The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James

Chapter II

As they all came out from luncheon General Fancourt took hold of him with an “I say, I want you to know my girl!” as if the idea had just occurred to him and he hadn’t spoken of it before. With the other hand he possessed himself all paternally of the young lady. “You know all about him. I’ve seen you with his books. She reads everything — everything!” he went on to Paul. The girl smiled at him and then laughed at her father. The General turned away and his daughter spoke — “Isn’t papa delightful?”

“He is indeed, Miss Fancourt.”

“As if I read you because I read ‘everything’!”

“Oh I don’t mean for saying that,” said Paul Overt. “I liked him from the moment he began to be kind to me. Then he promised me this privilege.”

“It isn’t for you he means it — it’s for me. If you flatter yourself that he thinks of anything in life but me you’ll find you’re mistaken. He introduces every one. He thinks me insatiable.”

“You speak just like him,” laughed our youth.

“Ah but sometimes I want to” — and the girl coloured. “I don’t read everything — I read very little. But I have read you.”

“Suppose we go into the gallery,” said Paul Overt. She pleased him greatly, not so much because of this last remark — though that of course was not too disconcerting — as because, seated opposite to him at luncheon, she had given him for half an hour the impression of her beautiful face. Something else had come with it — a sense of generosity, of an enthusiasm which, unlike many enthusiasms, was not all manner. That was not spoiled for him by his seeing that the repast had placed her again in familiar contact with Henry St. George. Sitting next her this celebrity was also opposite our young man, who had been able to note that he multiplied the attentions lately brought by his wife to the General’s notice. Paul Overt had gathered as well that this lady was not in the least discomposed by these fond excesses and that she gave every sign of an unclouded spirit. She had Lord Masham on one side of her and on the other the accomplished Mr. Mulliner, editor of the new high-class lively evening paper which was expected to meet a want felt in circles increasingly conscious that Conservatism must be made amusing, and unconvinced when assured by those of another political colour that it was already amusing enough. At the end of an hour spent in her company Paul Overt thought her still prettier than at the first radiation, and if her profane allusions to her husband’s work had not still rung in his ears he should have liked her — so far as it could be a question of that in connexion with a woman to whom he had not yet spoken and to whom probably he should never speak if it were left to her. Pretty women were a clear need to this genius, and for the hour it was Miss Fancourt who supplied the want. If Overt had promised himself a closer view the occasion was now of the best, and it brought consequences felt by the young man as important. He saw more in St. George’s face, which he liked the better for its not having told its whole story in the first three minutes. That story came out as one read, in short instalments — it was excusable that one’s analogies should be somewhat professional — and the text was a style considerably involved, a language not easy to translate at sight. There were shades of meaning in it and a vague perspective of history which receded as you advanced. Two facts Paul had particularly heeded. The first of these was that he liked the measured mask much better at inscrutable rest than in social agitation; its almost convulsive smile above all displeased him (as much as any impression from that source could), whereas the quiet face had a charm that grew in proportion as stillness settled again. The change to the expression of gaiety excited, he made out, very much the private protest of a person sitting gratefully in the twilight when the lamp is brought in too soon. His second reflexion was that, though generally averse to the flagrant use of ingratiating arts by a man of age “making up” to a pretty girl, he was not in this case too painfully affected: which seemed to prove either that St. George had a light hand or the air of being younger than he was, or else that Miss Fancourt’s own manner somehow made everything right.

Overt walked with her into the gallery, and they strolled to the end of it, looking at the pictures, the cabinets, the charming vista, which harmonised with the prospect of the summer afternoon, resembling it by a long brightness, with great divans and old chairs that figured hours of rest. Such a place as that had the added merit of giving those who came into it plenty to talk about. Miss Fancourt sat down with her new acquaintance on a flowered sofa, the cushions of which, very numerous, were tight ancient cubes of many sizes, and presently said: “I’m so glad to have a chance to thank you.”

“To thank me —?” He had to wonder.

“I liked your book so much. I think it splendid.”

She sat there smiling at him, and he never asked himself which book she meant; for after all he had written three or four. That seemed a vulgar detail, and he wasn’t even gratified by the idea of the pleasure she told him — her handsome bright face told him — he had given her. The feeling she appealed to, or at any rate the feeling she excited, was something larger, something that had little to do with any quickened pulsation of his own vanity. It was responsive admiration of the life she embodied, the young purity and richness of which appeared to imply that real success was to resemble that, to live, to bloom, to present the perfection of a fine type, not to have hammered out headachy fancies with a bent back at an ink-stained table. While her grey eyes rested on him — there was a wideish space between these, and the division of her rich-coloured hair, so thick that it ventured to be smooth, made a free arch above them — he was almost ashamed of that exercise of the pen which it was her present inclination to commend. He was conscious he should have liked better to please her in some other way. The lines of her face were those of a woman grown, but the child lingered on in her complexion and in the sweetness of her mouth. Above all she was natural — that was indubitable now; more natural than he had supposed at first, perhaps on account of her aesthetic toggery, which was conventionally unconventional, suggesting what he might have called a tortuous spontaneity. He had feared that sort of thing in other cases, and his fears had been justified; for, though he was an artist to the essence, the modern reactionary nymph, with the brambles of the woodland caught in her folds and a look as if the satyrs had toyed with her hair, made him shrink not as a man of starch and patent leather, but as a man potentially himself a poet or even a faun. The girl was really more candid than her costume, and the best proof of it was her supposing her liberal character suited by any uniform. This was a fallacy, since if she was draped as a pessimist he was sure she liked the taste of life. He thanked her for her appreciation — aware at the same time that he didn’t appear to thank her enough and that she might think him ungracious. He was afraid she would ask him to explain something he had written, and he always winced at that — perhaps too timidly — for to his own ear the explanation of a work of art sounded fatuous. But he liked her so much as to feel a confidence that in the long run he should be able to show her he wasn’t rudely evasive. Moreover she surely wasn’t quick to take offence, wasn’t irritable; she could be trusted to wait. So when he said to her, “Ah don’t talk of anything I’ve done, don’t talk of it here; there’s another man in the house who’s the actuality!” — when he uttered this short sincere protest it was with the sense that she would see in the words neither mock humility nor the impatience of a successful man bored with praise.

“You mean Mr. St. George — isn’t he delightful?”

Paul Overt met her eyes, which had a cool morning-light that would have half-broken his heart if he hadn’t been so young. “Alas I don’t know him. I only admire him at a distance.”

“Oh you must know him — he wants so to talk to you,” returned Miss Fancourt, who evidently had the habit of saying the things that, by her quick calculation, would give people pleasure. Paul saw how she would always calculate on everything’s being simple between others.

“I shouldn’t have supposed he knew anything about me,” he professed.

“He does then — everything. And if he didn’t I should be able to tell him.”

“To tell him everything?” our friend smiled.

“You talk just like the people in your book!” she answered.

“Then they must all talk alike.”

She thought a moment, not a bit disconcerted. “Well, it must be so difficult. Mr. St. George tells me it is — terribly. I’ve tried too — and I find it so. I’ve tried to write a novel.”

“Mr. St. George oughtn’t to discourage you,” Paul went so far as to say.

“You do much more — when you wear that expression.”

“Well, after all, why try to be an artist?” the young man pursued. “It’s so poor — so poor!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Miss Fancourt, who looked grave.

“I mean as compared with being a person of action — as living your works.”

“But what’s art but an intense life — if it be real?” she asked. “I think it’s the only one — everything else is so clumsy!” Her companion laughed, and she brought out with her charming serenity what next struck her. “It’s so interesting to meet so many celebrated people.”

“So I should think — but surely it isn’t new to you.”

“Why I’ve never seen any one — any one: living always in Asia.”

The way she talked of Asia somehow enchanted him. “But doesn’t that continent swarm with great figures? Haven’t you administered provinces in India and had captive rajahs and tributary princes chained to your car?”

It was as if she didn’t care even should he amuse himself at her cost. “I was with my father, after I left school to go out there. It was delightful being with him — we’re alone together in the world, he and I— but there was none of the society I like best. One never heard of a picture — never of a book, except bad ones.”

“Never of a picture? Why, wasn’t all life a picture?”

She looked over the delightful place where they sat. “Nothing to compare to this. I adore England!” she cried.

It fairly stirred in him the sacred chord. “Ah of course I don’t deny that we must do something with her, poor old dear, yet.”

“She hasn’t been touched, really,” said the girl.

“Did Mr. St. George say that?”

There was a small and, as he felt, harmless spark of irony in his question; which, however, she answered very simply, not noticing the insinuation. “Yes, he says England hasn’t been touched — not considering all there is,” she went on eagerly. “He’s so interesting about our country. To listen to him makes one want so to do something.”

“It would make me want to,” said Paul Overt, feeling strongly, on the instant, the suggestion of what she said and that of the emotion with which she said it, and well aware of what an incentive, on St. George’s lips, such a speech might be.

“Oh you — as if you hadn’t! I should like so to hear you talk together,” she added ardently.

“That’s very genial of you; but he’d have it all his own way. I’m prostrate before him.”

She had an air of earnestness. “Do you think then he’s so perfect?”

“Far from it. Some of his later books seem to me of a queerness —!”

“Yes, yes — he knows that.”

Paul Overt stared. “That they seem to me of a queerness —!”

“Well yes, or at any rate that they’re not what they should be. He told me he didn’t esteem them. He has told me such wonderful things — he’s so interesting.”

There was a certain shock for Paul Overt in the knowledge that the fine genius they were talking of had been reduced to so explicit a confession and had made it, in his misery, to the first comer; for though Miss Fancourt was charming what was she after all but an immature girl encountered at a country-house? Yet precisely this was part of the sentiment he himself had just expressed: he would make way completely for the poor peccable great man not because he didn’t read him clear, but altogether because he did. His consideration was half composed of tenderness for superficialities which he was sure their perpetrator judged privately, judged more ferociously than any one, and which represented some tragic intellectual secret. He would have his reasons for his psychology a fleur de peau, and these reasons could only be cruel ones, such as would make him dearer to those who already were fond of him. “You excite my envy. I have my reserves, I discriminate — but I love him,” Paul said in a moment. “And seeing him for the first time this way is a great event for me.”

“How momentous — how magnificent!” cried the girl. “How delicious to bring you together!”

“Your doing it — that makes it perfect,” our friend returned.

“He’s as eager as you,” she went on. “But it’s so odd you shouldn’t have met.”

“It’s not really so odd as it strikes you. I’ve been out of England so much — made repeated absences all these last years.”

She took this in with interest. “And yet you write of it as well as if you were always here.”

“It’s just the being away perhaps. At any rate the best bits, I suspect, are those that were done in dreary places abroad.”

“And why were they dreary?”

“Because they were health-resorts — where my poor mother was dying.”

“Your poor mother?” — she was all sweet wonder.

“We went from place to place to help her to get better. But she never did. To the deadly Riviera (I hate it!) to the high Alps, to Algiers, and far away — a hideous journey — to Colorado.”

“And she isn’t better?” Miss Fancourt went on.

“She died a year ago.”

“Really? — like mine! Only that’s years since. Some day you must tell me about your mother,” she added.

He could at first, on this, only gaze at her. “What right things you say! If you say them to St. George I don’t wonder he’s in bondage.”

It pulled her up for a moment. “I don’t know what you mean. He doesn’t make speeches and professions at all — he isn’t ridiculous.”

“I’m afraid you consider then that I am.”

“No, I don’t” — she spoke it rather shortly. And then she added: “He understands — understands everything.”

The young man was on the point of saying jocosely: “And I don’t — is that it?” But these words, in time, changed themselves to others slightly less trivial: “Do you suppose he understands his wife?”

Miss Fancourt made no direct answer, but after a moment’s hesitation put it: “Isn’t she charming?”

“Not in the least!”

“Here he comes. Now you must know him,” she went on. A small group of visitors had gathered at the other end of the gallery and had been there overtaken by Henry St. George, who strolled in from a neighbouring room. He stood near them a moment, not falling into the talk but taking up an old miniature from a table and vaguely regarding it. At the end of a minute he became aware of Miss Fancourt and her companion in the distance; whereupon, laying down his miniature, he approached them with the same procrastinating air, his hands in his pockets and his eyes turned, right and left, to the pictures. The gallery was so long that this transit took some little time, especially as there was a moment when he stopped to admire the fine Gainsborough. “He says Mrs. St. George has been the making of him,” the girl continued in a voice slightly lowered.

“Ah he’s often obscure!” Paul laughed.

“Obscure?” she repeated as if she heard it for the first time. Her eyes rested on her other friend, and it wasn’t lost upon Paul that they appeared to send out great shafts of softness. “He’s going to speak to us!” she fondly breathed. There was a sort of rapture in her voice, and our friend was startled. “Bless my soul, does she care for him like that? — is she in love with him?” he mentally enquired. “Didn’t I tell you he was eager?” she had meanwhile asked of him.

“It’s eagerness dissimulated,” the young man returned as the subject of their observation lingered before his Gainsborough. “He edges toward us shyly. Does he mean that she saved him by burning that book?”

“That book? what book did she burn?” The girl quickly turned her face to him.

“Hasn’t he told you then?”

“Not a word.”

“Then he doesn’t tell you everything!” Paul had guessed that she pretty much supposed he did. The great man had now resumed his course and come nearer; in spite of which his more qualified admirer risked a profane observation: “St. George and the Dragon is what the anecdote suggests!”

His companion, however, didn’t hear it; she smiled at the dragon’s adversary. “He is eager — he is!” she insisted.

“Eager for you — yes.”

But meanwhile she had called out: “I’m sure you want to know Mr. Overt. You’ll be great friends, and it will always be delightful to me to remember I was here when you first met and that I had something to do with it.”

There was a freshness of intention in the words that carried them off; nevertheless our young man was sorry for Henry St. George, as he was sorry at any time for any person publicly invited to be responsive and delightful. He would have been so touched to believe that a man he deeply admired should care a straw for him that he wouldn’t play with such a presumption if it were possibly vain. In a single glance of the eye of the pardonable Master he read — having the sort of divination that belonged to his talent — that this personage had ever a store of friendly patience, which was part of his rich outfit, but was versed in no printed page of a rising scribbler. There was even a relief, a simplification, in that: liking him so much already for what he had done, how could one have liked him any more for a perception which must at the best have been vague? Paul Overt got up, trying to show his compassion, but at the same instant he found himself encompassed by St. George’s happy personal art — a manner of which it was the essence to conjure away false positions. It all took place in a moment. Paul was conscious that he knew him now, conscious of his handshake and of the very quality of his hand; of his face, seen nearer and consequently seen better, of a general fraternising assurance, and in particular of the circumstance that St. George didn’t dislike him (as yet at least) for being imposed by a charming but too gushing girl, attractive enough without such danglers. No irritation at any rate was reflected in the voice with which he questioned Miss Fancourt as to some project of a walk — a general walk of the company round the park. He had soon said something to Paul about a talk — “We must have a tremendous lot of talk; there are so many things, aren’t there?” — but our friend could see this idea wouldn’t in the present case take very immediate effect. All the same he was extremely happy, even after the matter of the walk had been settled — the three presently passed back to the other part of the gallery, where it was discussed with several members of the party; even when, after they had all gone out together, he found himself for half an hour conjoined with Mrs. St. George. Her husband had taken the advance with Miss Fancourt, and this pair were quite out of sight. It was the prettiest of rambles for a summer afternoon — a grassy circuit, of immense extent, skirting the limit of the park within. The park was completely surrounded by its old mottled but perfect red wall, which, all the way on their left, constituted in itself an object of interest. Mrs. St. George mentioned to him the surprising number of acres thus enclosed, together with numerous other facts relating to the property and the family, and the family’s other properties: she couldn’t too strongly urge on him the importance of seeing their other houses. She ran over the names of these and rang the changes on them with the facility of practice, making them appear an almost endless list. She had received Paul Overt very amiably on his breaking ground with her by the mention of his joy in having just made her husband’s acquaintance, and struck him as so alert and so accommodating a little woman that he was rather ashamed of his mot about her to Miss Fancourt; though he reflected that a hundred other people, on a hundred occasions, would have been sure to make it. He got on with Ms. St. George, in short, better than he expected; but this didn’t prevent her suddenly becoming aware that she was faint with fatigue and must take her way back to the house by the shortest cut. She professed that she hadn’t the strength of a kitten and was a miserable wreck; a character he had been too preoccupied to discern in her while he wondered in what sense she could be held to have been the making of her husband. He had arrived at a glimmering of the answer when she announced that she must leave him, though this perception was of course provisional. While he was in the very act of placing himself at her disposal for the return the situation underwent a change; Lord Masham had suddenly turned up, coming back to them, overtaking them, emerging from the shrubbery — Overt could scarcely have said how he appeared — and Mrs. St. George had protested that she wanted to be left alone and not to break up the party. A moment later she was walking off with Lord Masham. Our friend fell back and joined Lady Watermouth, to whom he presently mentioned that Mrs. St. George had been obliged to renounce the attempt to go further.

“She oughtn’t to have come out at all,” her ladyship rather grumpily remarked.

“Is she so very much of an invalid?”

“Very bad indeed.” And his hostess added with still greater austerity: “She oughtn’t really to come to one!” He wondered what was implied by this, and presently gathered that it was not a reflexion on the lady’s conduct or her moral nature: it only represented that her strength was not equal to her aspirations.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38