The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James

Chapter IV

Before a week had elapsed he met Miss Fancourt in Bond Street, at a private view of the works of a young artist in “black-and-white” who had been so good as to invite him to the stuffy scene. The drawings were admirable, but the crowd in the one little room was so dense that he felt himself up to his neck in a sack of wool. A fringe of people at the outer edge endeavoured by curving forward their backs and presenting, below them, a still more convex surface of resistance to the pressure of the mass, to preserve an interval between their noses and the glazed mounts of the pictures; while the central body, in the comparative gloom projected by a wide horizontal screen hung under the skylight and allowing only a margin for the day, remained upright dense and vague, lost in the contemplation of its own ingredients. This contemplation sat especially in the sad eyes of certain female heads, surmounted with hats of strange convolution and plumage, which rose on long necks above the others. One of the heads Paul perceived, was much the so most beautiful of the collection, and his next discovery was that it belonged to Miss Fancourt. Its beauty was enhanced by the glad smile she sent him across surrounding obstructions, a smile that drew him to her as fast as he could make his way. He had seen for himself at Summersoft that the last thing her nature contained was an affectation of indifference; yet even with this circumspection he took a fresh satisfaction in her not having pretended to await his arrival with composure. She smiled as radiantly as if she wished to make him hurry, and as soon as he came within earshot she broke out in her voice of joy: “He’s here — he’s here — he’s coming back in a moment!”

“Ah your father?” Paul returned as she offered him her hand.

“Oh dear no, this isn’t in my poor father’s line. I mean Mr. St. George. He has just left me to speak to some one — he’s coming back. It’s he who brought me — wasn’t it charming?”

“Ah that gives him a pull over me — I couldn’t have ‘brought’ you, could I?”

“If you had been so kind as to propose it — why not you as well as he?” the girl returned with a face that, expressing no cheap coquetry, simply affirmed a happy fact.

“Why he’s a pere de famille. They’ve privileges,” Paul explained. And then quickly: “Will you go to see places with me?” he asked.

“Anything you like!” she smiled. “I know what you mean, that girls have to have a lot of people — ” Then she broke off: “I don’t know; I’m free. I’ve always been like that — I can go about with any one. I’m so glad to meet you,” she added with a sweet distinctness that made those near her turn round.

“Let me at least repay that speech by taking you out of this squash,” her friend said. “Surely people aren’t happy here!”

“No, they’re awfully mornes, aren’t they? But I’m very happy indeed and I promised Mr. St. George to remain in this spot till he comes back. He’s going to take me away. They send him invitations for things of this sort — more than he wants. It was so kind of him to think of me.”

“They also send me invitations of this kind — more than I want. And if thinking of you will do it —!” Paul went on.

“Oh I delight in them — everything that’s life — everything that’s London!”

“They don’t have private views in Asia, I suppose,” he laughed. “But what a pity that for this year, even in this gorged city, they’re pretty well over.”

“Well, next year will do, for I hope you believe we’re going to be friends always. Here he comes!” Miss Fancourt continued before Paul had time to respond.

He made out St. George in the gaps of the crowd, and this perhaps led to his hurrying a little to say: “I hope that doesn’t mean I’m to wait till next year to see you.”

“No, no — aren’t we to meet at dinner on the twenty-fifth?” she panted with an eagerness as happy as his own.

“That’s almost next year. Is there no means of seeing you before?”

She stared with all her brightness. “Do you mean you’d come?”

“Like a shot, if you’ll be so good as to ask me!”

“On Sunday then — this next Sunday?”

“What have I done that you should doubt it?” the young man asked with delight.

Miss Fancourt turned instantly to St. George, who had now joined them, and announced triumphantly: “He’s coming on Sunday — this next Sunday!”

“Ah my day — my day too!” said the famous novelist, laughing, to their companion.

“Yes, but not yours only. You shall meet in Manchester Square; you shall talk — you shall be wonderful!”

“We don’t meet often enough,” St. George allowed, shaking hands with his disciple. “Too many things — ah too many things! But we must make it up in the country in September. You won’t forget you’ve promised me that?”

“Why he’s coming on the twenty-fifth — you’ll see him then,” said the girl.

“On the twenty-fifth?” St. George asked vaguely.

“We dine with you; I hope you haven’t forgotten. He’s dining out that day,” she added gaily to Paul.

“Oh bless me, yes — that’s charming! And you’re coming? My wife didn’t tell me,” St. George said to him. “Too many things — too many things!” he repeated.

“Too many people — too many people!” Paul exclaimed, giving ground before the penetration of an elbow.

“You oughtn’t to say that. They all read you.”

“Me? I should like to see them! Only two or three at most,” the young man returned.

“Did you ever hear anything like that? He knows, haughtily, how good he is!” St. George declared, laughing to Miss Fancourt. “They read me, but that doesn’t make me like them any better. Come away from them, come away!” And he led the way out of the exhibition.

“He’s going to take me to the Park,” Miss Fancourt observed to Overt with elation as they passed along the corridor that led to the street.

“Ah does he go there?” Paul asked, taking the fact for a somewhat unexpected illustration of St. George’s moeurs.

“It’s a beautiful day — there’ll be a great crowd. We’re going to look at the people, to look at types,” the girl went on. “We shall sit under the trees; we shall walk by the Row.”

“I go once a year — on business,” said St. George, who had overheard Paul’s question.

“Or with a country cousin, didn’t you tell me? I’m the country cousin!” she continued over her shoulder to Paul as their friend drew her toward a hansom to which he had signalled. The young man watched them get in; he returned, as he stood there, the friendly wave of the hand with which, ensconced in the vehicle beside her, St. George took leave of him. He even lingered to see the vehicle start away and lose itself in the confusion of Bond Street. He followed it with his eyes; it put to him embarrassing things. “She’s not for me!” the great novelist had said emphatically at Summersoft; but his manner of conducting himself toward her appeared not quite in harmony with such a conviction. How could he have behaved differently if she had been for him? An indefinite envy rose in Paul Overt’s heart as he took his way on foot alone; a feeling addressed alike strangely enough, to each of the occupants of the hansom. How much he should like to rattle about London with such a girl! How much he should like to go and look at “types” with St. George!

The next Sunday at four o’clock he called in Manchester Square, where his secret wish was gratified by his finding Miss Fancourt alone. She was in a large bright friendly occupied room, which was painted red all over, draped with the quaint cheap florid stuffs that are represented as coming from southern and eastern countries, where they are fabled to serve as the counterpanes of the peasantry, and bedecked with pottery of vivid hues, ranged on casual shelves, and with many water-colour drawings from the hand (as the visitor learned) of the young lady herself, commemorating with a brave breadth the sunsets, the mountains, the temples and palaces of India. He sat an hour — more than an hour, two hours — and all the while no one came in. His hostess was so good as to remark, with her liberal humanity, that it was delightful they weren’t interrupted; it was so rare in London, especially at that season, that people got a good talk. But luckily now, of a fine Sunday, half the world went out of town, and that made it better for those who didn’t go, when these others were in sympathy. It was the defect of London — one of two or three, the very short list of those she recognised in the teeming world-city she adored — that there were too few good chances for talk; you never had time to carry anything far.

“Too many things — too many things!” Paul said, quoting St. George’s exclamation of a few days before.

“Ah yes, for him there are too many — his life’s too complicated.”

“Have you seen it near? That’s what I should like to do; it might explain some mysteries,” her visitor went on. She asked him what mysteries he meant, and he said: “Oh peculiarities of his work, inequalities, superficialities. For one who looks at it from the artistic point of view it contains a bottomless ambiguity.”

She became at this, on the spot, all intensity. “Ah do describe that more — it’s so interesting. There are no such suggestive questions. I’m so fond of them. He thinks he’s a failure — fancy!” she beautifully wailed.

“That depends on what his ideal may have been. With his gifts it ought to have been high. But till one knows what he really proposed to himself —? Do you know by chance?” the young man broke off.

“Oh he doesn’t talk to me about himself. I can’t make him. It’s too provoking.”

Paul was on the point of asking what then he did talk about, but discretion checked it and he said instead: “Do you think he’s unhappy at home?”

She seemed to wonder. “At home?”

“I mean in his relations with his wife. He has a mystifying little way of alluding to her.”

“Not to me,” said Marian Fancourt with her clear eyes. “That wouldn’t be right, would it?” she asked gravely.

“Not particularly; so I’m glad he doesn’t mention her to you. To praise her might bore you, and he has no business to do anything else. Yet he knows you better than me.”

“Ah but he respects you!” the girl cried as with envy.

Her visitor stared a moment, then broke into a laugh. “Doesn’t he respect you?”

“Of course, but not in the same way. He respects what you’ve done — he told me so, the other day.”

Paul drank it in, but retained his faculties. “When you went to look at types?”

“Yes — we found so many: he has such an observation of them! He talked a great deal about your book. He says it’s really important.”

“Important! Ah the grand creature!” — and the author of the work in question groaned for joy.

“He was wonderfully amusing, he was inexpressibly droll, while we walked about. He sees everything; he has so many comparisons and images, and they’re always exactly right. C’est d’un trouve, as they say.”

“Yes, with his gifts, such things as he ought to have done!” Paul sighed.

“And don’t you think he has done them?”

Ah it was just the point. “A part of them, and of course even that part’s immense. But he might have been one of the greatest. However, let us not make this an hour of qualifications. Even as they stand,” our friend earnestly concluded, “his writings are a mine of gold.”

To this proposition she ardently responded, and for half an hour the pair talked over the Master’s principal productions. She knew them well — she knew them even better than her visitor, who was struck with her critical intelligence and with something large and bold in the movement in her mind. She said things that startled him and that evidently had come to her directly; they weren’t picked-up phrases — she placed them too well. St. George had been right about her being first-rate, about her not being afraid to gush, not remembering that she must be proud. Suddenly something came back to her, and she said: “I recollect that he did speak of Mrs. St. George to me once. He said, apropos of something or other, that she didn’t care for perfection.”

“That’s a great crime in an artist’s wife,” Paul returned.

“Yes, poor thing!” and the girl sighed with a suggestion of many reflexions, some of them mitigating. But she presently added: “Ah perfection, perfection — how one ought to go in for it! I wish I could.”

“Every one can in his way,” her companion opined.

“In his way, yes — but not in hers. Women are so hampered — so condemned! Yet it’s a kind of dishonour if you don’t, when you want to do something, isn’t it?” Miss Fancourt pursued, dropping one train in her quickness to take up another, an accident that was common with her. So these two young persons sat discussing high themes in their eclectic drawing-room, in their London “season” — discussing, with extreme seriousness, the high theme of perfection. It must be said in extenuation of this eccentricity that they were interested in the business. Their tone had truth and their emotion beauty; they weren’t posturing for each other or for some one else.

The subject was so wide that they found themselves reducing it; the perfection to which for the moment they agreed to confine their speculations was that of the valid, the exemplary work of art. Our young woman’s imagination, it appeared, had wandered far in that direction, and her guest had the rare delight of feeling in their conversation a full interchange. This episode will have lived for years in his memory and even in his wonder; it had the quality that fortune distils in a single drop at a time — the quality that lubricates many ensuing frictions. He still, whenever he likes, has a vision of the room, the bright red sociable talkative room with the curtains that, by a stroke of successful audacity, had the note of vivid blue. He remembers where certain things stood, the particular book open on the table and the almost intense odour of the flowers placed, at the left, somewhere behind him. These facts were the fringe, as it were, of a fine special agitation which had its birth in those two hours and of which perhaps the main sign was in its leading him inwardly and repeatedly to breathe “I had no idea there was any one like this — I had no idea there was any one like this!” Her freedom amazed him and charmed him — it seemed so to simplify the practical question. She was on the footing of an independent personage — a motherless girl who had passed out of her teens and had a position and responsibilities, who wasn’t held down to the limitations of a little miss. She came and went with no dragged duenna, she received people alone, and, though she was totally without hardness, the question of protection or patronage had no relevancy in regard to her. She gave such an impression of the clear and the noble combined with the easy and the natural that in spite of her eminent modern situation she suggested no sort of sister-hood with the “fast” girl. Modern she was indeed, and made Paul Overt, who loved old colour, the golden glaze of time, think with some alarm of the muddled palette of the future. He couldn’t get used to her interest in the arts he cared for; it seemed too good to be real — it was so unlikely an adventure to tumble into such a well of sympathy. One might stray into the desert easily — that was on the cards and that was the law of life; but it was too rare an accident to stumble on a crystal well. Yet if her aspirations seemed at one moment too extravagant to be real they struck him at the next as too intelligent to be false. They were both high and lame, and, whims for whims, he preferred them to any he had met in a like relation. It was probable enough she would leave them behind — exchange them for politics or “smartness” or mere prolific maternity, as was the custom of scribbling daubing educated flattered girls in an age of luxury and a society of leisure. He noted that the water-colours on the walls of the room she sat in had mainly the quality of being naives, and reflected that naivete in art is like a zero in a number: its importance depends on the figure it is united with. Meanwhile, however, he had fallen in love with her. Before he went away, at any rate, he said to her: “I thought St. George was coming to see you to-day, but he doesn’t turn up.”

For a moment he supposed she was going to cry “Comment donc? Did you come here only to meet him?” But the next he became aware of how little such a speech would have fallen in with any note of flirtation he had as yet perceived in her. She only replied: “Ah yes, but I don’t think he’ll come. He recommended me not to expect him.” Then she gaily but all gently added: “He said it wasn’t fair to you. But I think I could manage two.”

“So could I,” Paul Overt returned, stretching the point a little to meet her. In reality his appreciation of the occasion was so completely an appreciation of the woman before him that another figure in the scene, even so esteemed a one as St. George, might for the hour have appealed to him vainly. He left the house wondering what the great man had meant by its not being fair to him; and, still more than that, whether he had actually stayed away from the force of that idea. As he took his course through the Sunday solitude of Manchester Square, swinging his stick and with a good deal of emotion fermenting in his soul, it appeared to him he was living in a world strangely magnanimous. Miss Fancourt had told him it was possible she should be away, and that her father should be, on the following Sunday, but that she had the hope of a visit from him in the other event. She promised to let him know should their absence fail, and then he might act accordingly. After he had passed into one of the streets that open from the Square he stopped, without definite intentions, looking sceptically for a cab. In a moment he saw a hansom roll through the place from the other side and come a part of the way toward him. He was on the point of hailing the driver when he noticed a “fare” within; then he waited, seeing the man prepare to deposit his passenger by pulling up at one of the houses. The house was apparently the one he himself had just quitted; at least he drew that inference as he recognised Henry St. George in the person who stepped out of the hansom. Paul turned off as quickly as if he had been caught in the act of spying. He gave up his cab — he preferred to walk; he would go nowhere else. He was glad St. George hadn’t renounced his visit altogether — that would have been too absurd. Yes, the world was magnanimous, and even he himself felt so as, on looking at his watch, he noted but six o’clock, so that he could mentally congratulate his successor on having an hour still to sit in Miss Fancourt’s drawing-room. He himself might use that hour for another visit, but by the time he reached the Marble Arch the idea of such a course had become incongruous to him. He passed beneath that architectural effort and walked into the Park till he got upon the spreading grass. Here he continued to walk; he took his way across the elastic turf and came out by the Serpentine. He watched with a friendly eye the diversions of the London people, he bent a glance almost encouraging on the young ladies paddling their sweethearts about the lake and the guardsmen tickling tenderly with their bearskins the artificial flowers in the Sunday hats of their partners. He prolonged his meditative walk; he went into Kensington Gardens, he sat upon the penny chairs, he looked at the little sail-boats launched upon the round pond and was glad he had no engagement to dine. He repaired for this purpose, very late, to his club, where he found himself unable to order a repast and told the waiter to bring whatever there was. He didn’t even observe what he was served with, and he spent the evening in the library of the establishment, pretending to read an article in an American magazine. He failed to discover what it was about; it appeared in a dim way to be about Marian Fancourt.

Quite late in the week she wrote to him that she was not to go into the country — it had only just been settled. Her father, she added, would never settle anything, but put it all on her. She felt her responsibility — she had to — and since she was forced this was the way she had decided. She mentioned no reasons, which gave our friend all the clearer field for bold conjecture about them. In Manchester Square on this second Sunday he esteemed his fortune less good, for she had three or four other visitors. But there were three or four compensations; perhaps the greatest of which was that, learning how her father had after all, at the last hour, gone out of town alone, the bold conjecture I just now spoke of found itself becoming a shade more bold. And then her presence was her presence, and the personal red room was there and was full of it, whatever phantoms passed and vanished, emitting incomprehensible sounds. Lastly, he had the resource of staying till every one had come and gone and of believing this grateful to her, though she gave no particular sign. When they were alone together he came to his point. “But St. George did come — last Sunday. I saw him as I looked back.”

“Yes; but it was the last time.”

“The last time?”

“He said he would never come again.”

Paul Overt stared. “Does he mean he wishes to cease to see you?”

“I don’t know what he means,” the girl bravely smiled. “He won’t at any rate see me here.”

“And pray why not?”

“I haven’t the least idea,” said Marian Fancourt, whose visitor found her more perversely sublime than ever yet as she professed this clear helplessness.

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