"Cras te victurum, cras dicis Postume semper Dic mihi cras istud, Postume quando venit? Quam longe cras istud, ubi est? aut unde petendum? Cras istud quanti dic mihi, possit emi? Cras vives? hodie jam vivere, Postume, serum est Ille sapit, quisquis Postume, vixit heri."
MART. v. lviii.
I crushed the letter spasmodically in my hand as I walked mechanically up and down the length of the dining-room, a rage of anger filling my brain and the blood thundering in my ears.
"Rejected! and that not for the first time. Another year and a half's work flung away—simply flung away, and I am no nearer recognition than ever. Incredible it seems that they won't accept that."
I stopped under the gasalier and glanced again through the letter I had just received.
"DEAR SIR,—With reference to your last MS., we regret to say we cannot undertake its publication, owing to the open way in which you express your unusual religious views and your contempt for existing institutions.
"At the same time, our reader expresses his admiration for your style, and his regret that your unmistakably brilliant genius should be directed towards unsatisfactory subjects.—We are," etc., etc.
The blood flowed hotly over my face, and my teeth closed hard upon my lip.
Always the same thing! rejection from every quarter.
The last clause in the letter, which might have brought some momentary gratification to a man less certain, less absolutely sure of his own powers than I was, could bring none to me.
It only served to make sharper the edge of my keen disappointment. Brilliant genius! I read the words with the shadow of a satirical smile.
What need to tell me that I possessed a power that inflamed every vein, that heated all the blood in my system, that filled, till they seemed buoyant, every cell of my brain? As much need as to tell the expectant mother she has a life within her own.
I was tired of praise, tired of being called gifted, tired of hearing reiterated by others that which I knew so well myself.
We are invariably little grateful for anything freely and constantly offered to us, and I cared now simply nothing for compliments, praise, or felicitation.
These had been given to me from my childhood upwards, and yet here, at six and twenty, I was still unknown, unrecognized, obscure, and not a single line of my writing had met the public eye.
I craved and thirsted after success far more than a fever-stricken man in the desert can crave after water, for the longings and desires of the body are finite, and when a fixed pitch in them has been surpassed, death grants us a merciful cessation of all desire, but the longings of the mind are infinite, absolutely without limit and without period; and where a physical desire, ungratified, must eventually destroy itself as it wears away the matter that has given it birth, a mental desire does not wane with the flesh it wastes, but remains ravening to the last, and reigns supreme over the death agony, up to the final moment of actual dissolution.
I had done what I could to attain my own wishes; I was not one of those idle, clever fellows who imagine talent independent of work, and who are too lazy to throw into words and commit to paper the brilliant but vague, unformed inspirations that visit them between the circling rings of smoke from their cigar.
I had no thought, no expectation, no wish even to be offered that celebrated sweet condition of the palm without the dust of the struggle in the arena.
But for me it had been dust, dust, and nothing but dust, and there were times when it seemed to blind, choke, overpower me.
My capacity for work was unlimited; labour was comparatively no labour to me. The mechanical work of embodying an idea in a manuscript was as nothing to me.
To write came to me as naturally as to speak.
Therefore work had not been wanting. Manuscript after manuscript had been completed, submitted to various publishers, and returned with thanks, with commendation, and regrets that I had not written something totally different.
And there they all stood in a pile, an irritating, distracting pile, a monument of unrequited labour, an unrealised capital, a silent testimony to the exceeding narrowness of the limits of British indulgence to talent.
My persistent ill-luck was all the more aggravating as I was not handicapped by poverty, as so many authors are. The question of terms had not been one to present a difficulty.
I had no need to ask a publisher to accept my MSS. at his own financial risk.
I was not the traditional struggling young writer of the lady novelist who treats poverty and genius as convertible terms, making up with the former quality whatever her hero lacks of the other.
No; although the combination may be very romantic, I confess, notwithstanding that I was an unrecognised author, I was not living in a garret, nor writing my MSS. by the proverbially flaring candle, nor going without my dinner in order to pay for foolscap.
But my feelings were as bitter, and the sense of disappointment as sharp, as any attic-dwelling genius' could have been, even if we suppose the lady novelist to have thrown in a conventionally consumptive wife.
In fact they were stronger because more absolute, more concentrated in themselves.
There were no pangs of hunger to distract my attention, no traditionally patient wife to look sadly at me, no responsibilities for others lying upon me and my rejected MSS.
Simply all my own desires for myself centred in them.
There was one side issue which at times seemed to include everything, to be everything in itself, but the moments when this forced itself in overwhelming prominence upon my brain were few.
The wish that I had to publish my works could not be traced to distinct motives; it did not spring from a desire to gain money, nor yet celebrity.
I was not particularly keen on fame while I lived, and I certainly had no sentimental ideas of my name surviving me.
I cared little in fact whether my name ever reached the public, provided only my works were known and read. The wish to give them out was not a thing of motive, nor thought, nor will. It was the fierce, instinctive impulse that accompanies all creative power, the tremendous impetus towards production that is an integral part of all conceptive capacity. The same driving necessity that compels a writer in the middle of the night to rise and take his pen and commit to paper some thought or thoughts that are racing about in his brain, trying to find an outlet, that compels him to produce them as far as he is able, this same urgent impulse forces him to complete his manuscript, and when completed, to strain his utmost to give it actual life in the thoughts and brains of the public.
The pressing want to produce is as wholly natural, as innate, as independent of the individual's volition as the conceptive impulse itself.
And it was thus with me.
I could not be said to wish to publish from this or that motive, because of this, that, or the other. I was simply dominated by the instinct to do so, which grew more and more urgent as it found no gratification.
It had risen now rampant at this last rebuff, and it seemed to rage about in my brain like a Bengal tiger in a net.
I walked up and down the long dining-room, backwards and forwards, from the grate where the fire blazed to the glass-panelled sideboard at the other end, where its reflection sparkled, yawning every now and then from sheer nervous irritation. "Cursed, infernal nuisance!"
I had just muttered this when the door was pushed open, but the enterer, on hearing my exclamation, promptly drew it to again, and would have shut it, but that I caught the handle.
It was the butler.
"What do you want, Simmonds," I said.
"Nothing, sir. I was told to enquire if you was in."
"Well, I am."
"Yes, sir. Please, Mr. Hilton said was you ready for dinner?"
"Certainly; and, Simmonds, where's Nous?"
"Tied up, sir, in the stable."
"Tied up! Again! I gave orders he was never to be tied up!"
"Yes, sir; but please, sir, he was that dirty and muddy to go scrimmaging over the house, and it's the ruination of the furniture—"
"The dog is not to be tied up," I interrupted.
"Have him let loose at once, and in future remember, if he comes in wet and muddy, and chooses to lie on the drawing-room couch, let him."
The man disappeared, and I walked over to the hearth.
A minute or two later there was a scratching and whining outside the door, and I went to it and let Nous in.
He bounded over me, licked my face furiously, and scratched enthusiastically at my shirt front.
He was wet, and his fur laden with mud, as the butler had said, and my clothes suffered from his demonstrativeness, but his feelings were of more import than a dress-coat, and I would not have hurt them by checking his greeting.
"Dear old boy," I said, taking the collar off with which he had been chained up,—and just then my father came into the room.
"Ah, got back, Victor?"
"Yes," I said, looking up.
"They've rejected your last, eh?" he said at once.
"Yes. Why? Have they sent it? How did you know it was rejected?"
"By your face, my dear boy," answered my father.
"It's odd that these failures knock you up still. You must be accustomed to them now!"
That was cutting, and it cut.
"One does not easily get accustomed to anything that is against natural law," I said, coldly.
"Oh! and you mean that it is against the natural law of things that so brilliant a genius as yourself should be perpetually rejected?"
I nodded. "Just so," I answered.
"It is a pity they will not take your estimation of your own powers!"
"There is very little difference in the estimation," I said. "The difference is in the courage. I have the courage to write things they have not the courage to print. There is no question as to my powers. No one, except yourself, perhaps, has ever denied those."
"Well, why the dickens don't you write something that they will accept? Why not make up something quite conventional?"
I looked across the hearth at him with a half amused, half ironical smile, and said nothing. It is so hard to explain to an outsider the involuntariness of all real talent.
This great leading characteristic is invariably but imperfectly grasped by others.
They cannot realise it.
I was too flat in spirits and too tired in body to feel inclined to enter then into an abstruse discussion with him, and I would have let the matter slide.
His last remark to the ear of anyone who has genuine talent, whether artist or author or poet, or what you please, sounds like a sacrilegious blasphemy.
"Make up something!"
Great heavens! What an expression!
Is a writer, then, a cook, preparing a new dish? Is he a nursery maid soothing a refractory child? Is he a woman's dressmaker taking her mistress's orders?
Dinner was served just then, and we took our seats at the table in silence.
I thought I should have no need to answer.
However, when the butler had deposited the soup and shut the door after him, my father returned to the attack.
"Yes, Victor," he said in a friendly way, as if a happy solution of my difficulties had just occurred to him, "why don't you make up something quite orthodox and keep your own opinions out of it?"
I sighed and took half a glass of claret to fortify me. I saw I was in for propounding my views upon genius, and I did not feel up to it.
I could have avoided the argument, doubtless, by seeming to assent, by promising to "make up something," and saved myself a number of words.
But there is a strong impulse in me to revolt against allowing myself to seem to accept a false statement or opinion that I do not really hold.
And I pulled myself together with an effort.
"I don't think you understand in the least my view of a writer and his writings," I said. "It is not a voluntary thing, led up to by pre-determination. There can be no question of making up. I never try to write nor to think. I do not invoke my own ideas. They spring into being of themselves, quite unsought. And, in a measure, they are uncontrollable."
My father was staring at me in silence.
"Eh?" he said merely as I paused.
"What I mean is, that a man, as a man, endowed with will, control, wishes, and so on, ceases to exist, you may say, while he is writing. He becomes then the tool of that peculiar, mysterious power that is moving in his brain. He writes as a clerk writes from dictation. He is the clerk pro tem of the impulse stirring his being, which dictates to him what it pleases. There is no consideration in his mind—'I will write this or that' or 'I won't write the other.' He simply feels he must write a particular thing; it crowds off his pen before he can stop it. He does not know where, whence, how, or why the idea came to him. But it is there, clamouring to be written, and he writes it because he must. The expression, very often, of a thought is as uncontrollable as a physical spasm, and the man who writes it cannot always be held responsible for it."
"My dear Victor!"
"No, really," I said, laughing, "I am simply stating ordinary facts. I believe any writer, any acknowledged writer of talent, will bear me out, more or less. It is the old idea of inspiration—one cannot express it better—a breathing into. It is exactly that. The man of genius, in any form, feels at times-that is to say, when his fit is on, that there is a breathing into his brain. It becomes full of images he is unfamiliar with, crowded with thoughts that are quite foreign perhaps to the man himself, to his life, to his habits, and invested with a peculiar knowledge of things he has had no personal experience of. Then as suddenly as it came the fit goes; it is over, and he can write no more. Should he be so foolish as to try, his sentences become mere linked chains of nouns and verbs; his inspiration has gone. He cannot invoke it, cannot restrain it, cannot retain it, cannot recall it, and only very slightly control it."
"Ha!" said my father reflectively, going on with his soup, "deuced inconvenient."
"Inconvenient it may be," I said quietly. "All the same, that which is written under inspiration is the only stuff worth reading. The Greeks expressed the peculiar feeling that a man has when his inspiration comes upon him by the phrase, entheos eimi, and we can hardly find a better one, only unfortunately we don't believe in gods. Otherwise, entheos eimi contains everything, for the man who was only common clay before his inspiration, and will be common clay when it departs, feels, for the time, as if a god had descended, and was within him. And when, afterwards, he looks at what he has written he feels it is something not wholly his own, but that it is the work of some powerful influence he can hardly comprehend, and cannot certainly rule."
"But really I don't see that this has much relation to what I said about your writing something to please the British public!"
"It is the whole gist of the matter," I said. "I am proving to you that I am, to a certain extent, helpless in what I write; that it is impossible for me to think of publics, British or otherwise, of publishers or critics, when I am writing. I have no time to consider them, no space in my brain for them, no memory that such things, or anything outside of what I am describing, exists even. My only thought is to drive along my pen fast enough, in obedience to the strenuous impulse urging me. I do not 'make up,' as your phrase is, anything. I simply put down on paper, as fast as I can, the thoughts that are pouring into my brain, like the waves of a flood flowing over it. I am whirled away on the stream myself; my identity is lost, submerged. Now look here, I'll give you a cut and dried instance which will make clear how it is that I offend the prejudices, or the proprieties, or whatever you call it, in my books; at least I imagine it is in this way: Suppose I have a death scene to write. My MS. is waiting for that to complete it. I don't say to myself beforehand, Now there shall be a bed with Tomkins dying in it; there shall be Maria at the left-hand corner, and Jane at the right. The wife and doctor shall be grouped artistically at the foot. Tomkins shall make two speeches before he dies; no, three—three is more natural—uneven number. Now what shall Tomkins say? Yes. Ah—hum—what the deuce shall I make him say? It must not be too much like what a dying man would say, because the British public is dead against realism. It must not either show any strong contempt for religion; a little mild contempt, of course, goes down and is fashionable, but I must not express it forcibly. He must not either evince a disbelief in immortality—at least that's dangerous ground. Some publishers will accept it and some won't.—Better leave it out. Ah—hum—what shall Tomkins say? I have it! A retrospect of his past life! And yet—No, stay! that won't do. Something that sounds like something that might possibly be immoral might turn up in it, and that would be fatal—damn the MS. utterly. Well, look here, Tomkins has got to die, and I've got to finish the book, so I must get something down. 'Darling Mabel, this parting is terrible, but still I feel we shall meet in another world.' Now, is that safe? Has a similar phrase been put in heaps of novels before? Because the British public won't have anything too new. It likes to head over again what it has heard at least fifty thousand times before, and then it knows it won't be shocked. Yes, that sentence will do. Now I must put in a few more and then, thank goodness, the scene will be done! Now," I said, springing up from the table, "do you call that art? do you call it genius? Is a collection of bald phrases and second-hand sentiments, hooked together like that, worth anything when it's done?"
"My dear boy, don't excite yourself like that," my father answered deliberately. "Sit down and finish your soup."
"Oh, hang the soup!" I said, resuming my seat. "Shall I sound the gong? I have not told you my way yet, but I'm coming to it when the man's gone." I sounded the gong, and the butler came in with the next course.
There was no carving ever done at our table, so my father had only to tranquilly continue eating while I talked. He had forced me into the discussion, and now he should hear it to the end.
"Of course, if you do write the death of Tomkins like that you can keep your scenes orthodox, or whatever word you have in view. But, supposing my MS. is lying incomplete;—I have a conviction that I am going to write of death, but the method of the man's death is at present unknown to me, unthought of.—Then, some afternoon, I happen to be sitting smoking, and just perhaps wondering whether I shall go round to the club or not, when suddenly a scene, a death scene, the scene I have been waiting for, comes rushing through my head. It comes upon me with tremendous impetus; mechanically, almost unconsciously, I take up a pen and write. Space opens before me and I see a hospital ward. A blaze of light floods it. Rows of narrow beds are there, and on one I see Tomkins—dying. I make my way to him: now I am by his bed. I see him stretched beneath my eyes. I see the pillow dark with the sweat of his death agony—the night-shirt torn at his throat to get air. Have I time to consider then whether the British public like the word night-shirt, and whether it would not be safer to put Tomkins into a dressing-gown? The man is there before me, dying, and he is in his night-shirt, and I must write it. Besides, my pen is tearing on. I cannot stop—he is dying. Will he speak before he dies? I do not know yet. His eyelids quiver, the black veins in his throat knot up, he gasps. I bend lower: 'his breath comes hurriedly: his eyes open and fix upon me: they are red, vitreous but conscious: then I know he will speak, he is going to—the next moment his half-strangled voice reaches my ear. He is speaking, and that which I hear him say, I write: no more, no less, no different. His voice dies away, inarticulate. I see his lips whiten and draw back upon his teeth. His hands clutch me as a convulsive spasm wrenches his muscles. There is a tense, rigid silence, and then one deep-drawn groan. Nerve, limb, muscle, and flesh collapse as the Life is set loose. The damp body sinks back, leaving its death sweat on my arms, its gasp in my ears. Tomkins is dead. But the impulse is not done with me yet. I cannot get out of that hospital ward till I have done everything, passed through all the circumstances that crop up naturally from the death of Tomkins. There is no 'making up.' The scene is being enacted before me. It is. It exists. It is the truth for the time being, and, as the truth, I write it. There is the miserable girl, sobbing convulsively, with her arms out-stretched in the bed-clothes. Can I leave her without some words of consolation? I must write down that she is there, because I see her there. There are some arrangements to be made with the nurse, and then, when I am leaving the ward, or at least intend to, my brain hurries the doctor up the ward to me. I don't 'make him up.' I had not the remotest idea of the head doctor appearing when I sat down to write. But now I see him approaching me between the beds, and before I can pass him, as I want to, he button-holes me and proceeds to explain that Tomkins never would have died if he had undergone an operation that the doctor had perceived from the very first moment was necessary. After a long talk with him, perhaps, my pen stops. I pause: and when I pause I know the inspiration has gone. As the ancients would say, the Muse or the God has departed and dictates no more. I fling aside the paper and look at my watch. Several hours passed in the hospital, but I'll go round to the club now. And I go. I know Tomkins is dead. It only occurs to me afterwards, as a secondary consideration, that in consequence the MS. is finished. Tomkins was not for the manuscript, but the manuscript for Tomkins. Now the point is—Can I be held responsible for that scene? It is not my fault that I have mentally seen a private soldier dying in hospital. The whole thing was involuntary."
"Very extraordinary views!" muttered my father.
I shrugged my shoulders in silence, and called up Nous to give him my untouched dinner.
"The best joke of it is, too," I said, suspending a strip of sirloin over the collie's nose, "the publishers admit if I had less talent they would print my things. I could not understand why my 'Laura Dean' was refused, so I went down to the publishers to try and find out. I saw the reader himself, and an awfully nice fellow he is, too. In reply to my question, he said the objection to the book was that it dealt with a wife leaving her husband. I stared at him in amazement. 'But, great Scott!' I said, 'that's a good old-fashioned theme enough. It's as old as the hills. It's the subject of—' and I gave him a list of about a dozen eminent novels. 'Yes,' he admitted. 'But they are not written in the same way.' 'Is there anything coarse or low in the writing?' 'Oh, no! I should not say that!' 'Well, what is the matter with it, then?' 'The thing is too much brought before you. Of course, in these books you have mentioned the wife runs away, but it does not make much impression. You have put it all so forcibly, and given the characters and episode so much life, and driven the idea of her infidelity so far home to one, that, well, it becomes a different thing—one realises it.' 'Oh, then you admit the immoral theme and the language to be unobjectionable, and the book would have been accepted by the British public provided only it had been less well written?' 'Yes, I suppose it comes to that.' And then I caught his eye, and we both laughed. He is a clever fellow himself, I should think, and the ludicrousness of the idea tickled him as much as it did me. I came away. His admission was quite the truth. It is the British way to take the second-rate in every art and scout the best. Write a book poorly and feebly, and it passes. Write the same thing powerfully and well, and the cry is—It's improper! It's just the same thing in painting. Paint a nude woman snowy white, without a shade or a shadow, and looking altogether as no mortal woman ever did look, and the picture will be hung at the Academy, and people will say, 'How charming! So artistic!' But paint a woman with a glow on her neck and bosom, and the warm blood running in her arms, dare to make her a living, breathing thing on canvas, and your picture will be rejected. 'Excellent, unequalled, perfect, but—it cannot be seen!' And what is British art as a consequence? Justly is it looked down upon by the other nations. We simply set our heel upon the best men. And look at our productions! Look at the rot and the trash that floods the libraries every year! Look at the average novel! It's a disgrace to our intellect! Look at the woodeny dolls that are its men and women! And behold our Academy! See our pictures!"
"Don't rock your chair like that, Victor; it annoys me."
"Very good," I said, bringing my chair down on its fore legs again. "Are you ready for the cheese?"
"Yes; but won't you eat anything?"
"No, thanks. I am fed upon annoyance just now."
"You are getting thin on it, too," he answered, looking at me. "It's a pity you are so excitable!"
"It's a pity I was born in this confounded Britain! I should have got on all right with Parisian readers. But I don't despair even here. They can reject my MSS., but they can't take out my brains. I daresay I shall stumble across some man at last with courage enough to stand by me in the beginning and help me force open the British public's jaws and cram my ideas down its throat; and that once done, it will digest them perfectly, for it's a tough old beast, though very blind. Why on earth has that fellow carried off the champagne?"
"You finished the bottle yourself just this minute!" returned my father, in surprise.
"Did I? Oh, very likely! Absence of mind!"
"It seems to me if you had a little less of this talent you boast of you would be considerably the gainer."
"Possibly," I rejoined. "But a gift is a gift. You can't say to nature, take this back and let me have something more paying! Besides, I can't admit that for any earthly reason I would change. I have no desire to be a second-rate writer when I know I am a first!"
"By Jove! if conceit could carry the day!"
"No, there is no conceit," I persisted. "Is it conceit to say my hair is black? It is black, and everybody can see it is. I have nothing to do with it. Nature made it black, and black it is, and I know it. Should I gain anything by contending that it was red? I don't see that I should. However," I added, laughing, "The point is of no consequence. Put me down as a fifth-rate writer, if you like, until I become the fashion!"
"It does not seem you ever will, at this pace," he said quietly.
"Very good," I answered, equally quietly.
"Then you will not have the trouble of changing your opinion."
There was a long silence then. We each smoked without a word. At twenty minutes to ten my father got up. He always went to bed horribly early.
"What are you going to do, Victor?"
"I am going out," I answered, getting up and stretching myself.
"Will you be late?"
"Probably. I got no sleep last night, nor the night before. It's no earthly use my going to bed when I feel like this. I can't get to sleep by repeating hymns, as some fellow suggested the other day."
"Why don't you take morphia or something to help you?"
"I don't care to begin taking drugs," I said, "I would rather wear myself out, and induce sleep in that way. I shall take a three hours' walk or so."
When he was gone, I sat a few minutes in the easy chair, with my head in my hands thinking. I had meant to ask him a question at dinner, but that argument on talent had put it on one side. Well, it would do later.
"Coming out, Nous?" I said to the collie. The dog started and pricked his ears.
"Out?" I repeated, and he leapt to his feet and gave himself a joyful shake, and then stood on the hearth-rug in front of me, swaying slowly his great brush of a tail and poising his head at an intelligent angle. I got up, felt for my latch-key, and went into the hall. Nous waited impatiently while I put on my hat and overcoat, and then we went out together. The night was cold, wet, and foggy. It was late in November, and a light mist veiled the end of each black, deserted street.
I took no heed of anything, neither the atmosphere round me nor the direction in which my feet carried me. I was wrapped up in a maze of thoughts, and there was not a decently pleasant one in the whole lot.
They were warmed and brightened every now and then as a form that I loved glided amongst them, but even that form dragged after it a chain of painful, fettering considerations, and the gleams of light that it threw round it were only like those weak, pallid flashes of sun that flit through the clouds of thunder and storm in a hurricane.
The next morning when I came down to breakfast it was late, and my father had already withdrawn to his own library. I had missed again speaking to him, as I could not seek and disturb him there.
He also was a writer, though quite of a different school from myself. He wrote ardently upon politics, political economy, and statistics, things which I took no interest in.
The nation might arrange itself how it pleased for all I cared. What I wanted to arrange was my own life. I had no ambition to set my country's affairs straight, my own thoughts were too much engaged in tugging my own into some sort of order.
There were some letters for me, and I turned them over listlessly, balancing them tip in succession against the toast-rack in front of me, without opening any. The last I came to was quite different from any of the others, and being the last, it stood foremost before me, and I looked at it while I went on with my breakfast.
It is curious how representative a letter generally is of its writer. The mere outside is like a psychological photograph. Of course it does not give details, but it presents you with a wonderfully accurate outline of the cut of a person's identity. This envelope was square, and looked as hard, white and clean as if a stone-tablet had passed through the post. It bore a delicate, weak, feminine superscription, hurried and careless; the writing unformed, but graceful and distinguished; and on the other side of the letter, stamped in grey, stood a crest, and the motto subscrolled.
Yes, the woman who had written it was very like the letter. Immaculate and perhaps somewhat hard, delicate, and in will a little weak, impulsive and undecided, well-bred, and strikingly typical of the class to which she belonged.
I broke the letter open after a minute and read—
"DEAREST VICTOR,—Do come and see me as soon as you possibly can. A scheme for the next canvas occurred to me last night, but I want you to help me execute it. What about the manuscripts? If you can't come, tell me. Bring Nous. LUCIA."
I smiled as I replaced the letter. The composition was rather defective, and left the meaning decidedly indistinct. If I could not come I was to tell her. Tell her what? About the MS., or that I couldn't come?
And under what circumstances was I to take Nous? Apparently if I could not do so.
I was not sneering at the little note, and it went into my breast pocket, but it amused me.
"That is the way I ought to write for the British, I suppose?" I muttered, with a yawn. "Muddle all one's language up until nobody has the faintest idea of what the author's sentiments are, and then they don't know whether he means anything heterodox or not."
I got up. I might as well obey the orders I had just received.
There was a tired confusion of thought in my brain—a floating mass of half-formed embryonic ideas, wishes, plans and suggestions filled it that were quite useless for prompting or guiding any definite resolution as to what I should do in the immediate future.
Everything seemed to depend on something else, and it was impossible to find any positive basis upon which I could found a resolve.
If I could succeed as an author, my way was clear, but if I could not, and if ... and if... And so on through a wearying, perplexing series of conditions.
Just then I felt unequal to regulating and giving order to this inward chaos, and I abandoned the attempt.
Meanwhile I would go over to the house in South Kensington, whence the letter had come.
It was about eleven when I arrived there, and I was told Miss Grant was "upstairs, as usual."
I nodded, and went up the necessary six flights of stairs to a familiar landing on the third floor.
A door in front of me stood ajar, and with a sign to Nous to remain on the stairs, I knocked at it.
There was no answer and no sound from within, and thinking the room was empty after all, I pushed the door wide and went in.
It was a huge room, used as a studio, facing the north light, and with three large windows.
Before the middle one there was an easel, and the girl was in the room, standing there in front of the canvas between me and the light. She was seemingly entirely abstracted and absorbed. She was completely motionless, and for the moment she communicated her stillness to me.
I paused, silent, looking at her.
She was standing directly in front of me, facing the canvas, that was perfectly blank at present.
One hand rested on her hip, the other was raised and pressed to her head, as when a person looks into distance, and the arm and elbow and wrist traced a delicate curve against the dull grey square of London window pane.
A twist of hair about as thick as my arm fell nearly to her waist. It was decidedly not gold; that is, it did not suggest dye and the Haymarket; but it was fair and curly, and seemed to hold light imprisoned amongst it.
The figure was tall, and erred, perhaps, on the side of slightness.
Certainly it would have been too slight for those men whose scale of admiration runs—so much in the pound. But the architecture of the form was perfect. Each line was worthy of study in itself as a thing of beauty, and the harmony of them all in the whole figure, whether it moved or was at rest, gave an indefinable pleasure to the eye.
What a lovely thing it was this form, seeming to hold in itself the light and pleasure and glow of life, as it stood, the only brilliant thing in that cold north room.
And it might be mine, might have belonged to me long since if ... well if ... that was just it.
I made a step forward and she turned.
"Oh, I'm so glad you've come," she said, laying her hand in mine. "I want you so much."
We shook hands.
Although we were cousins, and had been engaged for the last two years, this was our invariable method of greeting and leave-taking.
I had never kissed her, nor was I sure whether I ever really desired to.
There were times when the thought that precedes the impulse or the impulse that gives birth to the thought came to me, but always when I was away from her and not with her, and consequently the desire culminated in nothing.
When I was actually beside her all my own feelings seemed suddenly held in suspension, just as one stops with feet chained when one discovers one has come abruptly upon sacred ground.
There had been times when I had hurried to this girl with words eager to be spoken on my lips, and at the first sight of her they had died unuttered on my tongue, just as words die into silence in the presence of a somnambulist.
"Why am I specially necessary?" I said, smiling, as we stood in front of the easel. "Will you let me paint you as Hyacinthus?" I went into a fit of laughter. "My dear girl! anything to oblige you, but consider," I said, looking down into her eager eyes; "you ought not to have a model of six-and-twenty. Hyacinthus was probably sixteen."
"You don't know how old he was!" she said, mockingly, her azure, sunny eyes lighting up with laughter, too, as she leant on the bending maul-stick and looked up at me.
"No, I don't know," I answered; "but I can infer it. If we only went upon what we actually know we should not go very far."
"Well, he might have been as much as nineteen, and you don't look quite six-and-twenty; and the remaining difference I can soften down. Have you any other excuse to make to get out of the bother of sitting?"
"You are a horrid little wretch to put it like that," I answered, "and I won't say another word of advice. Paint your Greek youth as you please. Of course, you'll give him this mustache with waxed ends? It's very appropriate!"
"No; of course I shan't. Now, Victor, do be sensible. You can be so nice at times!"
"Can I really? You are kind!"
"I want to hear about the manuscript. Was it accepted?" she said very gently, with her hand on mine.
"Well, that's soon told," I answered. "It wasn't."
She said nothing. Probably she knew that the mere expression "I am sorry" would be inadequate to say to a man who felt every failure as keenly as I did, and I hastened to remove her difficulty.
"Don't let us talk of it," I said. "Tell me of the new conception."
"It is to be called 'The Death of Hyacinthus,'" she said, glancing at the vast, vacant canvas, on which, doubtless, her eye saw the whole vision already. "The scene is to be flooded with sunlight, that pours in upon a green, open glade. The life-sized figure of Hyacinthus will be standing three-quarters towards the spectator, and a little towards the rush of light from the setting sun. His eyes are to be fixed upon the quoit which will be here, at this end of the canvas, opposite him. It will be tinged blood-red in the sun's rays, and seem a little above him."
She paused, with her eyes on the canvas. She had drifted away on the stream of her idea. "And what about the two gods?" I asked.
"Oh yes, I was going to tell you. Zephyrus will only be represented by the effect of the wind seen on the bushes, on the trees, and every blade of grass or fern in the picture. These small tamarisk trees that fringe the glade will be bent nearly double. The spirit of the wind must be in the whole painting. That will be the great effect, of course."
"I cannot put him in. You see, I do want this to be taken at the Academy next year, and though they have scores of nude women, they would not have a nude god at any price: and it would be too inartistic to clothe Apollo. So I have supposed him invisible; being a god, he would be so to all except Hyacinthus. Simply his hand, holding the quoit, will be faintly suggested, and the light allowed to fall through it."
There was silence. "Do you like it?" she said suddenly to me.
"Yes. I think the idea is unconventional: but on that account you will probably be rejected."
"I must risk it. Hyacinthus is to be in white, and must look radiantly, gloriously happy."
"I say, do you want me to look radiantly, gloriously happy-because that will be rather difficult just now."
"As far as you can. You see, the point is that he was struck and killed in the moment of supreme confidence and light-hearted joy."
"How very uncomfortable! Is that to be my fate?" I said laughing.
"Well, will you, Victor?"
"Will I what?"
"Take your seat here, now, and let me sketch you?"
"Certainly; but I thought you said he was to be standing?"
"I don't think I can take you for the whole figure. You are too much occupied to be able to spare the time. And I can find another model for the figure. I should like to take you for the whole, but you may be going away or something before the painting is finished. But in any case I have set my heart on giving him your head and neck."
"You flatter me awfully," I returned. "You shall have them—but that wretched Nous is outside all this time. May I let him in?"
"Oh yes! I did not know you had brought him!" she exclaimed, and ran herself to the door and called him in.
He came in meekly. And I stood where she had left me by the easel, and watched her bend over him and caress him, and I thought I was badly used.
"Now, will you sit there?" she said, coming back and indicating a chair.
I took it in silence. Then she paused, looking at me.
"What is it?" I said, enquiringly.
"Would you—" and she hesitated.
"Continue: command me."
"Could you take off your collar?"
"I think, perhaps, I could," I said, looking up into her serious face. "I am not aware that it is an absolute fixture!"
She laughed, but she was seldom chaffed out of a reply.
"It might have been in one with the shirt!" she said.
"Far-seeing intuitiveness! I admit it might; but fortunately in this case it's not. Then you'll excuse me if I take off my coat?"
"Yes, I want you to—coat, collar, and tie; so that I can sketch your neck down to the base of the throat."
"Ah!" I said, drawing off my coat, "I was wondering how you were going to fix up Hyacinthus with a lavender tie!"
She deigned no answer to that, and sat down just in front of me. A piece of plain drawing paper was put upon the easel before the canvas.
"Will you raise your head more? and throw your eyes up? higher, above my head!"
"May I not look straight at you?"
"No: up! up! to the window above me!"
"Won't you come and put me in the right position?"
"No. I am sure you have intellect enough to understand verbal directions."
"Well there," I said, throwing myself into the position she wanted; "that is easy: but how about that jolly expression? where's that to come from?"
"Can't you imagine for a moment that you are successful, and we are married?"
"A pretty good stretch of the imagination that!" I muttered, "as things are at present!"
And involuntarily I brought my eyes down from the window to the pale, delicate, abstracted face opposite me. I did not intend to convey any reproach to her, but perhaps she thought so, for she seemed to answer that which she took to be in my mind.
"But, Victor, you know," she said, laying down the pencil she had just taken up, "it is in your own hands. I am willing to marry you when you like!"
She said it very gently, but with just a touch of cold restraint that irritated me excessively.
"Oh yes, I know it's all my own confounded fault, but that does not make it any pleasanter. However, let all that pass. I'll look as cheerful as I can."
There was a long silence. She was absorbed in the drawing, and I in my own thoughts, as I stared through the upper pane, as directed, at the grey, drifting, hurrying November clouds. Had I descried a quoit there about to descend upon me I should have been rather pleased than not. At last I became conscious of an intolerable crick in my neck.
"May I move?"
"Oh, one minute! one minute!" she answered, and her voice struck me. It was faint, breathless, mechanical: the voice of a person whose whole being is tense with some straining effort. At least fifteen more minutes of silence passed.
"I say! I really must turn my head now!"
"No, no! not for worlds! Keep still!"
I kept still, but I felt sick with the peculiar cramp in my neck. Suddenly she dropped the crayon and started up.
"Now you may move, Victor! I've finished!"
I brought my head down to its ordinary level with considerable thankfulness, and as my eyes fell upon her I was rather startled. Her figure seemed expanded as she stood, and the white serge of her bodice rose and fell heavily. All the blood had flowed from her face, leaving it blanched, colourless. In her eyes the azure iris had disappeared, the dilated pupils had brimmed over it, and left nothing behind the lashes but shining, liquid blackness. Unconsciously, seemingly, her left hand was pressed to her left side, beneath the heart, and I saw it tremble; and the whole form quivered as she leaned slightly forward with her gaze bent upon the canvas. There was for the time being some great force lent her. Some power had stirred in the brain, and now seemed overflowing through the physical system—doubtless at its expense. This was inspiration, certainly, and valuable for its creative power, but the merely physical life and physical frame panted and fainted after its painful throes to produce that which the brain commanded. I looked at the girl, oblivious of me, oblivious of herself and of the pain that forced her hand mechanically to her side—looked half with pleasure, half with alarm. It must always bring a delight to the human being to watch the triumph of intellect over matter, of the mental over the physical system, of the mind over the body. The sympathy of our own mind must go with the fellow-mind in its struggles for freedom. It is like one captive calling to another from behind his prison bars. But when we love the body too, and when our reason tells us that the striving captive, if set free, must die; when we remember that by some horrible, unnatural anomaly this spirit, that at times seems divinity itself, is condemned to live in this abominable prison and to perish there, with and in its fetters, then the wave of exultant pleasure, of exuberant, arrogant triumph, that swept over us, poor fellow-prisoners, watching those fetters shaken and almost cast off, thunders back upon us, turned into the bitterest humiliation. I felt it all—the pitiable mockery of man's nature, the inexplicable, terrible union of a god and a brute in one frame, and the god dependent on the brute, and both mortal—as I looked at the slight, lovely form of the woman I loved, and saw it rocked and swayed, and left pained and breathless with the struggles of the powers within to assert and express themselves. It had so happened that I had never seen her at work before. It was only recently that she had been allowed to give up set studies for her own creative fancy. For years she had been employed in acquiring the technique of her art; and even beside these considerations, I had not been with her in her moments of most tense application, and I should not have been with her now but that I was needed as a tool in the work. And as I saw her at this moment, filled with mental energy and dominated by the pleasure of mental labour, a quick sympathetic elation came over me, almost immediately after to be replaced by simple fear.
"I am afraid you have overtaxed yourself rather," I said, in conventional phrase; "I'm afraid you're in pain."
"Oh, that's nothing! Come and tell me what you think!" she said, extending her hand, but not taking her eyes from the drawing. "This is only the first study, of course. But tell me, have I got a sufficiently—well—expectant—rapt expression? I am not quite sure."
I saw she was too utterly preoccupied to attend to anything I said of herself then, so I did not insist farther, and went up to the easel. I was not an artist nor a critic, nor in any way qualified to be a judge of painting as painting; but of genius, who is not a judge? In any art it is recognisable, patent, obvious to all. There is no human clod, no boor who is utterly insensible to its influence. It needs no education to perceive its presence, though the ignorant could not tell you what that presence was. Genius is as the sun itself: as universally perceptible. Even the rustic clown feels the sun hot upon his face. Ask him what sun is, and he cannot say, but he feels the difference between sun and no sun. And the power in this rough drawing beat in upon my perceptions as the sun beats on the labourer's face.
"I think it's a triumph," I answered. "You have caught a most startling look of concentration."
"I am so glad!" she said, lightly.
The strain was over, and she was descending into ordinary mundane life again, but the hand she had put on my arm chilled through the shirt sleeve like ice.
"Do you recognise yourself?"
"Ye—es," I said, slowly; "except for that very glorified nose you've given me!"
She laughed, and moved the paper off the easel.
"Now I just want to give you an idea of how the tamarisk will be swayed," she said, holding a crayon between her tiny white teeth, and motioning me to a couch under the window. "Sit down there and wait a minute. I'll just sketch them roughly for you to get an approximation."
I sat down on the couch facing her, and occupied myself by replacing my collar, etc. The studio was fireless and uncommonly chilly. Then I leaned back and studied the girl as she sat there, one little foot crossed over the other, and a piece of mill-board supported on her raised knee. The tamarisk seemed to call for little expense of the divine energy, for she was as tranquil, smiling, and human as usual, now, as she sketched the bushes. They were far more mechanical work, naturally, than creating an expression and throwing it on a human face. The light from the window behind me fell full upon her, and seemed positively to brighten in her proximity. I wonder how, in their canons of beauty, the Latins could possibly have inscribed Frons minima, underrating the forehead, the sublimest feature in the human face, the great distinction between our countenance and that of our Simian prototypes. In this woman I thought it was, perhaps, her chief attraction. Round the temples and summit her light hair lay in thick loose curls. It did not "stray" anywhere. On the contrary, it was very intelligent hair, and knew exactly what to do with itself, how to curl upwards here and catch the light, how to cluster together there in adorable circles and half-circles in the shadow. And then came her forehead, a smooth band of white velvet, upon which two bow-like eyebrows were delicately traced. Excepting these and the vivid blue colouring in the eyes, and the rose and white tinting of the flesh, she had no positive beauties. The nose was a straight little nose, but very English, not the least sculptural, and the lips were rather too thick. They looked best when she was speaking, and their crimson was divided, and showed the small, even teeth behind them. Sitting watching her, now that her face was no longer flushed and animated in conversation, I noticed it looked white and tired, and all round the eyes were faint, discoloured shades. She looked overworked: looked as I myself looked in the early morning when I went upstairs from a night's work in my study to dress for breakfast.
"What were you doing last night?" I asked, abruptly. If I interrupted the work on the bushes, no matter; she must work less.
She looked up with a sudden flush.
"How did you know?" she answered, looking at me with confusion and perplexity in her eyes.
"I know nothing. I merely ask you. You were up all night?"
Her face became quite pale again, and she raised her eyebrows with a slight smile of indifference.
"Yes, I was."
I paled too, with annoyance.
"Lucia! this is the one thing I asked you to do for me; to give your nights, at least, to rest!"
"I know you did," she said, passionately, looking at me, her lips quivering and her face growing paler and paler. "But it is impossible sometimes! What gain is there in discussing these things? A perfect scheme came to me last night, and I sat here thinking of it—planning it upon this canvas. I could not have slept had I left this room. Besides, to close your brain to your ideas when they do come!—it is madness! I might never have seen the picture so vividly before me again if I had not stayed to think it out, to realise it, to impress it, as it were, clearly on myself. I cannot promise you, Victor—I never have, I would not before—to go to bed and try to sleep when a plan occurs to me suddenly for a canvas, as it did last night!"
"But think of sitting in a room like this all night with no fire! This studio is positively freezing!"
"Is it? I don't feel it."
"No. That is what I complain of. You feel nothing and think of nothing while you are at work, and you will injure yourself unconsciously. If you do these things you will certainly break down."
She merely shrugged her shoulders and looked past me through the window, an arrogant determination filling her blue eyes. The next minute she was speaking rapidly, and with an intonation of impatience in her voice.
"You know I am given over to the work—entirely, utterly. It is useless to expect me to sacrifice it to anything. On the contrary, everything must be sacrificed to it. Health, life itself, must be in the second place. I only value my life for the sake of this talent. Of course, I know if I lose my life I lose it too; but, equally, I can produce nothing without work. If I am to succeed I must work simply—it is necessity."
Each word was incisive, and seemed to cut slightly like falling steel from those soft, warm lips. A sudden desire rushed through me to teach her—at any rate, to exert myself to the utmost to teach her—that her life was valuable to her for other things than the capacity it gave to work. But I checked the words and the thoughts that rose, acting on the same principle as had guided me hitherto. To wake her to a sense of the pleasure and the gifts life holds, without being able to confer either—that could not be any gain. I merely said:
"And if you give up your life for the sake of this painting, Lucia, is that fair to me?"
"You would have your work," she answered.
The tone was cold and calm, and she went on sketching.
"Do you think that would console me?"
"I do not think: I am convinced of it. You are a man to whom your work, your genius, is everything. This holds the first, the ruling place in your life, and will always do so. I am in the second, I believe; but it is the second, and the step between is wide. It is quite right it should be so. I am not complaining, but it is useless to deny that it is so. Well, when one loses but the second object in one's life—"
A soft smile swept over her face, and she lifted the white lids and dark lashes—that had been drooped as she looked down at the drawing paper—with a brilliant, mocking flash in her eyes. I met them, and though I was not looking at it, but directly back into her eyes, the whole charming figure forced itself upon my vision. The round throat and the fine shoulders and the delicate curves of the long figure, sloping to the waist beneath the white serge bodice. Had she really but a second place? If I realised at any time I was not to possess her after all, what then? Should I be consolable? An angry denial leapt to my lips. There was no question of first or second. These two passions for this woman and for my own success were coordinate forces, and their very equality it was that kept me passive, without decisive action between them.
There was a sort of confusion in my brain—a longing to make some protestations. The words crowded excitedly to my lips, but I kept them closed. The conversation was on dangerous, critical ground. If I began to speak now, in this frame of mind, I did not know what I might say. My own brain was not sufficiently clear and collected. I did not know myself quite how far that which she had said was the truth. It is useless to talk vaguely and at random, or on mere passing sensations of the moment. Before speaking to another, before entering on a discussion, one must know exactly what one is saying—be prepared to act in accordance with every statement, and accept and realise the responsibility of each word, and all this at that moment I was not,—far from it. I felt my thoughts disordered and confused. Before my mental eye swam a mist of manuscript; before my physical eye rose and fell that gently beating breast. I took out my watch.
"It's a quarter past twelve, Lucia," I said, rising; "I must go."
The girl started to her feet and came in front of me.
"Victor, are you offended at what I said?"
I looked down at her with a slight smile.
"I am not so easily offended," I said, quietly.
"I will talk about all these things with you another day—not now."
"And do forgive me for siting up at nights. I know you do not like it. I know it ruins my looks, but I must work. Besides, all my excitement, all my amusement, is in it too. When I am not with you it is all I have. It is different for you, as a man, besides your work and besides myself, you have all sorts of distractions and—"
"What sort of distractions do you think I have?" I asked, quietly, and looking straight into her eyes.
Her words might mean and include a very great deal.
"Oh, how can I say! When you feel restless and unable to work at seven in the evening, say from then till seven the next morning your time is your own—balls, the Empire; there are a thousand things—all the pleasure, or at any rate the passing excitement that you can take in these ways, I crush into the excitement that there is in work—in overwork."
There was nothing in the actual words, but I felt the thoughts that underlay them, unexpressed. I resented the opinion she held of me. It was untrue, and I meant to remove it. I was silent an instant, thinking how to find words passably comprehensible and yet conventionally circumlocutory and euphemistic. After a moment I said simply—
"If you think I am leading a fast life, it is a mistake. I am not. What makes you think I have distractions, as you put it?"
"Oh, nothing, except that I know you are constantly not at home at—in the evenings. But really, Victor—" she added, a scarlet flush leaping across her face, and then leaving it pale and cold, with a shade of reserve and pride upon it. "I have no wish to approach this subject at all. I should never think of enquiring into or interfering with a man's life. These are things that must rest in his own hands."
I looked at her, as the graceful figure seemed to expand with pride, at the dignity of each line of her form and the pose of the distinguished head, and an irritated flush crept into my own face.
"I am out constantly, as you say," I answered, "because I cannot sleep, but I walk then simply in search of fatigue. Pleasure, Lucia! there can be none for me now until you belong to me. As for my life, it is a hard-working and as absolutely without relief as your own—absolutely."
She was silent.
"You don't believe me?"
"Of course I believe you," she answered, impulsively, putting her white hand suddenly into mine. "If you say so, but—"
She hesitated and coloured. I had not the least idea of what she was really going to say. I thought the "but" led to some condition more or less contradictory to her expression of belief in me, or, perhaps, to some statement she had heard, or something that she had thought. And I pressed her.
"But what?" I repeated.
"I was going to say, I have no wish to make your life harder than it is. I do not want our engagement to impose impossible laws upon you, nor do I set up an imaginary standard for you. You have your honour and your own self-respect, and I know I shall always be satisfied with the standard you raise for yourself."
The voice was very soft, and her touch and eyes caressing. She had not said in the least what I had expected, and she had touched, as she always did in me, the best springs in my thoughts. Her own pride, and her unquestioning assumption of mine, stung all that I had.
"Even you, Lucia, could not have a higher!" I answered on the impulse.
"That is exactly what I say," she said, and the smile went on into a slight laugh. "When will you come again to sit for Hyacinthus?"
"To-morrow, at the same time! Will that do?"
"Yes. It's immensely good of you. How can I thank you?"
I looked down at the red lips, at the delightful neck and shoulders, for a second in silence, then I pressed her hand, whistled to Nous, and went out. As soon as I had passed down the stairs and reached the street the bitter rush of feelings that the sight of this girl roused in me, and that her actual presence held in check, swept over me unrestrained. Why had I left her like that? I asked myself savagely. Why had I not drawn her into my arms and kissed her till all that soft delicate face was one flame of scarlet? Then a contemptuous smile came with the answering thought. What use were mere empty kisses if she gave me a thousand! This state of things could not go on. The life that I led seemed growing more and more unendurable week by week. It was a life of perpetual restraint, of refusal to every wish, of denial to every desire that rose in me, in which there was a bar laid upon every impulse, and an immovable chain upon every tendency. I was ambitious, and I could get no recognition. I was gifted, at least in my own estimation, and I could force open no field for my gifts. I was in love, and there was no means of attaining its object. Patience! patience! This was what I had been saying to myself hour by hour for two years, but there were times when it seemed that my brain, my whole system, was collapsing in the nervous irritation, in the chafing and the straining of this existence, which was filled with nothing but successless work, continuous disappointment, and unsatisfied desires.
Night succeeded night in which sleep was an impossibility, when my head seemed light and turning as in delirium with the violence and intensity of longing to shape my life differently. Could I have obtained the fulfilment of one desire or of the other, the strength of my nature would have flowed naturally into the channel opened before it. Could I have seen my work succeeding I would have foregone everything else willingly and worked with satisfied ardour, closing my eyes to the pleasure of life. Could I have obtained Lucia I would have been content to work and wait patiently till success chose to come to me. But the latter desire depended on the former, and when I thought of Lucia, her image only brought back upon me the stunning, deadening sense of the necessity of success, and so my thoughts were dragged round in a perpetual, wearying, dizzying circle, like a fixed wheel revolving without motion forward.
I had grown to hate my present daily existence. It was a state of enforced passive inaction that seemed corroding my nerves as the long worn fetter eats into the flesh. The current of life was running at its swiftest and fiercest in my veins. Vitality was ardent in the brain and blood, but there was no worthy expense of my energies, and they simply fell back upon themselves again and again, thwarted, baffled, unused, until existence seemed an intolerable curse. I saw daily other men's works accepted and received, and their talent and genius praised that could produce such a work, which, when it drifted into my hands, I recognised was no better than the MSS. lying in my study, unused, wasted. Sometimes the morning of a day would pass in looking through the reviews and criticisms of the favourite novel of the hour, the afternoon in reading the book itself and forming a judgment of it, and then an evening of sickly irritation would follow, in which, pacing backwards and forwards, in the empty study, I had to admit that the author, no more gifted, no more favoured with talent than myself, had been successful and I had not. The very praise I received for my powers from men who would not help me to employ them was a maddening stimulus.
"Talent? Yes, decidedly, but too heterodox for us."
This was the general resume of the opinion of the publishing world that had determined to eject me and shut its door in my face. Had it been hinted that the rejection was on the ground of incapacity it would have been easier to bear, but, without exception, every declined manuscript had been accompanied with a warm commendation of the art that the critic chose to think was so misapplied. Often, walking up and down the length of that study with these letters of empty compliment crowding the mantelpiece, I felt like a captured tiger in a cage, being goaded and thrust at through the bars. And, together with this excessive longing of the brain to employ its power raged the useless, vehement desire for the woman, until in those moments of silent solitude, it seemed as if two living vultures were upon me, slowly tearing me asunder. As I walked away from Lucia this morning, and when I reached my own steps, I was conscious of a sense of physical illness; my head seemed light and dizzy, as when one gets up after long fever. I was so long opening the door that Nous, who had pushed his whole body close up against it, looked at me with surprise. As we went in I had one clear determination, and that was to apply once more to my father for help. He could, if he would, enable me to marry Lucia. Success must come with time. It was this time that would be transformed. This time, this daily life of waiting work, that hung upon me now like a wolf, with its fangs, gnawing my brain, would then, if I possessed her, pass by like a dove upon wings. After luncheon, when he was standing by the hearth, I thought, was a good time to approach the subject, and I came up to the other end of the mantelpiece.
"Don't you think you could," I said, striking a lucifer and lighting up a cigar, without the least wish to smoke at that moment, "manage to let Lucia and myself arrange something?"
He looked at me a little ironically.
"Have you heard that the firm have rescinded their decision, and are going to bring out the book after all?" he asked quietly.
I coloured with anger and annoyance at the sneer. "No," I answered, simply, "I have not."
"Then, my dear Victor, you know it is quite useless to re-open this old question. I have told you before, and I can only repeat it now, I am not going to make you an independent allowance, that you may marry your cousin and comfortably settle down into a do-nothing existence."
"I never propose such an existence," I answered calmly. "Have I ever led it? am I leading it now?"
"No, because just now you have every incentive to work, and you have all your energies turned in that one direction, but with a secured income, independence, and married to this girl, I know exactly what you would become, and if I can prevent it, I am not going to have my son a confirmed idler about town."
"I can't think how you can so misjudge me," I said. "If you would make me an allowance—say 300 Pounds Sterling a year—half the rent of this house we live in!" I added bitterly. "I should marry Lucia, but on that account I should not neglect the work. Incentive! I should have every inducement to work then as now!—if inducement were necessary—Which it is not. I work now, not because I am driven by motives and wishes, but because to write is as natural to me as to sleep or breathe!"
"Please remember you are talking to a sane Englishman," he answered coldly; "and if you want me to listen to you, you must talk sense."
"Very good," I said, bringing my teeth down nervously on the cigar. "Put it entirely on the ground of motive if you like; I should want to succeed then doubly, and success is only a thing of time. It will come one day to me, as it has come to others who have had the same difficulties at first."
My father smiled sceptically.
"We shall see. In any case, if you are so certain of success, you can't object to the fulfilment of your wishes resting on so sure a contingency!"
"That has nothing to do with it. I did not say how long success might not be deferred, and I am unwilling to wait in these circumstances."
"Ah!—delightful frankness!" he returned derisively, and I looked away from him into the fire.
It shot across me then, amongst my own worrying thoughts, how strange it is that one human being should have so little sympathy with another, that where one can, without the least annoyance to himself, confer all that another desires, there seems always some inexplicable impulse to withhold it. And I—if I had power to give, if I ever possessed money, it should be to give, give freely and without conditions to those who needed it.
Perhaps my father guessed what I was thinking of. At any rate, he recommenced the conversation by saying—
"You have had a great deal done for you, Victor, though you may consider yourself very ill-used. You had a most expensive education. Then you passed into the army—brilliantly, I admit, but you were aided in every possible way. Then you had a fancy to go to India. Well, I got your regiment changed, and you went. Six months after you write that you have determined to become an author. I assent to that, much against my judgment, and you send in your papers. Good. What have you done since then? Nothing but write things no one will print, and hang about your cousin!"
A dull anger lit up in all my veins, and sent the blood to my head at his words. Still, they were practically the truth, and I knew I had no right to resent them.
"Now," he continued, "I make you a reasonable and just proposal, and you know that it is so. I give you every opportunity to display your talent, if you have any, which I very seriously doubt. You have leisure and unlimited means at your disposal. I only stipulate that before I make you independent, and before you marry, you shall give some proof of your powers in literature. I don't say you must wait till you have acquired a fortune. Your first production that is accepted and acknowledged sets you free. When I see you are really on the way to a profession, I will take care your finances don't trouble you, and as to marriage, you can then, of course, do what you please. But as to assisting you now to hurry into an affair that I don't under any circumstances particularly approve of—No."
"Why don't you approve of it?" I said, with a faint smile; "if I were in love with a housemaid or a ballet dancer I could understand your objection, but a girl in our own rank, educated, pretty, clever—what more would you have?"
My father shrugged his shoulders and elevated his eyebrows, and finally answered—"I should have liked a little more sanity between you. Remember there is insanity on her side and insanity on yours, and you both of you seem half-cracky already, to my mind. Then you are cousins. The relationship is near, unpleasantly near. You are both very much alike, extremely excitable, and with both your heads stuffed full of nonsense. She is exceedingly delicate, and no wonder, sitting up all night sketching and sitting in all day painting! I wish you could have chosen some strong, sensible, matter-of-fact young woman!"
I smiled as I listened. The combination of those three adjectives fairly set my teeth on edge, and suddenly I seemed to see Lucia's pale brilliant face, with its dilated eyes and genius-lit pupils, swimming in the shaft of sunlight that fell between us on the rug.
"What the children of two such maniacs will be, I tremble to think of!" he said after a minute.
I laughed outright, flung my cigar end into the fire, and stretched myself.
"I don't think you need trouble about the children!" I said significantly.
His remark sounded so ludicrous to me that my answer came spontaneously, but it was the worst thing I could have said. My father's old-fashioned ideas were the rock upon which we invariably split. Otherwise we should have got on very well. But he was entirely of the school of yesterday, and I was entirely of the school of to-morrow. His forehead contracted violently, and he said curtly—
"Now, don't let me hear any of that ridiculous nonsense you were talking the other day! I won't have these sentiments expressed in my hearing!"
I laughed, and said nothing. I never wish to express sentiments in anybody's hearing that they don't want.
"Of course," he said, finally, after a long pause, "you can please yourself. If you like to try and find a situation as clerk or secretary or shoe-black, and marry this girl on the proceeds, do so. But if you do, you will get no help from me in future. Don't come to me then for funds to bring out your MSS. If you choose to disgrace your family and disappoint my expectations, consider yourself entirely cut off from me, that's all."
There was another stretch of silence, and then—
"Well, which is it to be, Victor? Lucia or Genius?"
"I really hardly know," I answered, lightly. "I want them both. I'll think it over."
And with Nous, who had sprung to his feet as I moved, closely following me, I crossed the dining-room and went out, upstairs to my own writing and sitting-room. Here I flung myself into an arm-chair and let my hand hang over the side and rest on the collie's neck. And as I curled absently the locks of fur round my fingers, the thought came—When would my hand play as familiarly with those short, glistening curls on Lucia's forehead? Of course, as far as that went, we were engaged, and I might have put our relations on a far more intimate and familiar footing than they were now. I might have kissed her, twisted and untwisted that great cable of hair, put my arm round her waist, and so on and so on. No one would have objected since we were fiances and, in addition, cousins. And it is difficult to define exactly the impulse that had prompted me to abstain from all of these things. Partly it was an impulse in her defence, and partly in my own. I felt that it was difficult enough, hard enough, to keep in perfect control my own passionate impulses when I was with her, even now, while there was the screen and shield between us of her abstracted calm; when there was a certain coldness and reserve around her; when there was no beginning, no opening, no invitation of demonstration; when her complete unconsciousness of herself helped me to restrain and conceal all my own feelings; but if this were dispelled; if she came to greet me with the bright conscious flush of passion; if I saw reflected in her eyes the fire that burnt in me; if I were permitted to take her into my arms and cheat myself for a single illusive instant with the thought that she was mine—what would it all mean? Only giving a sharper, more cutting edge to the bit in my mouth and rousing in her a hunger I could not satisfy. She was at present devoted to her art with a devotion that left her practically indifferent to everything else, and there was a thin frame of ice round her, which her abstraction and her ceaseless work built up; but I was convinced that the smouldering fire of a woman's nature lay underneath—that it was concealed never cheated me for an instant into the belief it was not existent. She was pure—perfectly, absolutely immaculate; but there was another power within and transfused throughout her innocence that swayed and subdued my will as innocence alone could never do. She reminded me of some exquisite, delicate porcelain flagon filled with sparkling wine, that sends its hot crimson glow through the snowy transparent tints of its circling walls. The wine within lies, at present, in glowing tranquillity, unshaken and unstirred, and the beauty and the purity of the flagon grows upon one as one looks. One would hesitate certainly to stretch an unclean hand to lift it, hesitate to touch it with lips that were not pure—but as certainly one sees that, if hand and lip are clean, and one may raise it to oneself, there is intoxication within that cup. Though its brilliant walls are white, they are not so because they hold thin water or turgid milk or yet vacancy. Of the nature of porcelain, they are clear and brilliant, for as such they left the potter's hands; but that faint flush stealing through them tells us that that within is wine. And as the purity of a cup like this is different from that of a clean, thick, common china cup standing empty on the board, so was Lucia different from the ordinary virtuous English girl. And for her I would do and suffer much, and feel glad in it. I looked upon her as this vase, and since I had known her I had kept my hand clean, that one day I might take it without remorse. And in my treatment of herself I acted as I did because I saw that, as yet, her passions and her nature slumbered, just as the wine, unshaken, is steady within the cup.
Now, in my present helpless condition, to merely wake and rouse them, to distract and disturb her, and lift her out of her art, to draw her half from her own life, before I could take her wholly into my own, seemed a sacrilegious cruelty. And this was why, from the commencement of our engagement, I had said to myself—On this one condition only.
This was why, on the evening when I put the circlet of the engagement ring over the delicate finger, I had not touched the lips thanking me. I knew I could not kiss her coldly. These things depend upon one's nature. Some men shake hands listlessly. I cannot. If I take a friend's hand I grasp it warmly. How then, here, with those passive lips under mine, could I prevent them from drawing in the enthusiasm from my own? And this once done, I did not know how it might stir in her, and break up her life and turn her aside from the tranquil path of abstraction and occupation she was following now. I am not saying that, as a rule, a woman waits for her lover's kiss to arouse her. On the contrary, I am well aware that most women are uncommonly wide-awake from their thirteenth year, and it is a very old-fashioned and quite exploded idea to suppose that the springs of their nature lie dormant until one particular individual unlocks them. I am only saying that this girl was as yet entirely given over to her genius, and happy in it; and I loved her too well to weaken an impulse towards art which she could gratify, and create an impulse towards love which I could not for so long satisfy. So with all this in my brain, and with a guard upon myself that had never been relaxed since, I released her hand, with my ring upon it, as gently as I had taken it, and the quiver of nervous, painful excitement, that had shot through me as she laid it on my knee confirmed my resolution. Why teach her also, one moment before she need know it, the pain of self-repression?
"Is it not pretty," she had said.
"Which, the hand or the ring?"
"Why, the ring, of course," she had said, laughing. "You are too bad, Victor!"
"I don't know. I think the hand is decidedly the lovelier. But the ring is useful as a sign that now there is but one man in the world for you, as, Lucia, there is for me henceforth but one woman."
She had looked up suddenly, and her eyes had met mine with the passion kept out of them, and only reverence for her there. And even at that the fugitive scarlet had stained the pale skin, and the eyes had widened and darkened upon me, asking, Tell me, explain what this mysterious feeling is that seems stirring faintly in me? And I had looked back at her in silence, with a word unuttered, but still perhaps divined by her, on my lips.
And now things had come to a crisis. I felt as if I could not stand any longer, clear-headed and hard-working as I had been, against this repeated raising, then deferring, then breaking down of hope.
Constantly I had given rein to my thoughts and wishes; many times I had said, "This book will certainly be accepted, and then a month or a few weeks and she is my own."
But the book had not been taken, the weeks passed by and Lucia was as far from me as ever. And it could not continue. The perpetual excitation and reaction was slowly injuring and confusing the brain like a noxious drug administered to procure lunacy. And the temptation swept over me now to let go my hold on work, on this bitter effort to succeed, on this vain, useless striving for recognition, and sink into some humble position which would supply the necessities for a quiet obscure existence—shared with this woman. The weeks, months, years, passed now, wasted, in a dull torture, in a low fever, filled with long, dragging hopes, expectations, possibilities, and no realities. Better sweep all these away and settle into a level, solid existence, contented with the simple natural pleasures that life offers without striving for. Contented! I laughed as the word drifted across my brain. That was just what I felt I could not be in any life but the one I coveted—a life of power, recognition, distinction. Other men were. They married the women they loved, and dropped into quiet lives of daily work and regular incomes, and were content in them. Yes; but that was insufficient argument.
They had not within them the suffocating weight of a desire ungratified, the stifling sense of a power unused. Nature, who has appointed no greater joy for us than the exercise of the capacities she has given us, has also no heavier, bitterer burden she can lay upon us than these capacities barred down in us unemployed. As I thought, my father's words recurred to me, "A secretary, a clerk or a shoeblack." It was improbable I should descend to the shoeblack. It was possible that I could become a secretary or a clerk. A secretary or a clerk! The idea amused me. I leaned my elbows on my knees, my forehead on my hands, as I sat and stared down at the bear-skin rug at my feet and saw a vision of fifth-rate existence pass before me. A suburban villa or squalid London lodgings; the hurried early breakfast served by a slavey; the tram or bus to the city; the society of seedy clerks; the pipe instead of the cigar; the public billiard room instead of the club; the omnibus instead of the hansom; the fortnight up the Thames instead of the spring at Cairo. A day of uncongenial work—but at the end of it Lucia!
The thought seemed to come suddenly and stunningly through my brain like a bullet. The blood rushed to my face and I got up and crossed to the window, looking out and seeing nothing. Lucia daily, hourly, side by side with me in my life, and utterly my own possession! Yes, it was worth it! Worth all those petty considerations that had been passing before me, but there was another heavier than all the others massed together. My leisure would be taken from me. It would be impossible to write then as I was writing now. Now, I was absolutely my own master, and disposed of my time exactly as I pleased, and days passed constantly which were wholly spent in the preparation of a manuscript and when my train of thought was never interrupted. If all my days were given to monotonous business work, how then, and when, would the writing be accomplished? My evenings and nights would be my own—or Lucia's; and this line of reflection finished in an ironical laugh. I walked to and fro, one word hammering persistently on my brain-sacrifice. To accept a humble, working position, and in it to marry a woman as lovely, as vehemently desired, and as long waited for as Lucia, would mean the sacrifice of my talent. It would mean a suppression, a thrusting aside of work, and, to a certain extent, of thought. In such a life there would be so little place for it. Between the necessity of rejecting impersonal or imaginative thought to make room for the diurnal business routine, and the irresistible temptations to reject it at other times for present personal pleasure, it would be rarely accepted or welcomed, and its impetus would gradually weaken or lessen. Even as I thought of it, a revolt rose in me. The revolt of all the higher instincts against enslavement by the lower. The rebellion of all the intellectual impulses against being ruled by the physical. What! weaken, enervate, starve, destroy the mental sinews to gratify the passion for a woman? Crush down the mental emotions to give reins to the physical? It would be the work of a fool. A rooting-up fruit trees to clear a space for weeds. And what of those twenty-six years of life that lay behind me? Did they count for nothing? Was all the repression and the hard work they contained to be flung aside now and wasted? Was the whole principle that had shaped them, of living in and for the intellect, to be utterly reversed now? And yet it was a wretched, poor, burdensome thing, life, as it had been lived by me. The past years stared me in the face mockingly. Clean, capable of being scrutinised in the sunlight, estimable from a moral and mental standpoint, but absolutely barren of pleasure, and, so far, barren of result. I looked at them with little satisfaction or pride. They were as immaculate, as bare, as denuded, as irritating, and as painful to contemplate as a chalk cliff. The character that is summed up in the line "video meliora proboque, detiora sequor" is supposed to be very common, and meets with universal comprehension and commiseration. Mine, perhaps, would find neither. I followed the good—that is, good as the world's opinion goes—the straight line in life, without any of the enthusiasm for virtue to form a consolation and support. I looked upon vice without that repulsion that makes resistance to it easy, pleasant, involuntary almost. I felt no sense of strong condemnation of those acts or failings or lapses in others which I studiously avoided myself. Therefore, I had neither the pleasure that might be derived from the evil itself, nor the warm satisfaction and personal pride that comes from conscious superiority to one's neighbours. I had lived the life of a Puritan, but I had neither the heart nor brain of one. None of the rigid bigotry, none of the exultant delight in morality, none of the merciless joy in trampling upon pleasure which gives him his reward. I looked round upon life and its many devious ways with eyes listless and indifferent to its vice and sympathetic to its pleasure, and back upon my own straight path with something of regret that my self-respect had been strong enough to hold me to it. And now the temptation came to sacrifice all that I had clung to. To abolish the thought and remembrance of my talent, muffle and stifle the powers of the brain, and remember only that I had the pulses and senses and blood of a man. It came over me slowly, this phase of rebellious animalism, like a mantle falling over me. Thought followed thought insidiously, imperceptibly, like fold upon fold of a cloth dropped upon me, as I sat in the silent room alone. To take this girl and force back her art upon itself, to mutilate her brain-power and drug it with her roused sensuality, to turn her into a simple instrument of pleasure for myself, and lend myself to her as such. To yield to this inflowing tide of desire that beat, now, heavily through all my veins, and let the brain go down beneath its waves.
If I chose I could do it, and none but myself could gauge the depth of my debasement. No eye could discern the high level ground now on which I stood and the morass that swam before me. I should marry this girl and the world asks no more. This other lower life that lay in my power appealed to me in all its sweetness—this woman as she would be when mine. Those lips with the mark of mine upon them; those delicate nerves stung to frenzy; that form tense, and the limbs strung with passion; those eyes terror-stricken between anguish and ecstasy.
The thought of the woman's personality clung to me like a viscous web. I struggled against it, but it enwrapped me; I could not shake it from me.
Again and again my arm encircled those soft yielding shoulders; the warm agitated bosom was touching mine; my hands held, and felt within it, the smooth muscles of the white arm—a vision of the whole indefinably supple form swam giddily before me in a suffocating proximity, till I pressed my hands on my eyes, and the thought came involuntarily,—Is this insanity?
My brain gave her into my arms now as I sat there, and the blind physical system clamoured in agony, Where is she? An hour passed, and then I got up and laughed. The destructive wave of emotion had risen in me, rolled through me and gone by. The struggle was over, and I lived again but to work. I stood on the rug rolling a cigarette, and lighted it leisurely, trying to recall a respectable calm, and when I had fairly succeeded I went out and downstairs. I came into the dining-room and found my father still there, looking through a budget of political pamphlets that had just come in by the post.
He looked up, and I met his eyes with a laugh.
"I have decided not to look out for a vacancy in the shoeblack line," I said; "but to go on—up the hill. Is there any claret or water or soda about—I don't much care what it is?"