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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
page: 40


JERVASE MARION fixed his eyes, the eyes of the spirit particularly, upon Lady Tal, as he sat opposite her, the next day, at the round dinner table, in Palazzo Bragadin.

He was trying to make out how on earth this woman had come to write the novel he had been reading. That Lady Tal should possess considerable knowledge of the world, and of men and women, did not surprise him in the least. He had recognised, in the course of various conversations, that this young lady formed an exception to the rule that splendid big creatures with regular features and superb complexions are invariably idiots.

That Lady Tal should even have a certain talent—about as cultivated as that of the little boys who draw horses on their copy books—for plot and dialogue, was not astonishing at all, any more than that her sentences invariably consisted either of three page: 41 words, or of twenty-seven lines, and that her grammar and spelling were nowhere. All this was quite consonant with Lady Tal's history, manner, talk, and with that particular beauty of hers—the handsome aquiline features, too clean-cut for anything save wood or stone, the bright, cold, blue eyes, which looked you in the face when you expected it least, and which looked away from you when you expected it least, also; the absence of any of those little subtle lines which tell of feeling and thought, and which complete visible beauty, while suggesting a beauty transcending mere visible things. There was nothing at all surprising in this. But Jervase Marion had found in this manuscript something quite distinct and unconnected with such matters: he had found the indications of a soul, a very decided and unmistakable soul.

And now, looking across the fruit and flowers, and the set out of old Venetian glass on Miss Vanderwerf's hospitable table, he asked himself in what portion of the magnificent person of Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw that soul could possibly be located.

Lady Tal was seated, as I have remarked, immediately opposite Marion, and between a rather battered cosmopolitan diplomatist and the young millionaire page: 42 who had been in distress about a sideboard. Further along was the Roumanian Princess, and opposite, on the other side of Marion, an elderly American siren, in an extremely simple white muslin frock, at the first glance the work of the nursery maid, at the second of Worth, and symbolising the strange, dangerous fascination of a lady whom you took at first for a Puritan and a frump. On the other sat Miss Gertrude Ossian, Lady Tal's cousin, a huge young woman with splendid arms and shoulders and atrocious manners, who thought Venice such a bore because it was too hot to play at tennis and you couldn't ride on canals, and consoled herself by attempting to learn the guitar from various effete Italian youths, whom she alarmed and delighted in turn.

Among this interesting company Lady Tal was seated with that indefinable look of being a great deal too large, too strong, too highly connected, and too satisfied with herself and all things, for this miserable, effete, plebeian, and self-conscious universe.

She wore a beautifully-made dress of beautifully-shining silk, and her shoulders and throat and arms were as beautifully made and as shining as her dress; and her blond hair was as elaborately and perfectly arranged as it was possible to conceive. That blond page: 43 hair, verging upon golden, piled up in smooth and regular plaits and rolls till it formed a kind of hard and fantastic helmet about her very oval face, and arranged in a close row of symmetrical little curls upon the high, white, unmarked forehead, and about the thin, black, perfectly-arched eyebrows—that hair of Lady Tal's symbolised, in the thought of Marion, all that was magnificent, conventional, and impassive in this creature. Those blue eyes also, which looked at you and away from you, when you expected each least, were too large, under the immense arch of eyebrow, to do more than look out indifferently upon the world. The mouth was too small in its beautiful shape for any contraction or expression of feeling, and when she smiled, those tiny white teeth seemed still to shut it. And altogether, with its finely-moulded nostrils, which were never dilated, and its very oval outline, the whole face affected Marion as a huge and handsome mask, as something clapped on and intended to conceal. To conceal what? It seemed to the novelist, as he listened to the stream of animated conventionalities, of jokes unconnected with any high spirits, that the mask of Lady Atalanta's face, like those great stone masks in Roman galleries and gardens, concealed the mere absence of every- everything page: 44 thing. As Marion contemplated Lady Tal, he reviewed mentally that manuscript novel written in a hand as worn down as that of a journalist, and with rather less grammar and spelling than might be expected from a nursery maid; and he tried to connect the impression it had left on his mind with the impression which its author was making at the present moment.

The novel had taken him by surprise by its subject, and even more by its particular moral attitude. The story was no story at all, merely the unnoticed martyrdom of a delicate and scrupulous woman tied to a vain, mean, and frivolous man; the long starvation of a little soul which required affections and duties among the unrealities of the world. Not at all an uncommon subject nowadays; in fact, Marion could have counted you off a score of well-known novels on similar or nearly similar themes.

There was nothing at all surprising in the novel, the surprising point lay in its having this particular author.

Little by little, as the impression of the book became fainter, and the impression of the writer more vivid, Marion began to settle his psychological problem. Or rather he began to settle that there was page: 45 no psychological problem at all. This particular theme was in vogue nowadays, this particular moral view was rife in the world; Lady Tal had read other people's books, and had herself written a book which was extremely like theirs. It was a case of unconscious, complete imitation. The explanation of Lady Tal's having produced a novel so very different from herself, was simply that, as a matter of fact, she had not produced that novel at all. It was unlike herself because it belonged to other people, that was all.

“Tell me about my novel,” she said after dinner, beckoning Marion into one of the little gothic balconies overhanging the grand canal; the little balconies upon whose cushions and beneath whose drawn-up awning there is room for two, just out of earshot of any two others on the other balconies beyond.

Places for flirtation. But Lady Tal, Marion had instinctively understood, was not a woman who flirted. Her power over men, if she had any, or chose to exert it, must be of the sledge-hammer sort. And how she could possibly have any power over anything save a mere gaping masher, over anything that had, below its starched shirt front, sensitiveness, curiosity, page: 46 and imagination, Marion at this moment utterly failed to understand.

The tone of this woman's voice, the very rustle of her dress, as she leaned upon the balcony and shook the sparks from her cigarette into the dark sky and the dark water, seemed to mean business and nothing but business.

She said:

“Tell me all about my novel. I don't intend to be put off with mere remarks about grammar and stops. One may learn all about that; or can't all that, and style, and so forth, be put in for one, by the printer's devil? I haven't a very clear notion what a printer's devil is, except that he's a person with a thumb. But he might see to such details, or somebody else of the same sort.”

“Quite so. A novelist of some slight established reputation would do as well, Lady Tal.”

Marion wondered why he had made that answer; Lady Tal's remark was impertinent only inasmuch as he chose to admit that she could be impertinent to him.

Lady Tal, he felt, but could not see, slightly raised one of those immensely curved eyebrows of hers in the darkness.

page: 47

“I thought that you, for instance, might get me through all that,” she answered; “or some other novelist, as you say, of established reputation, who was benevolently inclined towards a poor, helpless ignoramus with literary aspirations.”

“Quite apart from such matters—and you are perfectly correct in supposing that there must be lots of professed novelists who would most gladly assist you with them—quite apart from such matters, your novel, if you will allow me to say a rude thing, is utterly impossible. You are perpetually taking all sorts of knowledge for granted in your reader. Your characters don't sufficiently explain themselves; you write as if your reader had witnessed the whole thing and merely required reminding. I almost doubt whether you have fully realized for yourself a great part of the situation; one would think you were repeating things from hearsay, without quite understanding them.”

Marion felt a twinge of conscience: that wasn't the impression left by the novel, but the impression due to the discrepancy between the novel and its author. That hateful habit of studying people, of turning them round, prodding and cutting them to see what was inside, why couldn't he leave it behind for awhile? page: 48 Had he not come to Venice with the avowed intention of suspending all such studies?

Lady Tal laughed. The laugh was a little harsh. “You say that because of the modelling of my face—I know all about modelling of faces, and facial angles, and cheek-bones, and eye cavities: I once learned to draw—people always judge of me by the modelling of my face. Perhaps they are right, perhaps they are wrong. I daresay I have taken too much for granted. One ought never to take anything for granted, in the way of human insight, ought one? Anyhow, perhaps you will show me when I have gone wrong, will you?”

“It will require a good deal of patience—” began Marion.

“On your part, of course. But then it all turns to profit with you novelists; and it's men's business to be patient, just because they never are.”

“I meant on your part, Lady Tal. I question whether you have any notion of what it means to recast a novel—to alter it throughout, perhaps not only once, but twice, or three times.”

“Make me a note of the main wrongness, and send me the MS., will you? I'll set about altering it at once, you'll see. I'm a great deal more patient than page: 49 you imagine, Mr. Marion, when I want a thing—and I do want this—I want to write novels. I want the occupation, the interest, the excitement. Perhaps some day I shall want the money too. One makes pots of money in your business, doesn't one?”

Lady Atalanta laughed. She threw her cigarette into the canal, and with a crackle and a rustle of her light dress, straightened her huge person, and after looking for a moment into the blue darkness full of dim houses and irregularly scattered lights, she swept back into the hum of voices and shimmer of white dresses of Miss Vanderwerf's big drawing-room.

Jervase Marion remained leaning on the balcony, listening to the plash of oar and the bursts of hoarse voices and shrill fiddles from the distant music boats.