Much as I wished to see him, I had kept my letter of introduction for three weeks in my pocket-book. I was nervous and timid about meeting him, — conscious of youth and ignorance, convinced that he was tormented by strangers, and especially by my country-people, and not exempt from the suspicion that he had the irritability as well as the brilliancy of genius. Moreover, the pleasure, if it should occur (for I could scarcely believe it was near at hand), would be so great that I wished to think of it in advance, to feel that it was in my pocket, not to mix it with satisfactions more superficial and usual In the little game of new sensations that I was playing with my ingenuous mind, I wished to keep my visit to the author of Beltraffio as a trump card. It was three years after the publication of that fascinating work, which I had read over five times, and which now, with my riper judgment, I admire on the whole as much as ever. This will give you about the date of my first visit (of any duration) to England; for you will not have forgotten the commotion — I may even say the scandal — produced by Mark Ambient’s masterpiece. It was the most complete presentation that had yet been made of the gospel of art; it was a kind of aesthetic war-cry. People had endeavored to sail nearer to “truth” in the cut of their sleeves and the shape of their sideboards; but there had not as yet been, among English novels, such an example of beauty of execution and genuineness of substance. Nothing had been done in that line from the point of view of art for art This was my own point of view, I may mention, when I was twenty-five; whether it is altered now I won’t take upon myself to say — especially as the discerning reader will be able to judge for himself. I had been in England, briefly, a twelvemonth before the time to which I began by alluding, and had learned then that Mr. Ambient was in distant lands — was making a considerable tour in the East: so there was nothing to do but to keep my letter till I should be in London again. It was of little use to me to hear that his wife had not left England, and, with her little boy, their only child, was spending the period of her husband’s absence — a good many months — at a small place they had down in Surrey. They had a house in London which was let. All this I learned, and also that Mrs. Ambient was charming (my friend the American poet, from whom I had my introduction, had never seen her, his relations with the great man being only epistolary); but she was not, after all, though she had lived so near the rose, the author of Beltraffio, and I did not go down into Surrey to call on her. I went to the Continent, spent the following winter in Italy, and returned to London in May. My visit to Italy opened my eyes to a good many things, but to nothing more than the beauty of certain pages in the works of Mark Ambient I had every one of his productions in my portmanteau, — they are not, as you know, very numerous, but he had preluded to Beltraffio by some exquisite things, — and I used to read them over in the evening at the inn. I used to say to myself that the man who drew those characters and wrote that style understood what he saw and knew what he was doing. This is my only reason for mentioning my winter in Italy. He had been there much in former years, and he was saturated with what painters call the “feeling” of that classic land. He expressed the charm of the old hill-cities of Tuscany, the look of certain lonely grass-grown places which, in the past, had echoed with life; he understood the great artists, he understood the spirit of the Renaissance, he understood everything. The scene of one of his earlier novels was laid in Borne, the scene of another in Florence, and I moved through these cities in company with the figures whom Mark Ambient had set so vividly upon their feet. This is why I was now so much happier even than before in the prospect of making his acquaintance.
At last, when I had dallied with this privilege long enough, I despatched to him the missive of the American poet He had already gone out of town; he shrank from the rigor of the London “season” and it was his habit to migrate on the first of June. Moreover, I had heard that this year he was hard at work on a new book, into which some of his impressions of the East were to be wrought, so that he desired nothing so much as quiet days. This knowledge, however, did not prevent me — cet âge est sans pitié — from sending with my friend’s letter a note of my own, in which I asked Mr. Ambient’s leave to come down and see him for an hour or two, on a day to be designated by himself. My proposal was accompanied with a very frank expression of my sentiments, and the effect of the whole projectile was to elicit from the great man the kindest possible invitation. He would be delighted to see me, especially if I should turn up on the following Saturday and would remain till the Monday morning. We would take a walk over the Surrey commons, and I could tell him all about the other great man, the one in America. He indicated to me the best train, and it may be imagined whether on the Saturday afternoon I was punctual at Waterloo. He carried his benevolence to the point of coming to meet me at the little station at which I was to alight, and my heart beat very fast as I saw his handsome face, surmounted with a soft wide-awake, and which I knew by a photograph long since enshrined upon my mantelshelf, scanning the carriage windows as the train rolled up. He recognized me as infallibly as I had recognized him; he appeared to know by instinct how a young American of an æsthetic turn would look when much divided between eagerness and modesty. He took me by the hand, and smiled at me, and said: “You must be-a — you, I think!” and asked if I should mind going on foot to his house, which would take but a few minutes. I remember thinking it a piece of extraordinary affability that he should give directions about the conveyance of my bag, and feeling altogether very happy and rosy, in fact quite transported, when he laid his hand on my shoulder as we came out of the station.
I surveyed him, askance, as we walked together; I had already — I had indeed instantly — seen that he was a delightful creature. His face is so well known that I need n’t describe it; he looked to me at once an English gentleman and a man of genius, and I thought that a happy combination. There was just a little of the Bohemian in his appearance; you would easily have guessed that he belonged to the guild of artists and men of letters. He was addicted to velvet jackets, to cigarettes, to loose shirt-collars, to looking a little dishevelled. His features, which were fine, but not perfectly regular, are fairly enough represented in his portraits; but no portrait that I have seen gives any idea of his expression. There were so many things in it, and they chased each other in and out of his face. I have seen people who were grave and gay in quick alternation; but Mark Ambient was grave and gay at one and the same moment. There were other strange oppositions and contradictions in his slightly faded and fatigued countenance. He seemed both young and old, both anxious and indifferent. He had evidently had an active past, which inspired one with curiosity, and yet it was impossible not to be more curious still about his future. He was just enough above middle height to be spoken of as tall, and rather lean and long in the flank. He had the friendliest, frankest manner possible, and yet I could see that he was shy. He was thirty-eight years old at the time Beltraffio was published. He asked me about his friend in America, about the length of my stay in England, about the last news in London and the people I had seen there; and I remember looking for the signs of genius in the very form of his questions, and thinking I found it. I liked his voice.
There was genius in his house, too, I thought, when we got there; there was imagination in the carpets and curtains, in the pictures and books, in the garden behind it, where certain old brown walls were muffled in creepers that appeared to me to have been copied from a masterpiece of one of the preRaphaelites. That was the way many things struck me at that time, in England; as if they were reproductions of something that existed primarily in art or literature. It was not the picture, the poem, the fictive page, that seemed to me a copy; these things were the originals, and the life of happy and distinguished people was fashioned in their image. Mark Ambient called his house a cottage, and I perceived afterwards that he was right; for if it had not been a cottage it must have been a villa, and a villa, in England at least, was not a place in which one could fancy him at home. But it was, to my vision, a cottage glorified and translated; it was a palace of art, on a slightly reduced scale, — it was an old English demesne. It nestled under a cluster of magnificent beeches, it had little creaking lattices that opened out of, or into, pendent mats of ivy, and gables, and old red tiles, as well as a general aspect of being painted in water-colors and inhabited by people whose lives would go on in chapters and volumes. The lawn seemed to me of extraordinary extent, the garden-walls of incalculable height, the whole air of the place delightfully still, private, proper to itself. “My wife must be somewhere about,” Mark Ambient said, as we went in. “We shall find her perhaps; we have got about an hour before dinner. She may be in the garden. I will show you my little place.”
We passed through the house, and into the grounds, as I should have called them, which extended into the rear. They covered but three or four acres, but, like the house, they were very old and crooked, and full of traces of long habitation, with inequalities of level and little steps — mossy and cracked were these — which connected the different parts with each other. The limits of the place, cleverly dissimulated, were muffled in the deepest verdure. They made, as I remember, a kind of curtain at the further end, in one of the folds of which, as it were, we presently perceived, from afar, a little group. “Ah, there she is!” said Mark Ambient; “and she has got the boy.” He made this last remark in a slightly different tone from any in which he yet had spoken. I was not fully aware of it at the time, but it lingered in my ear and I afterwards understood it.
“Is it your son?” I inquired, feeling the question not to be brilliant.
“Yes, my only child. He’s always in his mother’s pocket She coddles him too much.” It came back to me afterwards, too — the manner in which he spoke these words. They were not petulant; they expressed rather a sudden coldness, a kind of mechanical submission. We went a few steps further, and then he stopped short and called the boy, beckoning to him repeatedly.
“Dolcino, come and see your daddy!” There was something in the way he stood still and waited that made me think he did it for a purpose. Mrs. Ambient had her arm round the child’s waist, and he was leaning against her knee; but though he looked up at the sound of his father’s voice, she gave no sign of releasing him. A lady, apparently a neighbor, was seated near her, and before them was a garden-table, on which a tea-service had been placed.
Mark Ambient called again, and Dolcino struggled in the maternal embrace, but he was too tightly held, and after two or three fruitless efforts he suddenly turned round and buried his head deep in his mother’s lap. There was a certain awkwardness in the scene; I thought it rather odd that Mrs. Ambient should pay so little attention to her husband. But I would not for the world have betrayed my thought, and, to conceal it, I observed that it must be such a pleasant thing to have tea in the garden. “Ah, she won’t let him come!” said Mark Ambient, with a sigh; and we went our way ‘till we reached the two ladies. He mentioned my name to his wife, and I noticed that he addressed her as “My dear,” very genially, without any trace of resentment at her detention of the child. The quickness of the transition made me vaguely ask myself whether he were henpecked, — a shocking conjecture, which I instantly dismissed. Mrs. Ambient was quite such a wife as I should have expected him to have; slim and fair, with a long neck and pretty eyes and an air of great refinement. She was a little cold, and a little shy; but she was very sweet, and she had a certain look of race, justified by my afterwards learning that she was “connected” with two or three great families. I have seen poets married to women of whom it was difficult to conceive that they should gratify the poetic fancy, — women with dull faces and glutinous minds, who were none the less, however, excellent wives. But there was no obvious incongruity in Mark Ambient’s union. Mrs. Ambient, delicate and quiet, in a white dress, with her beautiful child at her side, was worthy of the author of a work so distinguished as Beltraffio. Bound her neck she wore a black velvet ribbon, of which the long ends, tied behind, hung down her back, and to which, in front, was attached a miniature portrait of her little boy. Her smooth, shining hair was confined in a net She gave me a very pleasant greeting, and Dolcino — I thought this little name of endearment delightful — took advantage of her getting up to slip away from her and go to his father, who said nothing to him, but simply seized him and held him high in his arms for a moment, kissing him several times.
I had lost no time in observing that the child, who was not more than seven years old, was extraordinarily beautiful He had the face of an angel, — the eyes, the hair, the more than mortal bloom, the smile of innocence. There was something touching, almost alarming, in his beauty, which seemed to be composed of elements too fine and pure for the breath of this world. When I spoke to him, and he came and held out his hand and smiled at me, I felt a sudden pity for him, as if he had been an orphan, or a changeling, or stamped with some social stigma. It was impossible to be, in fact, more exempt from these misfortunes, and yet, as one kissed him, it was hard to keep from murmuring “Poor little devil!” though why one should have applied this epithet to a living cherub is more than I can say. Afterwards, indeed, I knew a little better; I simply discovered that he was too charming to live, wondering at the same time that his parents should not have perceived it, and should not be in proportionate grief and despair. For myself, I had no doubt of his evanescence, having already noticed that there is a kind of charm which is like a death-warrant.
The lady who had been sitting with Mrs. Ambient was a jolly, ruddy personage, dressed in velveteen and rather limp feathers, whom I guessed to be the vicar’s wife, — our hostess did not introduce me, — and who immediately began to talk to Ambient about chrysanthemums. This was a safe subject, and yet there was a certain surprise for me in seeing the author of Beltraffio even in such superficial communion with the Church of England. His writings implied so much detachment from that institution, expressed a view of life so profane, as it were, so independent, and so little likely, in general, to be thought edifying, that I should have expected to find him an object of horror to vicars and their ladies — of horror repaid on his own part by good-natured but brilliant mockery. This proves how little I knew as yet of the English people and their extraordinary talent for keeping up their forms, as well as of some of the mysteries of Mark Ambient’s hearth and home. I found afterwards that he had, in his study, between smiles and cigar-smoke, some wonderful comparisons for his clerical neighbors; but meanwhile the chrysanthemums were a source of harmony, for he and the vicaress were equally fond of them, and I was surprised at the knowledge they exhibited of this interesting plant. The lady’s visit, however, had presumably already been long, and she presently got up, saying she must go, and kissed Mrs. Ambient Mark started to walk with her to the gate of the grounds, holding Dolcino by the hand.
“Stay with me, my darling,” Mrs. Ambient said to the boy, who was wandering away with his father.
Mark Ambient paid no attention to the summons, but Dolcino turned round and looked with eyes of shy entreaty at his mother. “Can’t I go with papa?”
“Not when I ask you to stay with me.”
“But please don’t ask me, mamma,” said the child, in his little clear, new voice.
“I must ask you when I want you. Come to me, my darling.” And Mrs. Ambient, who had seated herself again, held out her long, slender hands.
Her husband stopped, with his back turned to her, but without releasing the child. He was still talking to the vicaress, but this good lady, I think, had lost the thread of her attention. She looked at Mrs. Ambient and at Dolcino, and then she looked at me, smiling very hard, in an extremely fixed, cheerful manner.
“Papa,” said the child, “mamma wants me not to go with you.”
“He’s very tired — he has run about all day. He ought to be quiet till he goes to bed. Otherwise he won’t sleep.” These declarations fell successively and gravely from Mrs. Ambient’s lips.
Her husband, still without turning round, bent over the boy and looked at him in silence. The vicaress gave a genial, irrelevant laugh, and observed that he was a precious little pet “Let him choose,” said Mark Ambient. “My dear little boy, will you go with me or will you stay with your mother?”
“Oh, it’s a shame!” cried the vicar’s lady, with increased hilarity.
“Papa, I don’t think I can choose,” the child answered, making his voice very low and confidential. “But I have been a great deal with mamma today,” he added in a moment.
“And very little with papa! My dear fellow, I think you have chosen!” And Mark Ambient walked off with his son, accompanied by reechoing but inarticulate comments from my fellow-visitor.
His wife had seated herself again, and her fixed eyes, bent upon the ground, expressed for a few moments so much mute agitation that I felt as if almost any remark from my own lips would be a false note. But Mrs. Ambient quickly recovered herself, and said to me civilly enough that she hoped I did n’t mind having had to walk from the station. I reassured her on this point, and she went on, “We have got a thing that might have gone for you, but my husband wouldn’t order it.”
“That gave me the pleasure of a walk with him,” I rejoined.
She was silent a minute, and then she said, “I believe the Americans walk very little.”
“Yes, we always run,” I answered laughingly.
She looked at me seriously, and I began to perceive a certain coldness in her pretty eyes. “I suppose your distances are so great?”
“Yes; but we break our marches I I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is for me to find myself here,” I added. “I have the greatest admiration for Mr. Ambient.”
“He will like that. He likes being admired.”
“He must have a very happy life, then. He has many worshippers.”
“Oh, yes, I have seen some of them,” said Mrs. Ambient, looking away, very far from me, rather as if such a vision were before her at the moment Something in her tone seemed to indicate that the vision was scarcely edifying, and I guessed very quickly that she was not in sympathy with the author of Beltraffio. I thought the fact strange, but, somehow, in the glow of my own enthusiasm, I did n’t think it important; it only made me wish to be rather explicit about that enthusiasm.
“For me, you know,” I remarked, “he is quite the greatest of living writers.”
“Of course I can’t judge. Of course he’s very clever,” said Mrs. Ambient, smiling a little.
“He’s magnificent, Mrs. Ambient! There are pages in each of his books that have a perfection that classes them with the greatest things. Therefore, for me to see him in this familiar way, — in his habit as he lives, — and to find, apparently, the man as delightful as the artist, I can’t tell you how much too good to be true it seems, and how great a privilege I think it.” I knew that I was gushing, but I could n’t help it, and what I said was a good deal less than what I felt. I was by no means sure that I should dare to say even so much as this to Ambient himself, and there was a kind of rapture in speaking it out to his wife which was not affected by the fact that, as a wife, she appeared peculiar. She listened to me with her face grave again, and with her lips a little compressed, as if there were no doubt, of course, that her husband was remarkable, but at the same time she had heard all this before and couldn’t be expected to be particularly interested in it. There was even in her manner an intimation that I was rather young, and that people usually got over that sort of thing. “I assure you that for me this is a red-letter day,” I added.
She made no response, until after a pause, looking round her, she said abruptly, though gently, “We are very much afraid about the fruit this year.”
My eyes wandered to the mossy, mottled, garden walls, where plum-trees and pear-trees, flattened and fastened upon the rusty bricks, looked like crucified figures with many arms. “Does n’t it promise well?” I inquired.
“No, the trees look very dull. We had such late frosts.”
Then there was another pause. Mrs. Ambient kept her eyes fixed on the opposite end of the grounds, as if she were watching for her husband’s return with the child. “Is Mr. Ambient fond of gardening?” it occurred to me to inquire, irresistibly impelled as I felt myself, moreover, to bring the conversation constantly back to him.
“He’s very fond of plums,” said his wife.
“Ah, well then, I hope your crop will be better than you fear. It’s a lovely old place,” I continued. “The whole character of it is that of certain places that he describes. Your house is like one of his pictures.”
“It’s a pleasant little place. There are hundreds like it”
“Oh, it has got his tone,” I said, laughing, and insisting on my point the more that Mrs. Ambient appeared to see in my appreciation of her simple establishment a sign of limited experience.
It was evident that I insisted too much. “His tone?” she repeated, with a quick look at me, and a slightly heightened color.
“Surely he has a tone, Mrs. Ambient”
“Oh, yes, he has indeed! But I don’t in the least consider that I am living in one of his books; I should n’t care for that, at all,” she went on, with a smile which had in some degree the effect of converting her slightly sharp protest into a joke deficient in point “I am afraid I am not very literary,” said Mrs. Ambient. “And I am not artistic.”
“I am very sure you are not ignorant, not stupid,” I ventured to reply, with the accompaniment of feeling immediately afterwards that I had been both familiar and patronizing. My only consolation was in the reflection that it was she, and not I, who had begun it She had brought her idiosyncrasies into the discussion.
“Well, whatever I am, I am very different from my husband. If you like him, you won’t like me. You need n’t say anything. Your liking me is n’t in the least necessary!”
“Don’t defy me!” I exclaimed.
She looked as if she had not heard me, which was the best thing she could do; and we sat some time without further speech. Mrs. Ambient had evidently the enviable English quality of being able to be silent without being restless. But at last she spoke; she asked me if there seemed to be many people in town. I gave her what satisfaction I could on this point, and we talked a little about London and of some pictures it presented at that time of the year. At the end of this I came back, irrepressibly, to Mark Ambient.
“Does n’t he like to be there now? I suppose he does n’t find the proper quiet for his work. I should think his things had been written, for the most part, in a very still place. They suggest a great stillness, following on a kind of tumult. Don’t you think so? I suppose London is a tremendous place to collect impressions, but a refuge like this, in the country, must be much better for working them up. Does he get many of his impressions in London, do you think?” I proceeded from point to point in this malign inquiry, simply because my hostess, who probably thought me a very pushing and talkative young man, gave me time; for when I paused — I have not represented my pauses — she simply continued to let her eyes wander, and, with her long fair fingers, played with the medallion on her neck. When I stopped altogether, however, she was obliged to say something, and what she said was that she had not the least idea where her husband got his impressions. This made me think her, for a moment, positively disagreeable; delicate and proper and rather aristocratically dry as she sat there. But I must either have lost the impression a moment later, or been goaded by it to further aggression, for I remember asking her whether Mr. Ambient were in a good vein of work, and when we might look for the appearance of the book on which he was engaged. I have every reason now to know that she thought me an odious person.
She gave a strange, small laugh as she said, “I am afraid you think I know a great deal more about my husband’s work than I do. I haven’t the least idea what he is doing,” she added presently, in a slightly different, that is a more explanatory, tone, as if she recognized in some degree the enormity of her confession. “I don’t read what he writes!”
She did not succeed (and would not, even had she tried much harder) in making it seem to me anything less than monstrous. I stared at her, and I think I blushed. “Don’t you admire his genius? Don’t you admire Beltraffio?”
She hesitated a moment, and I wondered what she could possibly say. She did not speak — I could see — the first words that rose to her lips; she repeated what she had said a few minutes before. “Oh, of course he ‘s very clever!” And with this she got up; her husband and little boy had reappeared. Mrs. Ambient left me and went to meet them; she stopped and had a few words with her husband, which I did not hear, and which ended in her taking the child by the hand and returning to the house with him. Her husband joined me in a moment, looking, I thought, the least bit conscious and constrained, and said that if I would come in with him he would show me my room. In looking back upon these first moments of my visit to him, I find it important to avoid the error of appearing to have understood his situation from the first, and to have seen in him the signs of things which I learnt only afterwards. This later knowledge throws a backward light, and makes me forget that at least on the occasion of which I am speaking now (I mean that first afternoon), Mark Ambient struck me as a fortunate man. Allowing for this, I think he was rather silent and irresponsive as we walked back to the house, though I remember well the answer he made to a remark of mine in relation to his child.
“That’s an extraordinary little boy of yours,” I said. “I have never seen such a child.”
“Why do you call him extraordinary?”
“He’s so beautiful, so fascinating. He’s like a little work of art.”
He turned quickly, grasping my arm an instant. “Oh, don’t call him that, or you ‘ll — you ‘ll —!”
And in his hesitation he broke off suddenly, laughing at my surprise. But immediately afterwards he added, “You will make his little future very difficult.”
I declared that I wouldn’t for the world take any liberties with his little future — it seemed to me to hang by threads of such delicacy. I should only be highly interested in watching it.
“You Americans are very sharp,” said Ambient “You notice more things than we do.”
“Ah, if you want visitors who are not struck with you, you should n’t ask me down here!”
He showed me my room, a little bower of chintz, with open windows where the light was green, and before he left me he said irrelevantly, “As for my little boy, you know, we shall probably kill him between us, before wo have done with him!” And he made this assertion as if he really believed it, without any appearance of jest, with his fine, near-sighted, expressive eyes looking straight into mine.
“Do you mean by spoiling him?”
“No; by fighting for him!”
“You had better give him to me to keep for you,” I said. “Let me remove the apple of discord.”
I laughed, of course, but he had the air of being perfectly serious. “It would be quite the best thing we could do. I should be quite ready to do it.”
“I am greatly obliged to you for your confidence.”
Mark Ambient lingered there, with his hands in his pockets. I felt, within a few moments, as if I had, morally speaking, taken several steps nearer to him. He looked weary, just as he faced me then, looked preoccupied, and as if there were something one might do for him. I was terribly conscious of the limits of my own ability, but I wondered what such a service might be, feeling at bottom, however, that the only thing I could do for him was to like him. I suppose he guessed this, and was grateful for what was in my mind; for he went on presently, “I have n’t the advantage of being an American. But I also notice a little, and I have an idea that — a — ” here he smiled and laid his hand on my shoulder, “that even apart from your nationality, you are not destitute of intelligence! I have only known you half an hour, but — a — ” And here he hesitated again. “You are very young, after all.”
“But you may treat me as if I could understand you!” I said; and before he left me to dress for dinner he had virtually given me a promise that he would.
When I went down into the drawing-room — I was very punctual — I found that neither my hostess nor my host had appeared. A lady rose from a sofa, however, and inclined her head as I rather surprisedly gazed at her. “I dare say you don’t know me,” she said, with the modern laugh. “I am Mark Ambient’s sister.” Whereupon I shook hands with her, saluting her very low. Her laugh was modern — by which I mean that it consisted of the vocal agitation which, between people who meet in drawing-rooms, serves as the solvent of social mysteries, the medium of transitions; but her appearance was — what shall I call it? — mediaeval. She was pale and angular, with a long, thin face, inhabited by sad, dark eyes, and black hair intertwined with golden fillets and curious chains. She wore a faded velvet robe, which clung to her when she moved, fashioned, as to the neck and sleeves, like the garments of old Venetians and Florentines. She looked pictorial and melancholy, and was so perfect an image of a type which I, in my ignorance, supposed to be extinct, that while she rose before me I was almost as much startled as if I had seen a ghost. I afterwards perceived that Miss Ambient was not incapable of deriving pleasure from the effect she produced, and I think this sentiment had something to do with her sinking again into her seat, with her long, lean, but not ungraceful arms locked together in an archaic manner on her knees, and her mournful eyes addressing themselves to me with an intentness which was a menace of what they were destined subsequently to inflict upon me. She was a singular, self-conscious, artificial creature, and I never, subsequently, more than half penetrated her motives and, mysteries. Of one thing I am sure, however: that they were considerably less extraordinary than her appearance announced. Miss Ambient was a restless, disappointed, imaginative spinster, consumed with the love of Michael–Angelesque attitudes and mystical robes; but I am pretty sure she had not in her nature those depths of unutterable thought which, when you first knew her, seemed to look out from her eyes and to prompt her complicated gestures. Those features, in especial, had a misleading eloquence; they rested upon you with a far-off dimness, an air of obstructed sympathy, which was certainly not always a key to the spirit of their owner; and I suspect that a young lady could not really have been so dejected and disillusioned as Miss Ambient looked, without having committed a crime for which she was consumed with remorse, or parted with a hope which she could not sanely have entertained. She had, I believe, the usual allowance of vulgar impulses: she wished to be looked at, she wished to be married, she wished to be thought original. It costs me something to speak in this irreverent manner of Mark Ambient’s sister, but I shall have still more disagreeable things to say before I have finished my little anecdote, and moreover, — I confess it, — I owe the young lady a sort of grudge. Putting aside the curious cast of her face, she had no natural aptitude for an artistic development, — she had little real intelligence. But her affectations rubbed off on her brother’s renown, and as there were plenty of people who disapproved of him totally, they could easily point to his sister as a person formed by his influence. It was quite possible to regard her as a warning, and she had done him but little good with the world at large. He was the original, and she was the inevitable imitation. I think he was scarcely aware of the impression she produced, beyond having a general idea that she made up very well as a Rossetti; he was used to her, and he was sorry for her, — wishing she would marry and observing that she did n’t Doubtless I take her too seriously, for she did me no harm, though I am bound to add that I feel I can only half account for her. She was not so mystical as she looked, but she was a strange, indirect, uncomfortable, embarrassing woman. My story will give the reader at best so very small a knot to untie that I need not hope to excite his curiosity by delaying to remark that Mrs. Ambient hated her sister-inlaw. This I only found out afterwards, when I found out some other things. But I mention it at once, for I shall perhaps not seem to count too much on having enlisted the imagination of the reader if I say that he will already have guessed it Mrs. Ambient was a person of conscience, and she endeavored to behave properly to her kinswoman, who spent a month with her twice a year; but it required no great insight to discover that the two ladies were made of a very different paste, and that the usual feminine hypocrisies must have cost them, on either side, much more than the usual effort. Mrs. Ambient, smooth-haired, thin-lipped, perpetually fresh, must have regarded her crumpled and dishevelled visitor as a very stale joke; she herself was not a Rossetti, but a Gainsborough or a Lawrence, and she had in her appearance no elements more romantic than a cold, ladylike candor, and a well-starched muslin dress.
It was in a garment, and with an expression, of this kind, that she made her entrance, after I had exchanged a few words with Miss Ambient. Her husband presently followed her, and there being no other company we went to dinner. The impression I received from that repast is present to me still. There were elements of oddity in my companions, but they were vague and latent, and did n’t interfere with my delight It came mainly, of course, from Ambient’s talk, which was the most brilliant and interesting I had ever heard. I know not whether he laid himself out to dazzle a rather juvenile pilgrim from over the sea; but it matters little, for it was very easy for him to shine. He was almost better as a talker than as a writer; that is, if the extraordinary finish of his written prose be really, as some people have maintained, a fault. There was such a kindness in him, however, that I have no doubt it gave him ideas to see me sit open-mouthed, as I suppose I did. Not so the two ladies, who not only were very nearly dumb from beginning to the end of the meal, but who had not the air of being struck with such an exhibition of wit and knowledge. Mrs. Ambient, placid and detached, met neither my eye nor her husband’s; she attended to her dinner, watched the servants, arranged the puckers in her dress, exchanged at wide intervals a remark with her sister-inlaw, and while she slowly rubbed her white hands between the courses, looked out of the window at the first signs of twilight — the long June day allowing us to dine without candles.. Miss Ambient appeared to give little direct heed to her brother’s discourse; but on the other hand she was much engaged in watching its effect upon me. Her lustreless pupils continued to attach themselves to my countenance, and it was only her air of belonging to another century that kept them from being importunate. She seemed to look at me across the ages, and the interval of time diminished the vividness of the performance. It was as if she knew in a general way that her brother must be talking very well, but she herself was so rich in ideas that she had no need to pick them up, and was at liberty to see what would become of a young American when subjected to a high aesthetic temperature.
The temperature was æsthetic, certainly, but it was less so than I could have desired, for I was unsuccessful in certain little attempts to make Mark Ambient talk about himself I tried to put him on the ground of his own writings, but he slipped through my fingers every time and shifted the saddle to one of his contemporaries. He talked about Balzac and Browning, and what was being done in foreign countries, and about his recent tour in the East, and the extraordinary forms of life that one saw in that part of the world. I perceived that he had reasons for not wishing to descant upon literature, and suffered him without protest to deliver himself on certain social topics, which he treated with extraordinary humor and with constant revelations of that power of ironical portraiture of which his books are full. He had a great deal to say about London, as London appears to the observer who does n’t fear the accusation of cynicism, during the high-pressure time — from April to July — of its peculiarities. He flashed his faculty of making the fanciful real and the real fanciful over the perfunctory pleasures and desperate exertions of so many of his compatriots, among whom there were evidently not a few types for which he had little love. London bored him, and he made capital sport of it; his only allusion, that I can remember, to his own work was his saying that he meant some day to write an immense grotesque epic of London society. Miss Ambient’s perpetual gaze seemed to say to me: “Do you perceive how artistic we are? Frankly now, is it possible to be more artistic than this? You surely won’t deny that we are remarkable.” I was irritated by her use of the plural pronoun, for she had no right to pair herself with her brother; and moreover, of course, I could not see my way to include Mrs. Ambient. But there was no doubt that, for that matter, they were all remarkable, and, with all allowances, I had never heard anything so artistic. Mark Ambient’s conversation seemed to play over the whole field of knowledge and taste, and to flood it with light and color.
After the ladies had left us he took me into his study to smoke, and here I led him on to talk freely enough about himself. I was bent upon proving to him that I was worthy to listen to him, upon repaying him for what he had said to me before dinner, by showing him how perfectly I understood. He liked to talk; he liked to defend his ideas (not that I attacked them); he liked a little perhaps — it was a pardonable weakness — to astonish the youthful mind and to feel its admiration and sympathy. I confess that my own youthful mind was considerably astonished at some of his speeches; he startled me and he made me wince. He could not help forgetting, or rather he could n’t know, how little personal contact I had had with the school in which he was master; and he promoted me at a jump, as it were, to the study of its innermost mysteries. My trepidations, however, were delightful; they were just what I had hoped for, and their only fault was that they passed away too quickly; for I found that, as regards most things, I very soon seized Mark Ambient’s point of view. It was the point of view of the artist to whom every manifestation of human energy was a thrilling spectacle, and who felt forever the desire to resolve his experience of life into a literary form. On this matter of the passion for form, — the attempt at perfection, the quest for which was to his mind the real search for the holy grail, — he said the most interesting, the most inspiring things. He mixed with them a thousand illustrations from his own life, from other lives that he had known, from history and fiction, and above all from the annals of the time that was dear to him beyond all periods, — the Italian cinque-cento. I saw that in his books he had only said half of his thought, and what he had kept back — from motives that I deplored when I learnt them later — was the richer part It was his fortune to shock a great many people, but there was not a grain of bravado in his pages (I have always maintained it, though often contradicted), and at bottom the poor fellow, an artist to his fingertips, and regarding a failure of completeness as a crime, had an extreme dread of scandal. There are people who regret that having gone so far he did not go further; but I regret nothing (putting aside two or three of the motives I just mentioned), for he arrived at perfection, and I don’t see how you can go beyond that The hours I spent in his study — this first one and the few that followed it; they were not, after all, so numerous — seem to glow, as I look back on them, with a tone which is partly that of the brown old room, rich, under the shaded candlelight where we sat and smoked, with the dusky, delicate bindings of valuable books; partly that of his voice, of which I still catch the echo, charged with the images that came at his command. When we went back to the drawing-room we found Miss Ambient alone in possession of it; and she informed us that her sister-inlaw had a quarter of an hour before been called by the nurse to see Dolcino, who appeared to be a little feverish.
“Feverish! how in the world does he come to be feverish?” Ambient asked. “He was perfectly well this afternoon.”
“Beatrice says you walked him about too much — you almost killed him.”
“Beatrice must be very happy — she has an opportunity to triumph!” Mark Ambient said, with a laugh of which the bitterness was just perceptible.
“Surely not if the child is ill,” I ventured to remark, by way of pleading for Mrs. Ambient.
“My dear fellow, you are not married — you don’t know the nature of wives!” my host exclaimed.
“Possibly not; but I know the nature of mothers.”
“Beatrice is perfect as a mother,” said Miss Ambient, with a tremendous sigh and her fingers interlaced on her embroidered knees.
“I shall go up and see the child,” her brother went on. “Do you suppose he’s asleep?”
“Beatrice won’t let you see him, Mark,” said the young lady, looking at me, though she addressed, our companion.
“Do you call that being perfect as a mother?” Ambient inquired.
“Yes, from her point of view.”
“Damn her point of view!” cried the author of Beltraffio. And he left the room; after which we heard him ascend the stairs.
I sat there for some ten minutes with Miss Ambient, and we naturally had some conversation, which was begun, I think, by my asking her what the point of view of her sister-inlaw could be.
“Oh, it’s so very odd,” she said. “But we are so very odd, altogether. Don’t you find us so? We have lived so much abroad. Have you people like us in America?”
“You are not all alike, surely; so that I don’t think I understand your question. We have no one like your brother — I may go so far as that.”
“You have probably more persons like his wife,” said Miss Ambient, smiling.
“I can tell you that better when you have told me about her point of view.”
“Oh, yes — oh, yes. Well, she does n’t like his ideas. She doesn’t like them for the child. She thinks them undesirable.”
Being quite fresh from the contemplation of some of Mark Ambient’s arcana, I was particularly in a position to appreciate this announcement. But the effect of it was to make me, after staring a moment, burst into laughter, which I instantly checked when I remembered that there was a sick child above.
“What has that infant to do with ideas?” I asked “Surely, he can’t tell one from another. Has he read his father’s novels?”
“He’s very precocious and very sensitive, and his mother thinks she can’t begin to guard him too early.” Miss Ambient’s head drooped a little to one side, and her eyes fixed themselves on futurity. Then suddenly there was a strange alteration in her face; she gave a smile that was more joyless than her gravity — a conscious, insincere smile, and added, “When one has children, it’s a great responsibility — what one writes.”
“Children are terrible critics,” I answered. “I am rather glad I have n’t got any.”
“Do you also write then? And in the same style as my brother? And do you like that style? And do people appreciate it in America? I don’t write, but I think I feel.” To these and various other inquiries and remarks the young lady treated me, till we heard her brother’s step in the hall again, and Mark Ambient reappeared. He looked flushed and serious, and I supposed that he had seen something to alarm him in the condition of his child. His sister apparently had another idea; she gazed at him a moment as if he were a burning ship on the horizon, and simply murmured, “Poor old Mark!”
“I hope you are not anxious,” I said.
“No, but I ‘m disappointed. She won’t let me in. She has locked the door, and I ‘m afraid to make a noise.” I suppose there might have been something ridiculous in a confession of this kind, but I liked my new friend so much that for me it did n’t detract from his dignity. “She tells me — from behind the door — that she will let me know if he is worse.”
“It’s very good of her,” said Miss Ambient
I had exchanged a glance with Mark in which it is possible that he read that my pity for him was untinged with contempt, though I know not why he should have cared; and as, presently, his sister got up and took her bedroom candlestick, he proposed that we should go back to his study. We sat there till after midnight; he put himself into his slippers, into an old velvet jacket, lighted an ancient pipe, and talked considerably less than he had done before.
There were longish pauses in our communion, but they only made me feel that we had advanced in intimacy. They helped me, too, to understand my friend’s personal situation, and to perceive that it was by no means the happiest possible. When his face was quiet, it was vaguely troubled; it seemed to me to show that for him, too, life was a struggle, as it has been for many another man of genius. At last I prepared to leave him, and then, to my ineffable joy, he gave me some of the sheets of his forthcoming book, — it was not finished, but he had indulged in the luxury, so dear to writers of deliberation, of having it “set up,” from chapter to chapter, as he advanced, — he gave me, I say, the early pages, the prémices, as the French have it, of this new fruit of his imagination, to take to my room and look over at my leisure. I was just quitting him when the door of his study was noiselessly pushed open, and Mrs. Ambient stood before us. She looked at us a moment, with her candle in her hand, and then she said to her husband that as she supposed he had not gone to bed, she had come down to tell him that Dolcino was more quiet and would probably be better in the morning. Mark Ambient made no reply; he simply slipped past her in the doorway, as if he were afraid she would seize him in his passage, and bounded upstairs, to judge for himself of his child’s condition. Mrs. Ambient looked slightly discomfited, and for a moment I thought she was going to give chase to her husband. But she resigned herself, with a sigh, while her eyes wandered over the lamp-lit room, where various books, at which I had been looking, were pulled out of their places on the shelves, and the fumes of tobacco seemed to hang in mid-air. I bade her good-night, and then, without intention, by a kind of fatality, the perversity which had already made me insist unduly on talking with her about her husband’s achievements, I alluded to the precious proof-sheets with which Ambient had intrusted me and which I was nursing there under my arm. “It is the opening chapters of his new book,” I said. “Fancy my satisfaction at being allowed to carry them to my room!”
She turned away, leaving me to take my candlestick from the table in the hall; but before we separated, thinking it apparently a good occasion to let me know once for all — since I was beginning, it would seem, to be quite “thick” with my host — that there was no fitness in my appealing to her for sympathy in such a case; before we separated, I say, she remarked to me with her quick, round, well-bred utterance, “I dare say you attribute to me ideas that I have n’t got I don’t take that sort of interest in my husband’s proof-sheets. I consider his writings most objectionable!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56