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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
page: 70


“I HAVE been wondering of late why I liked you?” said Lady Tal one morning at lunch, addressing the remark to Marion, and cut short in her speech by a burst of laughter from that odious tomboy of a cousin of hers (how could she endure that girl? Marion reflected) who exclaimed, with an affectation of milkmaid archness:

' Oh, Tal! how can you be so rude to the gentleman? You oughtn't to say to people you wonder why you like them. Ought she, Mr. Marion?”

Marion was silent. He felt a weak worm for disliking this big blond girl with the atrocious manners, who insisted on pronouncing his name Mary Anne, with unfailing relish of the joke. Lady Tal did not heed the interruption, but repeated pensively, leaning her handsome cleft chin on her hand, and hacking at a peach with her knife: “I have been wondering why I like you, Mr. Marion (I usedn't to, page: 71 but made up to you for Christina's benefit), because you are not a bit like poor Gerald. But I've found out now and I'm pleased. There's nothing so pleasant in this world as finding out why one thinks or does things, is there? Indeed it's the only pleasant thing, besides riding in the Campagna and drinking iced water on a hot day. The reason I like you is because you have seen a lot of the world and of people, and still take nice views of them. The people one meets always think to show their cleverness by explaining everything by nasty little motives; and you don't. It's nice of you, and it's clever. It's cleverer than your books even, you know.”

In making this remark (and she made it with an aristocratic indifference to being personal) Lady Atalanta had most certainly hit the right nail on the head. That gift, a rare one, of seeing the simple, wholesome, and even comparatively noble, side of things; of being, although a pessimist, no misanthrope, was the most remarkable characteristic of Jervase Marion; it was the one which made him, for all his old bachelor ways and his shrinking from close personal contact, a man and a manly man, giving this analytical and nervous person a certain calmness and gentleness and strength.

page: 72

But Lady Tal's remark, although in the main singularly correct, smote him like a rod. For it so happened that for once in his life Marion had not been looking with impartial, serene, and unsuspecting eyes upon one of his fellow-sufferers in this melancholy world; and that one creature to whom he was not so good as he might be, was just Lady Tal.

He could not really have explained how it was. But there was the certainty, that while recognising in Lady Tal's conversation, in her novel, in the little she told him of her life, a great deal which was delicate, and even noble, wherewithal to make up a somewhat unusual and perhaps not very superficially attractive, but certainly an original and desirable personality, he had got into the habit of explaining whatever in her was obscure and contradictory by unworthy reasons; and even of making allowance for the possibility of all the seeming good points proving, some day, to be a delusion and a snare. Perhaps it depended upon the constant criticisms he was hearing on all sides of Lady Atalanta's character and conduct: the story of her mercenary marriage, the recital of the astounding want of feeling displayed upon the occasion of her brother's death, and that perpetual, and apparently too well founded suggestion page: 73 that this young lady, who possessed fifteen thousand a year and apparently spent about two, must be feathering her nest and neatly evading the intentions of her late lamented. Moreover there was something vaguely disagreeable in the extraordinary absence of human emotion displayed in such portion of her biography as might be considered public property.

Marion, heaven knows, didn't like women who went in for grande passion; in fact passion, which he had neither experienced nor described, was distinctly repulsive to him. But, after all, Lady Tal was young, Lady Tal was beautiful, and Lady Tal had for years and yeats been a real and undoubted widow; and it was therefore distinctly inhuman on the part of Lady Tal to have met no temptations to part with her heart, and with her jointure. It was ugly; there was no doubt it was ugly. The world, after all, has a right to demand that a young lady of good birth and average education should have a heart. It was doubtless also, he said to himself, the fault of Lady Atalanta's physique, this suspicious attitude of his; nature had bestowed upon her a face like a mask, muscles which never flinched, nerves apparently hidden many inches deeper than most folk's: she was enigmatic, and a man has a right to page: 74 pause before an enigma. Furthermore—But Marion could not quite understand that furthermore.

He understood it a few days later. They had had the usual séance over Christina that morning; and now it was evening, and three or four people had dropped in at Lady Tal's after the usual stroll at Saint Mark's. Lady Tal had hired a small house, dignified with the title of Palazzina, on the Zattere. It was modern, and the æsthetic colony at Venice sneered at a woman with that amount of money inhabiting anything short of a palace. They themselves being mainly Americans, declared they couldn't feel like home in a dwelling which was not possessed of historical reminiscences. The point of Lady Tal's little place, as she called it, was that it possessed a garden; small indeed, but round which, as she remarked, one solitary female could walk. In this garden she and Marion were at this moment walking. The ground floor windows were open, and there issued from the drawing-room a sound of cups and saucers, of guitar strumming and laughter, above which rose the loud voice, the aristocratic kitchen-maid pronunciation of Lady Atalanta's tomboy cousin.

“Where's Tal? I declare if Tal hasn't gone off with Mary Anne! Poor Mary Anne! She's tellin' page: 75 him all about Christina, you know; how she can't manage that row between Christina and Christina's mother-in-law, and the semicolons and all that. Christina's the novel, you know. You'll be expected to ask for Christina at your club, you know, when it comes out, Mr. Clarence. I've already written to all my cousins to get it from Mudie's—”

Marion gave a little frown, as if his boot pinched him, as he walked on the gravel down there, among the dark bushes, the spectral little terra-cotta statues, with the rigging of the ships on the Giudecca canal black against the blue evening sky, with a vague, sweet, heady smell of Olea fragrans all round. Confound that girl! Why couldn't he take a stroll in a garden with a handsome woman of thirty without the company being informed that it was only on account of Lady Tal's novel. That novel, that position of literary adviser, of a kind of male daily governess, would make him ridiculous. Of course Lady Tal was continually making use of him, merely making use of him in her barefaced and brutal manner: of course she didn't care a hang about him except to help her with that novel: of course as soon as that novel was done with she would drop him. He knew all that, and it was natural. But he really didn't see the page: 76 joke of being made conspicuous and grotesque before all Venice—

“Shan't we go in, Lady Tal?” he said sharply, throwing away his cigarette. “Your other guests are doubtless sighing for your presence.”

“And this guest here is not. Oh dear, no; there's Gertrude to look after them and see to their being happy; besides, I don't care whether they are. I want to speak to you. I can't understand your thinking that situation strained. I should have thought it the commonest thing in the world, I mean, gracious— I can't understand your not understanding!”

Jervase Marion was in the humour when he considered Lady Tal a legitimate subject of study, and intellectual vivisection a praiseworthy employment. Such study implies, as a rule, a good deal of duplicity on the part of the observer; duplicity doubtless sanctified, like all the rest, by the high mission of prying into one's neighbour's soul.

“Well,” answered Marion—he positively hated that good French Alabama name of his, since hearing it turned into Mary Anne—“of course one understands a woman avoiding, for many reasons, the temptation of one individual passion; but a woman page: 77 who makes up her mind to avoid the temptation of all passion in the abstract, and what is more, acts consistently and persistently with this object in view, particularly when she has never experienced passion at all, when she has not even burnt the tips of her fingers once in her life—; that does seem rather far fetched, you must admit.”

Lady Tal was not silent for a moment, as he expected she would be. She did not seem to see the danger of having the secret of her life extracted out of her.

“I don't see why you should say so, merely because the person's a woman. I'm sure you must have met examples enough of men who, without ever having been in love, or in danger of being in love—poor little things—have gone through life with a resolute policy of never placing themselves in danger, of never so much as taking their heart out of their waistcoat pockets to look at it, lest it might suddenly be jerked out of their possession.”

It was Marion who was silent. Had it not been dark, Lady Tal might have seen him wince and redden; and he might have seen Lady Tal smile a very odd but not disagreeable smile. And they fell to discussing the technicalities of that famous novel.

page: 78

Marion outstayed for a moment or two the other guests. The facetious cousin was strumming in the next room, trying over a Venetian song which the naval captain had taught her. Marion was slowly taking a third cup of tea—he wondered why he should be taking so much tea, it was very bad for his nerves,—seated among the flowering shrubs, the bits of old brocade and embroidery, the various pieces of bric-à-brac which made the drawing-room of Lady Tal look, as all distinguished modern drawing-rooms should, like a cross between a flower show and a pawnbroker's, and as if the height of modern upholstery consisted in avoiding the use of needles and nails, and enabling the visitors to sit in a little heap of variegated rags. Lady Tal was arranging a lamp, which burned, or rather smoked, at this moment, surrounded by lace petticoats on a carved column.

“Ah,” she suddenly said, “it's extraordinary how difficult it is to get oneself understood in this world. I'm thinking about Christina, you know. I never do expect any one to understand anything, as a matter of fact. But I thought that was probably because all my friends hitherto have been all frivolous poops who read only the Peerage and the sporting papers. I should have thought, now, that writing novels page: 79 would have made you different. I suppose, after all, it's all a question of physical constitution and blood relationship—being able to understand other folk, I mean. If one's molecules aren't precisely the same and in the same place (don't be surprised, I've been reading Carpenter's ‘Mental Physiology’), it's no good. It's certain that the only person in the world who has ever understood me one bit was Gerald.”

Lady Tal's back was turned to Marion, her tall figure a mere dark mass against the light of the lamp, and the lit-up white wall behind.

“And still,” suddenly remarked Marion, “you were not—not—very much attached to your brother, were you?”

The words were not out of Marion's mouth before he positively trembled at them. Good God! what had he allowed himself to say? But he had no time to think of his own words. Lady Tal had turned round, her eyes fell upon him. Her face was pale, very quiet; not angry, but disdainful. With one hand she continued to adjust the lamp.

“I see,” she said coldly, “you have heard all about my extraordinary behaviour, or want of extraordinary behaviour. It appears I did surprise and shock my acquaintances very much by my proceed- proceedings page: 80 ings after Gerald's death. I suppose it really is the right thing for a woman to go into hysterics and take to her bed and shut herself up for three months at least, when her only brother dies. I didn't think of that at the time; otherwise I should have conformed, of course. It's my policy always to conform, you know. I see now that I made a mistake, showed a want of savoir-vivre, and all that—I stupidly consulted my own preferences, and I happened to prefer keeping myself well in hand. I didn't seem to like people's sympathy; now the world, you know, has a right to give one its sympathies under certain circumstances, just as a foreign man has a right to leave his card when he's been introduced. Also, I knew that Gerald would have just hated my making myself a motley to the view—you mightn't think it, but we used to read Shakespeare's sonnets, he and I—and, you see, I cared for only one mortal thing in the world, to do what Gerald wanted. I never have cared for any other thing, really; after all, if I don't want to be conspicuous, it's because Gerald would have hated it—I never shall care for anything in the world besides that. All the rest's mere unreality. One thinks one's alive, but one isn't.”

Lady Atalanta had left off fidgeting with the lamp. page: 81 Her big blue eyes had all at once brightened with tears which did not fall; but as she spoke the last words, in a voice suddenly husky, she looked down at Marion with an odd smile, tearing a paper spill with her large, well-shaped fingers as she did so.

“Do you see?” she added, with that half-contemptuous smile, calmly mopping her eyes. “That's how it is, Mr. Marion.”

A sudden light illuminated Marion's mind; a light, and with it something else, he knew not what, something akin to music, to perfume, beautiful, delightful, but solemn. He was aware of being moved, horribly grieved, but at the same moment intensely glad; he was on the point of saying he didn't know beforehand what, something which, however, would be all right, natural, like the things, suddenly improvised, which one says occasionally to children.

“My dear young lady—”

But the words did not pass Marion's lips. He remembered suddenly by what means and in what spirit he had elicited this unexpected burst of feeling on the part of Lady Tal. He could not let her go on, he could not take advantage of her; he had not the courage to say: “Lady Tal, I am a miserable cad who was prying into your feelings; I'm not fit to be page: 82 spoken to!” And with the intolerable shame at his own caddishness came that old shrinking from any sort of spiritual contact with others.

“Quite so, quite so,” he merely answered, looking at his boots and moving that ring of his mother's up and down his watch chain. “I quite understand. And as a matter of fact you are quite correct in your remark about our not being always alive. Or rather we are usually alive, when we are living our hum-drum little natural existence, full of nothing at all; and during the moments when we do really seem to be alive, to be feeling, living, we are not ourselves, but somebody else.”

Marion had had no intention of making a cynical speech. He had been aware of having behaved like a cad to Lady Tal, and in consequence, had somehow informed Lady Tal he considered her as an impostor. He had reacted against that first overwhelming sense of pleasure at the discovery of the lady's much-questioned soul. Now he was prepared to tell her that she had none.

“Yes,” answered Lady Tal, lighting a cigarette over the high lamp, “that's just it. I shall borrow that remark and put it into Christina. You may use up any remark of mine, in return, you know.”

page: 83

She stuck out her under lip with that ugly little cynical movement which was not even her own property, but borrowed from women more trivial than herself like the way of carrying the elbows, and the pronunciation of certain words: a mark of caste, as a blue triangle on one's chin or a yellow butterfly on one's forehead might be, and not more graceful or engaging.

“One thinks one has a soul sometimes,” she mused. “It isn't true. It would prevent one's clothes fitting, wouldn't it? One really acts in this way or that because it's better form. You see here on the Continent it's good form to tear one's hair and roll on the floor, and to pretend to have a soul; we've got beyond that, as we've got beyond women trying to seem to know about art and literature. Here they do, and make idiots of themselves. Just now you thought I'd got a soul, didn't you, Mr. Marion? You've been wondering all along whether I had one. For a minute I managed to make you believe it—it was rather mean of me, wasn't it? I haven't got one. I'm a great deal too well-bred.”

There was a little soreness under all this banter; but how could she banter? Marion felt he detested the woman, as she put out her elbow and extended a stiff handsome hand, and said:

page: 84

“Remember poor old Christina to-morrow morning, there's a kind man,” with that little smile of close eyes and close lips. He detested her just in proportion as he had liked her half an hour ago. Remembering that little gush of feeling of his own, he thought her a base creature, as he walked across the little moonlit square with the well in the middle and the tall white houses all round.

Jervase Marion, the next morning, woke up with the consciousness of having been very unfair to Lady Tal, and, what was worse, very unfair to himself. It was one of the drawbacks of friendship (for, after all, this was a kind of friendship) that he occasionally caught himself saying things quite different from his thoughts and feelings, masquerading towards people in a manner distinctly humiliating to his self-respect. Marion had a desire to be simple and truthful; but somehow it was difficult to be simple and truthful as soon as other folk came into play; it was difficult and disagreeable to show one's real self; that was another reason for living solitary on a top flat at Westminster, and descending therefrom in the body, but not in the spirit, to move about among mere acquaintances, disembodied things, with whom there was no fear of real contact. On this occasion he had page: 85 let himself come in contact with a fellow-creature; and behold, as a result, he had not only behaved more or less like a cad, but he had done that odious thing of pretending to feel differently from how he really did.

From how he had really felt at the moment, be it well understood. Of course Marion, in his capacity of modern analytical novelist, was perfectly well aware that feelings are mere momentary matters; and that the feeling which had possessed him the previous evening, and still possessed him at the present moment, would not last. The feeling, he admitted to himself (it is much easier to admit such things to one's self, when one makes the proviso that it's all a mere passing phase, one's eternal immutable self, looking on placidly at one's momentary changing self), the feeling in question was vaguely admiring and pathetic, as regarded Lady Tal. He even confessed to himself that there entered into it a slight dose of poetry. This big, correct young woman, with the beautiful inexpressive face and the ugly inexpressive manners, carrying through life a rather exotic little romance which no one must suspect, possessed a charm for the imagination, a decided value. Excluded for some reason (Marion blurred out his knowl- knowledge page: 86 edge that the reasons were the late Walkenshaw's thousands) from the field for emotions and interests which handsome, big young women have a right to, and transferring them all to a nice crippled brother, who had of course not been half as nice as she imagined, living a conventional life, with a religion of love and fidelity secreted within it, this well-born and well-dressed Countess Olivia of modern days, had appealed very strongly to a certain carefully guarded tenderness and chivalry in Marion's nature; he saw her, as she had stood arranging that lamp, with those unexpected tears brimming in her eyes.

Decidedly. Only that, of course, wasn't the way to treat it. There was nothing at all artistic in that, nothing modern. And Marion was essentially modern in his novels. Lady Tal, doing the Lady Olivia, with a dead brother in the background, sundry dukes in the middle distance, and no enchanting page (people seemed unanimous in agreeing that Lady Tal had never been in love) perceptible anywhere; all that was pretty, but it wasn't the right thing. Jervase Marion thought Lady Tal painfully conventional (although of course her conventionality gave all the value to her romantic quality) because she slightly dropped her final g's, and visibly stuck out her elbows, and reso- resolutely page: 87 lutely refused to display emotion of any kind. Marion himself was firmly wedded to various modes of looking at human concerns, which corresponded, in the realm of novel-writing, to these same modern conventionalities of Lady Atalanta's. The point of it, evidently, must be that the Lady of his novel would have lived for years under the influence of an invalid friend (the brother should be turned into a woman with a mortal malady, and a bad husband, something in the way of Emma and Tony in “Diana of the Crossways,” of intellectual and moral quality immensely superior to her own); then, of course, after the death of the Princess of Trasimeno (she being the late Gerald Burne), Lady Tal (Marion couldn't fix on a name for her) would gradually be sucked back into frivolous and futile and heartless society; the hic of the whole story being the slow ebbing of that noble influence, the daily encroachments of the baser sides of Lady Tal's own nature, and of the base side of the world. She would have a chance, say by marrying a comparatively poor man, of securing herself from that rising tide of worldly futility and meanness; the reader must think that she really was going to love the man, to choose him. Or rather, it would be more modern and artistic, less romantic, if the intelligent page: 88 reader were made to foresee the dismal necessity of Lady Tal's final absorption into moral and intellectual nothingness. Yes—the sort of thing she would live for, a round of monotonous dissipation, which couldn't amuse her; of expenditure merely for the sake of expenditure, of conventionality merely for the sake of conventionality;—and the sham, clever, demoralised women, with their various semi-imaginary grievances against the world, their husbands and children, their feeble self-conscious hankerings after mesmerism, spiritualism, Buddhism, and the other forms of intellectual adulteration—he saw it all. Marion threw his cigar into the canal, and nursed his leg tighter, as he sat all alone in his gondola, and looked up at the bay trees and oleanders, the yellow straw blinds of Lady Tal's little house on the Zattere.

It would make a capital novel. Marion's mind began to be inundated with details: all those conversations about Lady Tal rushed back into it, her conventionality, perceptible even to others, her disagreeable parsimoniousness, visibly feathering her nest with the late Walkenshaw's money, while quite unable to screw up her courage to deliberately forego it, that odd double-graspingness of nature.

That was evidently the final degradation. It page: 89 would be awfully plucky to put it in, after showing what the woman had been and might have been; after showing her coquettings with better things (the writing of that novel, for instance, for which he must find an equivalent). It would be plucky, modern, artistic, to face the excessive sordidness of this ending. And still—and still—Marion felt a feeble repugnance to putting it in; it seemed too horrid. And at the same moment, there arose in him that vague, disquieting sense of being a cad, which had distressed him that evening. To suspect a woman of all that—and yet, Marion answered himself with a certain savageness, he knew it to be the case.