The Figure in the Carpet, by Henry James

Chapter 3

“I don’t quite know how to explain it to you,” he said, “but it was the very fact that your notice of my book had a spice of intelligence, it was just your exceptional sharpness, that produced the feeling — a very old story with me, I beg you to believe — under the momentary influence of which I used in speaking to that good lady the words you so naturally resent. I don’t read the things in the newspapers unless they’re thrust upon me as that one was — it’s always one’s best friend who does it! But I used to read them sometimes — ten years ago. I dare say they were in general rather stupider then; at any rate it always struck me they missed my little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins. Whenever since I’ve happened to have a glimpse of them they were still blazing away — still missing it, I mean, deliciously. YOU miss it, my dear fellow, with inimitable assurance; the fact of your being awfully clever and your article’s being awfully nice doesn’t make a hair’s breadth of difference. It’s quite with you rising young men,” Vereker laughed, “that I feel most what a failure I am!”

I listened with keen interest; it grew keener as he talked. “YOU a failure — heavens! What then may your ‘little point’ happen to be?”

“Have I got to TELL you, after all these years and labours?” There was something in the friendly reproach of this — jocosely exaggerated — that made me, as an ardent young seeker for truth, blush to the roots of my hair. I’m as much in the dark as ever, though I’ve grown used in a sense to my obtuseness; at that moment, however, Vereker’s happy accent made me appear to myself, and probably to him, a rare dunce. I was on the point of exclaiming “Ah yes, don’t tell me: for my honour, for that of the craft, don’t!” when he went on in a manner that showed he had read my thought and had his own idea of the probability of our some day redeeming ourselves. “By my little point I mean — what shall I call it? — the particular thing I’ve written my books most FOR. Isn’t there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn’t write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely? Well, it’s THAT!”

I considered a moment — that is I followed at a respectful distance, rather gasping. I was fascinated — easily, you’ll say; but I wasn’t going after all to be put off my guard. “Your description’s certainly beautiful, but it doesn’t make what you describe very distinct.”

“I promise you it would be distinct if it should dawn on you at all.” I saw that the charm of our topic overflowed for my companion into an emotion as lively as my own. “At any rate,” he went on, “I can speak for myself: there’s an idea in my work without which I wouldn’t have given a straw for the whole job. It’s the finest fullest intention of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a triumph of patience, of ingenuity. I ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does say it is precisely what we’re talking about. It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it’s naturally the thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me,” my visitor added, smiling, “even as the thing for the critic to find.”

This seemed a responsibility indeed. “You call it a little trick?”

“That’s only my little modesty. It’s really an exquisite scheme.”

“And you hold that you’ve carried the scheme out?”

“The way I’ve carried it out is the thing in life I think a bit well of myself for.”

I had a pause. “Don’t you think you ought — just a trifle — to assist the critic?”

“Assist him? What else have I done with every stroke of my pen? I’ve shouted my intention in his great blank face!” At this, laughing out again, Vereker laid his hand on my shoulder to show the allusion wasn’t to my personal appearance.

“But you talk about the initiated. There must therefore, you see, BE initiation.”

“What else in heaven’s name is criticism supposed to be?” I’m afraid I coloured at this too; but I took refuge in repeating that his account of his silver lining was poor in something or other that a plain man knows things by. “That’s only because you’ve never had a glimpse of it,” he returned. “If you had had one the element in question would soon have become practically all you’d see. To me it’s exactly as palpable as the marble of this chimney. Besides, the critic just ISN’T a plain man: if he were, pray, what would he be doing in his neighbour’s garden? You’re anything but a plain man yourself, and the very raison d’etre of you all is that you’re little demons of subtlety. If my great affair’s a secret, that’s only because it’s a secret in spite of itself — the amazing event has made it one. I not only never took the smallest precaution to keep it so, but never dreamed of any such accident. If I had I shouldn’t in advance have had the heart to go on. As it was, I only became aware little by little, and meanwhile I had done my work.”

“And now you quite like it?” I risked.

“My work?”

“Your secret. It’s the same thing.”

“Your guessing that,” Vereker replied, “is a proof that you’re as clever as I say!” I was encouraged by this to remark that he would clearly be pained to part with it, and he confessed that it was indeed with him now the great amusement of life. “I live almost to see if it will ever be detected.” He looked at me for a jesting challenge; something far within his eyes seemed to peep out. “But I needn’t worry — it won’t!”

“You fire me as I’ve never been fired,” I declared; “you make me determined to do or die.” Then I asked: “Is it a kind of esoteric message?”

His countenance fell at this — he put out his hand as if to bid me good-night. “Ah my dear fellow, it can’t be described in cheap journalese!”

I knew of course he’d be awfully fastidious, but our talk had made me feel how much his nerves were exposed. I was unsatisfied — I kept hold of his hand. “I won’t make use of the expression then,” I said, “in the article in which I shall eventually announce my discovery, though I dare say I shall have hard work to do without it. But meanwhile, just to hasten that difficult birth, can’t you give a fellow a clue?” I felt much more at my ease.

“My whole lucid effort gives him the clue — every page and line and letter. The thing’s as concrete there as a bird in a cage, a bait on a hook, a piece of cheese in a mouse-trap. It’s stuck into every volume as your foot is stuck into your shoe. It governs every line, it chooses every word, it dots every i, it places every comma.”

I scratched my head. “Is it something in the style or something in the thought? An element of form or an element of feeling?”

He indulgently shook my hand again, and I felt my questions to be crude and my distinctions pitiful. “Good-night, my dear boy — don’t bother about it. After all, you do like a fellow.”

“And a little intelligence might spoil it?” I still detained him.

He hesitated. “Well, you’ve got a heart in your body. Is that an element of form or an element of feeling? What I contend that nobody has ever mentioned in my work is the organ of life.”

“I see — it’s some idea ABOUT life, some sort of philosophy. Unless it be,” I added with the eagerness of a thought perhaps still happier, “some kind of game you’re up to with your style, something you’re after in the language. Perhaps it’s a preference for the letter P!” I ventured profanely to break out. “Papa, potatoes, prunes — that sort of thing?” He was suitably indulgent: he only said I hadn’t got the right letter. But his amusement was over; I could see he was bored. There was nevertheless something else I had absolutely to learn. “Should you be able, pen in hand, to state it clearly yourself — to name it, phrase it, formulate it?”

“Oh,” he almost passionately sighed, “if I were only, pen in hand, one of YOU chaps!”

“That would be a great chance for you of course. But why should you despise us chaps for not doing what you can’t do yourself?”

“Can’t do?” He opened his eyes. “Haven’t I done it in twenty volumes? I do it in my way,” he continued. “Go YOU and don’t do it in yours.”

“Ours is so devilish difficult,” I weakly observed.

“So’s mine. We each choose our own. There’s no compulsion. You won’t come down and smoke?”

“No. I want to think this thing out.”

“You’ll tell me then in the morning that you’ve laid me bare?”

“I’ll see what I can do; I’ll sleep on it. But just one word more,” I added. We had left the room — I walked again with him a few steps along the passage. “This extraordinary ‘general intention,’ as you call it — for that’s the most vivid description I can induce you to make of it — is then, generally, a sort of buried treasure?”

His face lighted. “Yes, call it that, though it’s perhaps not for me to do so.”

“Nonsense!” I laughed. “You know you’re hugely proud of it.”

“Well, I didn’t propose to tell you so; but it IS the joy of my soul!”

“You mean it’s a beauty so rare, so great?”

He waited a little again. “The loveliest thing in the world!” We had stopped, and on these words he left me; but at the end of the corridor, while I looked after him rather yearningly, he turned and caught sight of my puzzled face. It made him earnestly, indeed I thought quite anxiously, shake his head and wave his finger “Give it up — give it up!”

This wasn’t a challenge — it was fatherly advice. If I had had one of his books at hand I’d have repeated my recent act of faith — I’d have spent half the night with him. At three o’clock in the morning, not sleeping, remembering moreover how indispensable he was to Lady Jane, I stole down to the library with a candle. There wasn’t, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:47