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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
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page: 102

IX.

FEW things, of the many contradictory things of this world, are more mysterious than the occasional certainty of sceptical men. Marion was one of the most sceptical of sceptical novelists; the instinct that nothing really depended upon its supposed or official cause, that nothing ever produced its supposed or official effect, that all things were always infinitely more important or unimportant than represented, that nothing is much use to anything, and the world a mystery and a muddle; this instinct, so natural to the psychologist, regularly honeycombed his existence, making it into a mere shifting sand, quite unfit to carry the human weight. Yet at this particular moment, Marion firmly believed that if only Lady Atalanta could be turned into a tolerable novelist, the whole problem of Lady Atalanta's existence would be satisfactorily solved, if only she could be taught construction, style, punctuation, and a few other items; if only one could get into her head the difference between a well-written thing, and an ill-written thing, page: 103 then, considering her undoubted talent—for Marion's opinion of Lady Tal's talent had somehow increased with a bound. Why he should think Christina a more remarkable performance now that he had been tinkering at it for six weeks, it is difficult to perceive. He seemed certainly to see much more in it. Through that extraordinary difficulty of expression, he now felt the shape of a personality, a personality contradictory, enigmatical, not sure of itself, groping, as it were, to the light. Christina was evidently the real Lady Tal, struggling through that overlaying of habits and prejudices which constituted the false one.

So, Christina could not be given too much care; and certainly no novel was ever given more, both by its author and by its critic. There was not a chapter, and scarcely a paragraph, which had not been dissected by Marion and re-written by Lady Tal; the critical insight of the one being outdone only by the scribbling energy of the other. And now, it would soon be finished. There was only that piece about Christina's reconciliation with her sister-in-law to get into shape. Somehow or other the particular piece seemed intolerably difficult to do; the more Lady Tal worked at it, the worse it grew; the more page: 104 Marion expounded his views on the subject, the less did she seem able to grasp them.

They were seated on each side of the big deal table, which, for the better development of Christina, Lady Tal had installed in her drawing-room, and which at this moment presented a lamentable confusion of foolscap, of mutilated pages, of slips for gumming on, of gum-pots, and scissors. The scissors, however, were at present hidden from view, and Lady Tal, stooping over the litter, was busily engaged looking for them.

“Confound those beastly old scissors!” she exclaimed, shaking a heap of MS. with considerable violence.

Marion, on his side, gave a feeble stir to the mass of paper, and said, rather sadly: “Are you sure you left them on this table?”

He felt that something was going wrong. Lady Tal had been unusually restive about the alterations he wanted her to make.

“You are slanging those poor scissors because you are out of patience with things in general, Lady Tal.”

She raised her head, and leaning both her long, well-shaped hands on the table, looked full at Marion:

“Not with things in general, but with things in page: 105 particular. With Christina, in the first place; and then with myself; and then with you, Mr. Marion.”

“With me?” answered Marion, forcing out a smile of pseudo-surprise. He had felt all along that she was irritated with him this morning.

“With you”—went on the lady, continuing to rummage for the scissors—“with you, because I don't think you've been quite fair. It isn't fair to put it into an unfortunate creature's head that she is an incipient George Eliot, when you know that if she were to slave till doomsday, she couldn't produce a novel fit for the Family Herald. It's very ungrateful of me to complain, but you see it is rather hard lines upon me. You can do all this sort of thing as easy as winking, and you imagine that everyone else must. You put all your own ideas into poor Christina, and you just expect me to be able to carry them out, and when I make a hideous hash, you're not satisfied. You think of that novel just as if it were you writing it—you know you do. Well, then, when a woman discovers at last that she can't make the beastly thing any better; that she's been made to hope too much, and that too much is asked of her, you understand it's rather irritating. I am sick of re-writing that thing, sick of every creature in it.”

page: 106

And Lady Tal gave an angry toss to the sheets of manuscript with the long pair of dressmaker's scissors, which she had finally unburied. Marion felt a little pang. The pang of a clever man who discovers himself to be perpetrating a stupidity. He frowned that little frown of the tight boots.

Quite true. He saw, all of a sudden, that he really had been over-estimating Lady Tal's literary powers. It appeared to him monstrous. The thought made him redden. To what unjustifiable lengths had his interest in the novel—the novel in the abstract, anybody's novel; and (he confessed to himself) the interest in one novel in particular, his own, the one in which Lady Tal should figure—led him away! Perceiving himself violently to be in the wrong, he proceeded to assume the manner, as is the case with most of us under similar circumstances (perhaps from a natural instinct of balancing matters) of a person conscious of being in the right.

“I think,” he said, dryly, “that you have rather overdone this novel, Lady Tal—worked at it too much, talked of it too much too, sickened yourself with it.”

“—And sickened others,” put in Lady Atalanta gloomily.

page: 107

“No, no, no—not others—only yourself, my dear young lady,” said Marion paternally, in a way which clearly meant that she had expressed the complete truth, being a rude woman, but that he, being a polite man, could never admit it. As a matter of fact, Marion was not in the least sick of Christina, quite the reverse.

“You see,” he went on, playing with the elastic band of one of the packets of MS., “you can't be expected to know these things. But no professed novelist—no one of any experience—no one, allow me to say so, except a young lady, could possibly have taken such an overdose of novel-writing as you have. Why, you have done in six weeks what ought to have taken six months! The result, naturally, is that you have lost all sense of proportion and quality; you really can't see your novel any longer, that's why you feel depressed about it.”

Lady Tal was not at all mollified.

“That wasn't a reason for making me believe I was going to be George Eliot and Ouida rolled into one, with the best qualities of Goethe and Dean Swift into the bargain,” she exclaimed.

Marion frowned, but this time internally. He really had encouraged Lady Tal quite unjustifiably. He page: 108 doubted, suddenly, whether she would ever get a publisher; therefore he smiled, and remarked gently:

“Well, but—in matters of belief, there are two parties, Lady Tal. Don't you think you may be partly responsible for this—this little misapprehension?”

Lady Tal did not answer. The insolence of the Ossian was roused. She merely looked at Marion from head to foot; and the look was ineffably scornful. It seemed to say: “This is what comes of a woman like me associating with Americans and novelists.”

“I've not lost patience,” she said after a moment; “don't think that. When I make up my mind to a thing I just do it. So I shall finish Christina, and print her, and publish her, and dedicate her to you. Only, catch me ever writing another novel again!—and”—she added, smiling with her closed teeth as she extended a somewhat stiff hand to Marion—“catch you reading another novel of mine again either, now that you've made all the necessary studies of me for your novel!”

Marion smiled politely. But he ran downstairs, and through the narrow little paved lane to the ferry at San Vio with a bent head.

page: 109

He had been a fool, a fool, he repeated to himself. Not, as he had thought before, by exposing Lady Tal to disappointment and humiliation, but by exposing himself.

Yes, he understood it all. He understood it when, scarcely out of Lady Tal's presence, he caught himself, in the garden, looking up at her windows, half expecting to see her, to hear some rather rough joke thrown at him as a greeting, just to show she was sorry— He understood it still better, when, every time the waiter knocked in the course of the day, he experienced a faint expectation that it might be a note from Lady Tal, a line to say: “I was as cross as two sticks, this morning, wasn't I?” or merely: “don't forget to come to-morrow.”

He understood. He and the novel, both chucked aside impatiently by this selfish, capricious, imperious young aristocrat: the two things identified, and both now rejected as unworthy of taking up more of her august attention! Marion felt the insult to the novel—her novel—almost more than to himself. After all, how could Lady Tal see the difference between him and the various mashers of her acquaintance, perceive that he was the salt of the earth? She had not wherewithal to perceive it. But that she should not perceive page: 110 the dignity of her own work, how infinitely finer that novel was than herself, how it represented all her own best possibilities; that she should be ungrateful for the sensitiveness with which he had discovered its merit, her merits, in the midst of that confusion of illiterate fashionable rubbish—

And when that evening, having his coffee at St. Mark's, he saw Lady Tal's stately figure, her white dress, amongst the promenaders in the moonlight, a rabble of young men and women at her heels, it struck him suddenly that something was over. He thought that, if Lady Tal came to London next spring, he would not call upon her unless sent for; and he was sure she would not send for him, for as to Christina, Christina would never get as far as the proof-sheets; and unless Christina re-appeared on the surface, he also would remain at the bottom.

Marion got up from his table, and leaving the brightly illuminated square and the crowd of summer-like promenaders, he went out on to the Riva, and walked slowly towards the arsenal. The contrast was striking. Out here it looked already like winter. There were no chairs in front of the cafés, there were scarcely any gondola-lights at the mooring places. The passers-by went along quickly, the end of their page: 111 cloak over their shoulder. And from the water, which swished against the marble landings, came a rough, rainy wind. It was dark, and there were unseen puddles along the pavement.

This was the result of abandoning, for however little, one's principles. He had broken through his convictions by accepting to read a young lady's MS. novel. It did not seem a very serious mistake. But through that chink, what disorderly powers had now entered his well-arranged existence!

What the deuce did he want with the friendship of a Lady Tal? He had long made up his mind to permit himself only such friendship as could not possibly involve any feeling, as could not distress or ruffle him by such incidents as illness, death, fickleness, ingratitude. The philosophy of happiness, of that right balance of activities necessary for the dispassionate student of mankind, consisted in never having anything that one could miss, in never wanting anything. Had he not long ago made up his mind to live contemplative only of external types, if not on a column like Simon Stylites, at least in its meaner modern equivalent, a top flat at Westminster?

Marion felt depressed, ashamed of his depression, page: 112 enraged at his shame; and generally intolerably mortified at feeling anything at all, and still more, in consequence, at feeling all this much.

As he wandered up and down one of the stretches of the Riva, the boisterous wind making masts and sails creak, and his cigar-smoke fly wildly about, he began, however, to take a little comfort. All this, after all, was so much experience; and experience was necessary for the comprehension of mankind. It was preferable, as a rule, to use up other people's experience; to look down, from that top flat at Westminster, upon grief and worry and rage in corpore vili, at a good five storeys below one. But, on reflection, it was doubtless necessary occasionally to get impressions a little nearer; the very recognition of feeling in others presupposed a certain minimum of emotional experience in oneself.

Marion had a sense of humour, a sense of dignity, and a corresponding aversion to being ridiculous. He disliked extremely having played the part of the middle-aged fool. But if ever he should require, for a future novel, a middle-aged fool, why, there he would be, ready to hand. And really, unless he had thus miserably broken through his rules of life, thus contemptibly taken an interest in a young lady six- page: 113 foot high, the daughter of a bankrupt earl, with an inexpressive face and a sentimental novel, he would never, never have got to fathom, as he now fathomed, the character of the intelligent woman of the world, with aspirations ending in frivolity, and a heart entirely rusted over by insolence.

Ah, he did understand Lady Tal. He had gone up to his hotel; and shut his window with a bang, receiving a spout of rain in his face, as he made that reflection. Really, Lady Tal might be made into something first-rate.

He threw himself into an arm-chair and opened a volume of the correspondence of Flaubert.

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