AND EVEN NOW
By Max Beerbohm
TO MY WIFE
I offer here some of the essays that I have written in the course of the past ten years. While I was collecting them and (quite patiently) reading them again, I found that a few of them were in direct reference to the moments at which they were severally composed. It was clear that these must have their dates affixed to them. And for sake of uniformity I have dated all the others, and, doing so, have thought I need not exclude all such topical remarks as in them too were uttered, nor throw into a past tense such of those remarks as I have retained. Perhaps a book of essays ought to seem as if it had been written a few days before publication. On the other hand—but this is a Note, not a Preface. M.B. Rapallo, 1920.
A RELIC (1918) 'HOW SHALL I WORD IT?' (1910) MOBLED KING (1911) KOLNIYATSCH (1913) NO. 2. THE PINES (1914) A LETTER THAT WAS NOT WRITTEN (1914) BOOKS WITHIN BOOKS (1914) THE GOLDEN DRUGGET (1918) HOSTS AND GUESTS (1918) A POINT TO BE REMEMBERED (1918) SERVANTS (1918) GOING OUT FOR A WALK (1918) QUIA IMPERFECTUM (1918) SOMETHING DEFEASIBLE (1919) 'A CLERGYMAN' (1918) THE CRIME (1920) IN HOMES UNBLEST (1919) WILLIAM AND MARY (1920) ON SPEAKING FRENCH (1919) LAUGHTER (1920)
A RELIC 1918.
Yesterday I found in a cupboard an old, small, battered portmanteau which, by the initials on it, I recognised as my own property. The lock appeared to have been forced. I dimly remembered having forced it myself, with a poker, in my hot youth, after some journey in which I had lost the key; and this act of violence was probably the reason why the trunk had so long ago ceased to travel. I unstrapped it, not without dust; it exhaled the faint scent of its long closure; it contained a tweed suit of Late Victorian pattern, some bills, some letters, a collar-stud, and—something which, after I had wondered for a moment or two what on earth it was, caused me suddenly to murmur, 'Down below, the sea rustled to and fro over the shingle.'
Strange that these words had, year after long year, been existing in some obscure cell at the back of my brain!—forgotten but all the while existing, like the trunk in that cupboard. What released them, what threw open the cell door, was nothing but the fragment of a fan; just the butt-end of an inexpensive fan. The sticks are of white bone, clipped together with a semicircular ring that is not silver. They are neatly oval at the base, but variously jagged at the other end. The longest of them measures perhaps two inches. Ring and all, they have no market value; for a farthing is the least coin in our currency. And yet, though I had so long forgotten them, for me they are not worthless. They touch a chord... Lest this confession raise false hopes in the reader, I add that I did not know their owner.
I did once see her, and in Normandy, and by moonlight, and her name was Ange'lique. She was graceful, she was even beautiful. I was but nineteen years old. Yet even so I cannot say that she impressed me favourably. I was seated at a table of a cafe' on the terrace of a casino. I sat facing the sea, with my back to the casino. I sat listening to the quiet sea, which I had crossed that morning. The hour was late, there were few people about. I heard the swing-door behind me flap open, and was aware of a sharp snapping and crackling sound as a lady in white passed quickly by me. I stared at her erect thin back and her agitated elbows. A short fat man passed in pursuit of her—an elderly man in a black alpaca jacket that billowed. I saw that she had left a trail of little white things on the asphalt. I watched the efforts of the agonised short fat man to overtake her as she swept wraith-like away to the distant end of the terrace. What was the matter? What had made her so spectacularly angry with him? The three or four waiters of the cafe' were exchanging cynical smiles and shrugs, as waiters will. I tried to feel cynical, but was thrilled with excitement, with wonder and curiosity. The woman out yonder had doubled on her tracks. She had not slackened her furious speed, but the man waddlingly contrived to keep pace with her now. With every moment they became more distinct, and the prospect that they would presently pass by me, back into the casino, gave me that physical tension which one feels on a wayside platform at the imminent passing of an express. In the rushingly enlarged vision I had of them, the wrath on the woman's face was even more saliently the main thing than I had supposed it would be. That very hard Parisian face must have been as white as the powder that coated it. 'Coute, Ange'lique,' gasped the perspiring bourgeois, 'ecoute, je te supplie—' The swing-door received them and was left swinging to and fro. I wanted to follow, but had not paid for my bock. I beckoned my waiter. On his way to me he stooped down and picked up something which, with a smile and a shrug, he laid on my table: 'Il semble que Mademoiselle ne s'en servira plus.' This is the thing I now write of, and at sight of it I understood why there had been that snapping and crackling, and what the white fragments on the ground were.
I hurried through the rooms, hoping to see a continuation of that drama—a scene of appeasement, perhaps, or of fury still implacable. But the two oddly-assorted players were not performing there. My waiter had told me he had not seen either of them before. I suppose they had arrived that day. But I was not destined to see either of them again. They went away, I suppose, next morning; jointly or singly; singly, I imagine.
They made, however, a prolonged stay in my young memory, and would have done so even had I not had that tangible memento of them. Who were they, those two of whom that one strange glimpse had befallen me? What, I wondered, was the previous history of each? What, in particular, had all that tragic pother been about? Mlle. Ange'lique I guessed to be thirty years old, her friend perhaps fifty-five. Each of their faces was as clear to me as in the moment of actual vision—the man's fat shiny bewildered face; the taut white face of the woman, the hard red line of her mouth, the eyes that were not flashing, but positively dull, with rage. I presumed that the fan had been a present from him, and a recent present—bought perhaps that very day, after their arrival in the town. But what, what had he done that she should break it between her hands, scattering the splinters as who should sow dragon's teeth? I could not believe he had done anything much amiss. I imagined her grievance a trivial one. But this did not make the case less engrossing. Again and again I would take the fan-stump from my pocket, examining it on the palm of my hand, or between finger and thumb, hoping to read the mystery it had been mixed up in, so that I might reveal that mystery to the world. To the world, yes; nothing less than that. I was determined to make a story of what I had seen—a conte in the manner of great Guy de Maupassant. Now and again, in the course of the past year or so, it had occurred to me that I might be a writer. But I had not felt the impulse to sit down and write something. I did feel that impulse now. It would indeed have been an irresistible impulse if I had known just what to write.
I felt I might know at any moment, and had but to give my mind to it. Maupassant was an impeccable artist, but I think the secret of the hold he had on the young men of my day was not so much that we discerned his cunning as that we delighted in the simplicity which his cunning achieved. I had read a great number of his short stories, but none that had made me feel as though I, if I were a writer, mightn't have written it myself. Maupassant had an European reputation. It was pleasing, it was soothing and gratifying, to feel that one could at any time win an equal fame if one chose to set pen to paper. And now, suddenly, the spring had been touched in me, the time was come. I was grateful for the fluke by which I had witnessed on the terrace that evocative scene. I looked forward to reading the MS. of 'The Fan'—to-morrow, at latest. I was not wildly ambitious. I was not inordinately vain. I knew I couldn't ever, with the best will in the world, write like Mr. George Meredith. Those wondrous works of his, seething with wit, with poetry and philosophy and what not, never had beguiled me with the sense that I might do something similar. I had full consciousness of not being a philosopher, of not being a poet, and of not being a wit. Well, Maupassant was none of these things. He was just an observer, like me. Of course he was a good deal older than I, and had observed a good deal more. But it seemed to me that he was not my superior in knowledge of life. I knew all about life through him.
Dimly, the initial paragraph of my tale floated in my mind. I—not exactly I myself, but rather that impersonal je familiar to me through Maupassant—was to be sitting at that table, with a bock before me, just as I had sat. Four or five short sentences would give the whole scene. One of these I had quite definitely composed. You have already heard it. 'Down below, the sea rustled to and fro over the shingle.'
These words, which pleased me much, were to do double duty. They were to recur. They were to be, by a fine stroke, the very last words of my tale, their tranquillity striking a sharp ironic contrast with the stress of what had just been narrated. I had, you see, advanced further in the form of my tale than in the substance. But even the form was as yet vague. What, exactly, was to happen after Mlle. Ange'lique and M. Joumand (as I provisionally called him) had rushed back past me into the casino? It was clear that I must hear the whole inner history from the lips of one or the other of them. Which? Should M. Joumand stagger out on to the terrace, sit down heavily at the table next to mine, bury his head in his hands, and presently, in broken words, blurt out to me all that might be of interest?... '"And I tell you I gave up everything for her—everything." He stared at me with his old hopeless eyes. "She is more than the fiend I have described to you. Yet I swear to you, monsieur, that if I had anything left to give, it should be hers."
'Down below, the sea rustled to and fro over the shingle.'
Or should the lady herself be my informant? For a while, I rather leaned to this alternative. It was more exciting, it seemed to make the writer more signally a man of the world. On the other hand, it was less simple to manage. Wronged persons might be ever so communicative, but I surmised that persons in the wrong were reticent. Mlle. Ange'lique, therefore, would have to be modified by me in appearance and behaviour, toned down, touched up; and poor M. Joumand must look like a man of whom one could believe anything.... 'She ceased speaking. She gazed down at the fragments of her fan, and then, as though finding in them an image of her own life, whispered, "To think what I once was, monsieur!—what, but for him, I might be, even now!" She buried her face in her hands, then stared out into the night. Suddenly she uttered a short, harsh laugh.
'Down below, the sea rustled to and fro over the shingle.'
I decided that I must choose the first of these two ways. It was the less chivalrous as well as the less lurid way, but clearly it was the more artistic as well as the easier. The 'chose vue,' the 'tranche de la vie'—this was the thing to aim at. Honesty was the best policy. I must be nothing if not merciless. Maupassant was nothing if not merciless. He would not have spared Mlle. Ange'lique. Besides, why should I libel M. Joumand? Poor—no, not poor M. Joumand! I warned myself against pitying him. One touch of 'sentimentality,' and I should be lost. M. Joumand was ridiculous. I must keep him so. But—what was his position in life? Was he a lawyer perhaps?—or the proprietor of a shop in the Rue de Rivoli? I toyed with the possibility that he kept a fan shop—that the business had once been a prosperous one, but had gone down, down, because of his infatuation for this woman to whom he was always giving fans—which she always smashed.... '"Ah monsieur, cruel and ungrateful to me though she is, I swear to you that if I had anything left to give, it should be hers; but," he stared at me with his old hopeless eyes, "the fan she broke to-night was the last—the last, monsieur—of my stock." Down below,'—but I pulled myself together, and asked pardon of my Muse.
It may be that I had offended her by my fooling. Or it may be that she had a sisterly desire to shield Mlle. Ange'lique from my mordant art. Or it may be that she was bent on saving M. de Maupassant from a dangerous rivalry. Anyway, she withheld from me the inspiration I had so confidently solicited. I could not think what had led up to that scene on the terrace. I tried hard and soberly. I turned the 'chose vue' over and over in my mind, day by day, and the fan-stump over and over in my hand. But the 'chose a' figurer'—what, oh what, was that? Nightly I revisited the cafe', and sat there with an open mind—a mind wide-open to catch the idea that should drop into it like a ripe golden plum. The plum did not ripen. The mind remained wide-open for a week or more, but nothing except that phrase about the sea rustled to and fro in it.
A full quarter of a century has gone by. M. Joumand's death, so far too fat was he all those years ago, may be presumed. A temper so violent as Mlle. Angelique's must surely have brought its owner to the grave, long since. But here, all unchanged, the stump of her fan is; and once more I turn it over and over in my hand, not learning its secret—no, nor even trying to, now. The chord this relic strikes in me is not one of curiosity as to that old quarrel, but (if you will forgive me) one of tenderness for my first effort to write, and for my first hopes of excellence.
'HOW SHALL I WORD IT?' 1910.
It would seem that I am one of those travellers for whom the railway bookstall does not cater. Whenever I start on a journey, I find that my choice lies between well-printed books which I have no wish to read, and well-written books which I could not read without permanent injury to my eyesight. The keeper of the bookstall, seeing me gaze vaguely along his shelves, suggests that I should take 'Fen Country Fanny' or else 'The Track of Blood' and have done with it. Not wishing to hurt his feelings, I refuse these works on the plea that I have read them. Whereon he, divining despite me that I am a superior person, says 'Here is a nice little handy edition of More's "Utopia"' or 'Carlyle's "French Revolution"' and again I make some excuse. What pleasure could I get from trying to cope with a masterpiece printed in diminutive grey-ish type on a semi-transparent little grey-ish page? I relieve the bookstall of nothing but a newspaper or two.
The other day, however, my eye and fancy were caught by a book entitled 'How Shall I Word It?' and sub-entitled 'A Complete Letter Writer for Men and Women.' I had never read one of these manuals, but had often heard that there was a great and constant 'demand' for them. So I demanded this one. It is no great fun in itself. The writer is no fool. He has evidently a natural talent for writing letters. His style is, for the most part, discreet and easy. If you were a young man writing 'to Father of Girl he wishes to Marry' or 'thanking Fiance'e for Present' or 'reproaching Fiance'e for being a Flirt,' or if you were a mother 'asking Governess her Qualifications' or 'replying to Undesirable Invitation for her Child,' or indeed if you were in any other one of the crises which this book is designed to alleviate, you might copy out and post the specially-provided letter without making yourself ridiculous in the eyes of its receiver—unless, of course, he or she also possessed a copy of the book. But—well, can you conceive any one copying out and posting one of these letters, or even taking it as the basis for composition? You cannot. That shows how little you know of your fellow-creatures. Not you nor I can plumb the abyss at the bottom of which such humility is possible. Nevertheless, as we know by that great and constant 'demand,' there the abyss is, and there multitudes are at the bottom of it. Let's peer down... No, all is darkness. But faintly, if we listen hard, is borne up to us a sound of the scratching of innumerable pens—pens whose wielders are all trying, as the author of this handbook urges them, to 'be original, fresh, and interesting' by dint of more or less strict adherence to sample.
Giddily you draw back from the edge of the abyss. Come!—here is a thought to steady you. The mysterious great masses of helpless folk for whom 'How Shall I Word It' is written are sound at heart, delicate in feeling, anxious to please, most loth to wound. For it must be presumed that the author's style of letter-writing is informed as much by a desire to give his public what it needs, and will pay for, as by his own beautiful nature; and in the course of all the letters that he dictates you will find not one harsh word, not one ignoble thought or unkind insinuation. In all of them, though so many are for the use of persons placed in the most trying circumstances, and some of them are for persons writhing under a sense of intolerable injury, sweetness and light do ever reign. Even 'yours truly, Jacob Langton,' in his 'letter to his Daughter's Mercenary Fiance',' mitigates the sternness of his tone by the remark that his 'task is inexpressibly painful.' And he, Mr. Langton, is the one writer who lets the post go out on his wrath. When Horace Masterton, of Thorpe Road, Putney, receives from Miss Jessica Weir, of Fir Villa, Blackheath, a letter 'declaring her Change of Feelings,' does he upbraid her? No; 'it was honest and brave of you to write to me so straightforwardly and at the back of my mind I know you have done what is best.... I give you back your freedom only at your desire. God bless you, dear.' Not less admirable is the behaviour, in similar case, of Cecil Grant (14, Glover Street, Streatham). Suddenly, as a bolt from the blue, comes a letter from Miss Louie Hawke (Elm View, Deerhurst), breaking off her betrothal to him. Haggard, he sits down to his desk; his pen traverses the notepaper—calling down curses on Louie and on all her sex? No; 'one cannot say good-bye for ever without deep regret to days that have been so full of happiness. I must thank you sincerely for all your great kindness to me.... With every sincere wish for your future happiness,' he bestows complete freedom on Miss Hawke. And do not imagine that in the matter of self-control and sympathy, of power to understand all and pardon all, the men are lagged behind by the women. Miss Leila Johnson (The Manse, Carlyle) has observed in Leonard Wace (Dover Street, Saltburn) a certain coldness of demeanour; yet 'I do not blame you; it is probably your nature'; and Leila in her sweet forbearance is typical of all the other pained women in these pages: she is but one of a crowd of heroines.
Face to face with all this perfection, the not perfect reader begins to crave some little outburst of wrath, of hatred or malice, from one of these imaginary ladies and gentlemen. He longs for—how shall he word it?—a glimpse of some bad motive, of some little lapse from dignity. Often, passing by a pillar-box, I have wished I could unlock it and carry away its contents, to be studied at my leisure. I have always thought such a haul would abound in things fascinating to a student of human nature. One night, not long ago, I took a waxen impression of the lock of the pillar-box nearest to my house, and had a key made. This implement I have as yet lacked either the courage or the opportunity to use. And now I think I shall throw it away.... No, I shan't. I refuse, after all, to draw my inference that the bulk of the British public writes always in the manner of this handbook. Even if they all have beautiful natures they must sometimes be sent slightly astray by inferior impulses, just as are you and I.
And, if err they must, surely it were well they should know how to do it correctly and forcibly. I suggest to our author that he should sprinkle his next edition with a few less righteous examples, thereby both purging his book of its monotony and somewhat justifying its sub-title. Like most people who are in the habit of writing things to be printed, I have not the knack of writing really good letters. But let me crudely indicate the sort of thing that our manual needs....
LETTER FROM POOR MAN TO OBTAIN MONEY FROM RICH ONE.
[The English law is particularly hard on what is called blackmail. It is therefore essential that the applicant should write nothing that might afterwards be twisted to incriminate him.—ED.]
DEAR SIR, To-day, as I was turning out a drawer in my attic, I came across a letter which by a curious chance fell into my hands some years ago, and which, in the stress of grave pecuniary embarrassment, had escaped my memory. It is a letter written by yourself to a lady, and the date shows it to have been written shortly after your marriage. It is of a confidential nature, and might, I fear, if it fell into the wrong hands, be cruelly misconstrued. I would wish you to have the satisfaction of destroying it in person. At first I thought of sending it on to you by post. But I know how happy you are in your domestic life; and probably your wife and you, in your perfect mutual trust, are in the habit of opening each other's letters. Therefore, to avoid risk, I would prefer to hand the document to you personally. I will not ask you to come to my attic, where I could not offer you such hospitality as is due to a man of your wealth and position. You will be so good as to meet me at 3.0 A.M. (sharp) to-morrow (Thursday) beside the tenth lamp-post to the left on the Surrey side of Waterloo Bridge; at which hour and place we shall not be disturbed. I am, dear Sir, Yours respectfully, JAMES GRIDGE.
LETTER FROM YOUNG MAN REFUSING TO PAY HIS TAILOR'S BILL.
Mr. Eustace Davenant has received the half-servile, half-insolent screed which Mr. Yardley has addressed to him. Let Mr. Yardley cease from crawling on his knees and shaking his fist. Neither this posture nor this gesture can wring one bent farthing from the pockets of Mr. Davenant, who was a minor at the time when that series of ill-made suits was supplied to him and will hereafter, as in the past, shout (without prejudice) from the house-tops that of all the tailors in London Mr. Yardley is at once the most grasping and the least competent.
LETTER TO THANK AUTHOR FOR INSCRIBED COPY OF BOOK.
DEAR MR. EMANUEL FLOWER, It was kind of you to think of sending me a copy of your new book. It would have been kinder still to think again and abandon that project. I am a man of gentle instincts, and do not like to tell you that 'A Flight into Arcady' (of which I have skimmed a few pages, thus wasting two or three minutes of my not altogether worthless time) is trash. On the other hand, I am determined that you shall not be able to go around boasting to your friends, if you have any, that this work was not condemned, derided, and dismissed by your sincere well-wisher, WREXFORD CRIPPS.
LETTER TO MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT UNSEATED AT GENERAL ELECTION.
DEAR MR. POBSBY-BURFORD, Though I am myself an ardent Tory, I cannot but rejoice in the crushing defeat you have just suffered in West Odgetown. There are moments when political conviction is overborne by personal sentiment; and this is one of them. Your loss of the seat that you held is the more striking by reason of the splendid manner in which the northern and eastern divisions of Odgetown have been wrested from the Liberal Party. The great bulk of the newspaper-reading public will be puzzled by your extinction in the midst of our party's triumph. But then, the great mass of the newspaper-reading public has not met you. I have. You will probably not remember me. You are the sort of man who would not remember anybody who might not be of some definite use to him. Such, at least, was one of the impressions you made on me when I met you last summer at a dinner given by our friends the Pelhams. Among the other things in you that struck me were the blatant pomposity of your manner, your appalling flow of cheap platitudes, and your hoggish lack of ideas. It is such men as you that lower the tone of public life. And I am sure that in writing to you thus I am but expressing what is felt, without distinction of party, by all who sat with you in the late Parliament.
The one person in whose behalf I regret your withdrawal into private life is your wife, whom I had the pleasure of taking in to the aforesaid dinner. It was evident to me that she was a woman whose spirit was well-nigh broken by her conjunction with you. Such remnants of cheerfulness as were in her I attributed to the Parliamentary duties which kept you out of her sight for so very many hours daily. I do not like to think of the fate to which the free and independent electors of West Odgetown have just condemned her. Only, remember this: chattel of yours though she is, and timid and humble, she despises you in her heart. I am, dear Mr. Pobsby-Burford, Yours very truly, HAROLD THISTLAKE.
LETTER FROM YOUNG LADY IN ANSWER TO INVITATION FROM OLD SCHOOLMISTRESS.
MY DEAR MISS PRICE, How awfully sweet of you to ask me to stay with you for a few days but how can you think I may have forgotten you for of course I think of you so very often and of the three ears I spent at your school because it is such a joy not to be there any longer and if one is at all down it bucks one up derectly to remember that thats all over atanyrate and that one has enough food to nurrish one and not that awful monottany of life and not the petty fogging daily tirrany you went in for and I can imagin no greater thrill and luxury in a way than to come and see the whole dismal grind still going on but without me being in it but this would be rather beastly of me wouldn't it so please dear Miss Price dont expect me and do excuse mistakes of English Composition and Spelling and etcetra in your affectionate old pupil, EMILY THERESE LYNN-ROYSTON.
ps, I often rite to people telling them where I was edducated and highly reckomending you.
LETTER IN ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF WEDDING PRESENT.
DEAR LADY AMBLESHAM, Who gives quickly, says the old proverb, gives twice. For this reason I have purposely delayed writing to you, lest I should appear to thank you more than once for the small, cheap, hideous present you sent me on the occasion of my recent wedding. Were you a poor woman, that little bowl of ill-imitated Dresden china would convict you of tastelessness merely; were you a blind woman, of nothing but an odious parsimony. As you have normal eyesight and more than normal wealth, your gift to me proclaims you at once a Philistine and a miser (or rather did so proclaim you until, less than ten seconds after I had unpacked it from its wrappings of tissue paper, I took it to the open window and had the satisfaction of seeing it shattered to atoms on the pavement). But stay! I perceive a possible flaw in my argument. Perhaps you were guided in your choice by a definite wish to insult me. I am sure, on reflection, that this was so. I shall not forget. Yours, etc., CYNTHIA BEAUMARSH.
PS. My husband asks me to tell you to warn Lord Amblesham to keep out of his way or to assume some disguise so complete that he will not be recognised by him and horsewhipped.
PPS. I am sending copies of this letter to the principal London and provincial newspapers.
But enough! I never thought I should be so strong in this line. I had not foreseen such copiousness and fatal fluency. Never again will I tap these deep dark reservoirs in a character that had always seemed to me, on the whole, so amiable.
MOBLED KING 1911.
Just as a memorial, just to perpetuate in one's mind the dead man in whose image and honour it has been erected, this statue is better than any that I have seen.... No, pedantic reader: I ought not to have said 'than any other that I have seen' Except in shrouded and distorted outline, I have not seen this statue.
Not as an image, then, can it be extolled by me. And I am bound to say that even as an honour it seems to me more than dubious. Commissioned and designed and chiselled and set up in all reverence, it yet serves very well the purpose of a guy. This does not surprise you. You are familiar with a host of statues that are open to precisely that objection. Westminster Abbey abounds in them. They confront you throughout London and the provinces. They stud the Continent. Rare indeed is the statue that can please the well-wishers of the person portrayed. Nor in every case is the sculptor to blame. There is in the art of sculpture itself a quality intractable to the aims of personal portraiture. Sculpture, just as it cannot fitly record the gesture of a moment, is discommoded by personal idiosyncrasies. The details that go to compose this or that gentleman's appearance—such as the little wrinkles around his eyes, and the way his hair grows, and the special convolutions of his ears—all these, presentable on canvas, or evocable by words, are not right matter for the chisel or for the mould and furnace. Translated into terms of bronze or marble, howsoever cunningly, these slight and trivial things cease to be trivial and slight. They assume a ludicrous importance. No man is worthy to be reproduced as bust or statue. And if sculpture is too august to deal with what a man has received from his Maker, how much less ought it to be bothered about what he has received from his hosier and tailor! Sculpture's province is the soul. The most concrete, it is also the most spiritual of the arts. The very heaviness and stubbornness of its material, precluding it from happy dalliance with us fleeting individual creatures, fit it to cope with that which in mankind is permanent and universal. It can through the symbol give us incomparably the type. Wise is that sculptor who, when portray an individual he must, treats arbitrarily the mere actual husk, and strives but to show the soul. Of course, he must first catch that soul. What M. Rodin knew about the character and career of Mr. George Wyndham, or about the character and career of Mr. Bernard Shaw, was not, I hazard, worth knowing; and Mr. Shaw is handed down by him to posterity as a sort of bearded lady, and Mr. Wyndham as a sort of beardless one. But about Honore' de Balzac he knew much. Balzac he understood. Balzac's work, Balzac's soul, in that great rugged figure aspiring and indeflexible, he gave us with a finality that could have been achieved through no other art than sculpture.
There is a close kinship between that statue of Balzac and this statue of which I am to tell you. Both induce, above all, a profound sense of unrest, of heroic will to overcome all obstacles. The will to compass self-expression, the will to emerge from darkness to light, from formlessness to form, from nothing to everything—this it is that I find in either statue; and this it is in virtue of which the Balzac has unbeknown a brother on the Italian seaboard.
Here stands—or rather struggles—on his pedestal this younger brother, in strange contrast with the scenery about him. Mildly, behind his back, the sea laps the shingle. Mildly, in front of him, on the other side of the road, rise some of those mountains whereby the Earth, before she settled down to cool, compassed—she, too—some sort of self-expression. Mildly around his pedestal, among rusty anchors strewn there on the grass between road and beach, sit the fishermen, mending their nets or their sails, or whittling bits of wood. What will you say of these fishermen when——but I outstrip my narrative.
I had no inkling of tragedy when first I came to the statue. I did not even know it was a statue. I had made by night the short journey from Genoa to this place beside the sea; and, driving along the coast-road to the hotel that had been recommended, I passed what in the starlight looked like nothing but an elderly woman mounted on a square pedestal and gazing out seaward—a stout, elderly, lonely woman in a poke bonnet, indescribable except by that old Victorian term 'a party,' and as unlike Balzac's younger brother as only Sarah Gamp's elder sister could be. How, I wondered in my hotel, came the elder sister of Sarah Gamp to be here in Liguria and in the twentieth century? How clomb she, puffing and panting, on to that pedestal? For what argosy of gin was she straining her old eyes seaward? I knew there would be no sleep for me until I had solved these problems; and I went forth afoot along the way I had come. The moon had risen; and presently I saw in the starlight the 'party' who so intrigued me. Eminent, amorphous, mysterious, there she stood, immobile, voluminous, ghastly beneath the moon. By a slight shoreward lift of crinoline, as against the seaward protrusion of poke bonnet, a grotesque balance was given to the unshapely shape of her. For all her uncanniness, I thought I had never seen any one, male or female, old or young, look so hopelessly common. I felt that by daylight a noble vulgarity might be hers. In the watches of the night she was hopelessly, she was transcendently common.
Little by little, as I came nearer, she ceased to illude me, and I began to think of her as 'it.' What 'it' was, however, I knew not until I was at quite close quarters to the pedestal it rose from. There, on the polished granite, was carved this legend:
A UMBERTO IO
And instinctively, as my eye travelled up, my hand leapt to the salute; for I stood before the veiled image of a dead king, and had been guilty of a misconception that dishonoured him.
Standing respectfully at one angle and another, I was able to form, by the outlines of the grey sheeting that enveloped him, some rough notion of his posture and his costume. Round what was evidently his neck the sheeting was constricted by ropes; and the height and girth of the bundle above—to half-closed eyes, even now, an averted poke-bonnet—gave token of a tall helmet with a luxuriant shock of plumes waving out behind. Immediately beneath the ropes, the breadth and sharpness of the bundle hinted at epaulettes. And the protrusion that had seemed to be that of a wind-blown crinoline was caused, I thought, by the king having his left hand thrust well out to grasp the hilt of his inclined sword. Altogether, I had soon builded a clear enough idea of his aspect; and I promised myself a curious gratification in comparing anon this idea with his aspect as it really was.
Yes, I took it for granted that the expectant statue was to be unveiled within the next few days. I was glad to be in time—not knowing in how terribly good time I was—for the ceremony. Not since my early childhood had I seen the unveiling of a statue; and on that occasion I had struck a discordant note by weeping bitterly. I dare say you know that statue of William Harvey which stands on the Leas at Folkestone. You say you were present at the unveiling? Well, I was the child who cried. I had been told that William Harvey was a great and good man who discovered the circulation of the blood; and my mind had leapt, in all the swiftness of its immaturity, to the conclusion that his statue would be a bright blood-red. Cruel was the thrill of dismay I had when at length the cord was pulled and the sheeting slid down, revealing so dull a sight...
Contemplating the veiled Umberto, I remembered that sight, remembered those tears unworthy (as my nurse told me) of a little gentleman. Years had passed. I was grown older and wiser. I had learnt to expect less of life. There was no fear that I should disgrace myself in the matter of Umberto.
I was not so old, though, nor so wise, as I am now. I expected more than there is of Italian speed, and less than there is of Italian subtlety. A whole year has passed since first I set eyes on veiled Umberto. And Umberto is still veiled.
And veiled for more than a whole year, as I now know, had Umberto been before my coming. Four years before that, the municipal council, it seems, had voted the money for him. His father, of sensational memory, was here already, in the middle of the main piazza, of course. And Garibaldi was hard by; so was Mazzini; so was Cavour. Umberto was still implicit in a block of marble, high upon one of the mountains of Carrara. The task of educing him was given to a promising young sculptor who lived here. Down came the block of marble, and was transported to the studio of the promising young sculptor; and out, briskly enough, mustachios and all, came Umberto. He looked very regal, I am sure, as he stood glaring around with his prominent marble eyeballs, and snuffing the good fresh air of the world as far as might be into shallow marble nostrils. He looked very authoritative and fierce and solemn, I am sure. He made, anyhow, a deep impression on the mayor and councillors, and the only question was as to just where he should be erected. The granite pedestal had already been hewn and graven; but a worthy site was to seek. Outside the railway station? He would obstruct the cabs. In the Giardino Pubblico? He would clash with Garibaldi. Every councillor had a pet site, and every other one a pet objection to it. That strip of waste ground where the fishermen sat pottering? It was too humble, too far from the centre of things. Meanwhile, Umberto stayed in the studio. Dust settled on his epaulettes. A year went by. Spiders ventured to spin their webs from his plumes to his mustachios. Another year went by. Whenever the councillors had nothing else to talk about they talked about the site for Umberto.
Presently they became aware that among the poorer classes of the town had arisen a certain hostility to the statue. The councillors suspected that the priesthood had been at work. The forces of reaction against the forces of progress! Very well! The councillors hurriedly decided that the best available site, on the whole, was that strip of waste ground where the fishermen sat pottering. The pedestal was promptly planted. Umberto was promptly wrapped up, put on a lorry, wheeled to the place, and hoisted into position. The date of the unveiling was fixed. The mayor I am told, had already composed his speech, and was getting it by heart. Around the pedestal the fishermen sat pottering. It was not observed that they received any visits from the priests.
But priests are subtle; and it is a fact that three days before the date of the unveiling the fishermen went, all in their black Sunday clothes, and claimed audience of the mayor. He laid aside the MS. of his speech, and received them affably. Old Agostino, their spokesman, he whose face is so marvellously wrinkled, lifted his quavering voice. He told the mayor, with great respect, that the rights of the fishermen had been violated. That piece of ground had for hundreds of years belonged to them. They had not been consulted about that statue. They did not want it there. It was in the way, and must (said Agostino) be removed. At first the mayor was inclined to treat the deputation with a light good humour, and to resume the study of his MS. But Agostino had a MS. of his own. This was a copy of a charter whereby, before mayors and councillors were, the right to that piece of land had been granted in perpetuity to the fisherfolk of the district. The mayor, not committing himself to any opinion of the validity of the document, said that he—but there, it is tedious to report the speeches of mayors. Agostino told his mayor that a certain great lawyer would be arriving from Genoa to-morrow. It were tedious to report what passed between that great lawyer and the mayor and councillors assembled. Suffice it that the councillors were frightened, the date of the unveiling was postponed, and the whole matter, referred to high authorities in Rome, went darkly drifting into some form of litigation, and there abides.
Technically, then, neither side may claim that it has won. The statue has not been unveiled. But the statue has not been displaced. Practically, though, and morally, the palm is, so far, to the fishermen. The pedestal does not really irk them at all. On the contrary, it and the sheeting do cast for them in the heat a pleasant shadow, of which (the influence of Fleet Street, once felt, never shaken off, forces me to say) they are not slow to avail themselves. And the cost of the litigation comes not, you may be sure, out of their light old pockets, but out of the coffers of some pious rich folk hereabouts. The Pope remains a prisoner in the Vatican? Well, here is Umberto, a kind of hostage. Yet with what a difference! Here is no spiritual king stripped of earthly kingship. Here is an earthly king kept swaddled up day after day, to be publicly ridiculous. The fishermen, as I have said, pay him no heed. The mayor, passing along the road, looks straight in front of him, with an elaborate assumption of unconcern. So do the councillors. But there are others who look maliciously up at the hapless figure. Now and again there comes a monk from the monastery on that hill yonder. He laughs into his beard as he goes by. Two by two, in their grey cloaks and their blue mantillas, the little orphan girls are sometimes marched past. There they go, as I write. Not malice, but a vague horror, is in the eyes they turn. Umberto, belike, is used as a means to frighten them when, or lest, they offend. The nun in whose charge they arc crosses herself.
Yet it is recorded of Umberto that he was kind to little children. This, indeed, is one of the few things recorded of him. Fierce though he looked, he was, for the most part, it must be confessed, null. He seldom asserted himself. There was so little of that for him to assert. He had, therefore, no personal enemies. In a negative way, he was popular, and was positively popular, for a while, after his assassination. And this it is that makes him now the less able, poor fellow, to understand and endure the shame he is put to. 'Stat rex indignatus.' He does try to assert himself now—does strive, by day and by night, poor petrefact, to rip off these fell and clownish integuments. Of his elder brother in Paris he has never heard; but he knows that Lazarus arisen from the tomb did not live in grave-clothes. He forgets that after all he is only a statue. To himself he is still a king—or at least a man who was once a king and, having done no wrong, ought not now to be insulted. If he had in his composition one marble grain of humour, he might... but no, a joke against oneself is always cryptic. Fat men are not always the best drivers of fat oxen; and cryptic statues cannot be depended on to see cryptic jokes.
If Umberto could grasp the truth that no man is worthy to be reproduced as a statue; if he could understand, once and for all, that the unveiling of him were itself a notable disservice to him, then might his wrath be turned to acquiescence, and his acquiescence to gratitude, and he be quite happy hid. Is he, really, more ridiculous now than he always was? If you be an extraordinary man, as was his father, win a throne by all means: you will fill it. If your son be another extraordinary man, he will fill it when his turn comes. But if that son be, as, alas, he most probably will be, like Umberto, quite ordinary, then let parental love triumph over pride of dynasty: advise your boy to abdicate at the earliest possible moment. A great king—what better? But it is ill that a throne be sat on by one whose legs dangle uncertainly towards the dais, and ill that a crown settle down over the tip of the nose. And the very fact that for quite inadequate kings men's hands do leap to the salute, instinctively, does but make us, on reflection, the more conscious of the whole absurdity. Even than a great man on a throne we can, when we reflect, imagine something—ah, not something better perhaps, but something more remote from absurdity. Let us say that Umberto's father was great, as well as extraordinary. He was accounted great enough to be the incarnation of a great idea. 'United Italy'—oh yes, a great idea, a charming idea: in the 'sixties I should have been all for it. But how shall I or any other impartial person write odes to the reality? What people in all this exquisite peninsula are to-day the happier for the things done by and through Vittorio Emmanuele Liberator?
The question is not merely rhetorical. There is the large class of politicians, who would have had no scope in the old days. And there are the many men who in other days would have been fishing or ploughing, but now strut in this and that official uniform. There passes between me and the sea, as I write—how opportunely people do pass here!—a little man with a peaked cap and light blue breeches and a sword. His prime duty is to see that none of his fellow peasants shall carry home a bucket of sea-water. For there is salt in sea-water; and heavily, because they must have it or sicken, salt is taxed; and this passing sentinel is to prevent them from cheating the Revenue by recourse to the sea which, though here it is, they must not regard as theirs. What becomes of the tax-money? It goes towards the building of battleships, cruisers, gunboats and so forth. What are these for? Why, for Italy to be a Great European Power with, of course. In the little blue bay behind Umberto, while I write, there lies at anchor an Italian gunboat. Opportunely again? I can but assure you that it really and truly is there. It has been there for two days. It delights the fishermen. They say it is 'bella e pulita com' un fiore.' They stand shading their eyes towards it, smiling and proud, heirs of all the ages, neglecting their sails and nets and spars of wood. They can imagine nothing better than it. They see nothing at all sinister or absurd about it, these simple fellows. And simple Umberto, their captive, strives to wheel round on his pedestal and to tear but a peep-hole in his sheeting. He would be glad could he feast but one eye on this bit of national glory. But he remains helpless—helpless as a Sultana made ready for the Bosphorus, helpless as a pig is in a poke. It enrages him that he who was so eminently respectable in life should be made so ludicrous on his eminence after death. He is bitter at the inertia of the men who set him up. Were he an ornament of the Church, not of the State that he served so conscientiously, how very different would be the treatment of his plight! If he were a Saint, occluded thus by the municipality, how many the prayers that would be muttered, the candles promised, for his release! There would be processions, too; and who knows but that there might even be a miracle vouchsafed, a rending of the veil? The only procession that passes him is that of the intimidated orphans. No heavenly power intervenes for him—perhaps (he bitterly conjectures) for fear of offending the Vatican. Sirocco, now and again, blows furiously at his back, but never splits the sheeting. Rain often soaks it, never rots it. There is no help for him. He stands a mock to the pious, a shame and incubus to the emancipated; received, yet hushed up; exalted, yet made a fool of; taken and left; a monument to Fate's malice.
From under the hem of his weather-beaten domino, always, he just displays, with a sort of tragic coquetry, the toe of a stout and serviceable marble boot. And this, I have begun to believe, is all that I shall ever see of him. Else might I not be writing about him; for else had he not so haunted me. If I knew myself destined to see him—to see him steadily and see him whole—no matter how many years hence, I could forthwith think about other things. I had hoped that by this essay I might rid my mind of him. He is inexcutible, confound him! His pedestal draws me to itself with some such fascination as had the altar of the unknown god for the wondering Greek. I try to distract myself by thinking of other images—images that I have seen. I think of Bartolommeo Colleoni riding greatly forth under the shadow of the church of Saint John and Saint Paul. Of Mr. Peabody I think, cosy in his armchair behind the Royal Exchange; of Nelson above the sparrows, and of Perseus among the pigeons; of golden Albert, and of Harvey the not red. Up looms Umberto, uncouthly casting them one and all into the shade. I think of other statues that I have not seen—statues suspected of holding something back from even the clearest-eyed men who have stood beholding and soliciting them. But how obvious, beside Umberto, the Sphinx would be! And Memnon, how tamely he sits waiting for the dawn!
Matchless as a memorial, then, I say again, this statue is. And as a work of art it has at least the advantage of being beyond criticism. In my young days, I wrote a plea that all the statues in the streets and squares of London should be extirpated and, according to their materials, smashed or melted. From an aesthetic standpoint, I went a trifle too far: London has a few good statues. From an humane standpoint, my plea was all wrong. Let no violence be done to the effigies of the dead. There is disrespect in setting up a dead man's effigy and then not unveiling it. But there would be no disrespect, and there would be no violence, if the bad statues familiar to London were ceremoniously veiled, and their inscribed pedestals left just as they are. That is a scheme which occurred to me soon after I saw the veiled Umberto. Mr. Birrell has now stepped in and forestalled my advocacy. Pereant qui—but no, who could wish that charming man to perish? The realisation of that scheme is what matters.
Let an inventory be taken of those statues. Let it be submitted to Lord Rosebery, and he be asked to tick off all those statesmen, poets, philosophers and other personages about whom he would wish to orate. Then let the list be passed on to other orators, until every statue on it shall have its particular spokesman. Then let the dates for the various veilings be appointed. If there be four or five veilings every week, I conceive that the whole list will be exhausted in two years or so. And my enjoyment of the reported speeches will not be the less keen because I can so well imagine them.... In conclusion, Lord Rosebery said that the keynote to the character of the man in whose honour they were gathered together to-day was, first and last, integrity. (Applause.) He did not say of him that he had been infallible. Which of us was infallible? (Laughter.) But this he would say, that the great man whose statue they were looking on for the last time had been actuated throughout his career by no motive but the desire to do that, and that only, which would conduce to the honour and to the stability of the country that gave him birth. Of him it might truly be said, as had been said of another, 'That which he had to give, he gave.' (Loud and prolonged applause.) His Lordship then pulled the cord, and the sheeting rolled up into position...
Not, however, because those speeches will so edify and soothe me, nor merely because those veiled statues will make less uncouth the city I was born in, do I feverishly thrust on you my proposition. The wish in me is that posterity shall be haunted by our dead heroes even as I am by Umberto. Rather hard on posterity? Well, the prevision of its plight would cheer me in mine immensely.
None of us who keep an eye on the heavens of European literature can forget the emotion that we felt when, but a few years since, the red star of Kolniyatsch swam into our ken. As nobody can prove that I wasn't, I claim now that I was the first to gauge the magnitude of this star and to predict the ascendant course which it has in fact triumphantly taken. That was in the days when Kolniyatsch was still alive. His recent death gives the cue for the boom. Out of that boom I, for one, will not be left. I rush to scrawl my name, large, on the tombstone of Kolniyatsch.
These foreign fellows always are especially to be commended. By the mere mention of their names you evoke in reader or hearer a vague sense of your superiority and his. Thank heaven, we are no longer insular. I don't say we have no native talent. We have heaps of it, pyramids of it, all around. But where, for the genuine thrill, would England be but for her good fortune in being able to draw on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anguished souls from the Continent—infantile wide-eyed Slavs, Titan Teutons, greatly blighted Scandinavians, all of them different, but all of them raving in one common darkness and with one common gesture plucking out their vitals for exportation? There is no doubt that our continuous receipt of this commodity has had a bracing effect on our national character. We used to be rather phlegmatic, used we not? We have learnt to be vibrant.
Of Kolniyatsch, as of all authentic master-spirits in literature, it is true that he must be judged rather by what he wrote than by what he was. But the quality of his genius, albeit nothing if not national and also universal, is at the same time so deeply personal that we cannot afford to close our eyes on his life—a life happily not void of those sensational details which are what we all really care about.
'If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.' Kolniyatsch was born, last of a long line of rag-pickers, in 1886. At the age of nine he had already acquired that passionate alcoholism which was to have so great an influence in the moulding of his character and on the trend of his thought. Otherwise he does not seem to have shown in childhood any exceptional promise. It was not before his eighteenth birthday that he murdered his grandmother and was sent to that asylum in which he wrote the poems and plays belonging to what we now call his earlier manner. In 1907 he escaped from his sanctum, or chuzketc (cell) as he sardonically called it, and, having acquired some money by an act of violence, gave, by sailing for America, early proof that his genius was of the kind that crosses frontiers and seas. Unfortunately, it was not of the kind that passes Ellis Island. America, to her lasting shame, turned him back. Early in 1908 we find him once more in his old quarters, working at those novels and confessions on which, in the opinion of some, his fame will ultimately rest. Alas, we don't find him there now. It will be a fortnight ago to-morrow that Luntic Kolniyatsch passed peacefully away, in the twenty-eighth year of his age. He would have been the last to wish us to indulge in any sickly sentimentality. 'Nothing is here for tears, nothing but well and fair, and what may quiet us in a death so noble.'
Was Kolniyatsch mad? It depends on what we mean by that word. If we mean, as the bureaucrats of Ellis Island and, to their lasting shame, his friends and relations presumably meant, that he did not share our own smug and timid philosophy of life, then indeed was Kolniyatsch not sane. Granting for sake of argument that he was mad in a wider sense than that, we do but oppose an insuperable stumbling-block to the Eugenists. Imagine what Europe would be to-day, had Kolniyatsch not been! As one of the critics avers, 'It is hardly too much to say that a time may be not far distant, and may indeed be nearer than many of us suppose, when Luntic Kolniyatsch will, rightly or wrongly, be reckoned by some of us as not the least of those writers who are especially symptomatic of the early twentieth century and are possibly "for all time" or for a more or less certainly not inconsiderable period of time.' That is finely said. But I myself go somewhat further. I say that Kolniyatsch's message has drowned all previous messages and will drown any that may be uttered in the remotest future. You ask me what, precisely, that message was? Well, it is too elemental, too near to the very heart of naked Nature, for exact definition. Can you describe the message of an angry python more satisfactorily than as S-s-s-s? Or that of an infuriated bull better than as Moo? That of Kolniyatsch lies somewhere between these two. Indeed, at whatever point we take him, we find him hard to fit into any single category. Was he a realist or a romantic? He was neither, and he was both. By more than one critic he has been called a pessimist, and it is true that a part of his achievement may be gauged by the lengths to which he carried pessimism—railing and raging, not, in the manner of his tame forerunners, merely at things in general, or at women, or at himself, but lavishing an equally fierce scorn and hatred on children, on trees and flowers and the moon, and indeed on everything that the sentimentalists have endeavoured to force into favour. On the other hand, his burning faith in a personal Devil, his frank delight in earthquakes and pestilences, and his belief that every one but himself will be brought back to life in time to be frozen to death in the next glacial epoch, seem rather to stamp him as an optimist. By birth and training a man of the people, he was yet an aristocrat to the finger-tips, and Byron would have called him brother, though one trembles to think what he would have called Byron. First and last, he was an artist, and it is by reason of his technical mastery that he most of all outstands. Whether in prose or in verse, he compasses a broken rhythm that is as the very rhythm of life itself, and a cadence that catches you by the throat, as a terrier catches a rat, and wrings from you the last drop of pity and awe. His skill in avoiding 'the inevitable word' is simply miraculous. He is the despair of the translator. Far be it from me to belittle the devoted labours of Mr. and Mrs. Pegaway, whose monumental translation of the Master's complete works is now drawing to its splendid close. Their promised biography of the murdered grandmother is awaited eagerly by all who take—and which of us does not take?—a breathless interest in Kolniyatschiana. But Mr. and Mrs. Pegaway would be the first to admit that their renderings of the prose and verse they love so well are a wretched substitute for the real thing. I wanted to get the job myself, but they nipped in and got it before me. Thank heaven, they cannot deprive me of the power to read Kolniyatsch in the original Gibrisch and to crow over you who can't.
Of the man himself—for on several occasions I had the privilege and the permit to visit him—I have the pleasantest, most sacred memories. His was a wonderfully vivid and intense personality. The head was beautiful, perfectly conic in form. The eyes were like two revolving lamps, set very close together. The smile was haunting. There was a touch of old-world courtesy in the repression of the evident impulse to spring at one's throat. The voice had notes that recalled M. Mounet-Sully's in the later and more important passages of Oedipe Roi. I remember that he always spoke with the greatest contempt of Mr. and Mrs. Pegaway's translations. He likened them to—but enough! His boom is not yet at the full. A few weeks hence I shall be able to command an even higher price than I could now for my 'Talks with Kolniyatsch.'
No. 2. THE PINES, 1914
[Early in the year 1914 Mr. Edmund Gosse told me he was asking certain of his friends to write for him a few words apiece in description of Swinburne as they had known or seen him at one time or another; and he was so good as to wish to include in this gathering a few words by myself. I found it hard to be brief without seeming irreverent. I failed in the attempt to make of my subject a snapshot that was not a grotesque. So I took refuge in an ampler scope. I wrote a reminiscential essay. From that essay I made an extract, which I gave to Mr. Gosse. From that extract he made a quotation in his enchanting biography. The words quoted by him reappear here in the midst of the whole essay as I wrote it. I dare not hope they are unashamed of their humble surroundings.—M. B.]
In my youth the suburbs were rather looked down on—I never quite knew why. It was held anomalous, and a matter for merriment, that Swinburne lived in one of them. For my part, had I known as a fact that Catullus was still alive, I should have been as ready to imagine him living in Putney as elsewhere. The marvel would have been merely that he lived. And Swinburne's survival struck as surely as could his have struck in me the chord of wonder.
Not, of course, that he had achieved a feat of longevity. He was far from the Psalmist's limit. Nor was he one of those men whom one associates with the era in which they happened to be young. Indeed, if there was one man belonging less than any other to Mid-Victorian days, Swinburne was that man. But by the calendar it was in those days that he had blazed—blazed forth with so unexampled a suddenness of splendour; and in the light of that conflagration all that he had since done, much and magnificent though this was, paled. The essential Swinburne was still the earliest. He was and would always be the flammiferous boy of the dim past—a legendary creature, sole kin to the phoenix. It had been impossible that he should ever surpass himself in the artistry that was from the outset his; impossible that he should bring forth rhythms lovelier and greater than those early rhythms, or exercise over them a mastery more than—absolute. Also, it had been impossible that the first wild ardour of spirit should abide unsinkingly in him. Youth goes. And there was not in Swinburne that basis on which a man may in his maturity so build as to make good, in some degree, the loss of what is gone. He was not a thinker: his mind rose ever away from reason to rhapsody; neither was he human. He was a king crowned but not throned. He was a singing bird that could build no nest. He was a youth who could not afford to age. Had he died young, literature would have lost many glories; but none so great as the glories he had already given, nor any such as we should fondly imagine ourselves bereft of by his early death. A great part of Keats' fame rests on our assumption of what he would have done. But—even granting that Keats may have had in him more than had Swinburne of stuff for development—I believe that had he lived on we should think of him as author of the poems that in fact we know. Not philosophy, after all, not humanity, just sheer joyous power of song, is the primal thing in poetry. Ideas, and flesh and blood, are but reserves to be brought up when the poet's youth is going. When the bird can no longer sing in flight, let the nest be ready. After the king has dazzled us with his crown, let him have something to sit down on. But the session on throne or in nest is not the divine period. Had Swinburne's genius been of the kind that solidifies, he would yet at the close of the nineteenth century have been for us young men virtually—though not so definitely as in fact he was—the writer of 'Atalanta in Calydon' and of 'Poems and Ballads.'
Tennyson's death in '98 had not taken us at all by surprise. We had been fully aware that he was alive. He had always been careful to keep himself abreast of the times. Anything that came along—the Nebular Hypothesis at one moment, the Imperial Institute at another—won mention from his Muse. He had husbanded for his old age that which he had long ago inherited: middle age. If in our mourning for him there really was any tincture of surprise, this was due to merely the vague sense that he had in the fullness of time died rather prematurely: his middle-age might have been expected to go on flourishing for ever. But assuredly Tennyson dead laid no such strain on our fancy as Swinburne living.
It is true that Swinburne did, from time to time, take public notice of current affairs; but what notice he took did but seem to mark his remoteness from them, from us. The Boers, I remember, were the theme of a sonnet which embarrassed even their angriest enemies in our midst. He likened them, if I remember rightly, to 'hell-hounds foaming at the jaws.' This was by some people taken as a sign that he had fallen away from that high generosity of spirit which had once been his. To me it meant merely that he thought of poor little England writhing under the heel of an alien despotism, just as, in the days when he really was interested in such matters, poor little Italy had writhen. I suspect, too, that the first impulse to write about the Boers came not from the Muse within, but from Theodore Watts-Dunton without.... 'Now, Algernon, we're at war, you know—at war with the Boers. I don't want to bother you at all, but I do think, my dear old friend, you oughtn't to let slip this opportunity of,' etc., etc.
Some such hortation is easily imaginable by any one who saw the two old friends together. The first time I had this honour, this sight for lasting and affectionate memory, must have been in the Spring of '99. In those days Theodore Watts (he had but recently taken on the Dunton) was still something of a gad-about. I had met him here and there, he had said in his stentorian tones pleasant things to me about my writing, I sent him a new little book of mine, and in acknowledging this he asked me to come down to Putney and 'have luncheon and meet Swinburne.' Meet Catullus!
On the day appointed 'I came as one whose feet half linger.' It is but a few steps from the railway-station in Putney High Street to No. 2. The Pines. I had expected a greater distance to the sanctuary—a walk in which to compose my mind and prepare myself for initiation. I laid my hand irresolutely against the gate of the bleak trim front-garden, I withdrew my hand, I went away. Out here were all the aspects of common modern life. In there was Swinburne. A butcher-boy went by, whistling. He was not going to see Swinburne. He could afford to whistle. I pursued my dilatory course up the slope of Putney, but at length it occurred to me that unpunctuality would after all be an imperfect expression of reverence, and I retraced my footsteps.
No. 2—prosaic inscription! But as that front-door closed behind me I had the instant sense of having slipped away from the harsh light of the ordinary and contemporary into the dimness of an odd, august past. Here, in this dark hall, the past was the present. Here loomed vivid and vital on the walls those women of Rossetti whom I had known but as shades. Familiar to me in small reproductions by photogravure, here they themselves were, life-sized, 'with curled-up lips and amorous hair' done in the original warm crayon, all of them intently looking down on me while I took off my overcoat—all wondering who was this intruder from posterity. That they hung in the hall, evidently no more than an overflow, was an earnest of packed plenitude within. The room I was ushered into was a back-room, a dining-room, looking on to a good garden. It was, in form and 'fixtures,' an inalienably Mid-Victorian room, and held its stolid own in the riot of Rossettis. Its proportions, its window-sash bisecting the view of garden, its folding-doors (through which I heard the voice of Watts-Dunton booming mysteriously in the front room), its mantel-piece, its gas-brackets, all proclaimed that nothing ever would seduce them from their allegiance to Martin Tupper. 'Nor me from mine,' said the sturdy cruet-stand on the long expanse of table-cloth. The voice of Watts-Dunton ceased suddenly, and a few moments later its owner appeared. He had been dictating, he explained. 'A great deal of work on hand just now—a great deal of work.'... I remember that on my subsequent visits he was always, at the moment of my arrival, dictating, and always greeted me with that phrase, 'A great deal of work on hand just now.' I used to wonder what work it was, for he published little enough. But I never ventured to inquire, and indeed rather cherished the mystery: it was a part of the dear little old man; it went with the something gnome-like about his swarthiness and chubbiness—went with the shaggy hair that fell over the collar of his eternally crumpled frock-coat, the shaggy eyebrows that overhung his bright little brown eyes, the shaggy moustache that hid his small round chin. It was a mystery inherent in the richly-laden atmosphere of The Pines....
While I stood talking to Watts-Dunton—talking as loudly as he, for he was very deaf—I enjoyed the thrill of suspense in watching the door through which would appear—Swinburne. I asked after Mr. Swinburne's health. Watts-Dunton said it was very good: 'He always goes out for his long walk in the morning—wonderfully active. Active in mind, too. But I'm afraid you won't be able to get into touch with him. He's almost stone-deaf, poor fellow—almost stone-deaf now.' He changed the subject, and I felt I must be careful not to seem interested in Swinburne exclusively. I spoke of 'Aylwin.' The parlourmaid brought in the hot dishes. The great moment was at hand.
Nor was I disappointed. Swinburne's entry was for me a great moment. Here, suddenly visible in the flesh, was the legendary being and divine singer. Here he was, shutting the door behind him as might anybody else, and advancing—a strange small figure in grey, having an air at once noble and roguish, proud and skittish. My name was roared to him. In shaking his hand, I bowed low, of course—a bow de coeur; and he, in the old aristocratic manner, bowed equally low, but with such swiftness that we narrowly escaped concussion. You do not usually associate a man of genius, when you see one, with any social class; and, Swinburne being of an aspect so unrelated as it was to any species of human kind, I wondered the more that almost the first impression he made on me, or would make on any one, was that of a very great gentleman indeed. Not of an old gentleman, either. Sparse and straggling though the grey hair was that fringed the immense pale dome of his head, and venerably haloed though he was for me by his greatness, there was yet about him something—boyish? girlish? childish, rather; something of a beautifully well-bred child. But he had the eyes of a god, and the smile of an elf. In figure, at first glance, he seemed almost fat; but this was merely because of the way he carried himself, with his long neck strained so tightly back that he all receded from the waist upwards. I noticed afterwards that this deportment made the back of his jacket hang quite far away from his legs; and so small and sloping were his shoulders that the jacket seemed ever so likely to slip right off. I became aware, too, that when he bowed he did not unbend his back, but only his neck—the length of the neck accounting for the depth of the bow. His hands were tiny, even for his size, and they fluttered helplessly, touchingly, unceasingly.
Directly after my introduction, we sat down to the meal. Of course I had never hoped to 'get into touch with him' reciprocally. Quite apart from his deafness, I was too modest to suppose he could be interested in anything I might say. But—for I knew he had once been as high and copious a singer in talk as in verse—I had hoped to hear utterances from him. And it did not seem that my hope was to be fulfilled. Watts-Dunton sat at the head of the table, with a huge and very Tupperesque joint of roast mutton in front of him, Swinburne and myself close up to him on either side. He talked only to me. This was the more tantalising because Swinburne seemed as though he were bubbling over with all sorts of notions. Not that he looked at either of us. He smiled only to himself, and to his plateful of meat, and to the small bottle of Bass's pale ale that stood before him—ultimate allowance of one who had erst clashed cymbals in Naxos. This small bottle he eyed often and with enthusiasm, seeming to waver between the rapture of broaching it now and the grandeur of having it to look forward to. It made me unhappy to see what trouble he had in managing his knife and fork. Watts-Dunton told me on another occasion that this infirmity of the hands had been lifelong—had begun before Eton days. The Swinburne family had been alarmed by it and had consulted a specialist, who said that it resulted from 'an excess of electric vitality,' and that any attempt to stop it would be harmful. So they had let it be. I have known no man of genius who had not to pay, in some affliction or defect either physical or spiritual, for what the gods had given him. Here, in this fluttering of his tiny hands, was a part of the price that Swinburne had to pay. No doubt he had grown accustomed to it many lustres before I met him, and I need not have felt at all unhappy at what I tried not to see. He, evidently, was quite gay, in his silence—and in the world that was for him silent. I had, however, the maddening suspicion that he would have liked to talk. Why wouldn't Watts-Dunton roar him an opportunity? I felt I had been right perhaps in feeling that the lesser man was—no, not jealous of the greater whom he had guarded so long and with such love, but anxious that he himself should be as fully impressive to visitors as his fine gifts warranted. Not, indeed, that he monopolised the talk. He seemed to regard me as a source of information about all the latest 'movements,' and I had to shout banalities while he munched his mutton—banalities whose one saving grace for me was that they were inaudible to Swinburne. Had I met Swinburne's gaze, I should have faltered. Now and again his shining light-grey eyes roved from the table, darting this way and that—across the room, up at the ceiling, out of the window; only never at us. Somehow this aloofness gave no hint of indifference. It seemed to be, rather, a point in good manners—the good manners of a child 'sitting up to table,' not 'staring,' not 'asking questions,' and reflecting great credit on its invaluable old nurse. The child sat happy in the wealth of its inner life; the child was content not to speak until it were spoken to; but, but, I felt it did want to be spoken to. And, at length, it was.
So soon as the mutton had been replaced by the apple-pie, Watts-Dunton leaned forward and 'Well, Algernon,' he roared, 'how was it on the Heath to-day?' Swinburne, who had meekly inclined his ear to the question, now threw back his head, uttering a sound that was like the cooing of a dove, and forthwith, rapidly, ever so musically, he spoke to us of his walk; spoke not in the strain of a man who had been taking his daily exercise on Putney Heath, but rather in that of a Peri who had at long last been suffered to pass through Paradise. And rather than that he spoke would I say that he cooingly and flutingly sang of his experience. The wonders of this morning's wind and sun and clouds were expressed in a flow of words so right and sentences so perfectly balanced that they would have seemed pedantic had they not been clearly as spontaneous as the wordless notes of a bird in song. The frail, sweet voice rose and fell, lingered, quickened, in all manner of trills and roulades. That he himself could not hear it, seemed to me the greatest loss his deafness inflicted on him. One would have expected this disability to mar the music; but it didn't; save that now and again a note would come out metallic and over-shrill, the tones were under good control. The whole manner and method had certainly a strong element of oddness; but no one incapable of condemning as unmanly the song of a lark would have called it affected. I had met young men of whose enunciation Swinburne's now reminded me. In them the thing had always irritated me very much; and I now became sure that it had been derived from people who had derived it in old Balliol days from Swinburne himself. One of the points familiar to me in such enunciation was the habit of stressing extremely, and lackadaisically dwelling on, some particular syllable. In Swinburne this trick was delightful—because it wasn't a trick, but a need of his heart. Well do I remember his ecstasy of emphasis and immensity of pause when he described how he had seen in a perambulator on the Heath to-day 'the most BEAUT—iful babbie ever beheld by mortal eyes.' For babies, as some of his later volumes testify, he had a sort of idolatry. After Mazzini had followed Landor to Elysium, and Victor Hugo had followed Mazzini, babies were what among live creatures most evoked Swinburne's genius for self-abasement. His rapture about this especial 'babbie' was such as to shake within me my hitherto firm conviction that, whereas the young of the brute creation are already beautiful at the age of five minutes, the human young never begin to be so before the age of three years. I suspect Watts-Dunton of having shared my lack of innate enthusiasm. But it was one of Swinburne's charms, as I was to find, that he took for granted every one's delight in what he himself so fervidly delighted in. He could as soon have imagined a man not loving the very sea as not doting on the aspect of babies and not reading at least one play by an Elizabethan or Jacobean dramatist every day.
I forget whether it was at this my first meal or at another that he described a storm in which, one night years ago, with Watts-Dunton, he had crossed the Channel. The rhythm of his great phrases was as the rhythm of those waves, and his head swayed in accordance to it like the wave-rocked boat itself. He hymned in memory the surge and darkness, the thunder and foam and phosphorescence—'You remember, Theodore? You remember the PHOS—phorescence?'—all so beautifully and vividly that I almost felt stormbound and in peril of my life. To disentangle one from another of the several occasions on which I heard him talk is difficult because the procedure was so invariable: Watts-Dunton always dictating when I arrived, Swinburne always appearing at the moment of the meal, always the same simple and substantial fare, Swinburne never allowed to talk before the meal was half over. As to this last point, I soon realised that I had been quite unjust in suspecting Watts-Dunton of selfishness. It was simply a sign of the care with which he watched over his friend's welfare. Had Swinburne been admitted earlier to the talk, he would not have taken his proper quantity of roast mutton. So soon, always, as he had taken that, the embargo was removed, the chance was given him. And, swiftly though he embraced the chance, and much though he made of it in the courses of apple-pie and of cheese, he seemed touchingly ashamed of 'holding forth.' Often, before he had said his really full say on the theme suggested by Watts-Dunton's loud interrogation, he would curb his speech and try to eliminate himself, bowing his head over his plate; and then, when he had promptly been brought in again, he would always try to atone for his inhibiting deafness by much reference and deference to all that we might otherwise have to say. 'I hope,' he would coo to me, 'my friend Watts-Dunton, who'—and here he would turn and make a little bow to Watts-Dunton—'is himself a scholar, will bear me out when I say'—or 'I hardly know,' he would flute to his old friend, 'whether Mr. Beerbohm'—here a bow to me—'will agree with me in my opinion of' some delicate point in Greek prosody or some incident in an old French romance I had never heard of.
On one occasion, just before the removal of the mutton, Watts-Dunton had been asking me about an English translation that had been made of M. Rostand's 'Cyrano de Bergerac.' He then took my information as the match to ignite the Swinburnian tinder. 'Well, Algernon, it seems that "Cyrano de Bergerac"'—but this first spark was enough: instantly Swinburne was praising the works of Cyrano de Bergerac. Of M. Rostand he may have heard, but him he forgot. Indeed I never heard Swinburne mention a single contemporary writer. His mind ranged and revelled always in the illustrious or obscure past. To him the writings of Cyrano de Bergerac were as fresh as paint—as fresh as to me, alas, was the news of their survival. Of course, of course, you have read "L'Histoire Comique des etats et des Empires de la Lune"?' I admitted, by gesture and facial expression, that I had not. Whereupon he reeled out curious extracts from that allegory—'almost as good as "Gulliver"'—with a memorable instance of the way in which the traveller to the moon was shocked by the conversation of the natives, and the natives' sense of propriety was outraged by the conversation of the traveller.
In life, as in (that for him more truly actual thing) literature, it was always the preterit that enthralled him. Of any passing events, of anything the newspapers were full of, never a word from him; and I should have been sorry if there had been. But I did, through the medium of Watts-Dunton, sometimes start him on topics that might have led him to talk of Rossetti and other old comrades. For me the names of those men breathed the magic of the past, just as it was breathed for me by Swinburne's presence. For him, I suppose, they were but a bit of the present, and the mere fact that they had dropped out of it was not enough to hallow them. He never mentioned them. But I was glad to see that he revelled as wistfully in the days just before his own as I in the days just before mine. He recounted to us things he had been told in his boyhood by an aged aunt, or great-aunt—'one of the Ashburnhams'; how, for example, she had been taken by her mother to a county ball, a distance of many miles, and, on the way home through the frosty and snowy night, the family-coach had suddenly stopped: there was a crowd of dark figures in the way...at which point Swinburne stopped too, before saying, with an ineffable smile and in a voice faint with appreciation, 'They were burying a suicide at the crossroads.'
Vivid as this Hogarthian night-scene was to me, I saw beside it another scene: a great panelled room, a grim old woman in a high-backed chair, and, restless on a stool at her feet an extraordinary little nephew with masses of auburn hair and with tiny hands clasped in supplication—'Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, tell me more!'
And now, clearlier still, as I write in these after-years, do I see that dining-room of The Pines; the long white stretch of table-cloth, with Swinburne and Watts-Dunton and another at the extreme end of it; Watts-Dunton between us, very low down over his plate, very cosy and hirsute, and rather like the dormouse at that long tea-table which Alice found in Wonderland. I see myself sitting there wide-eyed, as Alice sat. And, had the hare been a great poet, and the hatter a great gentleman, and neither of them mad but each only very odd and vivacious, I might see Swinburne as a glorified blend of those two.
When the meal ended—for, alas! it was not, like that meal in Wonderland, unending—Swinburne would dart round the table, proffer his hand to me, bow deeply, bow to Watts-Dunton also, and disappear. 'He always walks in the morning, writes in the afternoon, and reads in the evening,' Watts-Dunton would say with a touch of tutorial pride in this regimen.
That parting bow of Swinburne to his old friend was characteristic of his whole relation to him. Cronies though they were, these two, knit together with bonds innumerable, the greater man was always aux petits soins for the lesser, treating him as a newly-arrived young guest might treat an elderly host. Some twenty years had passed since that night when, ailing and broken—thought to be nearly dying, Watts-Dunton told me—Swinburne was brought in a four-wheeler to The Pines. Regular private nursing-homes either did not exist in those days or were less in vogue than they are now. The Pines was to be a sort of private nursing-home for Swinburne. It was a good one. He recovered. He was most grateful to his friend and saviour. He made as though to depart, was persuaded to stay a little longer, and then a little longer than that. But I rather fancy that, to the last, he never did, in the fullness of his modesty and good manners, consent to regard his presence as a matter of course, or as anything but a terminable intrusion and obligation. His bow seemed always to convey that.
Swinburne having gone from the room, in would come the parlourmaid. The table was cleared, the fire was stirred, two leather arm-chairs were pushed up to the hearth. Watts-Dunton wanted gossip of the present. I wanted gossip of the great past. We settled down for a long, comfortable afternoon together.
Only once was the ritual varied. Swinburne (I was told before luncheon) had expressed a wish to show me his library. So after the meal he did not bid us his usual adieu, but with much courtesy invited us and led the way. Up the staircase he then literally bounded—three, literally three, stairs at a time. I began to follow at the same rate, but immediately slackened speed for fear that Watts-Dunton behind us might be embittered at sight of so much youth and legerity. Swinburne waited on the threshold to receive us, as it were, and pass us in. Watts-Dunton went and ensconced himself snugly in a corner. The sun had appeared after a grey morning, and it pleasantly flooded this big living-room whose walls were entirely lined with the mellow backs of books. Here, as host, among his treasures, Swinburne was more than ever attractive. He was as happy as was any mote in the sunshine about him; and the fluttering of his little hands, and feet too, was but as a token of so much felicity. He looked older, it is true, in the strong light. But these added years made only more notable his youngness of heart. An illustrious bibliophile among his books? A birthday child, rather, among his toys.
Proudly he explained to me the general system under which the volumes were ranged in this or that division of shelves. Then he conducted me to a chair near the window, left me there, flew away, flew up the rungs of a mahogany ladder, plucked a small volume, and in a twinkling was at my side: 'This, I think, will please you! 'It did. It had a beautifully engraved title-page and a pleasing scent of old, old leather. It was editio princeps of a play by some lesser Elizabethan or Jacobean. 'Of course you know it?' my host fluted.
How I wished I could say that I knew it and loved it well! I revealed to him (for by speaking very loudly towards his inclined head I was able to make him hear) that I had not read it. He envied any one who had such pleasure in store. He darted to the ladder, and came back thrusting gently into my hands another volume of like date: 'Of course you know this?'
Again I had to confess that I did not, and to shout my appreciation of the fount of type, the margins, the binding. He beamed agreement, and fetched another volume. Archly he indicated the title, cooing, 'You are a lover of this, I hope?' And again I was shamed by my inexperience.
I did not pretend to know this particular play, but my tone implied that I had always been meaning to read it and had always by some mischance been prevented. For his sake as well as my own I did want to acquit myself passably. I wanted for him the pleasure of seeing his joys shared by a representative, however humble, of the common world. I turned the leaves caressingly, looking from them to him, while he dilated on the beauty of this and that scene in the play. Anon he fetched another volume, and another, always with the same faith that this was a favourite of mine. I quibbled, I evaded, I was very enthusiastic and uncomfortable. It was with intense relief that I beheld the title-page of yet another volume which (silently, this time) he laid before me—The Country Wench. 'This of course I have read,' I heartily shouted.
Swinburne stepped back. 'You have? You have read it? Where?' he cried, in evident dismay.
Something was wrong. Had I not, I quickly wondered, read this play? 'Oh yes,' I shouted, 'I have read it.'
'But when? Where?' entreated Swinburne, adding that he had supposed it to be the sole copy extant.
I floundered. I wildly said I thought I must have read it years ago in the Bodleian. 'Theodore! Do you hear this? It seems that they have now a copy of "The Country Wench" in the Bodleian! Mr. Beerbohm found one there—oh when? in what year?' he appealed to me.
I said it might have been six, seven, eight years ago. Swinburne knew for certain that no copy had been there twelve years ago, and was surprised that he had not heard of the acquisition. 'They might have told me,' he wailed.
I sacrificed myself on the altar of sympathy. I admitted that I might have been mistaken—must have been—must have confused this play with some other. I dipped into the pages and 'No,' I shouted, 'this I have never read.'
His equanimity was restored. He was up the ladder and down again, showing me further treasures with all pride and ardour. At length, Watts-Dunton, afraid that his old friend would tire himself, arose from his corner, and presently he and I went downstairs to the dining-room. It was in the course of our session together that there suddenly flashed across my mind the existence of a play called 'The Country Wife,' by—wasn't it Wycherley? I had once read it—or read something about it.... But this matter I kept to myself. I thought I had appeared fool enough already.