informed Lady Tal he considered her as an impostor. He had reacted against that first overwhelming sense of pleasure at the discovery of the lady’s much-questioned soul. Now he was prepared to tell her that she had none.
“Yes,” answered Lady Tal, lighting a cigarette over the high lamp, “that’s just it. I shall borrow that remark and put it into Christina. You may use up any remark of mine, in return, you know.”
She stuck out her under lip with that ugly little cynical movement which was not even her own property, but borrowed from women more trivial than herself like the way of carrying the elbows, and the pronunciation of certain words: a mark of caste, as a blue triangle on one’s chin or a yellow butterfly on one’s forehead might be, and not more graceful or engaging.
“One thinks one has a soul sometimes,” she mused. “It isn’t true. It would prevent one’s clothes fitting, wouldn’t it? One really acts in this way or that because it’s better form. You see here on the Continent it’s good form to tear one’s hair and roll on the floor, and to pretend to have a soul; we’ve got beyond that, as we’ve got beyond women trying to seem to know about art and literature. Here they do, and make idiots of themselves. Just now you thought I’d got a soul, didn’t you, Mr. Marion? You’ve been wondering all along whether I had one. For a minute I managed to make you believe it—it was rather mean of me, wasn’t it? I haven’t got one. I’m a great deal too well-bred.”
There was a little soreness under all this banter; but how could she banter? Marion felt he detested the woman, as she put out her elbow and extended a stiff handsome hand, and said:
“Remember poor old Christina to-morrow morning, there’s a kind man,” with that little smile of close eyes and close lips. He detested her just in proportion as he had liked her half an hour ago. Remembering that little gush of feeling of his own, he thought her a base creature, as he walked across the little moonlit square with the well in the middle and the tall white houses all round.
Jervase Marion, the next morning, woke up with the consciousness of having been very unfair to Lady Tal, and, what was worse, very unfair to himself. It was one of the drawbacks of friendship (for, after all, this was a kind of friendship) that he occasionally caught himself saying things quite different from his thoughts and feelings, masquerading towards people in a manner distinctly humiliating to his self-respect. Marion had a desire to be simple and truthful; but somehow it was difficult to be simple and truthful as soon as other folk came into play; it was difficult and disagreeable to show one’s real self; that was another reason for living solitary on a top flat at Westminster, and descending therefrom in the body, but not in the spirit, to move about among mere acquaintances, disembodied things, with whom there was no fear of real contact. On this occasion he had let himself come in contact with a fellow-creature; and behold, as a result, he had not only behaved more or less like a cad, but he had done that odious thing of pretending to feel differently from how he really did.
From how he had really felt at the moment, be it well understood. Of course Marion, in his capacity of modern analytical novelist, was perfectly well aware that feelings are mere momentary matters; and that the feeling which had possessed him the previous evening, and still possessed him at the present moment, would not last. The feeling, he admitted to himself (it is much easier to admit such things to one’s self, when one makes the proviso that it’s all a mere passing phase, one’s eternal immutable self, looking on placidly at one’s momentary changing self), the feeling in question was vaguely admiring and pathetic, as regarded Lady Tal. He even confessed to himself that there entered into it a slight dose of poetry. This big, correct young woman, with the beautiful inexpressive face and the ugly inexpressive manners, carrying through life a rather exotic little romance which no one must suspect, possessed a charm for the imagination, a decided value. Excluded for some reason (Marion blurred out his knowledge that the reasons were the late Walkenshaw’s thousands) from the field for emotions and interests which handsome, big young women have a right to, and transferring them all to a nice crippled brother, who had of course not been half as nice as she imagined, living a conventional life, with a religion of love and fidelity secreted within it, this well-born and well-dressed Countess Olivia of modern days, had appealed very strongly to a certain carefully guarded tenderness and chivalry in Marion’s nature; he saw her, as she had stood arranging that lamp, with those unexpected tears brimming in her eyes.
Decidedly. Only that, of course, wasn’t the way to treat it. There was nothing at all artistic in that, nothing modern. And Marion was essentially modern in his novels. Lady Tal, doing the Lady Olivia, with a dead brother in the background, sundry dukes in the middle distance, and no enchanting page (people seemed unanimous in agreeing that Lady Tal had never been in love) perceptible anywhere; all that was pretty, but it wasn’t the right thing. Jervase Marion thought Lady Tal painfully conventional (although of course her conventionality gave all the value to her romantic quality) because she slightly dropped her final g‘s, and visibly stuck out her elbows, and resolutely refused to display emotion of any kind. Marion himself was firmly wedded to various modes of looking at human concerns, which corresponded, in the realm of novel-writing, to these same modern conventionalities of Lady Atalanta’s. The point of it, evidently, must be that the Lady of his novel would have lived for years under the influence of an invalid friend (the brother should be turned into a woman with a mortal malady, and a bad husband, something in the way of Emma and Tony in “Diana of the Crossways,” of intellectual and moral quality immensely superior to her own); then, of course, after the death of the Princess of Trasimeno (she being the late Gerald Burne), Lady Tal (Marion couldn’t fix on a name for her) would gradually be sucked back into frivolous and futile and heartless society; the hic of the whole story being the slow ebbing of that noble influence, the daily encroachments of the baser sides of Lady Tal’s own nature, and of the base side of the world. She would have a chance, say by marrying a comparatively poor man, of securing herself from that rising tide of worldly futility and meanness; the reader must think that she really was going to love the man, to choose him. Or rather, it would be more modern and artistic, less romantic, if the intelligent reader were made to foresee the dismal necessity of Lady Tal’s final absorption into moral and intellectual nothingness. Yes—the sort of thing she would live for, a round of monotonous dissipation, which couldn’t amuse her; of expenditure merely for the sake of expenditure, of conventionality merely for the sake of conventionality;—and the sham, clever, demoralised women, with their various semi-imaginary grievances against the world, their husbands and children, their feeble self-conscious hankerings after mesmerism, spiritualism, Buddhism, and the other forms of intellectual adulteration——;he saw it all. Marion threw his cigar into the canal, and nursed his leg tighter, as he sat all alone in his gondola, and looked up at the bay trees and oleanders, the yellow straw blinds of Lady Tal’s little house on the Zattere.
It would make a capital novel. Marion’s mind began to be inundated with details: all those conversations about Lady Tal rushed back into it, her conventionality, perceptible even to others, her disagreeable parsimoniousness, visibly feathering her nest with the late Walkenshaw’s money, while quite unable to screw up her courage to deliberately forego it, that odd double-graspingness of nature.
That was evidently the final degradation. It would be awfully plucky to put it in, after showing what the woman had been and might have been; after showing her coquettings with better things (the writing of that novel, for instance, for which he must find an equivalent). It would be plucky, modern, artistic, to face the excessive sordidness of this ending. And still—and still——;Marion felt a feeble repugnance to putting it in; it seemed too horrid. And at the same moment, there arose in him that vague, disquieting sense of being a cad, which had distressed him that evening. To suspect a woman of all that——;and yet, Marion answered himself with a certain savageness, he knew it to be the case.
They had separated from the rest of the picnickers, and were walking up and down that little orchard or field—rows of brown maize distaffs and tangles of reddening half trodden-down maize leaves, and patches of tall grass powdered with hemlock under the now rather battered vine garlands, the pomegranate branches weighed down by their vermilion fruit, the peach branches making a Japanese pattern of narrow crimson leaves against the blue sky—that odd cultivated corner in the God-forsaken little marsh island, given up to sea-gulls and picnickers, of Torcello.
“Poor little Clarence,” mused Lady Tal, alluding to the rather feeble-minded young millionaire, who had brought them there, five gondolas full of women in lilac and pink and straw-coloured frocks, and men in white coats, three guitars, a banjo, and two mandolins, and the corresponding proportion of table linen, knives and forks, pies, bottles, and sweetmeats with crinkled papers round them. “Poor little Clarence, he isn’t a bad little thing, is he? He wouldn’t be bad to a woman who married him, would he?”
“He would adore her,” answered Jervase Marion, walking up and down that orchard by Lady Tal’s side. “He would give her everything the heart of woman could desire; carriages, horses, and diamonds, and frocks from Worth, and portraits by Lenbach and Sargent, and bric-à-brac, and—ever so much money for charities, hospitals, that sort of thing——;and——;and complete leisure and freedom and opportunities for enjoying the company of men not quite so well off as himself.”
Marion stopped short, his hands thrust in his pockets, and with that frown which made people think that his boots pinched. He was looking down at his boots at this moment, though he was really thinking of that famous novel, his, not Lady Tal’s; so Lady Tal may have perhaps thought it was the boots that made him frown, and speak in a short, cross little way. Apparently she thought so, for she took no notice of his looks, his intonation, or his speech.
“Yes,” she continued musing, striking the ground with her umbrella, “he’s a good little thing. It’s good to bring us all to Torcello, with all that food and those guitars, and banjos and things, particularly as we none of us throw a word at him in return. And he seems so pleased. It shows a very amiable, self-effacing disposition, and that’s, after all, the chief thing in marriage. But, Lord! how dreary it would be to see that man at breakfast, and lunch, and dinner! or if one didn’t, merely to know that there he must be, having breakfast, lunch and dinner somewhere—for I suppose he would have to have them—that man existing somewhere on the face of the globe, and speaking of one as ‘my wife.’ Fancy knowing the creature was always smiling, whatever one did, and never more jealous than my umbrella. Wouldn’t it feel like being one of the fish in that tank we saw? Wouldn’t living with the Bishop—is he a bishop?—of Torcello, in that musty little house with all the lichen stains and mosquito nests, and nothing but Attila’s throne to call upon—be fun compared with that? Yes, I suppose it’s wise to marry Clarence. I suppose I shall do right in making him marry my cousin. You know”—she added, speaking all these words slowly—”I could make him marry anybody, because he wants to marry me.”
Marion gave a little start as Lady Tal had slowly pronounced those two words, “my cousin.” Lady Tal noticed it.
“You thought I had contemplated having Clarence myself?” she said, looking at the novelist with a whimsical, amused look. “Well, so I have. I have contemplated a great many things, and not had the courage to do them. I’ve contemplated going off to Germany, and studying nursing; and going off to France, and studying painting; I’ve contemplated turning Catholic, and going into a convent. I’ve contemplated—well—I’m contemplating at present—becoming a great novelist, as you know. I’ve contemplated marrying poor men, and becoming their amateur charwoman; and I’ve contemplated marrying rich men, and becoming—well, whatever a penniless woman does become when she marries a rich man; but I’ve done that once before, and once is enough of any experience in life, at least for a person of philosophic cast of mind, don’t you think? I confess I have been contemplating the possibility of marrying Clarence, though I don’t see my way to it. You see, it’s not exactly a pleasant position to be a widow and not to be one, as I am, in a certain sense. Also, I’m bored with living on my poor husband’s money, particularly as I know he wished me to find it as inconvenient as possible to do so. I’m bored with keeping the capital from that wretched boy and his mother, who would get it all as soon as I was safely married again. That’s it. As a matter of fact I’m bored with all life, as I daresay most people are; but to marry this particular Clarence, or any other Clarence that may be disporting himself about, wouldn’t somehow diminish the boringness of things. Do you see?”
“I see,” answered Marion. Good Heavens, what a thing it is to be a psychological novelist! and how exactly he had guessed at the reality of Lady Atalanta’s character and situation. He would scarcely venture to write that novel of his; he might as well call it Lady Tal at once. It was doubtless this discovery which made him grow suddenly very red and feel an intolerable desire to say he knew not what.
They continued walking up and down that little orchard, the brown maize leaves all around, the bright green and vermilion enamel of the pomegranate trees, the Japanese pattern, red and yellow, of the peach branches, against the blue sky above.
“My dear Lady Tal,” began Marion, “my dear young lady, will you allow—an elderly student of human nature to say—how—I fear it must seem very impertinent—how thoroughly—taking your whole situation as if it were that of a third person—he understanding its difficulties—and, taking the situation no longer quite as that of a third person, how earnestly he hopes that——;”
Marion was going to say “you will not derogate from the real nobility of your nature.” But only a fool could say such a thing; besides, of course, Lady Tal must derogate. So he finished off:
“That events will bring some day a perfectly satisfactory, though perhaps unforeseen, conclusion for you.”
Lady Tal was paying no attention. She plucked one of the long withered peach leaves, delicate, and red, and transparent, like a Chinese visiting card, and began to pull it through her fingers.
“You see,” she said, “of the income my husband left me, I’ve been taking only as much as seemed necessary—about two thousand a year. I mean necessary that people shouldn’t see that I’m doing this sort of thing; because, after all, I suppose a woman could live on less, though I am an expensive woman.—The rest, of course, I’ve been letting accumulate for the heir; I couldn’t give it him, for that would have been going against my husband’s will. But it’s rather boring to feel one’s keeping that boy,—such a nasty young brute as he is—and his horrid mother out of all that money, merely by being there. It’s rather humiliating, but it would be more humiliating to marry another man for his money. And I don’t suppose a poor man would have me; and perhaps I wouldn’t have a poor man. Now, suppose I were the heroine of your novel—you know you are writing a novel about me, that’s what makes you so patient with me and Christina, you’re just walking round, and looking at me——;”
“Oh, my dear Lady Tal—how—how can you think such a thing!” gobbled out Marion indignantly. And really, at the moment of speaking, he did feel a perfectly unprofessional interest in this young lady, and was considerably aggrieved at this accusation.
“Aren’t you? Well, I thought you were. You see I have novel on the brain. Well, just suppose you were writing that novel, with me for a heroine, what would you advise me? One has got accustomed to having certain things—a certain amount of clothes, and bric-à-brac and horses, and so forth, and to consider them necessary. And yet, I think if one were to lose them all to-morrow, it wouldn’t make much difference. One would merely say: ‘Dear me, what’s become of it all?’ And yet I suppose one does require them—other people have them, so I suppose it’s right one should have them also. Other people like to come to Torcello in five gondolas with three guitars, a banjo, and lunch, and to spend two hours feeding and littering the grass with paper bags; so I suppose one ought to like it too. If it’s right, I like it. I always conform, you know; only it’s rather dull work, don’t you think, considered as an interest in life? Everything is dull work, for the matter of that, except dear old Christina. What do you think one might do to make things a little less dull? But perhaps everything is equally dull——;”
Lady Tal raised one of those delicately-pencilled, immensely arched eyebrows of hers, with a sceptical little sigh, and looked in front of her, where they were standing.
Before them rose the feathery brown and lilac of the little marsh at the end of the orchard, long seeding reeds, sere grasses, sea lavender, and Michaelmas daisy; and above that delicate bloom, on an unseen strip of lagoon, moved a big yellow and brown sail, slowly flapping against the blue sky. From the orchard behind, rose at intervals the whirr of a belated cicala; they heard the dry maize leaves crack beneath their feet.
“It’s all very lovely,” remarked Lady Tal pensively; “but it doesn’t somehow fit in properly. It’s silly for people like me to come to such a place. As a rule, since Gerald’s death, I only go for walks in civilized places: they’re more in harmony with my frocks.”
Jervase Marion did not answer. He leaned against the bole of a peach tree, looking out at the lilac and brown sea marsh and the yellow sail, seeing them with that merely physical intentness which accompanies great mental preoccupation. He was greatly moved. He was aware of a fearful responsibility. Yet neither the emotion nor the responsibility made him wretched, as he always fancied that all emotion or responsibility must.
He seemed suddenly to be in this young woman’s place, to feel the already begun, and rapid increasing withering-up of this woman’s soul, the dropping away from it of all real, honest, vital interests. She seemed to him in horrible danger, the danger of something like death. And there was but one salvation: to give up that money, to make herself free——;Yes, yes, there was nothing for it but that. Lady Tal, who usually struck him as so oppressively grown up, powerful, able to cope with everything, affected him at this moment as a something very young, helpless, almost childish; he understood so well that during all those years this big woman in her stiff clothes, with her inexpressive face, had been a mere child in the hands of her brother, that she had never thought, or acted, or felt for herself; that she had not lived.
Give up that money; give up that money; marry some nice young fellow who will care for you; become the mother of a lot of nice little children——;The words went on and on in Marion’s mind, close to his lips; but they could not cross them. He almost saw those children of hers, the cut of their pinafores and sailor clothes, the bend of their blond and pink necks; and that nice young husband, blond of course, tall of course, with vague, regular features, a little dull perhaps, but awfully good. It was so obvious, so right. At the same time it seemed rather tame; and Marion, he didn’t know why, while perceiving its extreme rightness and delightfulness, couldn’t help wincing a little bit at the prospect——;
Lady Tal must have been engaged simultaneously in some similar contemplation, for she suddenly turned round, and said:
“But after all, anything else might perhaps be just as boring as all this. And fancy having given up that money all for nothing; one would feel such a fool. On the whole, my one interest in life is evidently destined to be Christina, and the solution of all my doubts will be the appearance of the ‘New George Eliot of fashionable life’; don’t you think that sounds like the heading in one of your American papers, the Buffalo Independent, or Milwaukee Republican?”
Marion gave a little mental start.
“Just so, just so,” he answered hurriedly: “I think it would be a fatal thing—a very fatal thing for you to—well—to do anything rash, my dear Lady Tal. After all, we must remember that there is such a thing as habit; a woman accustomed to the life you lead, although I don’t deny it may sometimes seem dull, would be committing a mistake, in my opinion a great mistake, in depriving herself, for however excellent reasons, of her fortune. Life is dull, but, on the whole, the life we happen to live is usually the one which suits us best. My own life, for instance, strikes me at moments, I must confess, as a trifle dull. Yet I should be most unwise to change it, most unwise. I think you are quite right in supposing that novel-writing, if you persevere in it, will afford you a—very—well—a—considerable interest in life.”
Lady Tal yawned under her parasol.
“Don’t you think it’s time for us to go back to the rest of our rabble?” she asked. “It must be quite three-quarters of an hour since we finished lunch, so I suppose it’s time for tea, or food of some sort. Have you ever reflected, Mr. Marion, how little there would be in picnics, and in life in general, if one couldn’t eat a fresh meal every three-quarters of an hour?”
Few things, of the many contradictory things of this world, are more mysterious than the occasional certainty of sceptical men. Marion was one of the most sceptical of sceptical novelists; the instinct that nothing really depended upon its supposed or official cause, that nothing ever produced its supposed or official effect, that all things were always infinitely more important or unimportant than represented, that nothing is much use to anything, and the world a mystery and a muddle; this instinct, so natural to the psychologist, regularly honeycombed his existence, making it into a mere shifting sand, quite unfit to carry the human weight. Yet at this particular moment, Marion firmly believed that if only Lady Atalanta could be turned into a tolerable novelist, the whole problem of Lady Atalanta’s existence would be satisfactorily solved, if only she could be taught construction, style, punctuation, and a few other items; if only one could get into her head the difference between a well-written thing, and an ill-written thing, then, considering her undoubted talent——;for Marion’s opinion of Lady Tal’s talent had somehow increased with a bound. Why he should think Christina a more remarkable performance now that he had been tinkering at it for six weeks, it is difficult to perceive. He seemed certainly to see much more in it. Through that extraordinary difficulty of expression, he now felt the shape of a personality, a personality contradictory, enigmatical, not sure of itself, groping, as it were, to the light. Christina was evidently the real Lady Tal, struggling through that overlaying of habits and prejudices which constituted the false one.
So, Christina could not be given too much care; and certainly no novel was ever given more, both by its author and by its critic. There was not a chapter, and scarcely a paragraph, which had not been dissected by Marion and re-written by Lady Tal; the critical insight of the one being outdone only by the scribbling energy of the other. And now, it would soon be finished. There was only that piece about Christina’s reconciliation with her sister-in-law to get into shape. Somehow or other the particular piece seemed intolerably difficult to do; the more Lady Tal worked at it, the worse it grew; the more Marion expounded his views on the subject, the less did she seem able to grasp them.
They were seated on each side of the big deal table, which, for the better development of Christina, Lady Tal had installed in her drawing-room, and which at this moment presented a lamentable confusion of foolscap, of mutilated pages, of slips for gumming on, of gum-pots, and scissors. The scissors, however, were at present hidden from view, and Lady Tal, stooping over the litter, was busily engaged looking for them.
“Confound those beastly old scissors!” she exclaimed, shaking a heap of MS. with considerable violence.
Marion, on his side, gave a feeble stir to the mass of paper, and said, rather sadly: “Are you sure you left them on this table?”
He felt that something was going wrong. Lady Tal had been unusually restive about the alterations he wanted her to make.
“You are slanging those poor scissors because you are out of patience with things in general, Lady Tal.”
She raised her head, and leaning both her long, well-shaped hands on the table, looked full at Marion:
“Not with things in general, but with things in particular. With Christina, in the first place; and then with myself; and then with you, Mr. Marion.”
“With me?” answered Marion, forcing out a smile of pseudo-surprise. He had felt all along that she was irritated with him this morning.
“With you”—went on the lady, continuing to rummage for the scissors—”with you, because I don’t think you’ve been quite fair. It isn’t fair to put it into an unfortunate creature’s head that she is an incipient George Eliot, when you know that if she were to slave till doomsday, she couldn’t produce a novel fit for the Family Herald. It’s very ungrateful of me to complain, but you see it is rather hard lines upon me. You can do all this sort of thing as easy as winking, and you imagine that everyone else must. You put all your own ideas into poor Christina, and you just expect me to be able to carry them out, and when I make a hideous hash, you’re not satisfied. You think of that novel just as if it were you writing it—you know you do. Well, then, when a woman discovers at last that she can’t make the beastly thing any better; that she’s been made to hope too much, and that too much is asked of her, you understand it’s rather irritating. I am sick of re-writing that thing, sick of every creature in it.”
And Lady Tal gave an angry toss to the sheets of manuscript with the long pair of dressmaker’s scissors, which she had finally unburied. Marion felt a little pang. The pang of a clever man who discovers himself to be perpetrating a stupidity. He frowned that little frown of the tight boots.
Quite true. He saw, all of a sudden, that he really had been over-estimating Lady Tal’s literary powers. It appeared to him monstrous. The thought made him redden. To what unjustifiable lengths had his interest in the novel—the novel in the abstract, anybody’s novel; and (he confessed to himself) the interest in one novel in particular, his own, the one in which Lady Tal should figure—led him away! Perceiving himself violently to be in the wrong, he proceeded to assume the manner, as is the case with most of us under similar circumstances (perhaps from a natural instinct of balancing matters) of a person conscious of being in the right.
“I think,” he said, dryly, “that you have rather overdone this novel, Lady Tal—worked at it too much, talked of it too much too, sickened yourself with it.”
“—And sickened others,” put in Lady Atalanta gloomily.
“No, no, no—not others—only yourself, my dear young lady,” said Marion paternally, in a way which clearly meant that she had expressed the complete truth, being a rude woman, but that he, being a polite man, could never admit it. As a matter of fact, Marion was not in the least sick of Christina, quite the reverse.
“You see,” he went on, playing with the elastic band of one of the packets of MS., “you can’t be expected to know these things. But no professed novelist—no one of any experience—no one, allow me to say so, except a young lady, could possibly have taken such an overdose of novel-writing as you have. Why, you have done in six weeks what ought to have taken six months! The result, naturally, is that you have lost all sense of proportion and quality; you really can’t see your novel any longer, that’s why you feel depressed about it.”
Lady Tal was not at all mollified.
“That wasn’t a reason for making me believe I was going to be George Eliot and Ouida rolled into one, with the best qualities of Goethe and Dean Swift into the bargain,” she exclaimed.
Marion frowned, but this time internally. He really had encouraged Lady Tal quite unjustifiably. He doubted, suddenly, whether she would ever get a publisher; therefore he smiled, and remarked gently:
“Well, but—in matters of belief, there are two parties, Lady Tal. Don’t you think you may be partly responsible for this—this little misapprehension?”
Lady Tal did not answer. The insolence of the Ossian was roused. She merely looked at Marion from head to foot; and the look was ineffably scornful. It seemed to say: “This is what comes of a woman like me associating with Americans and novelists.”
“I’ve not lost patience,” she said after a moment; “don’t think that. When I make up my mind to a thing I just do it. So I shall finish Christina, and print her, and publish her, and dedicate her to you. Only, catch me ever writing another novel again!—and”—she added, smiling with her closed teeth as she extended a somewhat stiff hand to Marion—”catch you reading another novel of mine again either, now that you’ve made all the necessary studies of me for your novel!”
Marion smiled politely. But he ran downstairs, and through the narrow little paved lane to the ferry at San Vio with a bent head.
He had been a fool, a fool, he repeated to himself. Not, as he had thought before, by exposing Lady Tal to disappointment and humiliation, but by exposing himself.
Yes, he understood it all. He understood it when, scarcely out of Lady Tal’s presence, he caught himself, in the garden, looking up at her windows, half expecting to see her, to hear some rather rough joke thrown at him as a greeting, just to show she was sorry——; He understood it still better, when, every time the waiter knocked in the course of the day, he experienced a faint expectation that it might be a note from Lady Tal, a line to say: “I was as cross as two sticks, this morning, wasn’t I?” or merely: “don’t forget to come to-morrow.”
He understood. He and the novel, both chucked aside impatiently by this selfish, capricious, imperious young aristocrat: the two things identified, and both now rejected as unworthy of taking up more of her august attention! Marion felt the insult to the novel—her novel—almost more than to himself. After all, how could Lady Tal see the difference between him and the various mashers of her acquaintance, perceive that he was the salt of the earth? She had not wherewithal to perceive it. But that she should not perceive the dignity of her own work, how infinitely finer that novel was than herself, how it represented all her own best possibilities; that she should be ungrateful for the sensitiveness with which he had discovered its merit, her merits, in the midst of that confusion of illiterate fashionable rubbish——;
And when that evening, having his coffee at St. Mark’s, he saw Lady Tal’s stately figure, her white dress, amongst the promenaders in the moonlight, a rabble of young men and women at her heels, it struck him suddenly that something was over. He thought that, if Lady Tal came to London next spring, he would not call upon her unless sent for; and he was sure she would not send for him, for as to Christina, Christina would never get as far as the proof-sheets; and unless Christina re-appeared on the surface, he also would remain at the bottom.
Marion got up from his table, and leaving the brightly illuminated square and the crowd of summer-like promenaders, he went out on to the Riva, and walked slowly towards the arsenal. The contrast was striking. Out here it looked already like winter. There were no chairs in front of the cafés, there were scarcely any gondola-lights at the mooring places. The passers-by went along quickly, the end of their cloak over their shoulder. And from the water, which swished against the marble landings, came a rough, rainy wind. It was dark, and there were unseen puddles along the pavement.
This was the result of abandoning, for however little, one’s principles. He had broken through his convictions by accepting to read a young lady’s MS. novel. It did not seem a very serious mistake. But through that chink, what disorderly powers had now entered his well-arranged existence!
What the deuce did he want with the friendship of a Lady Tal? He had long made up his mind to permit himself only such friendship as could not possibly involve any feeling, as could not distress or ruffle him by such incidents as illness, death, fickleness, ingratitude. The philosophy of happiness, of that right balance of activities necessary for the dispassionate student of mankind, consisted in never having anything that one could miss, in never wanting anything. Had he not long ago made up his mind to live contemplative only of external types, if not on a column like Simon Stylites, at least in its meaner modern equivalent, a top flat at Westminster?
Marion felt depressed, ashamed of his depression, enraged at his shame; and generally intolerably mortified at feeling anything at all, and still more, in consequence, at feeling all this much.
As he wandered up and down one of the stretches of the Riva, the boisterous wind making masts and sails creak, and his cigar-smoke fly wildly about, he began, however, to take a little comfort. All this, after all, was so much experience; and experience was necessary for the comprehension of mankind. It was preferable, as a rule, to use up other people’s experience; to look down, from that top flat at Westminster, upon grief and worry and rage in corpore vili, at a good five storeys below one. But, on reflection, it was doubtless necessary occasionally to get impressions a little nearer; the very recognition of feeling in others presupposed a certain minimum of emotional experience in oneself.
Marion had a sense of humour, a sense of dignity, and a corresponding aversion to being ridiculous. He disliked extremely having played the part of the middle-aged fool. But if ever he should require, for a future novel, a middle-aged fool, why, there he would be, ready to hand. And really, unless he had thus miserably broken through his rules of life, thus contemptibly taken an interest in a young lady six-foot high, the daughter of a bankrupt earl, with an inexpressive face and a sentimental novel, he would never, never have got to fathom, as he now fathomed, the character of the intelligent woman of the world, with aspirations ending in frivolity, and a heart entirely rusted over by insolence.
Ah, he did understand Lady Tal. He had gone up to his hotel; and shut his window with a bang, receiving a spout of rain in his face, as he made that reflection. Really, Lady Tal might be made into something first-rate.
He threw himself into an arm-chair and opened a volume of the correspondence of Flaubert.
“I am glad to have made an end of Christina,” remarked Lady Tal, when they were on Miss Vanderwerf’s balcony together. Christina had been finished, cleaned up, folded, wrapped in brown paper, stringed, sealing-waxed and addressed to a publisher, a week almost ago. During the days separating this great event from this evening, the last of Lady Atalanta’s stay in Venice, the two novelists had met but little. Lady Tal had had farewell visits to pay, farewell dinners and lunches to eat. So had Jervase Marion; for, two days after Lady Tal’s return to her apartment near the Holy Apostles at Rome, he would be setting out for that dear, tidy, solitary flat at Westminster.
“I am glad to have made an end of Christina,” remarked Lady Tal, “it had got to bore me fearfully.”
Marion winced. He disliked this young woman’s ingratitude and brutality. It was ill-bred and stupid; and of all things in the world, the novelist from Alabama detested ill-breeding and stupidity most. He was angry with himself for minding these qualities in Lady Tal. Had he not long made up his mind that she possessed them, must possess them?
There was a pause. The canal beneath them was quite dark, and the room behind quite light; it was November, and people no longer feared lamps on account of mosquitoes, any more than they went posting about in gondolas after illuminated singing boats. The company, also, was entirely collected within doors; the damp sea-wind, the necessity for shawls and overcoats, took away the Romeo and Juliet character from those little gothic balconies, formerly crowded with light frocks and white waistcoats.
The temperature precluded all notions of flirtation; one must intend business, or be bent upon catching cold, to venture outside.
“How changed it all is!” exclaimed Lady Tal, “and what a beastly place Venice does become in autumn. If I were a benevolent despot, I should forbid any rooms being let or hotels being opened beyond the 15th of October. I wonder why I didn’t get my bags together and go earlier! I might have gone to Florence or Perugia for a fortnight, instead of banging straight back to Rome. Oh, of course, it was all along of Christina! What were we talking about? Ah, yes, about how changed it all was. Do you remember the first evening we met here, a splendid moonlight, and ever so hot? When was it? Two months ago? Surely more. It seems years ago. I don’t mean merely on account of the change of temperature, and leaving off cotton frocks and that: I mean we seem to have been friends so long. You will write to me sometimes, won’t you, and send any of your friends to me? Palazzo Malaspini, Santi Apostoli (just opposite the French Embassy, you know), after five nearly always, in winter. I wonder,” continued Lady Tal, musingly, leaning her tweed elbow on the damp balustrade, “whether we shall ever write another novel together; what do you think, Mr. Marion?”
Something seemed suddenly to give away inside Marion’s soul. He saw, all at once, those big rooms, which he had often heard described (a woman of her means ought to be ashamed of such furniture, the Roumanian Princess had remarked), near the Holy Apostles at Rome: the red damask walls, the big palms and azaleas, with pieces of embroidery wrapped round the pots, the pastel of Lady Tal by Lenbach, the five hundred photographs dotted about, and fifteen hundred silver objects of indeterminable shape and art, and five dozen little screens all covered with odd bits of brocade—of course there was all that: and the door curtain raised, and the butler bowing in, and behind him the whitish yellowish curl, and pinky grey face of Clarence. And then he saw, but not more distinctly, his writing-table at Westminster, the etchings round his walls, the collection of empty easy-chairs, each easier and emptier, with its book-holding or leg-stretching apparatus, than its neighbor. He became aware of being old, remarkably old, of a paternal position towards this woman of thirty. He spoke in a paternal tone—
“No!” he answered, “I think not. I shall be too busy. I must write another novel myself.”
“What will your novel be about?” asked Lady Tal, slowly, watching her cigarette cut down through the darkness into the waters below. “Tell me.”
“My novel? What will my novel be about?” repeated Marion, absently. His mind was full of those red rooms at Rome, with the screens, and the palms, and odious tow-coloured head of Clarence. “Why, my novel will be the story of an old artist, a sculptor—I don’t mean a man of the Renaissance, I mean old in years, elderly, going on fifty—who was silly enough to imagine it was all love of art which made him take a great deal of interest in a certain young lady and her paintings——;”
“You said he was a sculptor just now,” remarked Lady Tal calmly.
“Of course I meant in her statues—modelling—what d’you call it——;”
“And then?” asked Lady Tal after a pause, looking down into the canal. “What happened?”
“What happened?” repeated Marion, and he heard his own voice with surprise, wondering how it could be his own, or how he could know it for his, so suddenly had it grown quick and husky and unsteady—”What happened? Why—that he made an awful old fool of himself. That’s all.”
“That’s all!” mused Lady Tal. “Doesn’t it seem rather lame? You don’t seem to have got sufficient dénouement, do you? Why shouldn’t we write that novel together? I’m sure I could help you to something more conclusive than that. Let me see. Well, suppose the lady were to answer: ‘I am as poor as a rat, and I fear I’m rather expensive. But I can make my dresses myself if only I get one of those wicker dolls, I call them Theresa, you know; and I might learn to do my hair myself; and then I’m going to be a great painter—no, sculptor, I mean—and make pots of money; so suppose we get married.’ Don’t you think Mr. Marion, that would be more modern than your dénouement? You would have to find out what that painter—no, sculptor, I beg your pardon—would answer. Consider that both he and the lady are rather lonely, bored, and getting into the sere and yellow——; We ought to write that novel together, because I’ve given you the ending—and also because I really can’t manage another all by myself, now that I’ve got accustomed to having my semicolons put in for me——;”
As Lady Atalanta spoke these words, a sudden downpour of rain drove her and Marion back into the drawing-room.
About the Author
Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of Violet Paget. She was an English essayist and novelist.