The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James

Chapter V

“Oh I say, I want you to stop a little,” Henry St. George said to him at eleven o’clock the night he dined with the head of the profession. The company — none of it indeed of the profession — had been numerous and was taking its leave; our young man, after bidding good-night to his hostess, had put out his hand in farewell to the master of the house. Besides drawing from the latter the protest I have cited this movement provoked a further priceless word about their chance now to have a talk, their going into his room, his having still everything to say. Paul Overt was all delight at this kindness; nevertheless he mentioned in weak jocose qualification the bare fact that he had promised to go to another place which was at a considerable distance.

“Well then you’ll break your promise, that’s all. You quite awful humbug!” St. George added in a tone that confirmed our young man’s ease.

“Certainly I’ll break it — but it was a real promise.”

“Do you mean to Miss Fancourt? You’re following her?” his friend asked.

He answered by a question. “Oh is she going?”

“Base impostor!” his ironic host went on. “I’ve treated you handsomely on the article of that young lady: I won’t make another concession. Wait three minutes — I’ll be with you.” He gave himself to his departing guests, accompanied the long-trained ladies to the door. It was a hot night, the windows were open, the sound of the quick carriages and of the linkmen’s call came into the house. The affair had rather glittered; a sense of festal things was in the heavy air: not only the influence of that particular entertainment, but the suggestion of the wide hurry of pleasure which in London on summer nights fills so many of the happier quarters of the complicated town. Gradually Mrs. St. George’s drawing-room emptied itself; Paul was left alone with his hostess, to whom he explained the motive of his waiting. “Ah yes, some intellectual, some professional, talk,” she leered; “at this season doesn’t one miss it? Poor dear Henry, I’m so glad!” The young man looked out of the window a moment, at the called hansoms that lurched up, at the smooth broughams that rolled away. When he turned round Mrs. St. George had disappeared; her husband’s voice rose to him from below — he was laughing and talking, in the portico, with some lady who awaited her carriage. Paul had solitary possession, for some minutes, of the warm deserted rooms where the covered tinted lamplight was soft, the seats had been pushed about and the odour of flowers lingered. They were large, they were pretty, they contained objects of value; everything in the picture told of a “good house.” At the end of five minutes a servant came in with a request from the Master that he would join him downstairs; upon which, descending, he followed his conductor through a long passage to an apartment thrown out, in the rear of the habitation, for the special requirements, as he guessed, of a busy man of letters.

St. George was in his shirt-sleeves in the middle of a large high room — a room without windows, but with a wide skylight at the top, that of a place of exhibition. It was furnished as a library, and the serried bookshelves rose to the ceiling, a surface of incomparable tone produced by dimly-gilt “backs” interrupted here and there by the suspension of old prints and drawings. At the end furthest from the door of admission was a tall desk, of great extent, at which the person using it could write only in the erect posture of a clerk in a counting-house; and stretched from the entrance to this structure was a wide plain band of crimson cloth, as straight as a garden-path and almost as long, where, in his mind’s eye, Paul at once beheld the Master pace to and fro during vexed hours — hours, that is, of admirable composition. The servant gave him a coat, an old jacket with a hang of experience, from a cupboard in the wall, retiring afterwards with the garment he had taken off. Paul Overt welcomed the coat; it was a coat for talk, it promised confidences — having visibly received so many — and had tragic literary elbows. “Ah we’re practical — we’re practical!” St. George said as he saw his visitor look the place over. “Isn’t it a good big cage for going round and round? My wife invented it and she locks me up here every morning.”

Our young man breathed — by way of tribute — with a certain oppression. “You don’t miss a window — a place to look out?”

“I did at first awfully; but her calculation was just. It saves time, it has saved me many months in these ten years. Here I stand, under the eye of day — in London of course, very often, it’s rather a bleared old eye — walled in to my trade. I can’t get away — so the room’s a fine lesson in concentration. I’ve learnt the lesson, I think; look at that big bundle of proof and acknowledge it.” He pointed to a fat roll of papers, on one of the tables, which had not been undone.

“Are you bringing out another —?” Paul asked in a tone the fond deficiencies of which he didn’t recognise till his companion burst out laughing, and indeed scarce even then.

“You humbug, you humbug!” — St. George appeared to enjoy caressing him, as it were, with that opprobrium. “Don’t I know what you think of them?” he asked, standing there with his hands in his pockets and with a new kind of smile. It was as if he were going to let his young votary see him all now.

“Upon my word in that case you know more than I do!” the latter ventured to respond, revealing a part of the torment of being able neither clearly to esteem nor distinctly to renounce him.

“My dear fellow,” said the more and more interesting Master, “don’t imagine I talk about my books specifically; they’re not a decent subject — il ne manquerait plus que ca! I’m not so bad as you may apprehend! About myself, yes, a little, if you like; though it wasn’t for that I brought you down here. I want to ask you something — very much indeed; I value this chance. Therefore sit down. We’re practical, but there is a sofa, you see — for she does humour my poor bones so far. Like all really great administrators and disciplinarians she knows when wisely to relax.” Paul sank into the corner of a deep leathern couch, but his friend remained standing and explanatory. “If you don’t mind, in this room, this is my habit. From the door to the desk and from the desk to the door. That shakes up my imagination gently; and don’t you see what a good thing it is that there’s no window for her to fly out of? The eternal standing as I write (I stop at that bureau and put it down, when anything comes, and so we go on) was rather wearisome at first, but we adopted it with an eye to the long run; you’re in better order — if your legs don’t break down! — and you can keep it up for more years. Oh we’re practical — we’re practical!” St. George repeated, going to the table and taking up all mechanically the bundle of proofs. But, pulling off the wrapper, he had a change of attention that appealed afresh to our hero. He lost himself a moment, examining the sheets of his new book, while the younger man’s eyes wandered over the room again.

“Lord, what good things I should do if I had such a charming place as this to do them in!” Paul reflected. The outer world, the world of accident and ugliness, was so successfully excluded, and within the rich protecting square, beneath the patronising sky, the dream-figures, the summoned company, could hold their particular revel. It was a fond prevision of Overt’s rather than an observation on actual data, for which occasions had been too few, that the Master thus more closely viewed would have the quality, the charming gift, of flashing out, all surprisingly, in personal intercourse and at moments of suspended or perhaps even of diminished expectation. A happy relation with him would be a thing proceeding by jumps, not by traceable stages.

“Do you read them — really?” he asked, laying down the proofs on Paul’s enquiring of him how soon the work would be published. And when the young man answered “Oh yes, always,” he was moved to mirth again by something he caught in his manner of saying that. “You go to see your grandmother on her birthday — and very proper it is, especially as she won’t last for ever. She has lost every faculty and every sense; she neither sees, nor hears, nor speaks; but all customary pieties and kindly habits are respectable. Only you’re strong if you do read ’em! I couldn’t, my dear fellow. You are strong, I know; and that’s just a part of what I wanted to say to you. You’re very strong indeed. I’ve been going into your other things — they’ve interested me immensely. Some one ought to have told me about them before — some one I could believe. But whom can one believe? You’re wonderfully on the right road — it’s awfully decent work. Now do you mean to keep it up? — that’s what I want to ask you.”

“Do I mean to do others?” Paul asked, looking up from his sofa at his erect inquisitor and feeling partly like a happy little boy when the school-master is gay, and partly like some pilgrim of old who might have consulted a world-famous oracle. St. George’s own performance had been infirm, but as an adviser he would be infallible.

“Others — others? Ah the number won’t matter; one other would do, if it were really a further step — a throb of the same effort. What I mean is have you it in your heart to go in for some sort of decent perfection?”

“Ah decency, ah perfection —!” the young man sincerely sighed. “I talked of them the other Sunday with Miss Fancourt.”

It produced on the Master’s part a laugh of odd acrimony. “Yes, they’ll ‘talk’ of them as much as you like! But they’ll do little to help one to them. There’s no obligation of course; only you strike me as capable,” he went on. “You must have thought it all over. I can’t believe you’re without a plan. That’s the sensation you give me, and it’s so rare that it really stirs one up — it makes you remarkable. If you haven’t a plan, if you don’t mean to keep it up, surely you’re within your rights; it’s nobody’s business, no one can force you, and not more than two or three people will notice you don’t go straight. The others — all the rest, every blest soul in England, will think you do — will think you are keeping it up: upon my honour they will! I shall be one of the two or three who know better. Now the question is whether you can do it for two or three. Is that the stuff you’re made of?”

It locked his guest a minute as in closed throbbing arms. “I could do it for one, if you were the one.”

“Don’t say that; I don’t deserve it; it scorches me,” he protested with eyes suddenly grave and glowing. “The ‘one’ is of course one’s self, one’s conscience, one’s idea, the singleness of one’s aim. I think of that pure spirit as a man thinks of a woman he has in some detested hour of his youth loved and forsaken. She haunts him with reproachful eyes, she lives for ever before him. As an artist, you know, I’ve married for money.” Paul stared and even blushed a little, confounded by this avowal; whereupon his host, observing the expression of his face, dropped a quick laugh and pursued: “You don’t follow my figure. I’m not speaking of my dear wife, who had a small fortune — which, however, was not my bribe. I fell in love with her, as many other people have done. I refer to the mercenary muse whom I led to the altar of literature. Don’t, my boy, put your nose into that yoke. The awful jade will lead you a life!”

Our hero watched him, wondering and deeply touched. “Haven’t you been happy!”

“Happy? It’s a kind of hell.”

“There are things I should like to ask you,” Paul said after a pause.

“Ask me anything in all the world. I’d turn myself inside out to save you.”

“To ‘save’ me?” he quavered.

“To make you stick to it — to make you see it through. As I said to you the other night at Summersoft, let my example be vivid to you.”

“Why your books are not so bad as that,” said Paul, fairly laughing and feeling that if ever a fellow had breathed the air of art —!

“So bad as what?”

“Your talent’s so great that it’s in everything you do, in what’s less good as well as in what’s best. You’ve some forty volumes to show for it — forty volumes of wonderful life, of rare observation, of magnificent ability.”

“I’m very clever, of course I know that” — but it was a thing, in fine, this author made nothing of. “Lord, what rot they’d all be if I hadn’t been I’m a successful charlatan,” he went on — “I’ve been able to pass off my system. But do you know what it is? It’s cartonpierre.”

“Carton-pierre?” Paul was struck, and gaped.

“Lincrusta–Walton!”

“Ah don’t say such things — you make me bleed!” the younger man protested. “I see you in a beautiful fortunate home, living in comfort and honour.”

“Do you call it honour?” — his host took him up with an intonation that often comes back to him. “That’s what I want you to go in for. I mean the real thing. This is brummagem.”

“Brummagem?” Paul ejaculated while his eyes wandered, by a movement natural at the moment, over the luxurious room.

“Ah they make it so well to-day — it’s wonderfully deceptive!”

Our friend thrilled with the interest and perhaps even more with the pity of it. Yet he wasn’t afraid to seem to patronise when he could still so far envy. “Is it deceptive that I find you living with every appearance of domestic felicity — blest with a devoted, accomplished wife, with children whose acquaintance I haven’t yet had the pleasure of making, but who must be delightful young people, from what I know of their parents?”

St. George smiled as for the candour of his question. “It’s all excellent, my dear fellow — heaven forbid I should deny it. I’ve made a great deal of money; my wife has known how to take care of it, to use it without wasting it, to put a good bit of it by, to make it fructify. I’ve got a loaf on the shelf; I’ve got everything in fact but the great thing.”

“The great thing?” Paul kept echoing.

“The sense of having done the best — the sense which is the real life of the artist and the absence of which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played. He either does that or he doesn’t — and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth speaking of. Therefore, precisely, those who really know don’t speak of him. He may still hear a great chatter, but what he hears most is the incorruptible silence of Fame. I’ve squared her, you may say, for my little hour — but what’s my little hour? Don’t imagine for a moment,” the Master pursued, “that I’m such a cad as to have brought you down here to abuse or to complain of my wife to you. She’s a woman of distinguished qualities, to whom my obligations are immense; so that, if you please, we’ll say nothing about her. My boys — my children are all boys — are straight and strong, thank God, and have no poverty of growth about them, no penury of needs. I receive periodically the most satisfactory attestation from Harrow, from Oxford, from Sandhurst — oh we’ve done the best for them! — of their eminence as living thriving consuming organisms.”

“It must be delightful to feel that the son of one’s loins is at Sandhurst,” Paul remarked enthusiastically.

“It is — it’s charming. Oh I’m a patriot!”

The young man then could but have the greater tribute of questions to pay. “Then what did you mean — the other night at Summersoft — by saying that children are a curse?”

“My dear youth, on what basis are we talking?” and St. George dropped upon the sofa at a short distance from him. Sitting a little sideways he leaned back against the opposite arm with his hands raised and interlocked behind his head. “On the supposition that a certain perfection’s possible and even desirable — isn’t it so? Well, all I say is that one’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife interferes. Marriage interferes.”

“You think then the artist shouldn’t marry?”

“He does so at his peril — he does so at his cost.”

“Not even when his wife’s in sympathy with his work?”

“She never is — she can’t be! Women haven’t a conception of such things.”

“Surely they on occasion work themselves,” Paul objected.

“Yes, very badly indeed. Oh of course, often, they think they understand, they think they sympathise. Then it is they’re most dangerous. Their idea is that you shall do a great lot and get a great lot of money. Their great nobleness and virtue, their exemplary conscientiousness as British females, is in keeping you up to that. My wife makes all my bargains with my publishers for me, and has done so for twenty years. She does it consummately well — that’s why I’m really pretty well off. Aren’t you the father of their innocent babes, and will you withhold from them their natural sustenance? You asked me the other night if they’re not an immense incentive. Of course they are — there’s no doubt of that!”

Paul turned it over: it took, from eyes he had never felt open so wide, so much looking at. “For myself I’ve an idea I need incentives.”

“Ah well then, n’en parlons plus!” his companion handsomely smiled.

You are an incentive, I maintain,” the young man went on. “You don’t affect me in the way you’d apparently like to. Your great success is what I see — the pomp of Ennismore Gardens!”

“Success?” — St. George’s eyes had a cold fine light. “Do you call it success to be spoken of as you’d speak of me if you were sitting here with another artist — a young man intelligent and sincere like yourself? Do you call it success to make you blush — as you would blush! — if some foreign critic (some fellow, of course I mean, who should know what he was talking about and should have shown you he did, as foreign critics like to show it) were to say to you: ‘He’s the one, in this country, whom they consider the most perfect, isn’t he?’ Is it success to be the occasion of a young Englishman’s having to stammer as you would have to stammer at such a moment for old England? No, no; success is to have made people wriggle to another tune. Do try it!”

Paul continued all gravely to glow. “Try what?”

“Try to do some really good work.”

“Oh I want to, heaven knows!”

“Well, you can’t do it without sacrifices — don’t believe that for a moment,” the Master said. “I’ve made none. I’ve had everything. In other words I’ve missed everything.”

“You’ve had the full rich masculine human general life, with all the responsibilities and duties and burdens and sorrows and joys — all the domestic and social initiations and complications. They must be immensely suggestive, immensely amusing,” Paul anxiously submitted.

“Amusing?”

“For a strong man — yes.”

“They’ve given me subjects without number, if that’s what you mean; but they’ve taken away at the same time the power to use them. I’ve touched a thousand things, but which one of them have I turned into gold? The artist has to do only with that — he knows nothing of any baser metal. I’ve led the life of the world, with my wife and my progeny; the clumsy conventional expensive materialised vulgarised brutalised life of London. We’ve got everything handsome, even a carriage — we’re perfect Philistines and prosperous hospitable eminent people. But, my dear fellow, don’t try to stultify yourself and pretend you don’t know what we haven’t got. It’s bigger than all the rest. Between artists — come!” the Master wound up. “You know as well as you sit there that you’d put a pistol-ball into your brain if you had written my books!”

It struck his listener that the tremendous talk promised by him at Summersoft had indeed come off, and with a promptitude, a fulness, with which the latter’s young imagination had scarcely reckoned. His impression fairly shook him and he throbbed with the excitement of such deep soundings and such strange confidences. He throbbed indeed with the conflict of his feelings — bewilderment and recognition and alarm, enjoyment and protest and assent, all commingled with tenderness (and a kind of shame in the participation) for the sores and bruises exhibited by so fine a creature, and with a sense of the tragic secret nursed under his trappings. The idea of his, Paul Overt’s, becoming the occasion of such an act of humility made him flush and pant, at the same time that his consciousness was in certain directions too much alive not to swallow — and not intensely to taste — every offered spoonful of the revelation. It had been his odd fortune to blow upon the deep waters, to make them surge and break in waves of strange eloquence. But how couldn’t he give out a passionate contradiction of his host’s last extravagance, how couldn’t he enumerate to him the parts of his work he loved, the splendid things he had found in it, beyond the compass of any other writer of the day? St. George listened a while, courteously; then he said, laying his hand on his visitor’s: “That’s all very well; and if your idea’s to do nothing better there’s no reason you shouldn’t have as many good things as I— as many human and material appendages, as many sons or daughters, a wife with as many gowns, a house with as many servants, a stable with as many horses, a heart with as many aches.” The Master got up when he had spoken thus — he stood a moment — near the sofa looking down on his agitated pupil. “Are you possessed of any property?” it occurred to him to ask.

“None to speak of.”

“Oh well then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make a goodish income — if you set about it the right way. Study me for that — study me well. You may really have horses.”

Paul sat there some minutes without speaking. He looked straight before him — he turned over many things. His friend had wandered away, taking up a parcel of letters from the table where the roll of proofs had lain. “What was the book Mrs. St. George made you burn — the one she didn’t like?” our young man brought out.

“The book she made me burn — how did you know that?” The Master looked up from his letters quite without the facial convulsion the pupil had feared.

“I heard her speak of it at Summersoft.”

“Ah yes — she’s proud of it. I don’t know — it was rather good.”

“What was it about?”

“Let me see.” And he seemed to make an effort to remember. “Oh yes — it was about myself.” Paul gave an irrepressible groan for the disappearance of such a production, and the elder man went on: “Oh but you should write it — you should do me.” And he pulled up — from the restless motion that had come upon him; his fine smile a generous glare. “There’s a subject, my boy: no end of stuff in it!”

Again Paul was silent, but it was all tormenting. “Are there no women who really understand — who can take part in a sacrifice?”

“How can they take part? They themselves are the sacrifice. They’re the idol and the altar and the flame.”

“Isn’t there even one who sees further?” Paul continued.

For a moment St. George made no answer; after which, having torn up his letters, he came back to the point all ironic. “Of course I know the one you mean. But not even Miss Fancourt.”

“I thought you admired her so much.”

“It’s impossible to admire her more. Are you in love with her?” St. George asked.

“Yes,” Paul Overt presently said.

“Well then give it up.”

Paul stared. “Give up my ‘love’?”

“Bless me, no. Your idea.” And then as our hero but still gazed: “The one you talked with her about. The idea of a decent perfection.”

“She’d help it — she’d help it!” the young man cried.

“For about a year — the first year, yes. After that she’d be as a millstone round its neck.”

Paul frankly wondered. “Why she has a passion for the real thing, for good work — for everything you and I care for most.”

“‘You and I’ is charming, my dear fellow!” his friend laughed. “She has it indeed, but she’d have a still greater passion for her children — and very proper too. She’d insist on everything’s being made comfortable, advantageous, propitious for them. That isn’t the artist’s business.”

“The artist — the artist! Isn’t he a man all the same?”

St. George had a grand grimace. “I mostly think not. You know as well as I what he has to do: the concentration, the finish, the independence he must strive for from the moment he begins to wish his work really decent. Ah my young friend, his relation to women, and especially to the one he’s most intimately concerned with, is at the mercy of the damning fact that whereas he can in the nature of things have but one standard, they have about fifty. That’s what makes them so superior,” St. George amusingly added. “Fancy an artist with a change of standards as you’d have a change of shirts or of dinner-plates. To do it — to do it and make it divine — is the only thing he has to think about. ‘Is it done or not?’ is his only question. Not ‘Is it done as well as a proper solicitude for my dear little family will allow?’ He has nothing to do with the relative — he has only to do with the absolute; and a dear little family may represent a dozen relatives.”

“Then you don’t allow him the common passions and affections of men?” Paul asked.

“Hasn’t he a passion, an affection, which includes all the rest? Besides, let him have all the passions he likes — if he only keeps his independence. He must be able to be poor.”

Paul slowly got up. “Why then did you advise me to make up to her?”

St. George laid his hand on his shoulder. “Because she’d make a splendid wife! And I hadn’t read you then.”

The young man had a strained smile. “I wish you had left me alone!”

“I didn’t know that that wasn’t good enough for you,” his host returned.

“What a false position, what a condemnation of the artist, that he’s a mere disfranchised monk and can produce his effect only by giving up personal happiness. What an arraignment of art!” Paul went on with a trembling voice.

“Ah you don’t imagine by chance that I’m defending art? ‘Arraignment’ — I should think so! Happy the societies in which it hasn’t made its appearance, for from the moment it comes they have a consuming ache, they have an incurable corruption, in their breast. Most assuredly is the artist in a false position! But I thought we were taking him for granted. Pardon me,” St. George continued: “‘Ginistrella’ made me!”

Paul stood looking at the floor — one o’clock struck, in the stillness, from a neighbouring church-tower. “Do you think she’d ever look at me?” he put to his friend at last.

“Miss Fancourt — as a suitor? Why shouldn’t I think it? That’s why I’ve tried to favour you — I’ve had a little chance or two of bettering your opportunity.”

“Forgive my asking you, but do you mean by keeping away yourself?” Paul said with a blush.

“I’m an old idiot — my place isn’t there,” St. George stated gravely.

“I’m nothing yet, I’ve no fortune; and there must be so many others,” his companion pursued.

The Master took this considerably in, but made little of it. “You’re a gentleman and a man of genius. I think you might do something.”

“But if I must give that up — the genius?”

“Lots of people, you know, think I’ve kept mine,” St. George wonderfully grinned.

“You’ve a genius for mystification!” Paul declared; but grasping his hand gratefully in attenuation of this judgement.

“Poor dear boy, I do worry you! But try, try, all the same. I think your chances are good and you’ll win a great prize.”

Paul held fast the other’s hand a minute; he looked into the strange deep face. “No, I am an artist — I can’t help it!”

“Ah show it then!” St. George pleadingly broke out. “Let me see before I die the thing I most want, the thing I yearn for: a life in which the passion — ours — is really intense. If you can be rare don’t fail of it! Think what it is — how it counts — how it lives!”

They had moved to the door and he had closed both his hands over his companion’s. Here they paused again and our hero breathed deep. “I want to live!”

“In what sense?”

“In the greatest.”

“Well then stick to it — see it through.”

“With your sympathy — your help?”

“Count on that — you’ll be a great figure to me. Count on my highest appreciation, my devotion. You’ll give me satisfaction — if that has any weight with you.” After which, as Paul appeared still to waver, his host added: “Do you remember what you said to me at Summersoft?”

“Something infatuated, no doubt!”

“‘I’ll do anything in the world you tell me.’ You said that.”

“And you hold me to it?”

“Ah what am I?” the Master expressively sighed.

“Lord, what things I shall have to do!” Paul almost moaned as be departed.

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