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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
page: 90


THEY had separated from the rest of the picnickers, and were walking up and down that little orchard or field—rows of brown maize distaffs and tangles of reddening half trodden-down maize leaves, and patches of tall grass powdered with hemlock under the now rather battered vine garlands, the pomegranate branches weighed down by their vermilion fruit, the peach branches making a Japanese pattern of narrow crimson leaves against the blue sky—that odd cultivated corner in the God-forsaken little marsh island, given up to sea-gulls and picnickers, of Torcello.

“Poor little Clarence,” mused Lady Tal, alluding to the rather feeble-minded young millionaire, who had brought them there, five gondolas full of women in lilac and pink and straw-coloured frocks, and men in white coats, three guitars, a banjo, and two mandolins, and the corresponding proportion of table page: 91 linen, knives and forks, pies, bottles, and sweetmeats with crinkled papers round them. “Poor little Clarence, he isn't a bad little thing, is he? He wouldn't be bad to a woman who married him, would he?”

“He would adore her,” answered Jervase Marion, walking up and down that orchard by Lady Tal's side. “He would give her everything the heart of woman could desire; carriages, horses, and diamonds, and frocks from Worth, and portraits by Lenbach and Sargent, and bric-à-brac, and—ever so much money for charities, hospitals, that sort of thing—and—and complete leisure and freedom and opportunities for enjoying the company of men not quite so well off as himself.”

Marion stopped short, his hands thrust in his pockets, and with that frown which made people think that his boots pinched. He was looking down at his boots at this moment, though he was really thinking of that famous novel, his, not Lady Tal's; so Lady Tal may have perhaps thought it was the boots that made him frown, and speak in a short, cross little way. Apparently she thought so, for she took no notice of his looks, his intonation, or his speech.

“Yes,” she continued musing, striking the ground page: 92 with her umbrella, “he's a good little thing. It's good to bring us all to Torcello, with all that food and those guitars, and banjos and things, particularly as we none of us throw a word at him in return. And he seems so pleased. It shows a very amiable, self-effacing disposition, and that's, after all, the chief thing in marriage. But, Lord! how dreary it would be to see that man at breakfast, and lunch, and dinner! or if one didn't, merely to know that there he must be, having breakfast, lunch and dinner somewhere—for I suppose he would have to have them—that man existing somewhere on the face of the globe, and speaking of one as ‘my wife.’ Fancy knowing the creature was always smiling, whatever one did, and never more jealous than my umbrella. Wouldn't it feel like being one of the fish in that tank we saw? Wouldn't living with the Bishop—is he a bishop?—of Torcello, in that musty little house with all the lichen stains and mosquito nests, and nothing but Attila's throne to call upon—be fun compared with that? Yes, I suppose it's wise to marry Clarence. I suppose I shall do right in making him marry my cousin. You know”—she added, speaking all these words slowly—“I could make him marry anybody, because he wants to marry me.”

page: 93

Marion gave a little start as Lady Tal had slowly pronounced those two words, “my cousin.” Lady , Tal noticed it.

“You thought I had contemplated having Clarence myself?” she said, looking at the novelist with a whimsical, amused look. “Well, so I have. I have contemplated a great many things, and not had the courage to do them. I've contemplated going off to Germany, and studying nursing; and going off to France, and studying painting; I've contemplated turning Catholic, and going into a convent. I've contemplated—well—I'm contemplating at present—becoming a great novelist, as you know. I've contemplated marrying poor men, and becoming their amateur charwoman; and I've contemplated marrying rich men, and becoming—well, whatever a penniless woman does become when she marries a rich man; but I've done that once before, and once is enough of any experience in life, at least for a person of philosophic cast of mind, don't you think? I confess I have been contemplating the possibility of marrying Clarence, though I don't see my way to it. You see, it's not exactly a pleasant position to be a widow and not to be one, as I am, in a certain sense. Also, I'm bored with living on my poor page: 94 husband's money, particularly as I know he wished me to find it as inconvenient as possible to do so. I'm bored with keeping the capital from that wretched boy and his mother, who would get it all as soon as I was safely married again. That's it. As a matter of fact I'm bored with all life, as I daresay most people are; but to marry this particular Clarence, or any other Clarence that may be disporting himself about, wouldn't somehow diminish the boringness of things. Do you see?”

“I see,” answered Marion. Good Heavens, what a thing it is to be a psychological novelist! and how exactly he had guessed at the reality of Lady Atalanta's character and situation. He would scarcely venture to write that novel of his; he might as well call it Lady Tal at once. It was doubtless this discovery which made him grow suddenly very red and feel an intolerable desire to say he knew not what.

They continued walking up and down that little orchard, the brown maize leaves all around, the bright green and vermilion enamel of the pomegranate trees, the Japanese pattern, red and yellow, of the peach branches, against the blue sky above.

“My dear Lady Tal,” began Marion, “my dear young lady, will you allow—an elderly student of page: 95 human nature to say—how—I fear it must seem very impertinent—how thoroughly—taking your whole situation as if it were that of a third person—he understanding its difficulties—and, taking the situation no longer quite as that of a third person, how earnestly he hopes that—”

Marion was going to say “you will not derogate from the real nobility of your nature.” But only a fool could say such a thing; besides, of course, Lady Tal must derogate. So he finished off:

“That events will bring some day a perfectly satisfactory, though perhaps unforeseen, conclusion for you.”

Lady Tal was paying no attention. She plucked one of the long withered peach leaves, delicate, and red, and transparent, like a Chinese visiting card, and began to pull it through her fingers.

“You see,” she said, “of the income my husband left me, I've been taking only as much as seemed necessary—about two thousand a year. I mean necessary that people shouldn't see that I'm doing this sort of thing; because, after all, I suppose a woman could live on less, though I am an expensive woman.—The rest, of course, I've been letting accumulate for the heir; I couldn't give it him, for that page: 96 would have been going against my husband's will. But it's rather boring to feel one's keeping that boy,—such a nasty young brute as he is—and his horrid mother out of all that money, merely by being there. It's rather humiliating, but it would be more humiliating to marry another man for his money. And I don't suppose a poor man would have me; and perhaps I wouldn't have a poor man. Now, suppose I were the heroine of your novel—you know you are writing a novel about me, that's what makes you so patient with me and Christina, you're just walking round, and looking at me—”

“Oh, my dear Lady Tal—how—how can you think such a thing!” gobbled out Marion indignantly. And really, at the moment of speaking, he did feel a perfectly unprofessional interest in this young lady, and was considerably aggrieved at this accusation.

“Aren't you? Well, I thought you were. You see I have novel on the brain. Well, just suppose you were writing that novel, with me for a heroine, what would you advise me? One has got accustomed to having certain things—a certain amount of clothes, and bric-à-brac and horses, and so forth, and to consider them necessary. And yet, I think if page: 97 one were to lose them all to-morrow, it wouldn't make much difference. One would merely say: ‘Dear me, what's become of it all?’ And yet I suppose one does require them—other people have them, so I suppose it's right one should have them also. Other people like to come to Torcello in five gondolas with three guitars, a banjo, and lunch, and to spend two hours feeding and littering the grass with paper bags; so I suppose one ought to like it too. If it's right, I like it. I always conform, you know; only it's rather dull work, don't you think, considered as an interest in life? Everything is dull work, for the matter of that, except dear old Christina. What do you think one might do to make things a little less dull? But perhaps everything is equally dull—”

Lady Tal raised one of those delicately-pencilled, immensely arched eyebrows of hers, with a sceptical little sigh, and looked in front of her, where they were standing.

Before them rose the feathery brown and lilac of the little marsh at the end of the orchard, long seeding reeds, sere grasses, sea lavender, and Michaelmas daisy; and above that delicate bloom, on an unseen strip of lagoon, moved a big yellow and brown sail, page: 98 slowly flapping against the blue sky. From the orchard behind, rose at intervals the whirr of a belated cicala; they heard the dry maize leaves crack beneath their feet.

“It's all very lovely,” remarked Lady Tal pensively; “but it doesn't somehow fit in properly. It's silly for people like me to come to such a place. As a rule, since Gerald's death, I only go for walks in civilized places: they're more in harmony with my frocks.”

Jervase Marion did not answer. He leaned against the bole of a peach tree, looking out at the lilac and brown sea marsh and the yellow sail, seeing them with that merely physical intentness which accompanies great mental preoccupation. He was greatly moved. He was aware of a fearful responsibility. Yet neither the emotion nor the responsibility made him wretched, as he always fancied that all emotion or responsibility must.

He seemed suddenly to be in this young woman's place, to feel the already begun, and rapid increasing withering-up of this woman's soul, the dropping away from it of all real, honest, vital interests. She seemed to him in horrible danger, the danger of something like death. And there was but one salvation: to page: 99 give up that money, to make herself free—Yes, yes, there was nothing for it but that. Lady Tal, who usually struck him as so oppressively grown up, powerful, able to cope with everything, affected him at this moment as a something very young, helpless, almost childish; he understood so well that during all those years this big woman in her stiff clothes, with her inexpressive face, had been a mere child in the hands of her brother, that she had never thought, or acted, or felt for herself; that she had not lived.

Give up that money; give up that money; marry some nice young fellow who will care for you; become the mother of a lot of nice little children—The words went on and on in Marion's mind, close to his lips; but they could not cross them. He almost saw those children of hers, the cut of their pinafores and sailor clothes, the bend of their blond and pink necks; and that nice young husband, blond of course, tall of course, with vague, regular features, a little dull perhaps, but awfully good. It was so obvious, so right. At the same time it seemed rather tame; and Marion, he didn't know why, while perceiving its extreme rightness and delightfulness, couldn't help wincing a little bit at the prospect—

Lady Tal must have been engaged simultaneously page: 100 in some similar contemplation, for she suddenly turned round, and said:

“But after all, anything else might perhaps be just as boring as all this. And fancy having given up that money all for nothing; one would feel such a fool. On the whole, my one interest in life is evidently destined to be Christina, and the solution of all my doubts will be the appearance of the ‘New George Eliot of fashionable life’; don't you think that sounds like the heading in one of your American papers, the Buffalo Independent, or Milwaukee Republican?

Marion gave a little mental start.

“Just so, just so,” he answered hurriedly: “I think it would be a fatal thing—a very fatal thing for you to—well—to do anything rash, my dear Lady Tal. After all, we must remember that there is such a thing as habit; a woman accustomed to the life you lead, although I don't deny it may sometimes seem dull, would be committing a mistake, in my opinion a great mistake, in depriving herself, for however excellent reasons, of her fortune. Life is dull, but, on the whole, the life we happen to live is usually the one which suits us best. My own life, for instance, strikes me at moments, I must confess, as a trifle dull. Yet I should be most unwise to change it, page: 101 most unwise. I think you are quite right in supposing that novel-writing, if you persevere in it, will afford you a—very—well—a—considerable interest in life.”

Lady Tal yawned under her parasol.

' Don't you think it's time for us to go back to the rest of our rabble?” she asked. “It must be quite three-quarters of an hour since we finished lunch, so I suppose it's time for tea, or food of some sort. Have you ever reflected, Mr. Marion, how little there would be in picnics, and in life in general, if one couldn't eat a fresh meal every three-quarters of an hour?”