CONFESSIONS OF A...YOUNG MAN
CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG MAN
By GEORGE MOORE. 1886.
Edited and Annotated by GEORGE MOORE, 1904,
À JACQUES BLANCHE.
L'âme de l'ancien Égyptien s'éveillait en moi quand mourut ma jeunesse, et j'étais inspiré de conserver mon passé, son esprit et sa forme, dans l'art.
Alors trempant le pinceau dans ma mémoire, j'ai peint ses joues pour qu'elles prissent l'exacte ressemblance de la vie, et j'ai enveloppé le mort dans les plus fins linceuls. Rhamenès le second n'a pas reçu des soins plus pieux! Que ce livre soit aussi durable que sa pyramide!
Votre nom, cher ami, je voudrais l'inscrire ici comme épitaphe, car vous êtes mon plus jeune et mon plus cher ami; et il se trouve en vous tout ce qui est gracieux et subtil dans ces mornes années qui s'égouttent dans le vase du vingtième siècle.
PREFACE TO A NEW EDITION OF "CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG MAN"
Dear little book, what shall I say about thee? Belated offspring of mine, out of print for twenty years, what shall I say in praise of thee? For twenty years I have only seen thee in French, and in this English text thou comest to me like an old love, at once a surprise and a recollection. Dear little book, I would say nothing about thee if I could help it, but a publisher pleads, and "No" is a churlish word. So for him I will say that I like thy prattle; that while travelling in a railway carriage on my way to the country of "Esther Waters," I passed my station by, and had to hire a carriage and drive across the downs.
Like a learned Abbé I delighted in the confessions of this young man, a naïf young man, a little vicious in his naïveté, who says that his soul must have been dipped in Lethe so deeply that he came into the world without remembrance of previous existence. He can find no other explanation for the fact that the world always seems to him more new, more wonderful than it did to anyone he ever met on his faring; every wayside acquaintance seemed old to this amazing young man, and himself seemed to himself the only young thing in the world. Am I imitating the style of these early writings? A man of letters who would parody his early style is no better than the ancient light-o'-love who wears a wig and reddens her cheeks. I must turn to the book to see how far this is true. The first thing I catch sight of is some French, an astonishing dedication written in the form of an epitaph, an epitaph upon myself, for it appears that part of me was dead even when I wrote "Confessions of a Young Man." The youngest have a past, and this epitaph dedication, printed in capital letters, informs me that I have embalmed my past, that I have wrapped the dead in the finest winding-sheet. It would seem I am a little more difficult to please to-day, for I perceived in the railway train a certain coarseness in its tissue, and here and there a tangled thread. I would have wished for more care, for un peu plus de toilette. There is something pathetic in the loving regard of the middle-aged man for the young man's coat (I will not say winding-sheet, that is a morbidity from which the middle-aged shrink). I would set his coat collar straighter, I would sweep some specks from it. But can I do aught for this youth, does he need my supervision? He was himself, that was his genius; and I sit at gaze. My melancholy is like her's—the ancient light-o'-love of whom I spoke just now, when she sits by the fire in the dusk, a miniature of her past self in her hand.
This edition has not been printed from old plates, no chicanery of that kind: it has been printed from new type, and it was brought about by Walter Pater's evocative letter. (It wasn't, but I like to think that it was). Off and on, his letter was sought for during many years, hunted for through all sorts of portfolios and bookcases, but never found until it appeared miraculously, just as the proof of my Pater article was being sent back to the printer, the precious letter transpired—shall I say "transpired?"—through a crack in the old bookcase.
MY DEAR, AUDACIOUS MOORE,—Many thanks for the "Confessions" which I have read with great interest, and admiration for your originality—your delightful criticisms—your Aristophanic joy, or at least enjoyment, in life—your unfailing liveliness. Of course, there are many things in the book I don't agree with. But then, in the case of so satiric a book, I suppose one is hardly expected to agree or disagree. What I cannot doubt is the literary faculty displayed. "Thou com'st in such a questionable shape!" I feel inclined to say on finishing your book; "shape" morally, I mean; not in reference to style.
You speak of my own work very pleasantly; but my enjoyment has been independent of that. And still I wonder how much you may be losing, both for yourself and for your writings, by what, in spite of its gaiety and good-nature and genuine sense of the beauty of many things, I must still call a cynical, and therefore exclusive, way of looking at the world. You call it only "realistic." Still!
With sincere wishes for the future success of your most entertaining pen.—Very sincerely yours,
Remember, reader, that this letter was written by the last great English writer, by the author of "Imaginary Portraits," the most beautiful of all prose books. I should like to break off and tell of my delight in reading "Imaginary Portraits," but I have told my delight elsewhere; go, seek out what I have said in the pages of the Pall Mall Magazine for August 1904, for here I am obliged to tell you of myself. I give you Pater's letter, for I wish you to read this book with reverence; never forget that Pater's admiration has made this book a sacred book. Never forget that.
My special pleasure in these early pages was to find that I thought about Pater twenty years ago as I think about him now, and shall certainly think of him till time everlasting, world without end. I have been accused of changing my likes and dislikes—no one has changed less than I, and this book is proof of my fidelity to my first ideas; the ideas I have followed all my life are in this book—dear crescent moon rising in the south-east above the trees at the end of the village green. It was in that ugly but well-beloved village on the south coast I discovered my love of Protestant England. It was on the downs that the instinct of Protestantism lit up in me.
But when Zola asked me why I preferred Protestantism to Roman Catholicism I could not answer him.
He had promised to write a preface for the French translation of the "Mummer's Wife"; the translation had to be revised, months and months passed away, and forgetting all about the "Mummer's Wife," I expressed my opinion about Zola, which had been changing, a little too fearlessly, and in view of my revolt he was obliged to break his promise to write a Preface, and this must have been a great blow, for he was a man of method, to whom any change of plan was disagreeable and unnerving. He sent a letter, asking me to come to Medan, he would talk to me about the "Confessions." Well do I remember going there with dear Alexis in the May-time, the young corn six inches high in the fields, and my delight in the lush luxuriance of the l'Oise. That dear morning is remembered, and the poor master who reproved me a little sententiously, is dead. He was sorrowful in that dreadful room of his, fixed up with stained glass and morbid antiquities. He lay on a sofa lecturing me till breakfast. Then I thought reproof was over, but after a walk in the garden we went upstairs and he began again, saying he was not angry. "It is the law of nature," he said, "for children to devour their parents. I do not complain." I think he was aware he was playing a part; his sofa was his stage; and he lay there theatrical as Leo XI. or Beerbohm Tree, saying that the Roman Church was an artistic church, that its rich externality and ceremonial were pagan. But I think he knew even then, at the back of his mind, that I was right; that is why he pressed me to give reasons for my preference. Zola came to hate Catholicism as much as I, and his hatred was for the same reason as mine; we both learnt that any religion which robs a man of the right of free-will and private judgment degrades the soul, renders it lethargic and timid, takes the edge off the intellect. Zola lived to write "that the Catholic countries are dead, and the clergy are the worms in the corpses." The observation is "quelconque"; I should prefer the more interesting allegation that since the Reformation no born Catholic has written a book of literary value! He would have had to concede that some converts have written well; the convert still retains a little of his ancient freedom, some of the intellectual virility he acquired elsewhere, but the born Catholic is still-born. But however we may disapprove of Catholicism, we can still admire the convert. Cardinal Manning was aware of the advantages of a Protestant bringing up, and he often said that he was glad he had been born a Protestant. His Eminence was, therefore, of opinion that the Catholic faith should be reserved, and exclusively, for converts, and in this he showed his practical sense, for it is easy to imagine a country prosperous in which all the inhabitants should be brought up Protestants or agnostics, and in which conversions to Rome are only permitted after a certain age or in clearly defined circumstances. There would be something beyond mere practical wisdom in such law-giving, an exquisite sense of the pathos of human life and its requirements; scapulars, indulgences and sacraments are needed by the weak and the ageing, sacraments especially. "They make you believe but they stupefy you;" these words are Pascal's, the great light of the Catholic Church.
My Protestant sympathies go back very far, further back than these Confessions; I find them in a French sonnet, crude and diffuse in versification, of the kind which finds favour with the very young, a sonnet which I should not publish did it not remind me of two things especially dear to me, my love of France and Protestantism.
Je t'apporte mon drame, o poète sublime, Ainsi qu'un écolier au maître sa leçon: Ce livre avec fierté porte comme écusson Le sceau qu'en nos esprits ta jeune gloire imprime.
Accepte, tu verras la foi mêlée au crime, Se souiller dans le sang sacré de la raison, Quand surgit, rédempteur du vieux peuple saxon, Luther à Wittemberg comme Christ à Solime.
Jamais de la cité le mal entier ne fuit, Hélas! et son autel y fume dans la nuit; Mais notre âge a ceci de pareil à l'aurore.
Que c'est un divin cri du chanteur éternal, Le tien, qui pour forcer le jour tardif d'éclore Déchire avec splendeur le voile épars du ciel.
I find not only my Protestant sympathies in the "Confessions" but a proud agnosticism, and an exalted individualism which in certain passages leads the reader to the sundered rocks about the cave of Zarathoustra. My book was written before I heard that splendid name, before Zarathoustra was written; and the doctrine, though hardly formulated, is in the "Confessions," as Darwin is in Wallace. Here ye shall find me, the germs of all I have written are in the "Confessions," "Esther Waters" and "Modern Painting," my love of France—the country as Pater would say of my instinctive election—and all my prophecies. Manet, Degas, Whistler, Monet, Pissaro, all these have come into their inheritance. Those whom I brushed aside, where are they? Stevenson, so well described as the best-dressed young man that ever walked in the Burlington Arcade, has slipped into nothingness despite the journalists and Mr Sidney Colvin's batch of letters. Poor Colvin, he made a mistake, he should have hopped on to Pater.
Were it not for a silly phrase about George Eliot, who surely was no more than one of those dull clever people, unlit by any ray of genius, I might say with Swinburne I have nothing to regret, nothing to withdraw. Maybe a few flippant remarks about my private friends; but to withdraw them would be unmanly, unintellectual, and no one may re-write his confessions.
A moment ago I wrote I have nothing to regret except a silly phrase about George Eliot. I was mistaken, there is this preface. If one has succeeded in explaining oneself in a book a preface is unnecessary, and if one has failed to explain oneself in the book, it is still more unnecessary to explain oneself in a preface.
Confessions of a Young Man
My soul, so far as I understand it, has very kindly taken colour and form from the many various modes of life that self-will and an impetuous temperament have forced me to indulge in. Therefore I may say that I am free from original qualities, defects, tastes, etc. What is mine I have acquired, or, to speak more exactly, chance bestowed, and still bestows, upon me. I came into the world apparently with a nature like a smooth sheet of wax, bearing no impress, but capable of receiving any; of being moulded into all shapes. Nor am I exaggerating when I say I think that I might equally have been a Pharaoh, an ostler, a pimp, an archbishop, and that in the fulfilment of the duties of each a certain measure of success would have been mine. I have felt the goad of many impulses, I have hunted many a trail; when one scent failed another was taken up, and pursued with the pertinacity of instinct, rather than the fervour of a reasoned conviction. Sometimes, it is true, there came moments of weariness, of despondency, but they were not enduring: a word spoken, a book read, or yielding to the attraction of environment, I was soon off in another direction, forgetful of past failures. Intricate, indeed, was the labyrinth of my desires; all lights were followed with the same ardour, all cries were eagerly responded to: they came from the right, they came from the left, from every side. But one cry was more persistent, and as the years passed I learned to follow it with increasing vigour, and my strayings grew fewer and the way wider.
I was eleven years old when I first heard and obeyed this cry, or, shall I say, echo-augury?
Scene: A great family coach, drawn by two powerful country horses, lumbers along a narrow Irish road. The ever-recurrent signs—long ranges of blue mountains, the streak of bog, the rotting cabin, the flock of plover rising from the desolate water. Inside the coach there are two children. They are smart, with new jackets and neckties; their faces are pale with sleep, and the rolling of the coach makes them feel a little sick. It is seven o'clock in the morning. Opposite the children are their parents, and they are talking of a novel the world is reading. Did Lady Audley murder her husband? Lady Audley! What a beautiful name! and she, who is a slender, pale, fairy-like woman, killed her husband. Such thoughts flash through the boy's mind; his imagination is stirred and quickened, and he begs for an explanation. The coach lumbers along, it arrives at its destination, and Lady Audley is forgotten in the delight of tearing down fruit trees and killing a cat.
But when we returned home I took the first opportunity of stealing the novel in question. I read it eagerly, passionately, vehemently. I read its successor and its successor. I read until I came to a book called The Doctors Wife—a lady who loved Shelley and Byron. There was magic, there was revelation in the name, and Shelley became my soul's divinity. Why did I love Shelley? Why was I not attracted to Byron? I cannot say. Shelley! Oh, that crystal name, and his poetry also crystalline. I must see it, I must know him. Escaping from the schoolroom, I ransacked the library, and at last my ardour was rewarded. The book—a small pocket edition in red boards, no doubt long out of print—opened at the "Sensitive Plant." Was I disappointed? I think I had expected to understand better; but I had no difficulty in assuming that I was satisfied and delighted. And henceforth the little volume never left my pocket, and I read the dazzling stanzas by the shores of a pale green Irish lake, comprehending little, and loving a great deal. Byron, too, was often with me, and these poets were the ripening influence of years otherwise merely nervous and boisterous.
And my poets were taken to school, because it pleased me to read "Queen Mab" and "Cain," amid the priests and ignorance of a hateful Roman Catholic college. And there my poets saved me from intellectual savagery; for I was incapable at that time of learning anything. What determined and incorrigible idleness! I used to gaze fondly on a book, holding my head between my hands, and allow my thoughts to wander far into dreams and thin imaginings. Neither Latin, nor Greek, nor French, nor History, nor English composition could I learn, unless, indeed, my curiosity or personal interest was excited,—then I made rapid strides in that branch of knowledge to which my attention was directed. A mind hitherto dark seemed suddenly to grow clear, and it remained clear and bright enough so long as passion was in me; but as it died, so the mind clouded, and recoiled to its original obtuseness. Couldn't and wouldn't were in my case curiously involved; nor have I in this respect ever been able to correct my natural temperament. I have always remained powerless to do anything unless moved by a powerful desire.
The natural end to such schooldays as mine was expulsion. I was expelled when I was sixteen, for idleness and general worthlessness. I returned to a wild country home, where I found my father engaged in training racehorses. For a nature of such intense vitality as mine, an ambition, an aspiration of some sort was necessary; and I now, as I have often done since, accepted the first ideal to hand. In this instance it was the stable. I was given a hunter, I rode to hounds every week, I rode gallops every morning, I read the racing calendar, stud-book, latest betting, and looked forward with enthusiasm to the day when I should be known as a successful steeplechase rider. To ride the winner of the Liverpool seemed to me a final achievement and glory; and had not accident intervened, it is very possible that I might have succeeded in carrying off, if not the meditated honour, something scarcely inferior, such as—alas! I cannot now recall the name of a race of the necessary value and importance. About this time my father was elected Member of Parliament; our home was broken up, and we went to London. But an ideal set up on its pedestal is not easily displaced, and I persevered in my love, despite the poor promises London life held out for its ultimate attainment; and surreptitiously I continued to nourish it with small bets made in a small tobacconist's. Well do I remember that shop, the oily-faced, sandy-whiskered proprietor, his betting-book, the cheap cigars along the counter, the one-eyed nondescript who leaned his evening away against the counter, and was supposed to know some one who knew Lord ——'s footman, and the great man often spoken of, but rarely seen—he who made "a two-'undred pound book on the Derby"; and the constant coming and going of the cabmen—"Half an ounce of shag, sir." I was then at a military tutor's in the Euston Road; for, in answer to my father's question as to what occupation I intended to pursue, I had consented to enter the army. In my heart I knew that when it came to the point I should refuse—the idea of military discipline was very repugnant, and the possibility of an anonymous death on a battle-field could not be accepted by so self-conscious a youth, by one so full of his own personality. I said Yes to my father, because the moral courage to say No was lacking, and I put my trust in the future, as well I might, for a fair prospect of idleness lay before me, and the chance of my passing any examination was, indeed, remote.
In London I made the acquaintance of a great blonde man, who talked incessantly about beautiful women, and painted them sometimes larger than life, in somnolent attitudes, and luxurious tints. His studio was a welcome contrast to the spitting and betting of the tobacco shop. His pictures—Doré-like improvisations, devoid of skill, and, indeed, of artistic perception, save a certain sentiment for the grand and noble—filled me with wonderment and awe. "How jolly it would be to be a painter," I once said, quite involuntarily. "Why, would you like to be a painter?" he asked abruptly. I laughed, not suspecting that I had the slightest gift, as indeed was the case, but the idea remained in my mind, and soon after I began to make sketches in the streets and theatres. My attempts were not very successful, but they encouraged me to tell my father that I would go to the military tutor no more, and he allowed me to enter the Kensington Museum as an Art student. There, of course, I learned nothing, and, from the point of view of art merely, I had much better have continued my sketches in the streets; but the museum was a beautiful and beneficent influence, and one that applied marvellously well to the besetting danger of the moment; for in the galleries I met young men who spoke of other things than betting and steeplechase riding, who, I remember, it was clear to me then, looked to a higher ideal than mine, breathed a purer atmosphere of thought than I. And then the sweet, white peace of antiquity! The great, calm gaze that is not sadness nor joy, but something that we know not of—which is lost to the world for ever.
"But if you want to be a painter you must go to France—France is the only school of Art." I must again call attention to the phenomenon of echo-augury, that is to say, words heard in an unlooked-for quarter, that, without any appeal to our reason, impel belief. France! The word rang in my ears and gleamed in my eyes. France! All my senses sprang from sleep like a crew when the man on the look-out cries, "Land ahead!" Instantly I knew I should, that I must, go to France, that I would live there, that I would become as a Frenchman. I knew not when nor how, but I knew I should go to France....
So my youth ran into manhood, finding its way from rock to rock like a rivulet, gathering strength at each leap. One day my father was suddenly called to Ireland. A few days after, a telegram came, and my mother read that we were required at his bedside. We journeyed over land and sea, and on a bleak country road, one winter's evening, a man approached us and I heard him say that all was over, that my father was dead. I loved my father; I burst into tears; and yet my soul said, "I am glad." The thought came unbidden, undesired, and I turned aside, shocked at the sight it afforded of my soul.
O, my father, I, who love and reverence nothing else, love and reverence thee; thou art the one pure image in my mind, the one true affection that life has not broken or soiled; I remember thy voice and thy kind, happy ways. All I have of worldly goods and native wit I received from thee—and was it I who was glad? No, it was not I; I had no concern in the thought that then fell upon me unbidden and undesired; my individual voice can give you but praise and loving words; and the voice that said "I am glad" was not my voice, but that of the will to live which we inherit from elemental dust through countless generations. Terrible and imperative is the voice of the will to live: let him who is innocent cast the first stone.
Terrible is the day when each sees his soul naked, stripped of all veil; that dear soul which he cannot change or discard, and which is so irreparably his.
My father's death freed me, and I sprang like a loosened bough up to the light. His death gave me power to create myself, that is to say, to create a complete and absolute self out of the partial self which was all that the restraint of home had permitted; this future self, this ideal George Moore, beckoned me, lured like a ghost; and as I followed the funeral the question, Would I sacrifice this ghostly self, if by so doing I should bring my father back? presented itself without intermission, and I shrank horrified at the answer which I could not crush out of mind.
Now my life was like a garden in the emotive torpor of spring; now my life was like a flower conscious of the light. Money was placed in my hands, and I divined all it represented. Before me the crystal lake, the distant mountains, the swaying woods, said but one word, and that word was—self; not the self that was then mine, but the self on whose creation I was enthusiastically determined. But I felt like a murderer when I turned to leave the place which I had so suddenly, and I could not but think unjustly, become possessed of. And now, as I probe this poignant psychological moment, I find that, although I perfectly well realised that all pleasures were then in my reach—women, elegant dress, theatres, and supper-rooms, I hardly thought at all of them, and much more of certain drawings from the plaster cast. I would be an artist. More than ever I was determined to be an artist, and my brain was made of this desire as I journeyed as fast as railway and steamboat could take me to London. No further trammels, no further need of being a soldier, of being anything but myself; eighteen, with life and France before me! But the spirit did not move me yet to leave home. I would feel the pulse of life at home before I felt it abroad. I would hire a studio. A studio—tapestries, smoke, models, conversations. But here it is difficult not to convey a false impression. I fain would show my soul in these pages, like a face in a pool of clear water; and although my studio was in truth no more than an amusement, and a means of effectually throwing over all restraint, I did not view it at all in this light. My love of Art was very genuine and deep-rooted; the tobacconist's betting-book was now as nothing, and a certain Botticelli in the National Gallery held me in tether. And when I look back and consider the past, I am forced to admit that I might have grown up in less fortunate circumstances, for even the studio, with its dissipations—and they were many—was not unserviceable; it developed the natural man, who educates himself, who allows his mind to grow and ripen under the sun and wind of modern life, in contradistinction to the University man, who is fed upon the dust of ages, and after a formula which has been composed to suit the requirements of the average human being.
Nor was my reading at this time so limited as might be expected from the foregoing. The study of Shelley's poetry had led me to read very nearly all the English lyric poets; Shelley's atheism had led me to read Kant, Spinoza, Godwin, Darwin, and Mill. So it will be understood that Shelley not only gave me my first soul, but led all its first flights. But I do not think that if Shelley had been no more than a poet, notwithstanding my very genuine love of verse, he would have gained such influence in my youthful sympathies; but Shelley dreamed in metaphysics—very thin dreaming if you will; but just such thin dreaming as I could follow. Was there or was there not a God? And for many years I could not dismiss as parcel of the world's folly this question, and I sought a solution, inclining towards atheism, for it was natural in me to revere nothing, and to oppose the routine of daily thought. And I was but sixteen when I resolved to tell my mother that I must decline to believe any longer in a God. She was leaning against the chimney-piece in the drawing-room. I expected to paralyse the household with the news; but although a religious woman, my mother did not seem in the least frightened, she only said, "I am very sorry, George, it is so." I was deeply shocked at her indifference.
Finding music and atheism in poetry I cared little for novels. Scott seemed to me on a par with Burke's speeches; that is to say, too impersonal for my very personal taste. Dickens I knew by heart, and Bleak House I thought his greatest achievement. Thackeray left no deep impression on my mind; in no way did he hold my thoughts. He was not picturesque like Dickens, and I was at that time curiously eager for some adequate philosophy of life, and his social satire seemed very small beer indeed. I was really young. I hungered after great truths: Middlemarch, Adam Bede, The Rise and Influence of Rationalism, The History of Civilisation, were momentous events in my life. But I loved life better than books, and very curiously my studies and my pleasures kept pace, stepping together like a pair of well-trained carriage horses. While I was waiting for my coach to take a party of tarts and mashers to the Derby, I would read a chapter of Kant, and I often took the book away with me in my pocket. And I cultivated with care the acquaintance of a neighbour who had taken the Globe Theatre for the purpose of producing Offenbach's operas. Bouquets, stalls, rings, delighted me. I was not dissipated, but I loved the abnormal. I loved to spend on scent and toilette knick-knacks as much as would keep a poor man's family in affluence for ten months; and I smiled at the fashionable sunlight in the Park, the dusty cavalcades; and I loved to shock my friends by bowing to those whom I should not bow to. Above all, the life of the theatres—that life of raw gaslight, whitewashed walls, of light, doggerel verse, slangy polkas and waltzes—interested me beyond legitimate measure, so curious and unreal did it seem. I lived at home, but dined daily at a fashionable restaurant: at half-past eight I was at the theatre. Nodding familiarly to the doorkeeper, I passed up the long passage to the stage. Afterwards supper. Cremorne and the Argyle Rooms were my favourite haunts. My mother suffered, and expected ruin, for I took no trouble to conceal anything; I boasted of dissipations. But there was no need to fear; for I was naturally endowed with a very clear sense of self-preservation; I neither betted nor drank, nor contracted debts, nor a secret marriage; from a worldly point of view, I was a model young man indeed; and when I returned home about four in the morning, I watched the pale moon setting, and repeating some verses of Shelley, I thought how I should go to Paris when I was of age, and study painting.
At last the day came, and with several trunks and boxes full of clothes, books, and pictures, I started, accompanied by an English valet, for Paris and Art.
We all know the great grey and melancholy Gare du Nord at half-past six in the morning; and the miserable carriages, and the tall, haggard city. Pale, sloppy, yellow houses; an oppressive absence of colour; a peculiar bleakness in the streets. The ménagère hurries down the asphalte to market; a dreadful garçon de café, with a napkin tied round his throat, moves about some chairs, so decrepit and so solitary that it seems impossible to imagine a human being sitting there. Where are the Boulevards? where are the Champs Elysées? I asked myself; and feeling bound to apologise for the appearance of the city, I explained to my valet that we were passing through some by-streets, and returned to the study of a French vocabulary. Nevertheless, when the time came to formulate a demand for rooms, hot water, and a fire, I broke down, and the proprietress of the hotel, who spoke English, had to be sent for.
My plans, so far as I had any, were to enter the Beaux Arts—Cabanel's studio for preference; for I had then an intense and profound admiration for that painter's work. I did not think much of the application I was told I should have to make at the Embassy; my thoughts were fixed on the master, and my one desire was to see him. To see him was easy, to speak to him was another matter, and I had to wait three weeks until I could hold a conversation in French. How I achieved this feat I cannot say. I never opened a book, I know, nor is it agreeable to think what my language must have been like—like nothing ever heard under God's sky before, probably. It was, however, sufficient to waste a good hour of the painter's time. I told him of my artistic sympathies, what pictures I had seen of his in London, and how much pleased I was with those then in his studio. He went through the ordeal without flinching. He said he would be glad to have me as a pupil....
But life in the Beaux Arts is rough, coarse, and rowdy. The model sits only three times a week: the other days we worked from the plaster cast; and to be there by seven o'clock in the morning required so painful an effort of will, that I glanced in terror down the dim and grey perspective of early risings that awaited me; then, demoralised by the lassitude of Sunday, I told my valet on Monday morning to leave the room, that I would return to the Beaux Arts no more. I felt humiliated at my own weakness, for much hope had been centred in that academy; and I knew no other. Day after day I walked up and down the Boulevards, studying the photographs of the salon pictures, thinking of what my next move should be. I had never forgotten my father showing me, one day when he was shaving, three photographs from pictures. They were by an artist called Sevres. My father liked the slenderer figure, but I liked the corpulent—the Venus standing at the corner of a wood, pouring wine into a goblet, while Cupid, from behind her satin-enveloped knees, drew his bow and shot the doves that flew from glistening poplar trees. The beauty of this woman, and what her beauty must be in the life of the painter, had inspired many a reverie, and I had concluded—this conclusion being of all others most sympathetic to me—that she was his very beautiful mistress, that they lived in a picturesque pavilion in the midst of a shady garden full of birds and tall flowers. I had often imagined her walking there at mid-day, dressed in white muslin with wide sleeves open to the elbow, scattering grain from a silver plate to the proud pigeons that strutted about her slippered feet and fluttered to her dove-like hand. I had dreamed of seeing that woman as I rode racehorses on wild Irish plains, of being loved by her; in London I had dreamed of becoming Sevres's pupil.
What coming and going, what inquiries, what difficulties arose! At last I was advised to go to the Exposition aux Champs Elysée and seek his address in the catalogue. I did so, and while the concierge copied out the address for me, I chased his tame magpie that hopped about one of the angles of the great building. The reader smiles. I was a childish boy of one-and-twenty who knew nothing, and to whom the world was astonishingly new. Doubtless before my soul was given to me it had been plunged deep in Lethe, and so an almost virgin man I stood in front of a virgin world.
Engin is not far from Paris, and the French country seemed to me like a fairy-book. Tall green poplars and green river banks, and a little lake reflecting the foliage and the stems of sapling oak and pine, just as in the pictures. The driver pointed with his whip, and I saw a high garden wall shadowed with young trees, and a tall loose iron gate. As I walked up the gravel path I looked for the beautiful mistress, who, dressed in muslin, with sleeves open at the elbow, should feed pigeons from a silver plate of Venus and the does. M. Sevres caught me looking at it; and hoping his mistress might appear I prolonged the conversation till a tardy sense of the value of his time forced me to bring it to a close; and as I passed down the green garden with him I scanned hopefully every nook, fancying I should see her reading, and that she would raise her eyes as I passed.
Looking back through the years it seems to me that I did catch sight of a white dress behind a trellis. But that dress might have been his daughter's, even his wife's. I only know that I did not discover M. Sevres's mistress that day nor any other day. I never saw him again. Now the earth is over him, as Rossetti would say, and all the reveries that the photographs had inspired resulted in nothing, mere childish sensualities.
I returned to Engin with my taciturn valet; but he showed no enthusiasm on the subject of Engin. I saw he was sighing after beef, beer and a wife, and was but little disposed to settle in this French suburb. We were both very much alone in Paris. In the evenings I allowed him to smoke his clay in my room, and in an astounding brogue he counselled me to return to my mother. But I would not listen, and one day on the Boulevards I was stricken with the art of Jules Lefebvre. True it is that I saw it was wanting in that tender grace which I am forced to admit even now, saturated though I now am with the æsthetics of different schools, is inherent in Cabanel's work; but at the time I am writing of my nature was too young and mobile to resist the conventional attractiveness of nude figures, indolent attitudes, long hair, slender hips and hands, and I accepted Jules Lefebvre wholly and unconditionally. He hesitated, however, when I asked to be taken as a private pupil, but he wrote out the address of a studio where he gave instruction every Tuesday morning. This was even more to my taste, for I had an instinctive liking for Frenchmen, and was anxious to see as much of them as possible.
The studio was perched high up in the Passage des Panoramas. There I found M. Julien, a typical meridional—the large stomach, the dark eyes, crafty and watchful; the seductively mendacious manner, the sensual mind. We made friends at once—he consciously making use of me, I unconsciously making use of him. To him my forty francs, a month's subscription, were a godsend, nor were my invitations to dinner and to the theatre to be disdained. I was curious, odd, quaint. To be sure, it was a little tiresome to have to put up with a talkative person, whose knowledge of the French language had been acquired in three months, but the dinners were good. No doubt Julien reasoned so; I did not reason at all. I felt this crafty, clever man of the world was necessary to me. I had never met such a man before, and all my curiosity was awake. He spoke of art and literature, of the world and the flesh; he told me of the books he had read, he narrated thrilling incidents in his own life; and the moral reflections with which he sprinkled his conversation I thought very striking. Like every young man of twenty, I was on the look-out for something to set up that would do duty for an ideal. The world was to me, at this time, what a toy-shop had been fifteen years before: everything was spick and span, and every illusion was set out straight and smart in new paint and gilding. But Julien kept me at a distance, and the rare occasions when he favoured me with his society only served to prepare my mind for the friendship which awaited me, and which was destined to absorb some years of my life.
In the studio there were some eighteen or twenty young men, and among these there were some four or five from whom I could learn; there were also some eight or nine young English girls. We sat round in a circle and drew from the model. And this reversal of all the world's opinions and prejudices was to me singularly delightful; I loved the sense of unreality that the exceptional nature of our life in this studio conveyed. Besides, the women themselves were young and interesting, and were, therefore, one of the charms of the place, giving, as they did, that sense of sex which is so subtle a mental pleasure, and which is, in its outward aspect, so interesting to the eye—the gowns, the hair lifted, showing the neck; the earrings, the sleeves open at the elbow. Though all this was very dear to me I did not fall in love: but he who escapes a woman's dominion generally comes under the sway of some friend who ever exerts a strange attractiveness, and fosters a sort of dependency that is not healthful or valid: and although I look back with undiminished delight on the friendship I contracted about this time—a friendship which permeated and added to my life—I am nevertheless forced to recognise that, however suitable it may have been in my special case, in the majority of instances it would have proved but a shipwrecking reef, on which a young man's life would have gone to pieces. What saved me was the intensity of my passion for Art, and a moral revolt against any action that I thought could or would definitely compromise me in that direction. I was willing to stray a little from my path, but never further than a single step, which I could retrace when I pleased. One day I raised my eyes, and saw there was a new-comer in the studio; and, to my surprise, for he was fashionably dressed, and my experience had not led me to believe in the marriage of genius and well-cut clothes, he was painting very well indeed. His shoulders were beautiful and broad; a long neck, a tiny head, a narrow, thin face, and large eyes, full of intelligence and fascination. And although he could not have been working more than an hour, he had already sketched in his figure, with all the surroundings—screens, lamps, stoves, etc. I was deeply interested. I asked the young lady next me if she knew who he was. She could give me no information. But at four o'clock there was a general exodus from the studio, and we adjourned to a neighbouring café to drink beer. The way led through a narrow passage, and as we stooped under an archway, the young man (Marshall was his name) spoke to me in English. Yes, we had met before; we had exchanged a few words in So-and-So's studio—the great blonde man, whose Doré-like improvisations had awakened aspiration in me.
The usual reflections on the chances of life were of course made, and then followed the inevitable "Will you dine with me to-night?" Marshall thought the following day would suit him better, but I was very pressing. He offered to meet me at my hotel; or would I come with him to his rooms, and he would show me some pictures—some trifles he had brought up from the country? Nothing would please me better. We got into a cab. Then every moment revealed new qualities, new superiorities, in my new-found friend. Not only was he tall, strong, handsome, and beautifully dressed, infinitely better dressed than myself, but he could talk French like a native. It was only natural that he should, for he was born in Brussels and had lived there all his life, but the accident of birth rather stimulated than calmed my erubescent admiration. He spoke of, and he was clearly on familiar terms with, the fashionable restaurants and actresses; he stopped at a hairdresser's to have his hair curled. All this was very exciting, and a little bewildering. I was on the tiptoe of expectation to see his apartments; and, not to be utterly outdone, I alluded to my valet.
His apartments were not so grand as I expected; but when he explained that he had just spent ten thousand pounds in two years, and was now living on six or seven hundred francs a month, which his mother would allow him until he had painted and had sold a certain series of pictures, which he contemplated beginning at once, my admiration increased to wonder, and I examined with awe the great fireplace which had been constructed at his orders, and admired the iron pot which hung by a chain above an artificial bivouac fire. This detail will suggest the rest of the studio—the Turkey carpet, the brass harem lamps, the Japanese screen, the pieces of drapery, the oak chairs covered with red Utrecht velvet, the oak wardrobe that had been picked up somewhere,—a ridiculous bargain, and the inevitable bed with spiral columns. There were vases filled with foreign grasses, and palms stood in the corners of the rooms. Marshall pulled out a few pictures; but he paid very little heed to my compliments; and sitting down at the piano, with a great deal of splashing and dashing about the keys, he rattled off a waltz.
"What waltz is that?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing; something I composed the other evening. I had a fit of the blues, and didn't go out. What do you think of it?"
"I think it beautiful; did you really compose that the other evening?"
At this moment a knock was heard at the door, and an English girl entered. Marshall introduced me. With looks that see nothing, and words that mean nothing, an amorous woman receives the man she finds with her sweetheart. But it subsequently transpired that Alice had an appointment, that she was dining out. She would, however, call in the morning and give him a sitting for the portrait he was painting of her.
I had hitherto worked very regularly and attentively at the studio, but now Marshall's society was an attraction I could not resist. For the sake of his talent, which I religiously believed in, I regretted he was so idle; but his dissipation was winning, and his delight was thorough, and his gay, dashing manner made me feel happy, and his experience opened to me new avenues for enjoyment and knowledge of life. On my arrival in Paris I had visited, in the company of my taciturn valet, the Mabille and the Valentino, and I had dined at the Maison d'Or by myself; but now I was taken to strange students' cafés, where dinners were paid for in pictures; to a mysterious place, where a table d'hôte was held under a tent in a back garden; and afterwards we went in great crowds to Bullier, the Château Rouge, or the Elysée Montmartre. The clangour of the band, the unreal greenness of the foliage, the thronging of the dancers, and the chattering of women—we only knew their Christian names. And then the returning in open carriages rolling through the white dust beneath the immense heavy dome of the summer night, when the dusky darkness of the street is chequered by a passing glimpse of light skirt or flying feather, and the moon looms like a magic lantern out of the sky.
Now we seemed to live in fiacres and restaurants, and the afternoons were filled with febrile impressions. Marshall had a friend in this street, and another in that. It was only necessary for him to cry "Stop" to the coachman, and to run up two or three flights of stairs....
"Madame ——, est-elle chez elle?"
"Oui, Monsieur; si Monsieur veut se donner la peine d'entrer." And we were shown into a handsomely-furnished apartment. A lady would enter hurriedly, and an animated discussion was begun. I did not know French sufficiently well to follow the conversation, but I remember it always commenced mon cher ami, and was plentifully sprinkled with the phrase vous avez tort. The ladies themselves had only just returned from Constantinople or Japan, and they were generally involved in mysterious lawsuits, or were busily engaged in prosecuting claims for several millions of francs against different foreign governments.
And just as I had watched the chorus girls and mummers, three years ago, at the Globe Theatre, now, excited by a nervous curiosity, I watched this world of Parisian adventurers and lights-o'-love. And this craving for observation of manners, this instinct for the rapid notation of gestures and words that epitomise a state of feeling, of attitudes that mirror forth the soul, declared itself a main passion; and it grew and strengthened, to the detriment of the other Art still so dear to me. With the patience of a cat before a mouse-hole, I watched and listened, picking one characteristic phrase out of hours of vain chatter, interested and amused by an angry or loving glance. Like the midges that fret the surface of a shadowy stream, these men and women seemed to me; and though I laughed, danced, and made merry with them, I was not of them. But with Marshall it was different: they were my amusement, they were his necessary pleasure. And I knew of this distinction that made twain our lives; and I reflected deeply upon it. Why could I not live without an ever-present and acute consciousness of life? Why could I not love, forgetful of the harsh ticking of the clock in the perfumed silence of the chamber?
And so my friend became to me a study, a subject for dissection. The general attitude of his mind and its various turns, all the apparent contradictions, and how they could be explained, classified, and reduced to one primary law, were to me a constant source of thought. Our confidences knew no reserve. I say our confidences, because to obtain confidences it is often necessary to confide. All we saw, heard, read or felt was the subject of mutual confidences: the transitory emotion that a flush of colour and a bit of perspective awakens, the blue tints that the summer sunset lends to a white dress, or the eternal verities, death and love. But, although I tested every fibre of thought and analysed every motive, I was very sincere in my friendship and very loyal in my admiration. Nor did my admiration wane when I discovered that Marshall was shallow in his appreciations, superficial in his judgments, that his talents did not pierce below the surface; il avait si grand air, there was fascination in his very bearing, in his large, soft, colourful eyes, and a go and dash in his dissipations that carried you away.
To any one observing us at this time it would have seemed that I was but a hanger-on, and a feeble imitator of Marshall. I took him to my tailor's, and he advised me on the cut of my coats; he showed me how to arrange my rooms, and I strove to copy his manner of speech and his general bearing; and yet I knew very well indeed that mine was a rarer and more original nature. I was willing to learn, that was all. There was much that Marshall could teach me, and I used him without shame, without stint. I used him as I have used all those with whom I have been brought into close contact. Search my memory as I will, I cannot recall a case of man or woman who ever occupied any considerable part of my thoughts without contributing largely towards my moral or physical welfare. In other words, and in very colloquial language, I never had useless friends hanging about me. From this crude statement of a signal fact, the thoughtless reader will at once judge me rapacious, egoistical, false, fawning, mendacious. Well, I may be all this and more, but not because all who have known me have rendered me eminent services. I can say that no one ever formed relationships in life with less design than myself. Never have I given a thought to the advantage that might accrue from being on terms of friendship with this man and avoiding that one. "Then how do you explain," cries the angry reader, "that you have never had a friend by whom you did not profit? You must have had very few friends." On the contrary, I have had many friends, and of all sorts and kinds—men and women: and, I repeat, none took part in my life who did not contribute something towards my well-being. It must, of course, be understood that I make no distinction between mental and material help; and in my case the one has at all times been adjuvant to the other. "Pooh, pooh!" again exclaims the reader; "I for one will not believe that chance has only sent across your way the people who were required to assist you." Chance! dear reader, is there such a thing as chance? Do you believe in chance? Do you attach any precise meaning to the word? Do you employ it at haphazard, allowing it to mean what it may? Chance! What a field for psychical investigation is at once opened up; how we may tear to shreds our past lives in search of—what? Of the Chance that made us. I think, reader, I can throw some light on the general question, by replying to your taunt: Chance, or the conditions of life under which we live, sent, of course, thousands of creatures across my way who were powerless to benefit me; but then an instinct of which I knew nothing, of which I was not even conscious, withdrew me from them, and I was attracted to others. Have you not seen a horse suddenly leave a corner of a field to seek pasturage further away?
Never could I interest myself in a book if it were not the exact diet my mind required at the time, or in the very immediate future. The mind asked, received, and digested. So much was assimilated, so much expelled; then, after a season, similar demands were made, the same processes were repeated out of sight, below consciousness, as is the case in a well-ordered stomach. Shelley, who fired my youth with passion, and purified and upbore it for so long, is now to me as nothing: not a dead or faded thing, but a thing out of which I personally have drawn all the sustenance I can draw from him; and, therefore, it (that part which I did not absorb) concerns me no more. And the same with Gautier. Mdlle. de Maupin, that godhead of flowing line, that desire not "of the moth for the star," but for such perfection of arm and thigh as leaves passion breathless and fain of tears, is now, if I take up the book and read, weary and ragged as a spider's web, that has hung the winter through in the dusty, forgotten corner of a forgotten room. My old rapture and my youth's delight I can regain only when I think of that part of Gautier which is now incarnate in me.
As I picked up books, so I picked up my friends. I read friends and books with the same passion, with the same avidity; and as I discarded my books when I had assimilated as much of them as my system required, so I discarded my friends when they ceased to be of use to me. I employ the word "use" in its fullest, not in its limited and twenty-shilling sense. This parallel of the intellect to the blind unconsciousness of the lower organs will strike some as a violation of man's best beliefs, and as saying very little for the particular intellect that can be so reduced. But I am not sure these people are right. I am inclined to think that as you ascend the scale of thought to the great minds, these unaccountable impulses, mysterious resolutions, sudden, but certain knowings, falling whence or how it is impossible to say, but falling somehow into the brain, instead of growing rarer, become more and more frequent; indeed, I think that if the really great man were to confess to the working of his mind, we should see him constantly besieged by inspirations...inspirations! Ah! how human thought only turns in a circle, and how, when we think we are on the verge of a new thought, we slip into the enunciation of some time-worn truth. But I say again, let general principles be waived; it will suffice for the interest of these pages if it be understood that brain instincts have always been, and still are, the initial and the determining powers of my being.
But the studio, where I had been working for the last three or four months so diligently, became wearisome to me, and for two reasons. First, because it deprived me of many hours of Marshall's company. Secondly—and the second reason was the graver—because I was beginning to regard the delineation of a nymph, or youth bathing, etc., as a very narrow channel to carry off the strong, full tide of a man's thought. For now thoughts of love and death, and the hopelessness of life, were in active fermentation within me and sought for utterance with a strange persistency of appeal. I yearned merely to give direct expression to my pain. Life was then in its springtide; every thought was new to me, and it would have seemed a pity to disguise even the simplest emotion in any garment when it was so beautiful in its Eden-like nakedness. The creatures whom I met in the ways and byeways of Parisian life, whose gestures and attitudes I devoured with my eyes, and whose souls I hungered to know, awoke in me a tense, irresponsible curiosity, but that was all,—I despised, I hated them, thought them contemptible, and to select them as subjects of artistic treatment, could not then, might never, have occurred to me, had the suggestion to do so not come direct to me from the outside.
At the time of which I am writing I lived in an old-fashioned hotel on the Boulevard, which an enterprising Belgian had lately bought and was endeavouring to modernise; an old-fashioned hotel, that still clung to its ancient character in the presence of half a dozen old people, who, for antediluvian reasons, continue to dine on certain well-specified days at the table d'hôte. Fifteen years have passed away, and these old people, no doubt, have joined their ancestors; but I can see them still sitting in that salle à manger, the buffets en vieux chéne, the opulent candelabra en style d'empire, the waiter lighting the gas in the pale Parisian evening. That white-haired man, that tall, thin, hatchet-faced American, has dined at this table d'hôte for the last thirty years—he is talkative, vain, foolish, and authoritative. The clean, neatly-dressed old gentleman who sits by him, looking so much like a French gentleman, has spent a great part of his life in Spain. With that piece of news, and its subsequent developments, your acquaintance with him begins and ends; the eyes, the fan, the mantilla, how it began, how it was broken off, and how it began again. Opposite sits another French gentleman, with beard and bristly hair. He spent twenty years of his life in India, and he talks of his son who has been out there for the last ten, and who has just returned home. There is the Italian comtesse of sixty summers, who dresses like a girl of sixteen and smokes a cigar after dinner,—if there are not too many strangers in the room. A stranger she calls any one whom she has not seen at least once before. The little fat, neckless man, with the great bald head, fringed below the ears with hair, is M. Duval. He is a dramatic author, the author of a hundred and sixty plays. He does not intrude himself on your notice, but when you speak to him on literary matters he fixes a pair of tiny, sloe-like eyes on you, and talks affably of his collaborateurs.
I was soon deeply interested in M. Duval, and I invited him to come to the café after dinner. I paid for his coffee and liqueurs, I offered him a choice cigar. He did not smoke; I did. It was, of course, inevitable that I should find out that he had not had a play produced for the last twenty years, but then the aureole of the hundred and sixty was about his poor bald head. I thought of the chances of life, he alluded to the war; and so this unpleasantness was passed over, and we entered on more genial subjects of conversation. He had written plays with everybody; his list of collaborateurs was longer than any list of lady patronesses for an English county ball; there was no literary kitchen in which he had not helped to dish up. I was at once amazed and delighted. Had M. Duval written his hundred and sixty plays in the seclusion of his own rooms, I should have been less surprised; it was the mystery of the séances of collaboration, the rendezvous, the discussion, the illustrious company, that overwhelmed me in a rapture of wonder and respectful admiration. Then came the anecdotes. They were of all sorts. Here are a few specimens: He, Duval, had written a one-act piece with Dumas père; it had been refused at the Français, and then it had been about, here, there, and everywhere; finally the Variétés had asked for some alterations, and c'était une affaire entendue. "I made the alterations one afternoon, and wrote to Dumas, and what do you think,—by return of post I had a letter from him saying he could not consent to the production of a one-act piece, signed by him, at the Variétés, because his son was then giving a five-act piece at the Gymnase." Then came a string of indecent witticisms by Suzanne Lagier and Dejazet. They were as old as the world, but they were new to me, and I was amused and astonished. These bon-mots were followed by an account of how Gautier wrote his Sunday feuilleton, and how he and Balzac had once nearly come to blows. They had agreed to collaborate. Balzac was to contribute the scenario, Gautier the dialogue. One morning Balzac came with the scenario of the first act. "Here it is, Gautier! I suppose you can let me have it back finished by to-morrow afternoon?" And the old gentleman would chirp along in this fashion till midnight. I would then accompany him to his rooms in the Quartier Montmartre—rooms high up on the fifth floor—where, between two pictures, supposed to be by Angelica Kauffmann, M. Duval had written unactable plays for the last twenty years, and where he would continue to write unactable plays until God called him to a world, perhaps, of eternal cantatas, but where, by all accounts, l'exposition de la pièce selon la formule de M. Scribe is still unknown.
How I used to enjoy these conversations! I remember how I used to stand on the pavement after having bid the old gentleman good-night, regretting I had not asked for some further explanation regarding le mouvement Romantique, or la façon de M. Scribe de ménager la situation.
Why not write a comedy? So the thought came. I had never written anything save a few ill-spelt letters; but no matter. To find a plot was the first thing. Take Marshall for hero and Alice for heroine, surround them with the old gentlemen who dined at the table d'hôte, flavour with the Italian countess who smoked cigars when there were not too many strangers present. After three weeks of industrious stirring, the ingredients did begin to simmer into something resembling a plot. Put it upon paper. Ah! there was my difficulty. I remembered suddenly that I had read "Cain," "Manfred," "The Cenci," as poems, without ever thinking of how the dialogue looked upon paper; besides, they were in blank verse. I hadn't a notion how prose dialogue would look upon paper. Shakespeare I had never opened; no instinctive want had urged me to read him. He had remained, therefore, unread, unlooked at. Should I buy a copy? No; the name repelled me—as all popular names repelled me. In preference I went to the Gymnase, and listened attentively to a comedy by M. Dumas fils. But strain my imagination as I would, I could not see the spoken words in their written form. Oh, for a look at the prompter's copy, the corner of which I could see when I leaned forward! At last I discovered in Galignani's library a copy of Leigh Hunt's edition of the old dramatists, and after a month's study of Congreve, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar, I completed a comedy in three acts, which I entitled "Worldliness." It was, of course, very bad; but, if my memory serves me well, I do not think it was nearly so bad as might be imagined.
No sooner was the last scene written than I started at once for London, confident I should find no difficulty in getting my play produced.
Is it necessary to say that I did not find a manager to produce my play? A printer was more obtainable, and the correction of proofs amused me for a while. I wrote another play; and when the hieing after theatrical managers began to lose its attractiveness my thoughts reverted to France, which always haunted me; and which now possessed me as if with the sweet and magnetic influence of home.
How important my absence from Paris seemed to me; and how Paris rushed into my eyes!—Paris—public ball-rooms, cafés, the models in the studio and the young girls painting, and Marshall, Alice and Julien. Marshall!—my thoughts pointed at him through the intervening streets and the endless procession of people coming and going.
"M. Marshall, is he at home?" "M. Marshall left here some months ago." "Do you know his address?" "I'll ask my husband." "Do you know M. Marshall's address?" "Yes, he's gone to live in the Rue de Douai." "What number?" "I think it is fifty—four." "Thanks." "Coachman, wake up; drive me to the Rue de Douai."
But Marshall was not to be found at the Rue de Douai; and he had left no address. There was nothing for it but to go to the studio; I should be able to obtain news of him there—perhaps find him. But when I pulled aside the curtain, the accustomed piece of slim nakedness did not greet my eyes, only the blue apron of an old woman enveloped in a cloud of dust. "The gentlemen are not here to-day, the studio is closed, I am sweeping up." "Oh, and where is M. Julien?" "I cannot say, sir: perhaps at the café, or perhaps he is gone to the country." This was not very encouraging, and now, my enthusiasm thoroughly damped, I strolled along le Passage, looking at the fans, the bangles and the litter of cheap trinkets that each window was filled with. On the left at the corner of the Boulevard was our café. As I came forward the waiter moved one of the tin tables, and then I saw the fat Provençal. But just as if he had seen me yesterday he said, "Tiens! c'est vous; une demi-tasse? oui...garçon, une demi-tasse." Presently the conversation turned on Marshall; they had not seen much of him lately. "Il parait qu'il est plus amoureux que jamais," Julien replied sardonically.
I found my friend in large furnished apartments on the ground floor in the Rue Duphot. The walls were stretched with blue silk, there were large mirrors and great gilt cornices. Passing into the bedroom I found the young god wallowing in the finest of fine linen—in a great Louis XV. bed, and there were cupids above him. "Holloa! what, you back again, George Moore? we thought we weren't going to see you again."
"It's nearly one o'clock; get up. What's the news?"
"To-day is the opening of the exhibition of the Impressionists. We'll have a bit of breakfast round the corner, at Durant's, and we'll go on there. I hear that Bedlam is nothing to it; there is a canvas there twenty feet square and in three tints: pale yellow for the sunlight, brown for the shadows, and all the rest is sky-blue. There is, I am told, a lady walking in the foreground with a ring-tailed monkey, and the tail is said to be three yards long."
We went to jeer a group of enthusiasts that willingly forfeit all delights of the world in the hope of realising a new æstheticism; we went insolent with patent leather shoes and bright kid gloves and armed with all the jargon of the school. "Cette jambe ne porte pas"; "la nature ne se fait pas comme ça"; "on dessine par les masses; combien de têtes?" "Sept et demi." "Si j'avais un morceau de craie je mettrais celle-là dans un; bocal c'est un ftus"; in a word, all that the journals of culture are pleased to term an artistic education. We indulged in boisterous laughter, exaggerated in the hope of giving as much pain as possible, and deep down in our souls we knew that we were lying—at least I did.
In the beginning of this century the tradition of French art—the tradition of Boucher, Fragonard, and Watteau—had been completely lost; having produced genius, their art died. Ingres is the sublime flower of the classic art which succeeded the art of the palace and the boudoir: further than Ingres it was impossible to go, and his art died. Then the Turners and Constables came to France, and they begot Troyon, and Troyon begot Millet, Courbet, Corot, and Rousseau, and these in turn begot Degas, Pissarro, Madame Morizot and Guillaumin. Degas is a pupil of Ingres, but he applies the marvellous acuteness of drawing he learned from his master to delineating the humblest aspects of modern life. Degas draws not by the masses, but by the character;—his subjects are shop-girls, ballet-girls, and washerwomen, but the qualities that endow them with immortality are precisely those which eternalise the virgins and saints of Leonardo da Vinci in the minds of men. You see the fat, vulgar woman in the long cloak trying on a hat in front of the pier-glass. So marvellously well are the lines of her face observed and rendered that you can tell exactly what her position in life is; you know what the furniture of her rooms is like; you know what she would say to you if she were to speak. She is as typical of the nineteenth century as Fragonard's ladies are of the Court of Louis XV. To the right you see a picture of two shop-girls with bonnets in their hands. So accurately are the habitual movements of the heads and the hands observed that you at once realise the years of bonnet-showing and servile words that these women have lived through. We have seen Degas do this before—it is a welcome repetition of a familiar note, but it is not until we turn to the set of nude figures that we find the great artist revealing any new phase of his talent. The first, in an attitude which suggests the kneeling Venus, washes her thighs in a tin bath. The second, a back view, full of the malformations of forty years, of children, of hard work, stands gripping her flanks with both hands. The naked woman has become impossible in modern art; it required Degas' genius to infuse new life into the worn-out theme. Cynicism was the great means of eloquence of the middle ages, and with cynicism Degas has rendered the nude again an artistic possibility. What Mr. Horsley or the British matron would say it is difficult to guess. Perhaps the hideousness depicted by M. Degas would frighten them more than the sensuality which they condemn in Sir Frederick Leighton. But, be this as it may, it is certain that the great, fat, short-legged creature, who in her humble and touching ugliness passes a chemise over her lumpy shoulders, is a triumph of art. Ugliness is trivial, the monstrous is terrible; Velasquez knew this when he painted his dwarfs.
Pissarro exhibited a group of girls gathering apples in a garden—sad greys and violets beautifully harmonised. The figures seem to move as in a dream: we are on the thither side of life, in a world of quiet colour and happy aspiration. Those apples will never fall from the branches, those baskets that the stooping girls are filling will never be filled: that garden is the garden of the peace that life has not for giving, but which the painter has set in an eternal dream of violet and grey.
Madame Morizot exhibited a series of delicate fancies. Here are two young girls, the sweet atmosphere folds them as with a veil, they are all summer, their dreams are limitless, their days are fading, and their ideas follow the flight of the white butterflies through the standard roses. Take note, too, of the stand of fans; what delicious fancies are there—willows, balconies, gardens, and terraces.
Then, contrasting with these distant tendernesses, there was the vigorous painting of Guillaumin. There life is rendered in violent and colourful brutality. The ladies fishing in the park, with the violet of the skies and the green of the trees descending upon them, is a chef d'uvre. Nature seems to be closing about them like a tomb; and that hillside,—sunset flooding the skies with yellow and the earth with blue shadow,—is another piece of painting that will one day find a place in one of the public galleries; and the same can be said of the portrait of the woman on a background of chintz flowers.
We could but utter coarse gibes and exclaim, "What could have induced him to paint such things? surely he must have seen that it was absurd. I wonder if the Impressionists are in earnest or if it is only une blague qu'on nous fait?" Then we stood and screamed at Monet, that most exquisite painter of blonde light. We stood before the "Turkeys," and seriously we wondered if "it was serious work,"—that chef d'uvre! the high grass that the turkeys are gobbling is flooded with sunlight so swift and intense that for a moment the illusion is complete. "Just look at the house! why, the turkeys couldn't walk in at the door. The perspective is all wrong." Then followed other remarks of an educational kind; and when we came to those piercingly personal visions of railway stations by the same painter,—those rapid sensations of steel and vapour,—our laughter knew no bounds. "I say, Marshall, just look at this wheel; he dipped his brush into cadmium yellow and whisked it round, that's all." Nor had we any more understanding for Renoir's rich sensualities of tone; nor did the mastery with which he achieves an absence of shadow appeal to us. You see colour and light in his pictures as you do in nature, and the child's criticism of a portrait—"Why is one side of the face black?" is answered. There was a half-length nude figure of a girl. How the round fresh breasts palpitate in the light! such a glorious glow of whiteness was attained never before. But we saw nothing except that the eyes were out of drawing.
For art was not for us then as it is now,—a mere emotion, right or wrong only in proportion to its intensity; we believed then in the grammar of art, perspective, anatomy, and la jambe qui porte; and we found all this in Julien's studio.
A year passed; a year of art and dissipation—one part art, two parts dissipation. We mounted and descended at pleasure the rounds of society's ladder. One evening we would spend at Constant's, Rue de la Gaieté, in the company of thieves and housebreakers; on the following evening we were dining with a duchess or a princess in the Champs Elysées. And we prided ourselves vastly on our versatility in using with equal facility the language of the "fence's" parlour, and that of the literary salon; on being able to appear as much at home in one as in the other. Delighted at our prowess, we often whispered, "The princess, I swear, would not believe her eyes if she saw us now;" and then in terrible slang we shouted a benediction on some "crib" that was going to be broken into that evening. And we thought there was something very thrilling in leaving the Rue de la Gaieté, returning home to dress, and presenting our spotless selves to the élite. And we succeeded very well, as indeed all young men do who waltz perfectly and avoid making love to the wrong woman.
But the excitement of climbing up and down the social ladder did not stave off our craving for art; and about this time there came a very decisive event in our lives. Marshall's last and really grande passion had come to a violent termination, and monetary difficulties forced him to turn his thoughts to painting on china as a means of livelihood. And as this young man always sought extremes he went to Belleville, donned a blouse, ate garlic with his food, and settled down to live there as a workman. I had been to see him, and had found him building a wall. And with sorrow I related his state that evening to Julien in the Café Veron. He said, after a pause:—
"Since you profess so much friendship for him, why do you not do him a service that cannot be forgotten since the result will always continue? why don't you save him from the life you describe? If you are not actually rich you are at least in easy circumstances, and can afford to give him a pension of three hundred francs a month. I will give him the use of my studio, which means, as you know, models and teaching; Marshall has plenty of talent, all he wants is a year's education: in a year or a year-and-a-half, certainly at the end of two years, he will begin to make money."
It is rather a shock to one who is at all concerned with his own genius to be asked to act as foster-mother to another's. Then three hundred francs meant a great deal, plainly it meant deprivation of those superfluities which are so intensely necessary to the delicate and refined. Julien watched me. This large crafty Southerner knew what was passing in me; he knew I was realising all the manifold inconveniences—the duty of looking after Marshall's wants for two years, and to make the pill easier he said:—
"If three hundred francs a month are too heavy for your purse, you might take an apartment and ask Marshall to come and live with you. You told me the other day you were tired of hotel life. It would be an advantage to you to live with him. You want to do something yourself; and the fact of his being obliged to attend the studio (for I should advise you to have a strict agreement with him regarding the work he is to do) would be an extra inducement to you to work hard."
I always decide at once, reflection does not help me, and a moment after I said, "Very well, Julien, I will."
And next day I went with the news to Belleville. Marshall protested he had no real talent. I protested he had. The agreement was drawn up and signed. He was to work in the studio eight hours a day; he was to draw until such time as M. Lefebvre set him to paint; and in proof of his industry he was to bring me at the end of each week a study from life and a composition, the subject of which the master gave at the beginning of each week, and in return I was to take an apartment near the studio, give him an abode, food, blanchissage, etc. Once the matter was decided, Marshall manifested prodigious energy, and three days after he told me he had found an apartment in Le Passage des Panoramas which would suit us perfectly. The plunge had to be taken. I paid my hotel bill, and sent my taciturn valet to beef, beer and a wife.
It was unpleasant to have a window opening not to the sky, but to an unclean prospect of glass roofing; nor was it agreeable to get up at seven in the morning; and ten hours of work daily are trying to the resolution even of the best intentioned. But we had sworn to forego all pleasures for the sake of art—table d'hôtes in the Rue Maubeuge, French and foreign duchesses in the Champs Elysées, thieves in the Rue de la Gaieté.
I was entering therefore on a duel with Marshall for supremacy in an art for which, as has already been said, I possessed no qualifications. It will readily be understood how a mind like mine, so intensely alive to all impulses, and so unsupported by any moral convictions, would suffer in so keen a contest waged under such unequal and cruel conditions. It was in truth a year of great passion and great despair. Defeat is bitter when it comes swiftly and conclusively, but when defeat falls by inches like the pendulum in the pit, the agony is a little beyond verbal expression. I remember the first day of my martyrdom. The clocks were striking eight; we chose our places, got into position. After the first hour, I compared my drawing with Marshall's. He had, it is true, caught the movement of the figure better than I, but the character and the quality of his work was miserable. That of mine was not. I have said I possessed no artistic facility, but I did not say faculty; my drawing was never common; it was individual in feeling, it was refined. I possessed all the rarer qualities, but not that primary power without which all is valueless;—I mean the talent of the boy who can knock off a clever caricature of his school-master or make a lifelike sketch of his favourite horse on the barn door with a piece of chalk.
The following week Marshall made a great deal of progress; I thought the model did not suit me, and hoped for better luck next time. That time never came, and at the end of the first month I was left toiling hopelessly in the distance. Marshall's mind, though shallow, was bright, and he understood with strange ease all that was told him, and was able to put into immediate practice the methods of work inculcated by the professors. In fact, he showed himself singularly capable of education; little could be drawn out, but a great deal could be put in (using the word in its modern, not in its original sense). He showed himself intensely anxious to learn and to accept all that was said: the ideas and feelings of others ran into him like water into a bottle whose neck is suddenly stooped below the surface of the stream. He was an ideal pupil. It was Marshall here, it was Marshall there, and soon the studio was little but an agitation in praise of him, and his work, and anxious speculation arose as to the medals he would obtain. I continued the struggle for nine months. I was in the studio at eight in the morning, I measured my drawing, I plumbed it throughout, I sketched in, having regard to la jambe qui porte, I modelled par les masses. During breakfast I considered how I should work during the afternoon, at night I lay awake thinking of what I might do to obtain a better result. But my efforts availed me nothing, it was like one who, falling, stretches his arms for help and grasps the yielding air. How terrible are the languors and yearnings of impotence! how wearing! what an aching void they leave in the heart! And all this I suffered until the burden of unachieved desire grew intolerable.
I laid down my charcoal and said, "I will never draw or paint again." That vow I have kept.
Surrender brought relief, but my life seemed at an end. I looked upon a blank space of years desolate as a grey and sailless sea. "What shall I do?" I asked myself, and my heart was weary and hopeless. Literature? my heart did not answer the question at once. I was too broken and overcome by the shock of failure; failure precise and stern, admitting of no equivocation. I strove to read: but it was impossible to sit at home almost within earshot of the studio, and with all the memories of defeat still ringing their knells in my heart. Marshall's success clamoured loudly from without; every day, almost every hour of the day, I heard of the medals which he would carry off, of what Lefebvre thought of his drawing this week, of Boulanger's opinion of his talent. I do not wish to excuse my conduct, but I cannot help saying that Marshall showed me neither consideration nor pity, he did not even seem to understand that I was suffering, that my nerves had been terribly shaken, and he flaunted his superiority relentlessly in my face—his good looks, his talents, his popularity. I did not know then how little these studio successes really meant.
Vanity? no, it was not his vanity that maddened me; to me vanity is rarely displeasing, sometimes it is singularly attractive; but by a certain insistence and aggressiveness in the details of life he allowed me to feel that I was only a means for the moment, a serviceable thing enough, but one that would be very soon discarded and passed over. This was intolerable. I packed up my portmanteau and left, after having kept my promise for only ten months. By so doing I involved my friend in grave and cruel difficulties; by this action I imperilled his future prospects. It was a dastardly action, but his presence had grown unbearable; yes, unbearable in the fullest acceptation of the word, and in ridding myself of him I felt as if a world of misery were being lifted from me.