The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James

Chapter VI

“It goes on too much abroad — hang abroad!” These or something like them had been the Master’s remarkable words in relation to the action of “Ginistrella”; and yet, though they had made a sharp impression on the author of that work, like almost all spoken words from the same source, he a week after the conversation I have noted left England for a long absence and full of brave intentions. It is not a perversion of the truth to pronounce that encounter the direct cause of his departure. If the oral utterance of the eminent writer had the privilege of moving him deeply it was especially on his turning it over at leisure, hours and days later, that it appeared to yield him its full meaning and exhibit its extreme importance. He spent the summer in Switzerland and, having in September begun a new task, determined not to cross the Alps till he should have made a good start. To this end he returned to a quiet corner he knew well, on the edge of the Lake of Geneva and within sight of the towers of Chillon: a region and a view for which he had an affection that sprang from old associations and was capable of mysterious revivals and refreshments. Here he lingered late, till the snow was on the nearer hills, almost down to the limit to which he could climb when his stint, on the shortening afternoons, was performed. The autumn was fine, the lake was blue and his book took form and direction. These felicities, for the time, embroidered his life, which he suffered to cover him with its mantle. At the end of six weeks he felt he had learnt St. George’s lesson by heart, had tested and proved its doctrine. Nevertheless he did a very inconsistent thing: before crossing the Alps he wrote to Marian Fancourt. He was aware of the perversity of this act, and it was only as a luxury, an amusement, the reward of a strenuous autumn, that he justified it. She had asked of him no such favour when, shortly before he left London, three days after their dinner in Ennismore Gardens, he went to take leave of her. It was true she had had no ground — he hadn’t named his intention of absence. He had kept his counsel for want of due assurance: it was that particular visit that was, the next thing, to settle the matter. He had paid the visit to see how much he really cared for her, and quick departure, without so much as an explicit farewell, was the sequel to this enquiry, the answer to which had created within him a deep yearning. When he wrote her from Clarens he noted that he owed her an explanation (more than three months after!) for not having told her what he was doing.

She replied now briefly but promptly, and gave him a striking piece of news: that of the death, a week before, of Mrs. St. George. This exemplary woman had succumbed, in the country, to a violent attack of inflammation of the lungs — he would remember that for a long time she had been delicate. Miss Fancourt added that she believed her husband overwhelmed by the blow; he would miss her too terribly — she had been everything in life to him. Paul Overt, on this, immediately wrote to St. George. He would from the day of their parting have been glad to remain in communication with him, but had hitherto lacked the right excuse for troubling so busy a man. Their long nocturnal talk came back to him in every detail, but this was no bar to an expression of proper sympathy with the head of the profession, for hadn’t that very talk made it clear that the late accomplished lady was the influence that ruled his life? What catastrophe could be more cruel than the extinction of such an influence? This was to be exactly the tone taken by St. George in answering his young friend upwards of a month later. He made no allusion of course to their important discussion. He spoke of his wife as frankly and generously as if he had quite forgotten that occasion, and the feeling of deep bereavement was visible in his words. “She took everything off my hands — off my mind. She carried on our life with the greatest art, the rarest devotion, and I was free, as few men can have been, to drive my pen, to shut myself up with my trade. This was a rare service — the highest she could have rendered me. Would I could have acknowledged it more fitly!”

A certain bewilderment, for our hero, disengaged itself from these remarks: they struck him as a contradiction, a retractation, strange on the part of a man who hadn’t the excuse of witlessness. He had certainly not expected his correspondent to rejoice in the death of his wife, and it was perfectly in order that the rupture of a tie of more than twenty years should have left him sore. But if she had been so clear a blessing what in the name of consistency had the dear man meant by turning him upside down that night — by dosing him to that degree, at the most sensitive hour of his life, with the doctrine of renunciation? If Mrs. St. George was an irreparable loss, then her husband’s inspired advice had been a bad joke and renunciation was a mistake. Overt was on the point of rushing back to London to show that, for his part, he was perfectly willing to consider it so, and he went so far as to take the manuscript of the first chapters of his new book out of his table-drawer, to insert it into a pocket of his portmanteau. This led to his catching a glimpse of certain pages he hadn’t looked at for months, and that accident, in turn, to his being struck with the high promise they revealed — a rare result of such retrospections, which it was his habit to avoid as much as possible: they usually brought home to him that the glow of composition might be a purely subjective and misleading emotion. On this occasion a certain belief in himself disengaged itself whimsically from the serried erasures of his first draft, making him think it best after all to pursue his present trial to the end. If he could write as well under the rigour of privation it might be a mistake to change the conditions before that spell had spent itself. He would go back to London of course, but he would go back only when he should have finished his book. This was the vow he privately made, restoring his manuscript to the table-drawer. It may be added that it took him a long time to finish his book, for the subject was as difficult as it was fine, and he was literally embarrassed by the fulness of his notes. Something within him warned him that he must make it supremely good — otherwise he should lack, as regards his private behaviour, a handsome excuse. He had a horror of this deficiency and found himself as firm as need be on the question of the lamp and the file. He crossed the Alps at last and spent the winter, the spring, the ensuing summer, in Italy, where still, at the end of a twelvemonth, his task was unachieved. “Stick to it — see it through”: this general injunction of St. George’s was good also for the particular case. He applied it to the utmost, with the result that when in its slow order the summer had come round again he felt he had given all that was in him. This time he put his papers into his portmanteau, with the address of his publisher attached, and took his way northward.

He had been absent from London for two years — two years which, seeming to count as more, had made such a difference in his own life — through the production of a novel far stronger, he believed, than “Ginistrella” — that he turned out into Piccadilly, the morning after his arrival, with a vague expectation of changes, of finding great things had happened. But there were few transformations in Piccadilly — only three or four big red houses where there had been low black ones — and the brightness of the end of June peeped through the rusty railings of the Green Park and glittered in the varnish of the rolling carriages as he had seen it in other, more cursory Junes. It was a greeting he appreciated; it seemed friendly and pointed, added to the exhilaration of his finished book, of his having his own country and the huge oppressive amusing city that suggested everything, that contained everything, under his hand again. “Stay at home and do things here — do subjects we can measure,” St. George had said; and now it struck him he should ask nothing better than to stay at home for ever. Late in the afternoon he took his way to Manchester Square, looking out for a number he hadn’t forgotten. Miss Fancourt, however, was not at home, so that he turned rather dejectedly from the door. His movement brought him face to face with a gentleman just approaching it and recognised on another glance as Miss Fancourt’s father. Paul saluted this personage, and the General returned the greeting with his customary good manner — a manner so good, however, that you could never tell whether it meant he placed you. The disappointed caller felt the impulse to address him; then, hesitating, became both aware of having no particular remark to make, and convinced that though the old soldier remembered him he remembered him wrong. He therefore went his way without computing the irresistible effect his own evident recognition would have on the General, who never neglected a chance to gossip. Our young man’s face was expressive, and observation seldom let it pass. He hadn’t taken ten steps before he heard himself called after with a friendly semi-articulate “Er — I beg your pardon!” He turned round and the General, smiling at him from the porch, said: “Won’t you come in? I won’t leave you the advantage of me!” Paul declined to come in, and then felt regret, for Miss Fancourt, so late in the afternoon, might return at any moment. But her father gave him no second chance; he appeared mainly to wish not to have struck him as ungracious. A further look at the visitor had recalled something, enough at least to enable him to say: “You’ve come back, you’ve come back?” Paul was on the point of replying that he had come back the night before, but he suppressed, the next instant, this strong light on the immediacy of his visit and, giving merely a general assent, alluded to the young lady he deplored not having found. He had come late in the hope she would be in. “I’ll tell her — I’ll tell her,” said the old man; and then he added quickly, gallantly: “You’ll be giving us something new? It’s a long time, isn’t it?” Now he remembered him right.

“Rather long. I’m very slow.” Paul explained. “I met you at Summersoft a long time ago.”

“Oh yes — with Henry St. George. I remember very well. Before his poor wife — ” General Fancourt paused a moment, smiling a little less. “I dare say you know.”

“About Mrs. St. George’s death? Certainly — I heard at the time.”

“Oh no, I mean — I mean he’s to be married.”

“Ah I’ve not heard that!” But just as Paul was about to add “To whom?” the General crossed his intention.

“When did you come back? I know you’ve been away — by my daughter. She was very sorry. You ought to give her something new.”

“I came back last night,” said our young man, to whom something had occurred which made his speech for the moment a little thick.

“Ah most kind of you to come so soon. Couldn’t you turn up at dinner?”

“At dinner?” Paul just mechanically repeated, not liking to ask whom St. George was going to marry, but thinking only of that.

“There are several people, I believe. Certainly St. George. Or afterwards if you like better. I believe my daughter expects — ” He appeared to notice something in the visitor’s raised face (on his steps he stood higher) which led him to interrupt himself, and the interruption gave him a momentary sense of awkwardness, from which he sought a quick issue. “Perhaps then you haven’t heard she’s to be married.”

Paul gaped again. “To be married?”

“To Mr. St. George — it has just been settled. Odd marriage, isn’t it?” Our listener uttered no opinion on this point: he only continued to stare. “But I dare say it will do — she’s so awfully literary!” said the General.

Paul had turned very red. “Oh it’s a surprise — very interesting, very charming! I’m afraid I can’t dine — so many thanks!”

“Well, you must come to the wedding!” cried the General. “Oh I remember that day at Summersoft. He’s a great man, you know.”

“Charming — charming!” Paul stammered for retreat. He shook hands with the General and got off. His face was red and he had the sense of its growing more and more crimson. All the evening at home — he went straight to his rooms and remained there dinnerless — his cheek burned at intervals as if it had been smitten. He didn’t understand what had happened to him, what trick had been played him, what treachery practised. “None, none,” he said to himself. “I’ve nothing to do with it. I’m out of it — it’s none of my business.” But that bewildered murmur was followed again and again by the incongruous ejaculation: “Was it a plan — was it a plan?” Sometimes he cried to himself, breathless, “Have I been duped, sold, swindled?” If at all, he was an absurd, an abject victim. It was as if he hadn’t lost her till now. He had renounced her, yes; but that was another affair — that was a closed but not a locked door. Now he seemed to see the door quite slammed in his face. Did he expect her to wait — was she to give him his time like that: two years at a stretch? He didn’t know what he had expected — he only knew what he hadn’t. It wasn’t this — it wasn’t this. Mystification bitterness and wrath rose and boiled in him when he thought of the deference, the devotion, the credulity with which he had listened to St. George. The evening wore on and the light was long; but even when it had darkened he remained without a lamp. He had flung himself on the sofa, where he lay through the hours with his eyes either closed or gazing at the gloom, in the attitude of a man teaching himself to bear something, to bear having been made a fool of. He had made it too easy — that idea passed over him like a hot wave. Suddenly, as he heard eleven o’clock strike, he jumped up, remembering what General Fancourt had said about his coming after dinner. He’d go — he’d see her at least; perhaps he should see what it meant. He felt as if some of the elements of a hard sum had been given him and the others were wanting: he couldn’t do his sum till he had got all his figures.

He dressed and drove quickly, so that by half-past eleven he was at Manchester Square. There were a good many carriages at the door — a party was going on; a circumstance which at the last gave him a slight relief, for now he would rather see her in a crowd. People passed him on the staircase; they were going away, going “on” with the hunted herdlike movement of London society at night. But sundry groups remained in the drawing-room, and it was some minutes, as she didn’t hear him announced, before he discovered and spoke to her. In this short interval he had seen St. George talking to a lady before the fireplace; but he at once looked away, feeling unready for an encounter, and therefore couldn’t be sure the author of “Shadowmere” noticed him. At all events he didn’t come over though Miss Fancourt did as soon as she saw him — she almost rushed at him, smiling rustling radiant beautiful. He had forgotten what her head, what her face offered to the sight; she was in white, there were gold figures on her dress and her hair was a casque of gold. He saw in a single moment that she was happy, happy with an aggressive splendour. But she wouldn’t speak to him of that, she would speak only of himself.

“I’m so delighted; my father told me. How kind of you to come!” She struck him as so fresh and brave, while his eyes moved over her, that he said to himself irresistibly: “Why to him, why not to youth, to strength, to ambition, to a future? Why, in her rich young force, to failure, to abdication to superannuation?” In his thought at that sharp moment he blasphemed even against all that had been left of his faith in the peccable Master. “I’m so sorry I missed you,” she went on. “My father told me. How charming of you to have come so soon!”

“Does that surprise you?” Paul Overt asked.

“The first day? No, from you — nothing that’s nice.” She was interrupted by a lady who bade her good-night, and he seemed to read that it cost her nothing to speak to him in that tone; it was her old liberal lavish way, with a certain added amplitude that time had brought; and if this manner began to operate on the spot, at such a juncture in her history, perhaps in the other days too it had meant just as little or as much — a mere mechanical charity, with the difference now that she was satisfied, ready to give but in want of nothing. Oh she was satisfied — and why shouldn’t she be? Why shouldn’t she have been surprised at his coming the first day — for all the good she had ever got from him? As the lady continued to hold her attention Paul turned from her with a strange irritation in his complicated artistic soul and a sort of disinterested disappointment. She was so happy that it was almost stupid — a disproof of the extraordinary intelligence he had formerly found in her. Didn’t she know how bad St. George could be, hadn’t she recognised the awful thinness —? If she didn’t she was nothing, and if she did why such an insolence of serenity? This question expired as our young man’s eyes settled at last on the genius who had advised him in a great crisis. St. George was still before the chimney-piece, but now he was alone — fixed, waiting, as if he meant to stop after every one — and he met the clouded gaze of the young friend so troubled as to the degree of his right (the right his resentment would have enjoyed) to regard himself as a victim. Somehow the ravage of the question was checked by the Master’s radiance. It was as fine in its way as Marian Fancourt’s, it denoted the happy human being; but also it represented to Paul Overt that the author of “Shadowmere” had now definitely ceased to count — ceased to count as a writer. As he smiled a welcome across the place he was almost banal, was almost smug. Paul fancied that for a moment he hesitated to make a movement, as if for all the world he had his bad conscience; then they had already met in the middle of the room and had shaken hands — expressively, cordially on St. George’s part. With which they had passed back together to where the elder man had been standing, while St. George said: “I hope you’re never going away again. I’ve been dining here; the General told me.” He was handsome, he was young, he looked as if he had still a great fund of life. He bent the friendliest, most unconfessing eyes on his disciple of a couple of years before; asked him about everything, his health, his plans, his late occupations, the new book. “When will it be out — soon, soon, I hope? Splendid, eh? That’s right; you’re a comfort, you’re a luxury! I’ve read you all over again these last six months.” Paul waited to see if he would tell him what the General had told him in the afternoon and what Miss Fancourt, verbally at least, of course hadn’t. But as it didn’t come out he at last put the question.

“Is it true, the great news I hear — that you’re to be married?”

“Ah you have heard it then?”

“Didn’t the General tell you?” Paul asked.

The Master’s face was wonderful. “Tell me what?”

“That he mentioned it to me this afternoon?”

“My dear fellow, I don’t remember. We’ve been in the midst of people. I’m sorry, in that case, that I lose the pleasure, myself, of announcing to you a fact that touches me so nearly. It is a fact, strange as it may appear. It has only just become one. Isn’t it ridiculous?” St. George made this speech without confusion, but on the other hand, so far as our friend could judge, without latent impudence. It struck his interlocutor that, to talk so comfortably and coolly, he must simply have forgotten what had passed between them. His next words, however, showed he hadn’t, and they produced, as an appeal to Paul’s own memory, an effect which would have been ludicrous if it hadn’t been cruel. “Do you recall the talk we had at my house that night, into which Miss Fancourt’s name entered? I’ve often thought of it since.”

“Yes; no wonder you said what you did” — Paul was careful to meet his eyes.

“In the light of the present occasion? Ah but there was no light then. How could I have foreseen this hour?”

“Didn’t you think it probable?”

“Upon my honour, no,” said Henry St. George. “Certainly I owe you that assurance. Think how my situation has changed.”

“I see — I see,” our young man murmured.

His companion went on as if, now that the subject had been broached, he was, as a person of imagination and tact, quite ready to give every satisfaction — being both by his genius and his method so able to enter into everything another might feel. “But it’s not only that; for honestly, at my age, I never dreamed — a widower with big boys and with so little else! It has turned out differently from anything one could have dreamed, and I’m fortunate beyond all measure. She has been so free, and yet she consents. Better than any one else perhaps — for I remember how you liked her before you went away, and how she liked you — you can intelligently congratulate me.”

“She has been so free!” Those words made a great impression on Paul Overt, and he almost writhed under that irony in them as to which it so little mattered whether it was designed or casual. Of course she had been free, and appreciably perhaps by his own act; for wasn’t the Master’s allusion to her having liked him a part of the irony too? “I thought that by your theory you disapproved of a writer’s marrying.”

“Surely — surely. But you don’t call me a writer?”

“You ought to be ashamed,” said Paul.

“Ashamed of marrying again?”

“I won’t say that — but ashamed of your reasons.”

The elder man beautifully smiled. “You must let me judge of them, my good friend.”

“Yes; why not? For you judged wonderfully of mine.”

The tone of these words appeared suddenly, for St. George, to suggest the unsuspected. He stared as if divining a bitterness. “Don’t you think I’ve been straight?”

“You might have told me at the time perhaps.”

“My dear fellow, when I say I couldn’t pierce futurity —!”

“I mean afterwards.”

The Master wondered. “After my wife’s death?”

“When this idea came to you.”

“Ah never, never! I wanted to save you, rare and precious as you are.”

Poor Overt looked hard at him. “Are you marrying Miss Fancourt to save me?”

“Not absolutely, but it adds to the pleasure. I shall be the making of you,” St. George smiled. “I was greatly struck, after our talk, with the brave devoted way you quitted the country, and still more perhaps with your force of character in remaining abroad. You’re very strong — you’re wonderfully strong.”

Paul tried to sound his shining eyes; the strange thing was that he seemed sincere — not a mocking fiend. He turned away, and as he did so heard the Master say something about his giving them all the proof, being the joy of his old age. He faced him again, taking another look. “Do you mean to say you’ve stopped writing?”

“My dear fellow, of course I have. It’s too late. Didn’t I tell you?”

“I can’t believe it!”

“Of course you can’t — with your own talent! No, no; for the rest of my life I shall only read you.”

“Does she know that — Miss Fancourt?”

“She will — she will.” Did he mean this, our young man wondered, as a covert intimation that the assistance he should derive from that young lady’s fortune, moderate as it was, would make the difference of putting it in his power to cease to work ungratefully an exhausted vein? Somehow, standing there in the ripeness of his successful manhood, he didn’t suggest that any of his veins were exhausted. “Don’t you remember the moral I offered myself to you that night as pointing?” St. George continued. “Consider at any rate the warning I am at present.”

This was too much — he was the mocking fiend. Paul turned from him with a mere nod for good-night and the sense in a sore heart that he might come back to him and his easy grace, his fine way of arranging things, some time in the far future, but couldn’t fraternise with him now. It was necessary to his soreness to believe for the hour in the intensity of his grievance — all the more cruel for its not being a legal one. It was doubtless in the attitude of hugging this wrong that he descended the stairs without taking leave of Miss Fancourt, who hadn’t been in view at the moment he quitted the room. He was glad to get out into the honest dusky unsophisticating night, to move fast, to take his way home on foot. He walked a long time, going astray, paying no attention. He was thinking of too many other things. His steps recovered their direction, however, and at the end of an hour he found himself before his door in the small inexpensive empty street. He lingered, questioning himself still before going in, with nothing around and above him but moonless blackness, a bad lamp or two and a few far-away dim stars. To these last faint features he raised his eyes; he had been saying to himself that he should have been “sold” indeed, diabolically sold, if now, on his new foundation, at the end of a year, St. George were to put forth something of his prime quality — something of the type of “Shadowmere” and finer than his finest. Greatly as he admired his talent Paul literally hoped such an incident wouldn’t occur; it seemed to him just then that he shouldn’t be able to bear it. His late adviser’s words were still in his ears — “You’re very strong, wonderfully strong.” Was he really? Certainly he would have to be, and it might a little serve for revenge. Is he? the reader may ask in turn, if his interest has followed the perplexed young man so far. The best answer to that perhaps is that he’s doing his best, but that it’s too soon to say. When the new book came out in the autumn Mr. and Mrs. St. George found it really magnificent. The former still has published nothing but Paul doesn’t even yet feel safe. I may say for him, however, that if this event were to occur he would really be the very first to appreciate it: which is perhaps a proof that the Master was essentially right and that Nature had dedicated him to intellectual, not to personal passion.

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