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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
page: 31


JERVASE MARION had registered three separate, well-defined, and solemn vows, which I recapitulate in the inverse order to their importance. The first was: Not to be enticed into paying calls during that month at Venice; the second, Not to drift into studying any individual character while on a holiday; and the third, a vow dating from more years back than he cared to think of, and resulting from infinite bitterness of spirit, Never to be entrapped, beguiled, or bullied into looking at the manuscript of an amateur novelist. And now he had not been in Venice ten days before he had broken each of these vows in succession; and broken them on behalf, too, of one and the same individual.

The individual in question was Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw, or, as he had already got accustomed to call her, Lady Tal. He had called upon Lady Tal; he had begun studying Lady Tal; and now he page: 32 was actually untying the string which fastened Lady Tal's first attempt at a novel.

Why on earth had he done any of these things, much less at all? Jervase Marion asked himself, leaving the folded parcel unopened on the large round table, covered with a black and red table-cloth, on which were neatly spread out his writing-case, blotter, inkstand, paper-cutter, sundry packets of envelopes, and boxes of cigarettes, two uncut Athenæums, three dog-eared French novels (Marion secretly despised all English ones, and was for ever coveting that exquisite artistic sense, that admirable insincerity of the younger Frenchmen), a Baedeker, a Bradshaw, the photograph, done just before her death, of his mother in her picturesque, Puritan-looking widow's cap, and a little portfolio for unanswered letters, with flowers painted on it by his old friend, Biddy Lothrop.

Marion gave the parcel, addressed in a large, quill-pen hand, a look of utter despair, and thrusting his hands ungracefully but desperately into the armhole of his alpaca writing-jacket, paced slowly up and down his darkened room on a side canal. He had chosen that room, rather than one on the Riva, thinking it would be less noisy. But it seemed to him now, in one of his nervous fits, as if all the page: 33 noises of the world had concentrated on to that side canal to distract his brain, weaken his will, and generally render him incapable of coping with his own detestable weakness and Lady Tal's terrible determination. There was a plash of oar, a grind of keel, in that side canal, a cry of Stali or Premè from the gondoliers, only the more worrying for its comparative rareness. There was an exasperating blackbird who sang Garibaldi's hymn, in separate fragments, a few doors off, and an even more exasperating kitchen-maid, who sang the first bars of the umbrella trio of Boccaccio, without getting any further, while scouring her brasses at the window opposite, and rinsing out her saucepans, with a furtive splash into the canal. There was the bugle of the barracks, the bell of the parish church, the dog yelping on the boats of the Riva; everything in short which could madden a poor nervous novelist who has the crowning misfortune of looking delightfully placid.

Why on earth, or rather how on earth, had he let himself in for all this? ‘All this’ being the horrible business of Lady Atalanta, the visits to pay her, the manuscript to read, the judgement to pass, the advice to give, the lies to tell, all vaguely complicated with the song of that blackbird, the jar of that gondola page: 34 keel, the jangle of those church bells. How on earth could he have been such a miserable worm? Marion asked himself, pacing up and down his large, bare room, mopping his head, and casting despairing glances at the mosquito curtains, the bulging yellow chest of drawers painted over with the nosegays, the iron clothes-horse, the towel-stand, the large printed card setting forth in various tongues the necessity of travellers consigning all jewels and valuables to the secretary of the hotel at the Bureau.

He could not, at present, understand in the very least why he had given that young woman any encouragement; for he must evidently have given her some encouragement before she could have gone to the length of asking so great a favour of a comparative stranger. And the odd part of it was, that when he looked into the past, that past of a few days only, it seemed as if, so far from his having encouraged Lady Tal, it had been Lady Tal who had encouraged him. He saw her, the more he looked, in the attitude of a woman granting a favour, not asking one. He couldn't even explain to himself how the matter of the novel had ever come up. He certainly couldn't remember having said: “I wish you would let me see your novel, Lady Tal,” or “I should be curious to have a page: 35 look at that novel of yours;” such a thing would have been too absurd on the part of a man who had always fled from manuscripts as from the plague. At the same time he seemed to have no recollection either of her having said the other thing, the more or less humble request for a reading. He recollected her saying: “Mind you tell me the exact truth—and don't be afraid of telling me if it's all disgusting rubbish.” Indeed he could see something vaguely amused, mischievous, and a little contemptuous in the handsome, regular Scotch face; but that had been afterwards, after he had already settled the matter with her.

It was the sense of having been got the better of, and in a wholly unintelligible way, which greatly aggravated the matter. For Marion did not feel the very faintest desire to do Lady Atalanta a service. He would not have minded so much if she had wheedled him into it,—no man thinks the worse of himself for having been wheedled by a handsome young woman of fashion,—or if she had been an appealling or pathetic creature, one of those who seem to suggest that this is just all that can be done for them, and that perhaps one may regret not having done it over their early grave.

Lady Tal was not at all an appealing woman; she page: 36 looked three times as strong, both in body and in mind, with her huge, strongly knit-frame, and clear, pink complexion, and eyes which evaded you, as himself and most of his acquaintances. And as to wheedling, how could she wheedle, this woman with her rather angular movements, brusque, sarcastic, bantering speech, and look of counting all the world as dust for an Ossian to trample underfoot? Moreover, Marion was distinctly aware of the fact that he rather disliked Lady Tal. It was not anything people said about her (although they seemed to say plenty), nor anything she said herself; it was a vague repulsion due to her dreadful strength, her appearance of never having felt anything, the hardness of those blue, bold eyes, the resolution of that well-cut, firmly closing mouth, the bantering tone of that voice, and the consequent impression which she left on him of being able to take care of herself to an extent almost dangerous to her fellow creatures. Marion was not a sentimental novelist; his books turned mainly upon the little intrigues and struggles of the highly civilized portion of society, in which only the fittest have survived, by virtue of talon and beak. Yet he owned to himself, in the presence of Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw, or rather behind her back, that he did like page: 37 human beings, and especially women, to have a soul; implying thereby that the lady in question affected him as being hampered by no such impediment to digestion, sleep, and worldly distinction.

It was this want of soul which constituted the strength of Lady Tal. This negative quality had much more than the value of a positive one. And it was Lady Tal's want of soul which had, somehow, got the better of him, pushed him, bullied him, without any external manifestation, and by a mere hidden force, into accepting, or offering to read that manuscript.

Jervase Marion was a methodical man, full of unformulated principles of existence. One of these consisted in always doing unpleasant duties at once, unless they were so unpleasant that he never did them at all. Accordingly, after a turn or two more up and down the room, and a minute or two lolling out of the window, and looking into that kitchen on the other side of the canal, with the bright saucepans in the background, and the pipkins with carnations and sweet basil on the sill, Marion cut the strings of the manuscript, rolled it backwards to make it lie flat, and with a melancholy little moan, began reading Lady Tal's novel.

“Violet—” it began.

page: 38

“Violet! and her name's Violet too!” ejaculated Marion to himself.

“Violet is seated in a low chair in the gloom in the big bow window at Kieldar—the big bow window encircled by ivy and constructed it is said by Earl Rufus before he went to the crusades and from which you command a magnificent prospect of the broad champaign country extending for many miles, all dotted with oaks and farmhouses and bounded on the horizon by the blue line of the hills of B——shire—the window in which she had sat so often and cried as a child when her father Lord Rufus had married again and brought home that handsome Jewish wife with the fardée face and the exquisite dresses from Worth—Violet had taken refuge in that window in order to think over the events of the previous evening and that offer of marriage which her cousin Marmaduke had just made to her—”

“Bless the woman!” exclaimed Marion, “what on earth is it all about?” And he registered the remark, to be used upon the earliest occasion in one of his own novels, that highly-connected and well-dressed young women of the present generation, appear to leave commas and semicolons, all in fact except full stops and dashes, to their social inferiors.

page: 39

The remark consoled him, also, by its practical bearing on the present situation, for it would enable him to throw the weight of his criticisms on this part of Lady Tal's performance.

“You must try, my dear Lady Atalanta,” he would say very gravely, “to cultivate a—a—somewhat more lucid style—to cut down your sentences a little—in fact to do what we pedantic folk call break up the members of a period. In order to do so, you must turn your attention very seriously to the subject of punctuation, which you seem to have—a—well—rather neglected hitherto. I will send for an invaluable little work on the subject—‘Stops: and how to manage them,’ which will give you all necessary information. Also, if you can find it in the library of any of our friends here, I should recommend your studying a book which I used in my boyhood, —a great many years ago, alas!—called ‘Blair's Rhetoric.’”

If that didn't quench Lady Tal's literary ardour, nothing ever would. But all the same he felt bound to read on a little, in order to be able to say he had done so.