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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
page: 114


“I AM glad to have made an end of Christina,” remarked Lady Tal, when they were on Miss Vanderwerf's balcony together. Christina had been finished, cleaned up, folded, wrapped in brown paper, stringed, sealing-waxed and addressed to a publisher, a week almost ago. During the days separating this great event from this evening, the last of Lady Atalanta's stay in Venice, the two novelists had met but little. Lady Tal had had farewell visits to pay, farewell dinners and lunches to eat. So had Jervase Marion; for, two days after Lady Tal's return to her apartment near the Holy Apostles at Rome, he would be setting out for that dear, tidy, solitary flat at Westminster.

“I am glad to have made an end of Christina,” remarked Lady Tal, “it had got to bore me fearfully.”

Marion winced. He disliked this young woman's ingratitude and brutality. It was ill-bred and stupid; and of all things in the world, the novelist from Alabama detested ill-breeding and stupidity most. page: 115 He was angry with himself for minding these qualities in Lady Tal. Had he not long made up his mind that she possessed them, must possess them?

There was a pause. The canal beneath them was quite dark, and the room behind quite light; it was November, and people no longer feared lamps on account of mosquitoes, any more than they went posting about in gondolas after illuminated singing boats. The company, also, was entirely collected within doors; the damp sea-wind, the necessity for shawls and overcoats, took away the Romeo and Juliet character from those little gothic balconies, formerly crowded with light frocks and white waistcoats.

The temperature precluded all notions of flirtation; one must intend business, or be bent upon catching cold, to venture outside.

“How changed it all is!” exclaimed Lady Tal, “and what a beastly place Venice does become in autumn. If I were a benevolent despot, I should forbid any rooms being let or hotels being opened beyond the 15th of October. I wonder why I didn't get my bags together and go earlier! I might have gone to Florence or Perugia for a fortnight, instead of banging straight back to Rome. Oh, of course, it was all along of Christina! What were we talking page: 116 about? Ah, yes, about how changed it all was. Do you remember the first evening we met here, a splendid moonlight, and ever so hot? When was it? Two months ago? Surely more. It seems years ago. I don't mean merely on account of the change of temperature, and leaving off cotton frocks and that: I mean we seem to have been friends so long. You will write to me sometimes, won't you, and send any of your friends to me? Palazzo Malaspini, Santi Apostoli (just opposite the French Embassy, you know), after five nearly always, in winter. I wonder,” continued Lady Tal, musingly, leaning her tweed elbow on the damp balustrade, “whether we shall ever write another novel together; what do you think, Mr. Marion?”

Something seemed suddenly to give away inside Marion's soul. He saw, all at once, those big rooms, which he had often heard described (a woman of her means ought to be ashamed of such furniture, the Roumanian Princess had remarked), near the Holy Apostles at Rome: the red damask walls, the big palms and azaleas, with pieces of embroidery wrapped round the pots, the pastel of Lady Tal by Lenbach, the five hundred photographs dotted about, and fifteen hundred silver objects of indeterminable page: 117 shape and art, and five dozen little screens all covered with odd bits of brocade—of course there was all that: and the door curtain raised, and the butler bowing in, and behind him the whitish yellowish curl, and pinky grey face of Clarence. And then he saw, but not more distinctly, his writing-table at Westminster, the etchings round his walls, the collection of empty easy-chairs, each easier and emptier, with its book-holding or leg-stretching apparatus, than its neighbor. He became aware of being old, remarkably old, of a paternal position towards this woman of thirty. He spoke in a paternal tone—

“No!” he answered, “I think not. I shall be too busy. I must write another novel myself.”

“What will your novel be about?” asked Lady Tal, slowly, watching her cigarette cut down through the darkness into the waters below. “Tell me.”

“My novel? What will my novel be about?” repeated Marion, absently. His mind was full of those red rooms at Rome, with the screens, and the palms, and odious tow-coloured head of Clarence. “Why, my novel will be the story of an old artist, a sculptor—I don't mean a man of the Renaissance, I mean old in years, elderly, going on fifty—who was silly enough to imagine it was all love of art which page: 118 made him take a great deal of interest in a certain young lady and her paintings—”

“You said he was a sculptor just now,” remarked Lady Tal calmly.

“Of course I meant in her statues—modelling—what d'you call it—”

“And then?” asked Lady Tal after a pause, looking down into the canal. “What happened?”

“What happened?” repeated Marion, and he heard his own voice with surprise, wondering how it could be his own, or how he could know it for his, so suddenly had it grown quick and husky and unsteady—“What happened? Why—that he made an awful old fool of himself. That's all.”

“That's all!” mused Lady Tal. “Doesn't it seem rather lame? You don't seem to have got sufficient dénouement, do you? Why shouldn't we write that novel together? I'm sure I could help you to something more conclusive than that. Let me see. Well, suppose the lady were to answer: ‘I am as poor as a rat, and I fear I'm rather expensive. But I can make my dresses myself if only I get one of those wicker dolls, I call them Theresa, you know; and I might learn to do my hair myself; and then I'm going to be a great painter—no, sculptor, I mean— page: 119 and make pots of money; so suppose we get married.’ Don't you think Mr. Marion, that would be more modern than your dénouement? You would have to find out what that painter—no, sculptor, I beg your pardon—would answer. Consider that both he and the lady are rather lonely, bored, and getting into the sere and yellow— We ought to write that novel together, because I've given you the ending—and also because I really can't manage another all by myself, now that I've got accustomed to having my semicolons put in for me—”

As Lady Atalanta spoke these words, a sudden downpour of rain drove her and Marion back into the drawing-room.