The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James

Chapter III

The smoking-room at Summersoft was on the scale of the rest of the place; high light commodious and decorated with such refined old carvings and mouldings that it seemed rather a bower for ladies who should sit at work at fading crewels than a parliament of gentlemen smoking strong cigars. The gentlemen mustered there in considerable force on the Sunday evening, collecting mainly at one end, in front of one of the cool fair fireplaces of white marble, the entablature of which was adorned with a delicate little Italian “subject.” There was another in the wall that faced it, and, thanks to the mild summer night, a fire in neither; but a nucleus for aggregation was furnished on one side by a table in the chimney-corner laden with bottles, decanters and tall tumblers. Paul Overt was a faithless smoker; he would puff a cigarette for reasons with which tobacco had nothing to do. This was particularly the case on the occasion of which I speak; his motive was the vision of a little direct talk with Henry St. George. The “tremendous” communion of which the great man had held out hopes to him earlier in the day had not yet come off, and this saddened him considerably, for the party was to go its several ways immediately after breakfast on the morrow. He had, however, the disappointment of finding that apparently the author of “Shadowmere” was not disposed to prolong his vigil. He wasn’t among the gentlemen assembled when Paul entered, nor was he one of those who turned up, in bright habiliments, during the next ten minutes. The young man waited a little, wondering if he had only gone to put on something extraordinary; this would account for his delay as well as contribute further to Overt’s impression of his tendency to do the approved superficial thing. But he didn’t arrive — he must have been putting on something more extraordinary than was probable. Our hero gave him up, feeling a little injured, a little wounded, at this loss of twenty coveted words. He wasn’t angry, but he puffed his cigarette sighingly, with the sense of something rare possibly missed. He wandered away with his regret and moved slowly round the room, looking at the old prints on the walls. In this attitude he presently felt a hand on his shoulder and a friendly voice in his ear “This is good. I hoped I should find you. I came down on purpose.” St. George was there without a change of dress and with a fine face — his graver one — to which our young man all in a flutter responded. He explained that it was only for the Master — the idea of a little talk — that he had sat up, and that, not finding him, he had been on the point of going to bed.

“Well, you know, I don’t smoke — my wife doesn’t let me,” said St. George, looking for a place to sit down. “It’s very good for me — very good for me. Let us take that sofa.”

“Do you mean smoking’s good for you?”

“No no — her not letting me. It’s a great thing to have a wife who’s so sure of all the things one can do without. One might never find them out one’s self. She doesn’t allow me to touch a cigarette.” They took possession of a sofa at a distance from the group of smokers, and St. George went on: “Have you got one yourself?”

“Do you mean a cigarette?”

“Dear no — a wife.”

“No; and yet I’d give up my cigarette for one.”

“You’d give up a good deal more than that,” St. George returned. “However, you’d get a great deal in return. There’s a something to be said for wives,” he added, folding his arms and crossing his outstretched legs. He declined tobacco altogether and sat there without returning fire. His companion stopped smoking, touched by his courtesy; and after all they were out of the fumes, their sofa was in a far-away corner. It would have been a mistake, St. George went on, a great mistake for them to have separated without a little chat; “for I know all about you,” he said, “I know you’re very remarkable. You’ve written a very distinguished book.”

“And how do you know it?” Paul asked.

“Why, my dear fellow, it’s in the air, it’s in the papers, it’s everywhere.” St. George spoke with the immediate familiarity of a confrere — a tone that seemed to his neighbour the very rustle of the laurel. “You’re on all men’s lips and, what’s better, on all women’s. And I’ve just been reading your book.”

“Just? You hadn’t read it this afternoon,” said Overt.

“How do you know that?”

“I think you should know how I know it,” the young man laughed.

“I suppose Miss Fancourt told you.”

“No indeed — she led me rather to suppose you had.”

“Yes — that’s much more what she’d do. Doesn’t she shed a rosy glow over life? But you didn’t believe her?” asked St. George.

“No, not when you came to us there.”

“Did I pretend? did I pretend badly?” But without waiting for an answer to this St. George went on: “You ought always to believe such a girl as that — always, always. Some women are meant to be taken with allowances and reserves; but you must take her just as she is.”

“I like her very much,” said Paul Overt.

Something in his tone appeared to excite on his companion’s part a momentary sense of the absurd; perhaps it was the air of deliberation attending this judgement. St. George broke into a laugh to reply. “It’s the best thing you can do with her. She’s a rare young lady! In point of fact, however, I confess I hadn’t read you this afternoon.”

“Then you see how right I was in this particular case not to believe Miss Fancourt.”

“How right? how can I agree to that when I lost credit by it?”

“Do you wish to pass exactly for what she represents you? Certainly you needn’t be afraid,” Paul said.

“Ah, my dear young man, don’t talk about passing — for the likes of me! I’m passing away — nothing else than that. She has a better use for her young imagination (isn’t it fine?) than in ‘representing’ in any way such a weary wasted used-up animal!” The Master spoke with a sudden sadness that produced a protest on Paul’s part; but before the protest could be uttered he went on, reverting to the latter’s striking novel: “I had no idea you were so good — one hears of so many things. But you’re surprisingly good.”

“I’m going to be surprisingly better,” Overt made bold to reply.

“I see that, and it’s what fetches me. I don’t see so much else — as one looks about — that’s going to be surprisingly better. They’re going to be consistently worse — most of the things. It’s so much easier to be worse — heaven knows I’ve found it so. I’m not in a great glow, you know, about what’s breaking out all over the place. But you must be better — you really must keep it up. I haven’t of course. It’s very difficult — that’s the devil of the whole thing, keeping it up. But I see you’ll be able to. It will be a great disgrace if you don’t.”

“It’s very interesting to hear you speak of yourself; but I don’t know what you mean by your allusions to your having fallen off,” Paul Overt observed with pardonable hypocrisy. He liked his companion so much now that the fact of any decline of talent or of care had ceased for the moment to be vivid to him.

“Don’t say that — don’t say that,” St. George returned gravely, his head resting on the top of the sofa-back and his eyes on the ceiling. “You know perfectly what I mean. I haven’t read twenty pages of your book without seeing that you can’t help it.”

“You make me very miserable,” Paul ecstatically breathed.

“I’m glad of that, for it may serve as a kind of warning. Shocking enough it must be, especially to a young fresh mind, full of faith — the spectacle of a man meant for better things sunk at my age in such dishonour.” St. George, in the same contemplative attitude, spoke softly but deliberately, and without perceptible emotion. His tone indeed suggested an impersonal lucidity that was practically cruel — cruel to himself — and made his young friend lay an argumentative hand on his arm. But he went on while his eyes seemed to follow the graces of the eighteenth-century ceiling: “Look at me well, take my lesson to heart — for it is a lesson. Let that good come of it at least that you shudder with your pitiful impression, and that this may help to keep you straight in the future. Don’t become in your old age what I have in mine — the depressing, the deplorable illustration of the worship of false gods!”

“What do you mean by your old age?” the young man asked.

“It has made me old. But I like your youth.”

Paul answered nothing — they sat for a minute in silence. They heard the others going on about the governmental majority. Then “What do you mean by false gods?” he enquired.

His companion had no difficulty whatever in saying, “The idols of the market; money and luxury and ‘the world;’ placing one’s children and dressing one’s wife; everything that drives one to the short and easy way. Ah the vile things they make one do!”

“But surely one’s right to want to place one’s children.”

“One has no business to have any children,” St. George placidly declared. “I mean of course if one wants to do anything good.”

“But aren’t they an inspiration — an incentive?”

“An incentive to damnation, artistically speaking.”

“You touch on very deep things — things I should like to discuss with you,” Paul said. “I should like you to tell me volumes about yourself. This is a great feast for me!”

“Of course it is, cruel youth. But to show you I’m still not incapable, degraded as I am, of an act of faith, I’ll tie my vanity to the stake for you and burn it to ashes. You must come and see me — you must come and see us,” the Master quickly substituted. “Mrs. St. George is charming; I don’t know whether you’ve had any opportunity to talk with her. She’ll be delighted to see you; she likes great celebrities, whether incipient or predominant. You must come and dine — my wife will write to you. Where are you to be found?”

“This is my little address” — and Overt drew out his pocketbook and extracted a visiting-card. On second thoughts, however, he kept it back, remarking that he wouldn’t trouble his friend to take charge of it but would come and see him straightway in London and leave it at his door if he should fail to obtain entrance.

“Ah you’ll probably fail; my wife’s always out — or when she isn’t out is knocked up from having been out. You must come and dine — though that won’t do much good either, for my wife insists on big dinners.” St. George turned it over further, but then went on: “You must come down and see us in the country, that’s the best way; we’ve plenty of room, and it isn’t bad.”

“You’ve a house in the country?” Paul asked enviously.

“Ah not like this! But we have a sort of place we go to — an hour from Euston. That’s one of the reasons.”

“One of the reasons?”

“Why my books are so bad.”

“You must tell me all the others!” Paul longingly laughed.

His friend made no direct rejoinder to this, but spoke again abruptly. “Why have I never seen you before?”

The tone of the question was singularly flattering to our hero, who felt it to imply the great man’s now perceiving he had for years missed something. “Partly, I suppose, because there has been no particular reason why you should see me. I haven’t lived in the world — in your world. I’ve spent many years out of England, in different places abroad.”

“Well, please don’t do it any more. You must do England — there’s such a lot of it.”

“Do you mean I must write about it?” and Paul struck the note of the listening candour of a child.

“Of course you must. And tremendously well, do you mind? That takes off a little of my esteem for this thing of yours — that it goes on abroad. Hang ‘abroad!’ Stay at home and do things here — do subjects we can measure.”

“I’ll do whatever you tell me,” Overt said, deeply attentive. “But pardon me if I say I don’t understand how you’ve been reading my book,” he added. “I’ve had you before me all the afternoon, first in that long walk, then at tea on the lawn, till we went to dress for dinner, and all the evening at dinner and in this place.”

St. George turned his face about with a smile. “I gave it but a quarter of an hour.”

“A quarter of an hour’s immense, but I don’t understand where you put it in. In the drawing-room after dinner you weren’t reading — you were talking to Miss Fancourt.”

“It comes to the same thing, because we talked about ‘Ginistrella.’ She described it to me — she lent me her copy.”

“Lent it to you?”

“She travels with it.”

“It’s incredible,” Paul blushed.

“It’s glorious for you, but it also turned out very well for me. When the ladies went off to bed she kindly offered to send the book down to me. Her maid brought it to me in the hall and I went to my room with it. I hadn’t thought of coming here, I do that so little. But I don’t sleep early, I always have to read an hour or two. I sat down to your novel on the spot, without undressing, without taking off anything but my coat. I think that’s a sign my curiosity had been strongly roused about it. I read a quarter of an hour, as I tell you, and even in a quarter of an hour I was greatly struck.”

“Ah the beginning isn’t very good — it’s the whole thing!” said Overt, who had listened to this recital with extreme interest. “And you laid down the book and came after me?” he asked.

“That’s the way it moved me. I said to myself ‘I see it’s off his own bat, and he’s there, by the way, and the day’s over and I haven’t said twenty words to him.’ It occurred to me that you’d probably be in the smoking-room and that it wouldn’t be too late to repair my omission. I wanted to do something civil to you, so I put on my coat and came down. I shall read your book again when I go up.”

Our friend faced round in his place — he was touched as he had scarce ever been by the picture of such a demonstration in his favour. “You’re really the kindest of men. Cela s’est passe comme ca? — and I’ve been sitting here with you all this time and never apprehended it and never thanked you!”

“Thank Miss Fancourt — it was she who wound me up. She has made me feel as if I had read your novel.”

“She’s an angel from heaven!” Paul declared.

“She is indeed. I’ve never seen any one like her. Her interest in literature’s touching — something quite peculiar to herself; she takes it all so seriously. She feels the arts and she wants to feel them more. To those who practise them it’s almost humiliating — her curiosity, her sympathy, her good faith. How can anything be as fine as she supposes it?”

“She’s a rare organisation,” the younger man sighed.

“The richest I’ve ever seen — an artistic intelligence really of the first order. And lodged in such a form!” St. George exclaimed.

“One would like to represent such a girl as that,” Paul continued.

“Ah there it is — there’s nothing like life!” said his companion. “When you’re finished, squeezed dry and used up and you think the sack’s empty, you’re still appealed to, you still get touches and thrills, the idea springs up — out of the lap of the actual — and shows you there’s always something to be done. But I shan’t do it — she’s not for me!”

“How do you mean, not for you?”

“Oh it’s all over — she’s for you, if you like.”

“Ah much less!” said Paul. “She’s not for a dingy little man of letters; she’s for the world, the bright rich world of bribes and rewards. And the world will take hold of her — it will carry her away.”

“It will try — but it’s just a case in which there may be a fight. It would be worth fighting, for a man who had it in him, with youth and talent on his side.”

These words rang not a little in Paul Overt’s consciousness — they held him briefly silent. “It’s a wonder she has remained as she is; giving herself away so — with so much to give away.”

“Remaining, you mean, so ingenuous — so natural? Oh she doesn’t care a straw — she gives away because she overflows. She has her own feelings, her own standards; she doesn’t keep remembering that she must be proud. And then she hasn’t been here long enough to be spoiled; she has picked up a fashion or two, but only the amusing ones. She’s a provincial — a provincial of genius,” St. George went on; “her very blunders are charming, her mistakes are interesting. She has come back from Asia with all sorts of excited curiosities and unappeased appetities. She’s first-rate herself and she expends herself on the second-rate. She’s life herself and she takes a rare interest in imitations. She mixes all things up, but there are none in regard to which she hasn’t perceptions. She sees things in a perspective — as if from the top of the Himalayas — and she enlarges everything she touches. Above all she exaggerates — to herself, I mean. She exaggerates you and me!”

There was nothing in that description to allay the agitation caused in our younger friend by such a sketch of a fine subject. It seemed to him to show the art of St. George’s admired hand, and he lost himself in gazing at the vision — this hovered there before him — of a woman’s figure which should be part of the glory of a novel. But at the end of a moment the thing had turned into smoke, and out of the smoke — the last puff of a big cigar — proceeded the voice of General Fancourt, who had left the others and come and planted himself before the gentlemen on the sofa. “I suppose that when you fellows get talking you sit up half the night.”

“Half the night? — jamais de la vie! I follow a hygiene” — and St. George rose to his feet.

“I see — you’re hothouse plants,” laughed the General. “That’s the way you produce your flowers.”

“I produce mine between ten and one every morning — I bloom with a regularity!” St. George went on.

“And with a splendour!” added the polite General, while Paul noted how little the author of “Shadowmere” minded, as he phrased it to himself, when addressed as a celebrated story-teller. The young man had an idea he should never get used to that; it would always make him uncomfortable — from the suspicion that people would think they had to — and he would want to prevent it. Evidently his great colleague had toughened and hardened — had made himself a surface. The group of men had finished their cigars and taken up their bedroom candlesticks; but before they all passed out Lord Watermouth invited the pair of guests who had been so absorbed together to “have” something. It happened that they both declined; upon which General Fancourt said: “Is that the hygiene? You don’t water the flowers?”

“Oh I should drown them!” St. George replied; but, leaving the room still at his young friend’s side, he added whimsically, for the latter’s benefit, in a lower tone: “My wife doesn’t let me.”

“Well I’m glad I’m not one of you fellows!” the General richly concluded.

The nearness of Summersoft to London had this consequence, chilling to a person who had had a vision of sociability in a railway-carriage, that most of the company, after breakfast, drove back to town, entering their own vehicles, which had come out to fetch them, while their servants returned by train with their luggage. Three or four young men, among whom was Paul Overt, also availed themselves of the common convenience; but they stood in the portico of the house and saw the others roll away. Miss Fancourt got into a victoria with her father after she had shaken hands with our hero and said, smiling in the frankest way in the world, “I must see you more. Mrs. St. George is so nice: she has promised to ask us both to dinner together.” This lady and her husband took their places in a perfectly-appointed brougham — she required a closed carriage — and as our young man waved his hat to them in response to their nods and flourishes he reflected that, taken together, they were an honourable image of success, of the material rewards and the social credit of literature. Such things were not the full measure, but he nevertheless felt a little proud for literature.

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