Isabel, the main character of the story, knows the charm of marriage with a worthless person. Her fate – the confluence of fatal circumstances. Being a dowry and finding herself in Europe, she refuses to be quite worthy applicants for a hand, and having received a fortune, connects life with the rogue Osmond.
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THE SIEGE OF LONDON
AN INTERNATIONAL EPISODE
THE PENSION BEAUREPAS
A BUNDLE OF LETTERS
THE POINT OF VIEW
I have gathered into this volume several short fictions of the type I have already found it convenient to refer to as “international”–though I freely recognise, before the array of my productions, of whatever length and whatever brevity, the general applicability of that term. On the interest of contrasted things any painter of life and manners inevitably much depends, and contrast, fortunately for him, is easy to seek and to recognise; the only difficulty is in presenting it again with effect, in extracting from it its sense and its lesson. The reader of these volumes will certainly see it offered in no form so frequent or so salient as that of the opposition of aspects from country to country. Their author, I am quite aware, would seem struck with no possibility of contrast in the human lot so great as that encountered as we turn back and forth between the distinctively American and the distinctively European outlook. He might even perhaps on such a showing be represented as scarce aware, before the human scene, of any other sharp antithesis at all. He is far from denying that this one has always been vivid for him; yet there are cases in which, however obvious and however contributive, its office for the particular demonstration has been quite secondary, and in which the work is by no means merely addressed to the illustration of it. These things have had in the latter case their proper subject: as, for instance, the subject of “The Wings of the Dove,” or that of “The Golden Bowl,” has not been the exhibited behaviour of certain Americans as Americans, of certain English persons as English, of certain Romans as Romans. Americans, Englishmen, Romans are, in the whole matter, agents or victims; but this is in virtue of an association nowadays so developed, so easily to be taken for granted, as to have created a new scale of relations altogether, a state of things from which emphasised internationalism has either quite dropped or is well on its way to drop. The dramatic side of human situations subsists of course on contrast; and when we come to the two novels I have just named we shall see, for example, just how they positively provide themselves with that source of interest. We shall see nevertheless at the same time that the subject could in each case have been perfectly expressed had all the persons concerned been only American or only English or only Roman or whatever.
If it be asked then, in this light, why they deviate from that natural harmony, why the author resorts to the greater extravagance when the less would serve, the answer is simply that the course taken has been, on reflexion, the course of the greater amusement. That is an explanation adequate, I admit, only when itself a little explained–but I shall have due occasion to explain it. Let me for the moment merely note that the very condition I here glance at–that of the achieved social fusion, say, without the sense and experience of which neither “The Wings of the Dove,” nor “The Golden Bowl,” nor “The Portrait of a Lady,” nor even, after all, I think, “The Ambassadors,” would have been written–represents a series of facts of the highest interest and one that, at this time of day, the late-coming observer and painter, the novelist sometimes depressed by all the drawbacks of a literary form overworked and relaxed, can only rejoice to meet in his path and to measure more and more as a portent and an opportunity. In proportion as he intelligently meets it, and more especially in proportion as he may happen to have “assisted” from far back at so many of the odd and fresh phenomena involved, must he see a vast new province, infinitely peopled and infinitely elastic–by which I mean with incalculable power to grow–annexed to the kingdom of the dramatist. On this point, however, much more is to be said than I can touch on by the way–so that I return to my minor contention; which is that in a whole group of tales I here collect the principle of illustration has on the other hand quite definitely been that the idea could not have expressed itself without the narrower application of international terms. The contrast in “Lady Barbarina” depends altogether on the immitigable Anglicism of this young woman and that equally marked projection of New York elements and objects which, surrounding and framing her figure, throws it into eminent relief. She has her personal qualities, but the very interest, the very curiosity of the matter is that her imbroglio is able to attest itself with scarce so much as a reference to them. It plays itself out quite consistently on the plane of her general, her instinctive, her exasperatedly conscious ones. The others, the more intimate, the subtler, the finer–so far as there may have been such–virtually become, while the story is enacted, not relevant, though their relevancy might have come up on some other basis.
But that this is true, always in its degree, of each of the other contributions to the class before us, we shall sufficiently make out, I think, as we take them in their order. I am only struck, I may indeed parenthesise, with the inveteracy of the general ground (not to say of the extension I give it) over which my present remarks play. It does thus in truth come home to me that, combining and comparing in whatever proportions and by whatever lights, my “America” and its products would doubtless, as a theme, have betrayed gaps and infirmities enough without such a kicking-up of the dramatic dust (mainly in the foreground) as I could set my “Europe” in motion for; just as my Europe would probably have limped across our stage to no great effect of processional state without an ingenuous young America (constantly seen as ingenuous and young) to hold up its legendary train. At the same time I pretend not at all to regret my having had from the very first to see my workable world all and only as an unnatural mixture. No mixture, for that matter, is quite unnatural unless quite sterile, and the particular range of associations that betimes, to my eyes, blocked out everything else, blocked out aspects and combinations more simply conditioned, was at least not open to the reproach of not giving me results. These were but what they could be, of course; but such as they were, at all events, here am I at this time of day quite earnestly grouping, distinguishing, discussing them. The great truth in the whole connexion, however, is, I think, that one never really chooses one’s general range of vision–the experience from which ideas and themes and suggestions spring: this proves ever what it has had to be, this is one with the very turn one’s life has taken; so that whenever it “gives,” whatever it makes us feel and think of, we regard very much as imposed and inevitable. The subject thus pressed upon the artist is the necessity of his case and the fruit of his consciousness; which truth makes and has ever made of any quarrel with his subject, and stupid attempt to go behind that, the true stultification of criticism. The author of these remarks has in any case felt it, from far back, quite his least stupid course to meet halfway, as it were, the turn taken and the perceptions engendered by the tenor of his days. Here it is that he has never pretended to “go behind”–which would have been for him a deplorable waste of time. The thing of profit is to have your experience–to recognise and understand it, and for this almost any will do; there being surely no absolute ideal about it beyond getting from it all it has to give. The artist–for it is of this strange brood we speak–has but to have his honest sense of life to find it fed at every pore even as the birds of the air are fed; with more and more to give, in turn, as a consequence, and, quite by the same law that governs the responsive affection of a kindly-used animal, in proportion as more and more is confidently asked.
All of which, however, doubtless wanders a little far from my mild argument–that of my so grateful and above all so well-advised primary acceptance of a determined array of appearances. What I was clearly to be treated to by fate–with the early-taken ply I have already elsewhere glanced at–was (should I have the intelligence to embrace it) some considerable occasion to appreciate the mixture of manners. So, as I say, there would be a decent economy in cultivating the intelligence; through the sincerity of which process I have plucked, I hold, every little flower of a “subject” pressed between the leaves of these volumes. I am tempted indeed to make for my original lucidity the claim of something more than bare prudence–almost that of a happy instinctive foresight. This is what I mean by having been “well-advised.” It was as if I had, vulgarly speaking, received quite at first the “straight tip”–to back the right horse or buy the right shares. The mixture of manners was to become in other words not a less but a very much more appreciable and interesting subject of study. The mixture of manners was in fine to loom large and constantly larger all round; it was to be a matter, plainly, about which the future would have much to say. Nothing appeals to me more, I confess, as a “critic of life” in any sense worthy of the name, than the finer–if indeed thereby the less easily formulated–group of the conquests of civilisation, the multiplied symptoms among educated people, from wherever drawn, of a common intelligence and a social fusion tending to abridge old rigours of separation. This too, I must admit, in spite of the many-coloured sanctity of such rigours in general, which have hitherto made countries smaller but kept the globe larger, and by which immediate strangeness, immediate beauty, immediate curiosity were so much fostered. Half our instincts work for the maintained differences; without them, for instance, what would have been the point of the history of poor Lady Barbarina? I have but to put that question, I must add, to feel it beautifully large; for there looms before me at its touch the vision of a Lady Barbarina reconciled, domesticated, developed, of possibly greater vividness than the quite other vision expressed in these pages. It is a question, however, of the tendency, perceptive as well as reflective too, of the braver imagination–which faculty, in our future, strikes me as likely to be appealed to much less by the fact, by the pity and the misery and the greater or less grotesqueness, of the courageous, or even of the timid, missing their lives beyond certain stiff barriers, than by the picture of their more and more steadily making out their opportunities and their possible communications. Behind all the small comedies and tragedies of the international, in a word, has exquisitely lurked for me the idea of some eventual sublime consensus of the educated; the exquisite conceivabilities of which, intellectual, moral, emotional, sensual, social, political–all, I mean, in the face of felt difficulty and danger–constitute stuff for such “situations” as may easily make many of those of a more familiar type turn pale. There, if one will–in the dauntless fusions to come–is the personal drama of the future.
We are far from it certainly–as I have delayed much too long to remark–in the chronicle of Lady Barb. I have placed this composition (1888) at the top of my list, in the present cluster, despite the earlier date of some of its companions; consistently giving it precedence by reason of its greatest length. The idea at the root of it scarcely brooks indication, so inevitable had it surely become, in all the conditions, that a young Englishwoman in some such predicament should figure as the happy pictorial thought. The whole thing rests, I need scarce point out, on the most primitive logic. The international relation had begun to present itself “socially,” after the liveliest fashion, a quarter of a century ago and earlier, as a relation of intermarrying; but nothing was meanwhile so striking as that these manifestations took always the same turn. The European of “position” married the young American woman, or the young American woman married the European of position–one scarce knew how best to express the regularity of it; but the social field was scanned in vain for a different pairing. No American citizen appeared to offer his hand to the “European” girl, or if he did so offered it in vain. The bridal migrations were eastward without exception–as rigidly as if settled by statute. Custom clearly had acquired the force of law; a fact remarkable, significant, interesting and even amusing. And yet, withal, it seemed scarce to demand explanations. So far as they appeared indeed they were confident on the American side. The representatives of that interest had no call in life to go “outside” for their wives–having obviously close at hand the largest and choicest assortment of such conveniences; as was sufficiently proved by the European “run” on the market. What American run on any foreign market had been noted?–save indeed always on the part of the women! It all redounded to the honour and glory of the young woman grown in American conditions–to cast discredit on whose general peerlessness by attested preference for other types could but strike the domestic aspirant as an act of disloyalty or treachery. It was just the observed rarity of the case therefore that prompted one to put it to the imaginative test. Any case so unlikely to happen–taking it for at all conceivable–could only be worth attention when it should, once in a blue moon, occur. There was nothing meanwhile, in truth, to “go by”; we had seen the American girl “of position” absorbed again and again into the European social system, but we had only seen young foreign candidates for places as cooks and housemaids absorbed into the American. The more one viewed the possible instance, accordingly, the more it appealed to speculative study; so that, failing all valid testimony, one had studiously, as it were, to forge the very documents.
I have only to add that I found mine, once I had produced them, thoroughly convincing: the most one could do, in the conditions, was to make one’s picture appear to hang together, and I should have broken down, no doubt, had my own, after a superficial question or two, not struck me as decently hanging. The essential, at the threshold, I seem to recall, was to get my young man right–I somehow quite took for granted the getting of my young woman. Was this because, for the portrait of Lady Barb, I felt appealed to so little in the name of shades? Shades would be decidedly neither of her general world nor of her particular consciousness: the image I had in view was a maiden nature that, after a fashion all its own, should show as fine and complete, show as neither coarse nor poor, show above all as a resultant of many causes, quite without them. I felt in short sure of Lady Barb, and I think there is no question about her, or about the depth of root she might strike in American soil, that I shouldn’t have been ready on the spot to answer. Such is the luck of the conception that imposes itself en bloc–or such at least the artist’s luck in face of it; such certainly, to begin with and “subjectively” speaking, is the great advantage of a character all of a piece: immediacy of representation, the best omens for felicity, then so honourably await it. It was Jackson Lemon and his shades, comparatively, and his comparative sense for shades, that, in the tale, most interested me. The one thing fine-drawn in his wife was that she had been able to care for him as he was: to almost every one and every thing else equally American, to almost every one and everything else so sensibly stamped, toned and warranted, she was to find herself quite otherwise affected. With her husband the law was reversed–he had, much rather, imputed authority and dignity, imputed weight and charm, to the antecedents of which she was so fine and so direct a consequence; his estimate, his appreciation of her being founded thus on a vision of innumerable close correspondences. It is that vision in him that is racked, and at so many fine points, when he finds their experiment come so near failure; all of which–at least as I seem to see it again so late in the day–lights his inward drama as with the never-quenched lamp of a sacred place. His wife’s, on the other hand, goes on in comparatively close darkness.
It is indeed late in the day that I thus project the ray of my critical lantern, however; for it comes over me even as I write that the general air in which most of these particular flowers of fancy bloom is an air we have pretty well ceased to breathe. “Lady Barbarina” is, as I have said, scarce a quarter of a century old; but so many of the perceived conditions in which it took birth have changed that the account of them embodied in that tale and its associates will already pass for ancient history. “Civilisation” and education move fast, after all, and too many things have happened; too many sorts of things, above all, seem more and more likely to happen. This multiplication of kinds of occurrences, I make no doubt, will promote the inspiration of observers and poets to come; but it may meanwhile well make for an effect of superannuation in any record of the leaner years. Jackson Lemon’s has become a more frequent adventure, and Lady Barbarina is to-day as much at her ease in New York, in Washington, at Newport, as in London or in Rome. If this is her case, moreover, it is still more that of little Mrs. Headway, of “The Siege of London” (1883), who suffers, I feel, by the sad circumstance that her type of complication, or, more exactly speaking perhaps, that of the gentlemen concerned with her, is no longer eminent, or at least salient. Both she and her friends have had too many companions and successors; so that to reinvest them with historic importance, with individual dignity, I have to think of them rather as brave precursors, as adventurous skirmishers and éclaireurs. This doesn’t diminish, I recognise, any interest that may reside in the form either of “The Siege” aforesaid or of its congeners “An International Episode,” “A Bundle of Letters” and “The Pension Beaurepas.” Or rather indeed perhaps I should distinguish among these things and, if presuming to claim for several some hint of the distinction we may see exemplified in any first-class art-museum, the distinction of the archaic subject treated by a “primitive” master of high finish, yet notice duly that others are no more “quaint” than need be. What has really happened, I think, is that the great international cases, those that bristle with fifty sorts of social reference and overflow, and, by the same token, with a hundred illustrations of social incoherence, are now equally taken for granted on all sides of the sea, have simply become incidents and examples of the mixture of manners, as I call it, and the thicker fusion: which may mean nothing more, in truth, but that social incoherence (with the sense for its opposite practically extinct among the nations) has at last got itself accepted, right and left, as normal.
So much, as I put it, for the great cases; but a certain freshness, I make out, still hangs strangely enough about the smaller and the more numerous; those to which we owe it that such anecdotes–in my general array–as “Pandora,” as “Fordham Castle,” as “Flickerbridge,” as “Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie,” are by no means false even to present appearances. “The Pension Beaurepas” is not alone, thanks to some of its associations, in glowing for me with the tender grace of a day that is dead; and yet, though the accidents and accessories, in such a picture, may have been marked for change, why shall not the essence of the matter, the situation of Mr. and Mrs. Ruck and their daughter at old Geneva–for there is of course a new, a newer Geneva–freely recur? I am careful to put it as a question, and all for a particular reason–the reason that, to be frank, I find myself, before the vast diluvian occidental presence in Europe, with its remorseless rising tide and its positive expression of almost nothing but quantity and number, deprived, on definite and ample grounds, of the precious faculty of confidence. This confidence was of old all instinctive, in face of the “common run” of appearances, the even then multitudinous, miscellaneous minor international phenomena, those of which the “short story,” as contemporaneously practised, could effect a fairly prompt and easy notation; but it is now unmistakable that to come forth, from whatever privacy, to almost any one of the great European highways, and more particularly perhaps to approach the ports of traffic for the lately-developed and so flourishing “southern route” from New York and Boston, is to encounter one of those big general questions that sturdily brush away the multiplication of small answers. “Who are they, what are they, whence and whither and why,” the “critic of life,” international or other, still, or more and more, asks himself, as he of course always asked, but with the actual difference that the reply that used to come so conveniently straight, “Why, they’re just the American vague variety of the dear old Anglo-Saxon race,” not only hangs fire and leaves him to wait and wonder, but really affects him as having for this act of deference (as to which he can’t choose, I admit) little more than a conscious mocking, baffling, in fact a just all but sinister, grimace. “Don’t you wish you knew, or even could know?” the inscrutable grin seems to convey; and with resources of cynicism behind it not in the least to be disturbed by any such cheap retort as “Don’t you wish that, on your side, you could say–or even, for your own convenience, so much as guess?”
For there is no communicating to the diluvian presence, on such a scale, any suspicion that convenience shall anywhere fail it: all its consciousness, on that general head, is that of itself representing and actively being the biggest convenience of the world. Little need to insist on the guarantee of subjective ease involved in such an attitude–the immense noted growth of which casts its chill, as I intimate, on the inquirer proceeding from settled premisses. He was aware formerly, when it came to an analysis, of all his presumptions; he had but to glance for an immemorial assurance at a dozen of the myriad “registers” disposed in the vestibules of bankers, the reading-rooms of hotels and “exchanges,” open on the most conspicuous table of visited palace and castle, to see them bristle with names of a more or less conceivable tradition. Queer enough often, whether in isolation or in association, were these gages of identity: but their queerness, not independent of some more or less traceable weird law, was exactly, after all, their most familiar note. They had their way of not breaking, through it all, the old sweet Anglo-Saxon spell; they had their way of not failing, when all was said, to suggest more communities and comprehensions than conundrums and “stunts.” He would be brave, however, who should say that any such ghost of a quiet conformity presides in the fulness of time over the interminable passenger-lists that proclaim the prosperity of the great conveying companies. If little books have their fates, little names–and long ones still more–have their eloquence; the emphasis of nominal reference in the general roll-call falls so strongly upon alien syllables and sounds, representative signs that fit into our “English” legend (as we were mainly conscious up to a few years since of having inherited that boon) scarcely more than if borrowed from the stony slabs of Nineveh. I may not here attempt to weigh the question of what these exotic symbols positively represent–a prodigious question, I cannot but think; I content myself with noting the difference made for fond fancy by the so rapidly established change, by the so considerable drop of old associations. The point is of one’s having the heart to assume that the Ninevites, as I may momentarily call them for convenience, are to be constantly taken as feeling in the same way about fifty associational matters as we used, in all satisfaction, to observe our earlier generations feel. One can but speak for one’s self, and my imagination, on the great highways, I find, doesn’t rise to such people, who are obviously beyond my divination. They strike one, above all, as giving no account of themselves in any terms already consecrated by human use; to this inarticulate state they probably form, collectively, the most unprecedented of monuments; abysmal the mystery of what they think, what they feel, what they want, what they suppose themselves to be saying. There would appear to be to-day no slim scrap even of a Daisy Miller to bridge the chasm; no light-footed Francie Dosson or Pandora Day to dance before one across the wavering plank.
I plead a blank of memory as to the origin of “The Siege of London”; I get no nearer to the birth of the idea than by recalling a certain agitation of the spirit, a lively irritation of the temper, under which, one evening early in the autumn of 1877, that is more than thirty years ago, I walked away from the close of a performance at the Théâtre Français. The play had been “Le Demi-Monde” of the younger Dumas, a masterpiece which I had not heard for the first time, but a particular feature of which on this occasion more than ever yet filled up the measure of my impatience. I could less than ever swallow it, Olivier de Jalin’s denunciation of Madame d’Ange; the play, from the beginning, marches toward it–it is the main hinge of the action; but the very perfection with which the part was rendered in those years by Delaunay (just as Croizette was pure perfection as Suzanne) seemed to have made me present at something inhuman and odious. It was the old story–that from the positive, the prodigious morality of such a painter of the sophisticated life as Dumas, not from anything else or less edifying, one must pray to be delivered. There are doubtless many possible views of such a dilemma as Olivier’s, the conflict of propriety for him between the man he likes and esteems and the woman he has loved but hasn’t esteemed and doesn’t, and as to whom he sees his friend blind, and, as he thinks, befooled; in consequence of which I am not re-judging his case. But I recover with a pensive pleasure that is almost all a pang the intensity with which I could then feel it; to the extent of wondering whether the general situation of the three persons concerned, or something like it, mightn’t be shown as taking quite another turn. Was there not conceivable an Olivier of our race, a different Olivier altogether, moved to ask himself how at such a juncture a “real gentleman,” distressed and perplexed, would yet most naturally act? The question would be interesting, it was easy to judge, if only by the light it might throw on some of the other, the antecedent and concomitant, phases of a real gentleman’s connexion “at all at all” with such a business and such a world. It remained with me, at all events, and was to prove in time the germ of “The Siege of London”; of the conception of which the state of mind so reflected strikes me as making, I confess, very ancient history.
Far away and unspeakably regretted the days, alas, or, more exactly, the nights, on which one could walk away from the Français under the spell of such fond convictions and such deep and agitating problems. The emphasis of the international proposition has indeed had time, as I say, to place itself elsewhere–if, for that matter, there be any emphasis or any proposition left at all–since the age when that particular pleasure seemed the keenest in life. A few months ago, one evening, I found myself withdrawing from the very temple and the supposedly sacred rites before these latter were a third over: beneath that haunted dome itself they seemed to have become at last so accessible, cynically making their bargain with them, to the profanations long kept at bay. Only, with that evolution of taste possible on the part of the old worshipper in question, what world-convulsions mightn’t, in general, well have taken place? Let me continue to speak of the rest of the matter here before us as therefore of almost prehistoric reference. I was to make, in due course, at any rate, my limited application of that glimmering image of a M. de Jalin with whom we might have more fellow-feeling, and I sent “The Siege of London” accordingly to my admirable friend the late Leslie Stephen, then editor of The Cornhill Magazine, where it appeared during the first two months of 1883. That is all I remember about it save always the particular London light in which at that period I invoked the muse and drove the pen and with which the compositions resulting strike my fancy to-day as so closely interfused that in reading over those of them I here preserve every aspect and element of my scene of application lives again for me. This scene consisted of small chambers in a small street that opened, at a very near corner, into Piccadilly and a view of the Green Park; I had dropped into them almost instantaneously, under the accepted heavy pressure of the autumnal London of 1876, and was to sit scribbling in them for nearly ten years. The big human rumble of Piccadilly (all human and equine then and long after) was close at hand; I liked to think that Thackeray’s Curzon Street, in which Becky Sharp, or rather Mrs. Rawdon Crawley, had lived, was not much further off: I thought of it preponderantly, in my comings and goings, as Becky’s and her creator’s; just as I was to find fifty other London neighbourhoods speak to me almost only with the voice, the thousand voices, of Dickens.
A “great house,” forming the south-west corner of Piccadilly and with its long and practically featureless side, continued by the high wall of its ample court, opposite my open-eyed windows, gloomed, in dusty brick, as the extent of my view, but with a vast convenient neutrality which I found, soon enough, protective and not inquisitive, so that whatever there was of my sedentary life and regular habits took a sort of local wealth of colour from the special greyish-brown tone of the surface always before me. This surface hung there like the most voluminous of curtains–it masked the very stage of the great theatre of the town. To sit for certain hours at one’s desk before it was somehow to occupy in the most suitable way in the world the proportionately ample interacts of the mightiest of dramas. When I went out it was as if the curtain rose; so that, to repeat, I think of my tolerably copious artistry of that time as all the fruit of the interacts, with the curtain more or less quietly down and with the tuning of fiddles and only the vague rumble of shifted scenery playing round it and through it. There were absences of course: “A Bundle of Letters,” here reproduced, took birth (1879) during certain autumn weeks spent in Paris, where a friend of those years, a young London journalist, the late Theodore Child (of Merton College, Oxford, who was to die, prematurely and lamentedly, during a gallant professional tour of exploration in Persia) was fondly carrying on, under difficulties, an Anglo-American periodical called The Parisian. He invited me to contribute to its pages, and, again, a small sharply-resonant street off the Rue de la Paix, where all existence somehow went on as a repercussion from well-brushed asphalt, lives for me as the scene of my response. A snowstorm of a violence rare in Paris raged, I recollect, for many hours, for the greater part of a couple of days; muffling me noiselessly into the small shiny shabby salon of an hôtel garni with a droll combinational, almost cosmic sign, and promoting (it comes back to me) a deep concentration, an unusual straightness of labour. “A Bundle of Letters” was written in a single long session and, the temperature apart, at a “heat.” Its companion-piece, “The Point of View,” marks not less for memory, I find, an excursion associated with diligence. I have no heart to “go into” these mere ingenious and more or less effective pleasantries to any tune beyond this of glancing at the other, the extinct, actualities they hold up the glimmering taper to. They are still faintly scented, doubtless, with something of that authenticity, and a living work of art, however limited, pretends always, as for part of its grace, to some good faith of community, however indirect, with its period and place.
To read over “The Point of View” has opened up for me, I confess, no contentious vista whatever, nothing but the faded iridescence of a far-away Washington spring. This, in 1881, had been my first glimpse of that interesting city, where I then spent a few weeks, a visit repeated the following year; and I remember beginning on the first occasion a short imaginary correspondence after the pattern of the then already published “Bundle of Letters.” After an absence from America of some five years I inevitably, on the spot again, had impressions; and not less inevitably and promptly, I remember, recognised the truth that if one really was subject to such, and to a good many, and they were at all worth entertaining or imparting, one was likely to bristle with a quite proportionately smaller number of neat and complacent conclusions. Impressions could mutually conflict–which was exactly the interest of them; whereas in ninety-nine connexions out of a hundred, conclusions could but raise the wind for large groups of persons incapable, to all appearance, of intelligently opening their eyes, though much occupied, to make up for it, with opening, and all vociferously, their mouths. “The Point of View,” in fine, I fear, was but to commemorate, punctually enough, its author’s perverse and incurable disposition to interest himself less in his own (always so quickly stale) experience, under certain sorts of pressure, than in that of conceivable fellow mortals, which might be mysteriously and refreshingly different. The thing indeed may also serve, in its degree, as a punctual small monument to a recognition that was never to fail; that of the nature of the burden bequeathed by such rash multiplications of the candid consciousness. They are splendid for experience, the multiplications, each in its way an intensifier; but expression, liking things above all to be made comfortable and easy for it, views them askance. The case remains, none the less–alas for this faculty!–that no representation of life worth speaking of can go forward without them. All of which will perhaps be judged to have but a strained relevance, however, to the fact that, though the design of the short imaginary correspondence I speak of was interrupted during those first weeks in Washington, a second visit, the following spring, served it better; I had kept the thread (through a return to London and a return again thence) and, if I remember rightly, I brought my small scheme to a climax on the spot. The finished thing appeared in The Century Magazine of December 1882. I recently had the chance to “look up,” for old sake’s sake, that momentary seat of the good-humoured satiric muse–the seats of the muses, even when the merest flutter of one of their robes has been involved, losing no scrap of sanctity for me, I profess, by the accident of my having myself had the honour to offer the visitant the chair. The chair I had anciently been able to push forward in Washington had not, I found, survived the ravage of nearly thirty years; its place knew it no more, infirm and precarious dependence as it had struck me even at the time as being. So, quite exquisitely, as whenever that lapse occurs, the lost presence, the obliterated scene, translated itself for me at last into terms of almost more than earthly beauty and poetry. Fifty intimate figures and objects flushed with life in the other time had passed away since then; a great chapter of history had made itself, tremendous things had happened; the ghosts of old cherished names, of old tragedies, of old comedies, even of old mere mystifications, had marshalled their array. Only the little rounded composition remained; which glowed, ever so strangely, like a swinging playing lantern, with a light that brought out the past. The past had been most concretely that vanished and slightly sordid tenement of the current housing of the muse. I had had “rooms” in it, and I could remember how the rooms, how the whole place, a nest of rickety tables and chairs, lame and disqualified utensils of every sort, and of smiling shuffling procrastinating persons of colour, had exhaled for me, to pungency, the domestic spirit of the “old South.” I had nursed the unmistakable scent; I had read history by its aid; I had learned more than I could say of what had anciently been the matter under the reign of the great problem of persons of colour–so badly the matter, by my vision, that a deluge of blood and fire and tears had been needed to correct it. These complacencies of perception swarmed for me again–while yet no brick of the little old temple of the revelation stood on another.
I could scarcely have said where the bricks had stood; the other, the superseded Washington of the exquisite springtime, of the earlier initiation, of the hovering plaintive ghosts, reduced itself to a great vague blur of warmth and colour and fragrance. It kept flushing through the present–very much as if I had had my small secret for making it. I could turn on my finger the magic ring–it was strange how slight a thing, a mere handful of pages of light persistent prose, could act as that talisman. So, at all events, I like to date, and essentially to synchronise, these sincere little studies in general. Nothing perhaps can vouch better for their having applied to conditions that superficially at least have changed than the fact that to fond memory–I speak of my own–there hangs about the last item on this list, the picture of “The Pension Beaurepas,” the unearthly poetry, as I call it, of the Paquis, and that I should yet have to plunge into gulfs of explanation as to where and what the Paquis may have been. An old-world nook of one’s youth was so named, a scrap of the lakeside fringe of ancient Geneva, now practically quite reformed and improved away. The Pension Beaurepas, across the years, looks to me prodigiously archaic and incredibly quaint; I ask myself why, at the time, I so wasted the precious treasure of a sense that absolutely primitive pre-revolutionary “Europe” had never really been swept out of its cupboards, shaken out of its curtains, thumped out of its mattresses. The echoes of the eighteenth century, to go no further back, must have been thick on its rather greasy stone staircase, up down which, unconscious of the character of the fine old wrought-iron rampe, as of most other things in the world besides, Mr. and Mrs. and Miss Ruck, to speak only of them, used mournfully to straggle. But I mustn’t really so much as speak only, as even speak, of them. They would carry me too far back–which possibly outlived verisimilitude in them is what I wish to acknowledge.
It is well known that there are few sights in the world more brilliant than the main avenues of Hyde Park of a fine afternoon in June. This was quite the opinion of two persons who on a beautiful day at the beginning of that month, four years ago, had established themselves under the great trees in a couple of iron chairs–the big ones with arms, for which, if I mistake not, you pay twopence–and sat there with the slow procession of the Drive behind them while their faces were turned to the more vivid agitation of the Row. Lost in the multitude of observers they belonged, superficially at least, to that class of persons who, wherever they may be, rank rather with the spectators than with the spectacle. They were quiet simple elderly, of aspect somewhat neutral; you would have liked them extremely but would scarcely have noticed them. It is to them, obscure in all that shining host, that we must nevertheless give our attention. On which the reader is begged to have confidence; he is not asked to make vain concessions. It was indicated touchingly in the faces of our friends that they were growing old together and were fond enough of each other’s company not to object–since it was a condition–even to that. The reader will have guessed that they were husband and wife; and perhaps while he is about it will further have guessed that they were of that nationality for which Hyde Park at the height of the season is most completely illustrative. They were native aliens, so to speak, and people at once so initiated and so detached could only be Americans. This reflexion indeed you would have made only after some delay; for it must be allowed that they bristled with none of those modern signs that carry out the tradition of the old indigenous war-paint and feathers. They had the American turn of mind, but that was very secret; and to your eye–if your eye had cared about it–they might have been either intimately British or more remotely foreign. It was as if they studied, for convenience, to be superficially colourless; their colour was all in their talk. They were not in the least verdant; they were grey rather, of monotonous hue. If they were interested in the riders, the horses, the walkers, the great exhibition of English wealth and health, beauty, luxury and leisure, it was because all this referred itself to other impressions, because they had the key to almost everything that needed an answer–because, in a word, they were able to compare. They had not arrived, they had only returned; and recognition much more than surprise was expressed in their quiet eyes. Dexter Freer and his wife belonged in fine to that great company of Americans who are constantly “passing through” London. Enjoyers of a fortune of which, from any standpoint, the limits were plainly visible, they were unable to treat themselves to that commonest form of ease, the ease of living at home. They found it much more possible to economise at Dresden or Florence than at Buffalo or Minneapolis. The saving was greater and the strain was less. From Dresden, from Florence, moreover, they constantly made excursions that wouldn’t have been possible with an excess of territory; and it is even to be feared they practised some eccentricities of thrift. They came to London to buy their portmanteaus, their toothbrushes, their writing-paper; they occasionally even recrossed the Atlantic westward to assure themselves that westward prices were still the same. They were eminently a social pair; their interests were mainly personal. Their curiosity was so invidiously human that they were supposed to be too addicted to gossip, and they certainly kept up their acquaintance with the affairs of other people. They had friends in every country, in every town; and it was not their fault if people told them their secrets. Dexter Freer was a tall lean man, with an interested eye and a nose that rather drooped than aspired, yet was salient withal. He brushed his hair, which was streaked with white, forward over his ears and into those locks represented in the portraits of clean-shaven gentlemen who flourished fifty years ago and wore an old-fashioned neckcloth and gaiters. His wife, a small plump person, rather polished than naturally fresh, with a white face and hair still evenly black, smiled perpetually, but had never laughed since the death of a son whom she had lost ten years after her marriage. Her husband, on the other hand, who was usually quite grave, indulged on great occasions in resounding mirth. People confided in her less than in him, but that mattered little, as she confided much in herself. Her dress, which was always black or dark grey, was so harmoniously simple that you could see she was fond of it; it was never smart by accident or by fear. She was full of intentions of the most judicious sort and, though perpetually moving about the world, had the air of waiting for every one else to pass. She was celebrated for the promptitude with which she made her sitting-room at an inn, where she might be spending a night or two, appear a real temple of memory. With books, flowers, photographs, draperies, rapidly distributed–she had even a way, for the most part, of not failing of a piano–the place seemed almost hereditary. The pair were just back from America, where they had spent three months, and now were able to face the world with something of the elation of people who have been justified of a stiff conviction. They had found their native land quite ruinous.
“There he is again!” said Mr. Freer, following with his eyes a young man who passed along the Row, riding slowly. “That’s a beautiful thoroughbred!”
Mrs. Freer asked idle questions only when she wanted time to think. At present she had simply to look and see who it was her husband meant. “The horse is too big,” she remarked in a moment.
“You mean the rider’s too small,” her husband returned. “He’s mounted on his millions.”
“Is it really millions?”
“Seven or eight, they tell me.”
“How disgusting!” It was so that Mrs. Freer usually spoke of the large fortunes of the day. “I wish he’d see us,” she added.
“He does see us, but he doesn’t like to look at us. He’s too conscious. He isn’t easy.”
“Too conscious of his big horse?”
“Yes and of his big fortune. He’s rather ashamed of that.”
“This is an odd place to hang one’s head in,” said Mrs. Freer.
“I’m not so sure. He’ll find people here richer than himself, and other big horses in plenty, and that will cheer him up. Perhaps too he’s looking for that girl.”
“The one we heard about? He can’t be such a fool.”
“He isn’t a fool,” said Dexter Freer. “If he’s thinking of her he has some good reason.”
“I wonder what Mary Lemon would say,” his wife pursued.
“She’d say it was all right if he should do it. She thinks he can do no wrong. He’s immensely fond of her.”
“I shan’t be sure of that,” said Mrs. Freer, “if he takes home a wife who’ll despise her.”
“Why should the girl despise her? She’s a delightful woman.”
“The girl will never know it–and if she should it would make no difference: she’ll despise everything.”
“I don’t believe it, my dear; she’ll like some things very much. Every one will be very nice to her.”
“She’ll despise them all the more. But we’re speaking as if it were all arranged. I don’t believe in it at all,” said Mrs. Freer.
“Well, something of the sort–in this case or in some other–is sure to happen sooner or later,” her husband replied, turning round a little toward the back-water, as it were, formed, near the entrance to the Park, by the confluence of the two great vistas of the Drive and the Row.
Our friends had turned their backs, as I have said, to the solemn revolution of wheels and the densely-packed mass of spectators who had chosen that aspect of the show. These spectators were now agitated by a unanimous impulse: the pushing-back of chairs, the shuffle of feet, the rustle of garments and the deepening murmur of voices sufficiently expressed it. Royalty was approaching–royalty was passing–royalty had passed. Mr. Freer turned his head and his ear a little, but failed to alter his position further, and his wife took no notice of the flurry. They had seen royalty pass, all over Europe, and they knew it passed very quickly. Sometimes it came back; sometimes it didn’t; more than once they had seen it pass for the last time. They were veteran tourists and they knew as perfectly as regular attendants at complicated church-services when to get up and when to remain seated. Mr. Freer went on with his proposition. “Some young fellow’s certain to do it, and one of these girls is certain to take the risk. They must take risks over here more and more.”
“The girls, I’ve no doubt, will be glad enough; they have had very little chance as yet. But I don’t want Jackson to begin.”
“Do you know I rather think I do,” said Dexter Freer. “It will be so very amusing.”
“For us perhaps, but not for him. He’ll repent of it and be wretched. He’s too good for that.”
“Wretched never! He has no capacity for wretchedness, and that’s why he can afford to risk it.”
“He’ll have to make great concessions,” Mrs. Freer persisted.
“He won’t make one.”
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