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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
page: 50


THE temptations of that demon of psychological study proved too great for Marion; particularly when that tempter allied himself to an equally stubborn though less insidious demon apparently residing in Lady Atalanta: the demon of amateur authorship. So that, by the end of ten days, there was established, between Lady Tal's lodgings and Marion's hotel, a lively interchange of communication, porters and gondoliers for ever running to and fro between “that usual tall young lady at San Vio,” and “that usual short, bald gentleman on the Riva.” The number of parcels must have been particularly mysterious to these messengers, unless the proverbially rapid intuition (inherited during centuries of intrigue and spying) of Venetian underlings arrived at the fact that the seemingly numberless packets were in reality always one and the same, or portions of one and the same: the celebrated novel travelling to and fro, with perpetual criticisms from Marion and corrections page: 51 from Lady Atalanta. This method of intercourse was, however, daily supplemented by sundry notes, in the delicate, neat little hand of the novelist, or the splashing writing of the lady, saying with little variation—“Dear Lady Atalanta, I fear I may not have made my meaning very clear with respect to Chapter I, II, III, IV—or whatever it might be—will you allow me to give you some verbal explanations on the subject?” and “Dear Mr. Marion,—Do come at once. I've got stuck over that beastly chapter V, VI, or VII, and positively must see you about it.”

“Well, I never!” politely ejaculated Miss Vanderwerf regularly every evening—“if that Marion isn't the most really kind and patient creature on this earth!”

To which her friend the Princess, the other arbitress of Venetian society in virtue of her palace, her bric-à-brac, and that knowledge of Marie Corelli and Mrs. Campbell-Praed whlh balanced Miss Vanderwerf's capacity for grasping the meaning of Gyp—invariably answered in her best English colloquial:

“Well, my word! If that Lady Tal's not the most impudent amateur scribble-scrabble of all the amateur scribble-scrabbles that England produces.”

Remarks which immediately produced a lively dis- discussion page: 52 cussion of Lady Tal and of Marion, including the toilettes of the one and the books of the other, with the result that neither retained a single moral, intellectual, or physical advantage; and the obvious corollary, in the mind of the impartial listener, that Jervase Marion evidently gave up much more of his time to Lady Tal and her novel than to Miss Vanderwerf and the Princess and their respective salons.

As a matter of fact, however, although a degree of impudence more politely described as energy and determination, on the part of Lady Tal; and of kindness, more correctly designated as feebleness of spirit, on the part of Marion, had undoubtedly been necessary in the first stages of this intercourse, yet nothing of either of these valuable social qualities had been necessary for its continuation. Although maintaining that manner of hers expressive of the complete rights which her name of Ossian and her additional inches constituted over all things and people, Lady Tal had become so genuinely enthusiastic for the novelist's art as revealed by Marion, that her perpetual intrusion upon his leisure was that merely of an ardent if somewhat inconsiderate disciple. In the eyes of this young lady, development of character, foreshortening of narrative, construction, syntax, nay, page: 53 even grammar and punctuation, had become inexhaustible subjects of meditation and discussion, upon which every experience of life could be brought to bear.

So much for Lady Tal. As regards Marion, he had, not without considerable self-contempt, surrendered himself to the demon of character study. This passion for investigating into the feelings and motives of his neighbours was at once the joy, the pride, and the bane and humiliation of Marion's placid life. He was aware that he had, for years and years, cultivated this tendency to the utmost; and he was fully convinced that to study other folks and embody his studies in the most lucid form was the one mission of his life, and a mission in nowise inferior to that of any other highly gifted class of creatures. Indeed, if Jervase Marion, ever since his earliest manhood, had given way to a tendency to withdraw from all personal concerns, from all emotion or action, it was mainly because he conceived that this shrinkingness of nature (which foolish persons called egoism) was the necessary complement to his power of intellectual analysis; and that any departure from the position of dispassioned spectator of the world's follies and miseries would mean also a departure from page: 54 his real duty as a novelist. To be brought into contact with people more closely than was necessary or advantageous for their intellectual comprehension; to think about them, feel about them, mistress, wife, son, or daughter, the bare thought of such a thing jarred upon Marion's nerves. So, the better to study, the better to be solitary, he had expatriated himself, leaving brothers, sisters (now his mother was dead), friends of childhood, all those things which invade a man's consciousness without any psychological profit; he had condemned himself to live in a world of acquaintances, of indifference; and, for sole diversion, he permitted himself, every now and then, to come abroad to places where he had not even acquaintances, where he could look at faces which had no associations for him, and speculate upon the character of total strangers. Only, being a methodical man, and much concerned for his bodily and intellectual health, he occasionally thought fit to suspend even this contact with mankind, and to spend six weeks, as he had intended spending those six weeks at Venice, in the contemplation of only bricks and mortar.

And now, that demon of psychological study had got the better of his determination. Marion under- understood page: 55 stood it all now from the beginning: that astonishing feebleness of his towards Lady Atalanta, that extraordinary submission to this imperious and audacious young aristocrat's orders. The explanation was simple, though curious. He had divined in Lady Atalanta a very interesting psychological problem, considerably before he had been able to formulate the fact to himself: his novelist's intuition, like the scent of a dog, had set him on the track even before he knew the nature of the game, or the desire to pursue. Before even beginning to think about Lady Atalanta, he had begun to watch her; he was watching her now consciously; indeed all his existence was engrossed in such watching, so that the hours he spent away from her company, or the company of her novel, were so many gaps in his life.

Jervase Marion, as a result both of that shrinkingness of nature, and of a very delicate artistic instinct, had an aversion of such coarse methods of study as consist in sitting down in front of a human being and staring, in a metaphorical sense, at him or her. He was not a man of theories (their cut-and-driedness offending his subtlety); but had he been forced to formulate his ideas, he would have said that in order to perceive the real values (in pictorial lan- language page: 56 guage) of any individual, you must beware of isolating him or her; you must merely look attentively at the moving ocean of human faces, watching for the one face more particularly interesting than the rest, and catching glimpses of its fleeting expression, and of the expression of its neighbours as it appears and reappears. Perhaps, however, Marion's other reason against the sit-down-and-stare or walk-round-and-pray system of psychological study was really the stronger one in his nature, the more so that he would probably not have admitted its superior validity. This other reason was a kind of moral scruple against getting to know the secret mechanism of a soul, especially if such knowledge involved an appearance of intimacy with a person in whom he could never take more than a merely abstract, artistic interest. It was a mean taking advantage of superior strength, or the raising of expectations which could not be fulfilled; for Marion, although the most benevolent and serviceable of mortals, did not give his heart, perhaps because he had none to give, to anybody.

This scruple had occurred to Marion almost as soon as he discovered himself to be studying Lady Tal; and it occurred to him once or twice afterwards. But he despatched it satisfactorily. Lady Tal, in the first page: 57 place, was making use of him in the most outrageous way, without scruple or excuse; it was only just that he, in his turn, should turn her to profit with equal freedom. This reason, however, savoured slightly of intellectual caddishness, and Marion rejected it with scorn. The real one, he came to perceive, was that Lady Tal gratuitously offered herself for study by her quiet, aggressive assumption of inscrutability. She really thrust her inscrutability down one's throat; her face, her manner, her every remark, her very novel, were all so many audacious challenges to the more psychological members of the community. She seemed to be playing on a gong and crying: “Does anyone feel inclined to solve a riddle? Is there any person who thinks himself sufficiently clever to understand me?” And when a woman takes up such an attitude, it is only natural, human and proper that the first novelist who comes along that way should stop and say: “I intend to get to the bottom of you; one, two, three, I am going to begin.”

So Jervase Marion assiduously cultivated the society of Lady Atalanta, and spent most of his time instructing her in the art of the novelist.