The Author of Beltraffio, by Henry James

Part II.

I had some curious conversation the next morning with Miss Ambient, whom I found strolling in the garden before breakfast The whole place looked as fresh and trim, amid the twitter of the birds, as if, an hour before, the housemaids had been turned into it with their dustpans and feather-brushes, I almost hesitated to light a cigarette, and was doubly startled when, in the act of doing so, I suddenly perceived the sister of my host, who had, in any case, something of the oddity of an apparition, standing before me. She might have been posing for her photograph. Her sad-colored robe arranged itself in serpentine folds at her feet; her hands locked themselves listlessly together in front; and her chin rested upon a cinque-cento ruff. The first thing I did, after bidding her good-morning, was to ask her for news of her little nephew, — to express the hope that she had heard he was better. She was able to gratify this hope, and spoke as if we might expect to see him during the day. We walked through the shrubberies together, and she gave me a great deal of information about her brother’s ménage, which offered me an opportunity to mention to her that his wife had told me, the night before, that she thought his productions objectionable.

“She does n’t usually come out with that so soon!” Miss Ambient exclaimed, in answer to this piece of gossip. “Poor lady, she saw that I am a fanatic.” “Yes, she won’t like you for that. But you must n’t mind, if the rest of us like you! Beatrice thinks a work of art ought to have a ‘purpose.’ But she’s a charming woman — don’t you think her charming? — she’s such a type of the lady.”

“She’s very beautiful,” I answered; while I reflected that though it was true, apparently, that Mark Ambient was mismated, it was also perceptible that his sister was perfidious. She told me that her brother and his wife had no other difference but this one, that she thought his writings immoral and his influence pernicious. It was a fixed idea; she was afraid of these things for the child. I answered that it was not a trifle — a woman’s regarding her husband’s mind as a well of corruption, and she looked quite struck with the novelty of my remark. “But there has n’t been any of the sort of trouble that there so often is among married people,” she said. “I suppose you can judge for yourself that Beatrice isn’t at all — well, whatever they call it when a woman misbehaves herself. And Mark does n’t make love to other people, either. I assure you he does n’t! All the same, of course, from her point of view, you know, she has a dread of my brother’s influence on the child — on the formation of his character, of his principles. It is as if it were a subtle poison, or a contagion, or something that would rub off on Dolcino when his father kisses him or holds him on his knee. If she could, she would prevent Mark from ever touching him. Every one knows it; visitors see it for themselves; so there is no harm in my telling you. Isn’t it excessively odd? It comes from Beatrice’s being so religious, and so tremendously moral, and all that and then, of course, we must n’t forget,” my companion added, unexpectedly, “that some of Mark’s ideas are — well, really — rather queer!”

I reflected, as we went into the house, where we found Ambient unfolding the Observer at the breakfast-table, that none of them were probably quite so queer as his sister. Mrs. Ambient did not appear at breakfast, being rather tired with her ministrations, during the night, to Dolcino. Her husband mentioned, however, that she was hoping to go to church. I afterwards learned that she did go, but I may as well announce without delay that he and I did not accompany her. It was while the church-bell was murmuring in the distance that the author of Beltraffio led me forth for the ramble he had spoken of in his note. I will not attempt to say where we went, or to describe what we saw. We kept to the fields and copses and commons, and breathed the same sweet air as the nibbling donkeys and the browsing sheep, whose woolliness seemed to me, in those early days of my acquaintance with English objects, but a part of the general texture of the small, dense landscape, which looked as if the harvest were gathered by the shears. Everything was full of expression for Mark Ambient’s visitor, — from the big, bandy-legged geese, whose whiteness was a “note,” amid all the tones of green, as they wandered beside a neat little oval pool, the foreground of a thatched and whitewashed inn, with a grassy approach and a pictorial sign, — from these humble wayside animals to the crests of high woods which let a gable or a pinnacle peep here and there, and looked, even at a distance, like trees of good company, conscious of an individual profile. I admired the hedgerows, I plucked the faint-hued heather, and I was forever stopping to say how charming I thought the thread-like footpaths across the fields, which wandered, in a diagonal of finer grain, from one smooth stile to another. Mark Ambient was abundantly good-natured, and was as much entertained with my observations as I was with the literary allusions of the landscape. We sat and smoked upon stiles, broaching paradoxes in the decent English air; we took short cuts across a park or two, where the bracken was deep and my companion nodded to the old woman at the gate; we skirted rank covers, which rustled here and there as wo passed, and we stretched ourselves at last on a heathery hillside, where, if the sun was not too hot, neither was the earth too cold, and where the country lay beneath us in a rich blue mist. Of course I had already told Ambient what I thought of his new novel, having the previous night read every word of the opening chapters before I went to bed.

“I am not without hope of being able to make it my best,” he said, as I went back to the subject, while we turned up our heels to the sky. “At least the people who dislike my prose — and there are a great many of them, I believe — will dislike this work most” This was the first time I had heard him allude to the people who couldn’t read him, — a class which is supposed always to sit heavy upon the consciousness of the man of letters. A man organized for literature, as Mark Ambient was, must certainly have had the normal proportion of sensitiveness, of irritability; the artistic ego, capable in some cases of such monstrous development, must have been, in his composition, sufficiently erect and definite. I will not therefore go so far as to say that he never thought of his detractors, or that he had any illusions with regard to the number of his admirers (he could never so far have deceived himself as to believe he was popular); but I may at least affirm that adverse criticism, as I had occasion to perceive later, ruffled him visibly but little, that he had an air of thinking it quite natural he should be offensive to many minds, and that he very seldom talked about the newspapers, which, by the way, were always very stupid in regard to the author of Beltraffio. Of course he may have thought about them — the newspapers — night and day; the only point I wish to make is that he did n’t show it; while, at the same time, he did n’t strike one as a man who was on his guard. I may add that, as regards his hope of making the work on which he was then engaged the best of his books, it was only partly carried out. That place belongs, incontestably, to Beltraffio, in spite of the beauty of certain parts of its successor. I am pretty sure, however, that he had, at the moment of which I speak, no sense of failure; he was in love with his idea, which was indeed magnificent, and though for him, as, I suppose, for every artist, the act of execution had in it as much torment as joy, he saw his work growing a little every day and filling-out the largest plan he had yet conceived. “I want to be truer than I have ever been,” he said, settling himself on his back, with his hands clasped behind his head; “I want to give an impression of life itself. No, you may say what you will, I have always arranged things too much, always smoothed them down and rounded them off and tucked them in, — done everything to them that life does n’t do. I have been a slave to the old superstitions.”

“You a slave, my dear Mark Ambient? You have the freest imagination of our day!”

“All the more shame to me to have done some of the things I have! The reconciliation of the two women in Ginistrella, for instance, which could never really have taken place. That sort of thing is ignoble; I blush when I think of it! This new affair must be a golden vessel, filled with the purest distillation of the actual; and oh, how it bothers me, the shaping of the vase — the hammering of the metal! I have to hammer it so fine, so smooth; I don’t do more than an inch or two a day. And all the while I have to be so careful not to let a drop of the liquor escape! When I see the kind of things that Life does, I despair of ever catching her peculiar trick. She has an impudence, life! If one risked a fiftieth part of the effects she risks! It takes ever so long to believe it. You don’t know yet, my dear fellow. It is n’t till one has been watching life for forty years that one finds out half of what she’s up to! Therefore one’s earlier things must inevitably contain a mass of rot. And with what one sees, on one side, with its tongue in its cheek, defying one to be real enough, and on the other the bonnes gens rolling up their eyes at one’s cynicism, the situation has elements of the ludicrous which the artist himself is doubtless in a position to appreciate better than any one else. Of course one mustn’t bother about the bonnes gens.” Mark Ambient went on, while my thoughts reverted to his ladylike wife, as interpreted by his remarkable sister.

“To sink your shaft deep, and polish the plate through which people look into it — that’s what your work consists of,” I remember remarking.

“Ah, polishing one’s plate — that is the torment of execution!” he exclaimed, jerking himself up and sitting forward. “The effort to arrive at a surface — if you think a surface necessary — some people don’t, happily for them! My dear fellow, if you could see the surface I dream of, as compared with the one with which I have to content myself. Life is really too short for art — one hasn’t time to make one’s shell ideally hard. Firm and bright — firm and bright! — the devilish thing has a way, sometimes, of being bright without being firm. When I rap it with my knuckles it doesn’t give the right sound. There are horrible little flabby spots where I have taken the second-best word, because I could n’t for the life of me think of the best. If you knew how stupid I am sometimes! They look to me now like pimples and ulcers on the brow of beauty!”

“That’s very bad — very bad,” I said, as gravely as I could.

“Very bad? It’s the highest social offence I know; it ought — it absolutely ought — I’m quite serious — to be capital If I knew I should be hanged else, I should manage to find the best word. The people who could n’t — some of them don’t know it when they see it — would shut their inkstands, and we should n’t be deluged by this flood of rubbish!”

I will not attempt to repeat everything that passed between us, or to explain just how it was that, every moment I spent in his company, Mark Ambient revealed to me more and more that he looked at all things from the standpoint of the artist, felt all life as literary material There are people who will tell me that this is a poor way of feeling it, and I am not concerned to defend my statement, having space merely to remark that there is something to be said for any interest which makes a man feel so much. If Mark Ambient did really, as I suggested above, have imaginative contact with “all life,” I, for my part, envy him his arriere-pensée. At any rate it was through the receipt of this impression of him that by the time we returned I had acquired the feeling of intimacy I have noted. Before we got up for the homeward stretch, he alluded to his wife’s having once — or perhaps more than once — asked him whether he should like Dolcino to read Beltraffio. I think he was unconscious at the moment of all that this conveyed to me — as well, doubtless, of my extreme curiosity to hear what he had replied. He had said that he hoped very much Dolcino would read all his works — when he was twenty; he should like him to know what his father had done. Before twenty it would be useless; he would n’t understand them.

“And meanwhile do you propose to hide them, — to lock them up in a drawer?” Mrs. Ambient had inquired.

“Oh, no; we must simply tell him that they are not intended for small boys. If you bring him up properly, after that he won t touch them.”

To this Mrs. Ambient had made answer that it would be very awkward when he was about fifteen; and I asked her husband if it was his opinion in general, then, that young people should not read novels.

“Good ones — certainly not!” said my companion. I suppose I had had other views, for I remember saying that, for myself, I was not sure it was bad for them, if the novels were “good” enough. “Bad for them, I don’t say so much!” Ambient exclaimed. “But very bad, I am afraid, for the novel!” That oblique, accidental allusion to his wife’s attitude was followed by a franker style of reference as we walked home. “The difference between us is simply the opposition between two distinct ways of looking at the world, which have never succeeded in getting on together, or making any kind of common ménage, since the beginning of time. They have borne all sorts of names, and my wife would tell you it’s the difference between Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan, but I don’t like the name; it sounds sectarian. She thinks me, at any rate, no better than an ancient Greek. It’s the difference between making the most of life and making the least, so that you ‘ll get another better one in some other time and place. Will it be a sin to make the most of that one too, I wonder; and shall we have to be bribed off in the future state, as well as in the present? Perhaps I care too much for beauty — I don’t know; I delight in it, I adore it, I think of it continually, I try to produce it, to reproduce it. My wife holds that we shouldn’t think too much about it She’s always afraid of that, always on her guard. I don’t know what she has got on her back! And she’s so pretty, too, herself! Don’t you think she’s lovely? She was, at any rate, when I married her. At that time I was n’t aware of that difference I speak of — I thought it all came to the same thing: in the end, as they say. Well, perhaps it will, in the end. I don’t know what the end will be. Moreover, I care for seeing things as they are; that’s the way I try to show them in my novels. But you must n’t talk to Mrs. Ambient about things as they are. She has a mortal dread of things as they are.”

“She’s afraid of them for Dolcino,” I said: surprised a moment afterwards at being in a position — thanks to Miss Ambient — to be so explanatory; and surprised even now that Mark should n’t have shown visibly that he wondered what the deuce I knew about it But he did n’t; he simply exclaimed, with a tenderness that touched me, —

“Ah, nothing shall ever hurt him!” He told me more about his wife before we arrived at the gate of his house, and if it be thought that he was querulous, I am afraid I must admit that he had some of the foibles as well as the gifts of the artistic temperament; adding, however, instantly, that hitherto, to the best of my belief, he had very rarely complained. “She thinks me immoral — that’s the long and short of it,” he said, as we paused outside a moment, and his hand rested on one of the bars of his gate; while his conscious, demonstrative, expressive, perceptive eyes, — the eyes of a foreigner, I had begun to account them, much more than of the usual Englishman, — viewing me now evidently as quite a familiar friend, took part in the declaration. “It’s very strange, when one thinks it all over, and there’s a grand comicality in it which I should like to bring out. She is a very nice woman, extraordinarily well behaved, upright and clever, and with a tremendous lot of good sense about a good many matters. Yet her conception of a novel — she has explained it to me once or twice, and she does n’t do it badly, as exposition — is a thing so false that it makes me blush. It is a thing so hollow, so dishonest, so lying, in which life is so blinked and blinded, so dodged and disfigured, that it makes my ears burn. It’s two different ways of looking at the whole affair,” he repeated, pushing open the gate. “And they are irreconcilable!” he added, with a sigh. We went forward to the house, but on the walk, half way to the door, he stopped, and said to me, “If you are going into this kind of thing, there’s a fact you should know beforehand; it may save you some disappointment. There’s a hatred of art, there’s a hatred of literature!” I looked up at the charming house, with its genial color and crookedness, and I answered, with a smile, that those evil passions might exist, but that I should never have expected to find them there. “Oh, it doesn’t matter, after all,” he said, laughing; which I was glad to hear, for I was reproaching myself with having excited him.

If I had, his excitement soon passed off, for at lunch he was delightful; strangely delightful, considering that the difference between himself and his wife was, as he had said, irreconcilable. He had the art, by his manner, by his smile, by his natural kindliness, of reducing the importance of it in the common concerns of life; and Mrs. Ambient, I must add, lent herself to this transaction with a very good grace. I watched her, at table, for further illustrations of that fixed idea of which Miss Ambient had spoken to me; for, in the light of the united revelations of her sister-inlaw and her husband, she had come to seem to me a very singular personage. I am obliged to say that the signs of a fanatical temperament were not more striking in my hostess than before; it was only after a while that her air of incorruptible conformity, her tapering, monosyllabic correctness, began to appear to be themselves a cold, thin flame. Certainly, at first, she looked like a woman with as few passions as possible; but if she had a passion at all, it would be that of Philistinism. She might have been — for there are guardian-spirits, I suppose, of all great principles — the angel of propriety. Mark Ambient, apparently, ten years before, had simply perceived that she was an angel, without asking himself of what He had been quite right in calling my attention to her beauty. In looking for the reason why he should have married her, I saw, more than before, that she was, physically speaking, a wonderfully cultivated human plant — that she must have given him many ideas and images. It was impossible to be more pencilled, more garden-like, more delicately tinted and petalled.

If I had had it in my heart to think Ambient a little of a hypocrite for appearing to forget at table everything he had said to me during our walk, I should instantly have cancelled such a judgment, on reflecting that the good news his wife was able to give him about their little boy was reason enough for his sudden air of happiness. It may have come partly, too, from a certain remorse at having complained to me of the fair lady who sat there, — a desire to show me that he was after all not so miserable. Dolcino continued to be much better, and he had been promised he should come downstairs after he had had his dinner. As soon as we had risen from our own meal Ambient slipped away, evidently for the purpose of going to his child; and no sooner had I observed this than I became aware that his wife had simultaneously vanished. It happened that Miss Ambient and I, both at the same moment, saw the tail of her dress whisk out of a doorway, which led the young lady to smile at me, as if I now knew all the secrets of the Ambients. I passed with her into the garden, and we sat down on a dear old bench which rested against the west wall of the house. It was a perfect spot for the middle period of a Sunday in June, and its felicity seemed to come partly from an antique sun-dial which, rising in front of us and forming the centre of a small, intricate parterre, measured the moments ever so slowly, and made them safe for leisure and talk. The garden bloomed in the suffused afternoon, the tall beeches stood still for an example, and, behind and above us, a rose-tree of many seasons, clinging to the faded grain of the brick, expressed the whole character of the place in a familiar, exquisite smell. It seemed to me a place for genius to have every sanction, and not to encounter challenges and checks. Miss Ambient asked me if I had enjoyed my walk with her brother, and whether we had talked of many things.

“Well, of most things,” I said, smiling, though I remembered that we had not talked of Miss Ambient.

“And don’t you think some of his theories are very peculiar?”

“Oh, I guess I agree with them all.” I was very particular, for Miss Ambient’s entertainment, to guess.

“Do you think art is everything?” she inquired in, a moment.

“In art, of course I do!”

“And do you think beauty is everything?”

“I don’t know about its being everything. But it’s very delightful”

“Of course it is difficult for a woman to know how far to go,” said my companion. “I adore everything that gives a charm to life. I am intensely sensitive to form. But sometimes I draw back — don’t you see what I mean? — I don’t quite see where I shall be landed. I only want to be quiet, after all,” Miss Ambient continued, in a tone of stifled yearning which seemed to indicate that she had not yet arrived at her desire. “And one must be good, at any rate, must not one?” she inquired, with a cadence apparently intended for an assurance that my answer would settle this recondite question for her. It was difficult for me to make it very original, and I am afraid I repaid her confidence with an unblushing platitude. I remember, moreover, appending to it an inquiry, equally destitute of freshness, and still more wanting perhaps in tact, as to whether she did not mean to go to church, as that was an obvious way of being good. She replied that she had performed this duty in the morning, and that for her, on Sunday afternoon, supreme virtue consisted in answering the week’s letters. Then suddenly, without transition, she said to me, “It’s quite a mistake about Dolcino being better. I have seen him, and he’s not at all right.”

“Surely his mother would know, would n’t she?” I suggested.

She appeared for a moment to be counting the leaves on one of the great beeches. “As regards most matters, one can easily say what, in a given situation, my sister-inlaw would do. But as regards this one, there are strange elements at work.”

“Strange elements? Do you mean in the constitution of the child?”

“No, I mean in my sister-inlaw’s feelings.”

“Elements of affection, of course; elements of anxiety. Why do you call them strange?”

She repeated my words. “Elements of affection, elements of anxiety. She is very anxious.”

Miss Ambient made me vaguely uneasy; she almost frightened me, and I wished she would go and write her letters. “His father will have seen him now,” I said, “and if he is not satisfied he will send for the doctor.”

“The doctor ought to have been here this morning. He lives only two miles away.”

I reflected that all this was very possibly only a part of the general tragedy of Miss Ambient’s view of things; but I asked her why she had n’t urged such a necessity upon her sister-inlaw. She answered me with a smile of extraordinary significance, and told me that I must have very little idea of what her relations with Beatrice were; but I must do her the justice to add that she went on to make herself a little more comprehensible by saying that it was quite reason enough for her sister not to be alarmed that Mark would be sure to be. He was always nervous about the child, and as they were predestined by nature to take opposite views, the only thing for Beatrice was to cultivate a false optimism. If Mark were not there, she would not be at all easy. I remembered what he had said to me about their dealings with Dolcino, — that between them they would put an end to him; but I did not repeat this to Miss Ambient: the less so that just then her brother emerged from the house, carrying his child in his arms. Close behind him moved his wife, grave and pale; the boy’s face was turned over Ambient’s shoulder, towards his mother. We got up to receive the group, and as they came near us Dolcino turned round. I caught, on his enchanting little countenance, a smile of recognition, and for the moment would have been quite content with it. Miss Ambient, however, received another impression, and I make haste to say that her quick sensibility, in which there was something maternal, argues that, in spite of her affectations, there was a strain of kindness in her. “It won’t do at all — it won’t do at all,” she said to me under her breath. “I shall speak to Mark about the doctor.”

The child was rather white, but the main difference I saw in him was that he was even more beautiful than the day before. He had been dressed in his festal garments, — a velvet suit and a crimson sash, — and he looked like a little invalid prince, too young to know condescension, and smiling familiarly on his subjects.

“Put him down, Mark, he’s not comfortable,” Mrs. Ambient said.

“Should you like to stand on your feet, my boy?” his father asked.

“Oh, yes; I ‘m remarkably well,” said the child.

Mark placed him on the ground; he had shining, pointed slippers, with enormous bows. “Are you happy now, Mr. Ambient?”

“Oh, yes, I am particularly happy,” Dolcino replied. The words were scarcely out of his mouth when his mother caught him up, and in a moment, holding him on her knees, she took her place on the bench where Miss Ambient and I had been sitting. This young lady said something to her brother, in consequence of which the two wandered away into the garden together. I remained with Mrs. Ambient; but as a servant had brought out a couple of chairs I was not obliged to seat myself beside her. Our conversation was not animated, and I, for my part, felt there would be a kind of hypocrisy in my trying to make myself agreeable to Mrs. Ambient I didn’t dislike her — I rather admired her; but I was aware that I differed from her inexpressibly. Then I suspected, what I afterwards definitely knew and have already intimated, that the poor lady had taken a dislike to me; and this of course was not encouraging. She thought me an obtrusive and even depraved young man, whom a perverse Providence had dropped upon their quiet lawn to flatter her husband’s worst tendencies. She did me the honor to say to Miss Ambient, who repeated the speech, that she didn’t know when she had seen her husband take such a fancy to a visitor; and she measured, apparently, my evil influence by Mark’s appreciation of my society. I had a consciousness, not yet acute, but quite sufficient, of all this; but I must say that if it chilled my flow of small-talk, it did n’t prevent me from thinking that the beautiful mother and beautiful child, interlaced there against their background of roses, made a picture such as I perhaps should not soon see again. I was free, I supposed, to go into the house and write letters, to sit in the drawing-room, to repair to my own apartment and take a nap; but the only use I made of my freedom was to linger still in my chair and say to myself that the light hand of Sir Joshua might have painted Mark Ambient’s wife and son. I found myself looking perpetually at Dolcino, and Dolcino looked back at me, and that was enough to detain me. When he looked at me he smiled, and I felt it was an absolute impossibility to abandon a child who was smiling at one like that. His eyes never wandered; they attached themselves to mine, as if among all the small incipient things of his nature there was a desire to say something to me. If I could have taken him upon my own knee, he perhaps would have managed to say it; but it would have been far too delicate a matter to ask his mother to give him up, and it has remained a constant regret for me that on that Sunday afternoon I did not, even for a moment, hold Dolcino in my arms. He had said that he felt remarkably well, and that he was especially happy; but though he may have been happy, with his charming head pillowed on his mother’s breast, and his little crimson silk legs depending from her lap, I did not think he looked well. He made no attempt to walk about; he was content to swing his legs softly and strike one as languid and angelic.

Mark came back to us with his sister; and Miss Ambient, making some remark about having to attend to her correspondence, passed into the house. Mark came and stood in front of his wife, looking down at the child, who immediately took hold of his hand, keeping it while he remained. “I think Ailingham ought to see him,” Ambient said; “I think I will walk over and fetch him.”

“That ‘s Gwendolen’s idea, I suppose,” Mrs. Ambient replied, very sweetly.

“It’s not such an out-of-the-way idea, when one’s child is ill.”

“I ‘m not ill, papa; I ‘m much better now,” Dolcino remarked.

“Is that the truth, or are you only saying it to be agreeable? You have a great idea of being agreeable, you know.”

The boy seemed to meditate on this distinction this imputation, for a moment; then his exaggerated eyes, which had wandered, caught my own as I watched him. “Do you think me agreeable?” he inquired, with the candor of his age, and with a smile that made his father turn round to me, laughing, and ask, mutely, with a glance, “Is n’t he adorable?”

“Then why don’t you hop about, if you feel so lusty?” Ambient went on, while the boy swung his hand.

“Because mamma is holding me close!”

“Oh, yes; I know how mamma holds you when I come near!” Ambient exclaimed, looking at his wife.

She turned her charming eyes up to him, without deprecation or concession, and after a moment she said, “You can go for Allingham if you like, I think myself it would be better. You ought to drive.”

“She says that to get me away,” Ambient remarked to me, laughing; after which he started for the doctor’s.

I remained there with Mrs. Ambient, though our conversation had more pauses than speeches. The boy’s little fixed white face seemed, as before, to plead with me to stay, and after a while it produced still another effect, a very curious one, which I shall find it difficult to express. Of course I expose myself to the charge of attempting to give fantastic reasons for an act which may have been simply the fruit of a native want of discretion; and indeed the traceable consequences of that perversity were too lamentable to leave me any desire to trifle with the question. All I can say is that I acted in perfect good faith, and that Dolcino’s friendly little gaze gradually kindled the spark of my inspiration. What helped it to glow were the other influences, — the silent, suggestive garden-nook, the perfect opportunity (if it was not an opportunity for that, it was an opportunity for nothing), and the plea that I speak of, which issued from the child’s eyes, and seemed to make him say, “The mother that bore me and that presses me here to her bosom — sympathetic little organism that I am — has really the kind of sensibility which she has been represented to you as lacking; if you only look for it patiently and respectfully. How is it possible that she should n’t have it? How is it possible that I should have so much of it (for I am quite full of it, dear, strange gentleman), if it were not also in some degree in her? I am my father’s child, but I am also my mother’s, and I am sorry for the difference between them!” So it shaped itself before me, the vision of reconciling Mrs. Ambient with her husband, of putting an end to their great disagreement The project was absurd, of course, for had I not had his word for it — spoken with all the bitterness of experience — that the gulf that divided them was wellnigh bottomless? Nevertheless, a quarter of an hour after Mark had left us, I said to his wife that I could n’t get over what she told me the night before about her thinking her husband’s writings “objectionable.” I had been so very sorry to hear it, had thought of it constantly, and wondered whether it were not possible to make her change her mind. Mrs. Ambient gave me rather a cold stare; she seemed to be recommending me to mind my own business. I wish I had taken this mute counsel, but I did not. I went on to remark that it seemed an immense pity so much that was beautiful should be lost upon her.

“Nothing is lost upon me,” said Mrs. Ambient “I know they are very beautiful.”

“Don’t you like papa’s books?” Dolcino asked, addressing his mother, but still looking at me. Then he added to me, “Won’t you read them to me, American gentleman?”

“I would rather tell you some stories of my own,” I said. “I know some that are very interesting.” “When will you tell them? To-morrow?” “To-morrow, with pleasure, if that suits you.” Mrs. Ambient was silent at this. Her husband, during our walk, had asked me to remain another day; my promise to her son was an implication that I had consented, and it is not probable that the prospect was agreeable to her. This ought, doubtless, to have made me more careful as to what I said next; but all I can say is that it did n’t. I presently observed that just after leaving her the evening before, and after hearing her apply to her husband’s writings the epithet I had already quoted, I had, on going up to my room, sat down to the perusal of those sheets of his new book which he had been so good as to lend me. I had sat entranced till nearly three in the morning. I had read them twice over. “You say you have n’t looked at them. I think it ‘s such a pity you should n’t Do let me beg you to take them up. They are so very remarkable. I ‘m sure they will convert you. They place him in-really — such a dazzling light. All that is best in him is there. I have no doubt it’s a great liberty, my saying all this; but excuse me, and do read them!”

“Do read them, mamma!” Dolcino repeated; “do read them!”

She bent her head and closed his lips with a kiss. “Of course I know he has worked immensely over them,” she said; and after this she made no remark, but sat there looking thoughtful, with her eyes on the ground. The tone of these last words was such as to leave me no spirit for further pressure, and after expressing a fear that her husband had not found the doctor at home, I got up and took a turn about the grounds. When I came back, ten minutes later, she was still in her place watching her boy, who had fallen asleep in her lap. As I drew near she put her finger to her lips, and a moment afterwards she rose, holding the child, and murmured something about its being better that he should go upstairs. I offered to carry him, and held out my hands to take him; but she thanked me and turned away with the child seated on her arm, his head on her shoulder. “I am very strong,” she said, as she passed into the house, and her slim, flexible figure bent backwards with the filial weight So I never touched Dolcino.

I betook myself to Ambient’s study, delighted to have a quiet hour to look over his books by myself. The windows were open into the garden; the sunny stillness, the mild light of the English summer, filled the room, without quite chasing away the rich dusky tone which was a part of its charm, and which abode in the serried shelves where old morocco exhaled the fragrance of curious learning, and in the brighter intervals, where medals and prints and miniatures were suspended upon a surface of faded stuff. The place had both color and quiet; I thought it a perfect room for work, and went so far as to say to myself that, if it were mine to sit and scribble in, there was no knowing but that I might learn to write as well as the author of Beltraffio. This distinguished man did not turn up, and I rummaged freely among his treasures. At last I took down a book that detained me awhile, and seated myself in a fine old leather chair by the window to turn it over. I had been occupied in this way for half-an-hour, — a good part of the afternoon had waned, — when I became conscious of another presence in the room, and, looking up from my quarto, saw that Mrs. Ambient, having pushed open the door in the same noiseless way that marked, or disguised, her entrance the night before, had advanced across the threshold. On seeing me she stopped; she had not, I think, expected to find me. But her hesitation was only of a moment; she came straight to her husband’s writing-table as if she were looking for something. I got up and asked her if I could help her. She glanced about an instant, and then put her hand upon a roll of papers which I recognized, as I had placed it in that spot in the morning on coming down from my room.

“Is this the new book?” she asked, holding it up. “The very sheets, with precious annotations.” “I mean to take your advice;” and she tucked the little bundle under her arm. I congratulated her cordially, and ventured to make of my triumph, as I presumed to call it, a subject of pleasantry. But she was perfectly grave, and turned away from me, as she had presented herself, without a smile; after which I settled down to my quarto again, with the reflection that Mrs. Ambient was a queer woman. My triumph, too, suddenly seemed to me rather vain. A woman who could n’t smile in the right place would never understand Mark Ambient. He came in at last in person, having brought the doctor back with him. “He was away from home,” Mark said, “and I went after him, to where he was supposed to be. He had left the place, and I followed him to two or three others, which accounts for my delay.” He was now with Mrs. Ambient looking at the child, and was to see Mark again before leaving the house. My host noticed, at the end of ten minutes, that the proof-sheets of his new book had been removed from the table; and when I told him, in reply to his question as to what I knew about them, that Mrs. Ambient had carried them off to read, he turned almost pale for an instant with surprise. “What has suddenly made her so curious?” he exclaimed; and I was obliged to tell him that I was at the bottom of the mystery. I had had it on my conscience to assure her that she really ought to know of what her husband was capable. “Of what I am capable? Elle ne s’en dottie que trop!” said Ambient, with a laugh; but he took my meddling very good-naturedly, and contented himself with adding that he was very much afraid she would burn up the sheets, with his emendations, of which he had no duplicate. The doctor paid a long visit in the nursery, and before he came down I retired to my own quarters, where I remained till dinner-time. On entering the drawing-room at this hour, I found Miss Ambient in possession, as she had been the evening before.

“I was right about Dolcino,” she said, as soon as she saw me, with a strange little air of triumph. “He is really very ill.”

“Very ill! Why, when I last saw him, at four o’clock, he was in fairly good form.”

“There has been a change for the worse, very sudden and rapid, and when the doctor got here he found diphtheritic symptoms. He ought to have been called, as I knew, in the morning, and the child ought n’t to have been brought into the garden.”

“My dear lady, he was very happy there,” I answered, much appalled.

“He would be happy anywhere. I have no doubt he is happy now, with his poor little throat in a state — ” she dropped her voice as her brother came in, and Mark let us know that, as a matter of course, Mrs. Ambient would not appear. It was true that Dolcino had developed diphtheritic symptoms, but he was quiet for the present, and his mother was earnestly watching him. She was a perfect nurse, Mark said, and the doctor was coming back at ten o’clock. Our dinner was not very gay; Ambient was anxious and alarmed, and his sister irritated me by her constant tacit assumption, conveyed in the very way she nibbled her bread and sipped her wine, of having “told me so.” I had had no disposition to deny anything she told me, and I could not see that her satisfaction in being justified by the event made poor Dolcino’s throat any better. The truth is that, as the sequel proved, Miss Ambient had some of the qualities of the sibyl, and had therefore, perhaps, a right to the sibylline contortions. Her brother was so preoccupied that I felt my presence to be an indiscretion, and was sorry I had promised to remain over the morrow. I said to Mark that, evidently, I had better leave them in the morning; to which he replied that, on the contrary, if he was to pass the next days in the fidgets, my company would be an extreme relief to him. The fidgets had already begun for him, poor fellow; and as we sat in his study with our cigars after dinner, he wandered to the door whenever he heard the sound of the doctor’s wheels. Miss Ambient, who shared this apartment with us, gave me at such moments significant glances; she had gone upstairs before rejoining us to ask after the child His mother and his nurse gave a tolerable account of him; but Miss Ambient found his fever high and his symptoms very grave. The doctor came at ten o’clock, and I went to bed after hearing from Mark that he saw no present cause for alarm. He had made every provision for the night, and was to return early in the morning.

I quitted my room at eight o’clock the next day, and, as I came downstairs, saw, through the open door of the house, Mrs. Ambient standing at the front gate of the grounds, in colloquy with the physician. She wore a white dressing-gown, but her shining hair was carefully tucked away in its net, and in the freshness of the morning, after a night of watching, she looked as much “the type of the lady” as her sister-inlaw had described her. Her appearance, I suppose, ought to have reassured me; but I was still nervous and uneasy, so that I shrank from meeting her with the necessary question about Dolcino. None the less, however, was I impatient to learn how the morning found him; and, as Mrs. Ambient had not seen me, I passed into the grounds by a roundabout way, and, stopping at a further gate, hailed the doctor just as he was driving away. Mrs. Ambient had returned to the house before he got into his gig.

“Excuse me, but as a friend of the family, I should like very much to hear about the little boy.”

The doctor, who was a stout, sharp man, looked at me from head to foot, and then he said, “I’m sorry to say I have n’t seen him.”

“Have n’t seen him?”

“Mrs. Ambient came down to meet me as I alighted, and told me that he was sleeping so soundly, after a restless night, that she did n’t wish him disturbed. I assured her I would n’t disturb him, but she said he was quite safe now and she could look after him herself.”

“Thank you very much. Are you coming back?”

“No, sir; I ‘ll be hanged if I come back!” exclaimed Dr. Allingham, who was evidently very angry. And he started his horse again with the whip.

I wandered back into the garden, and five minutes later Miss Ambient came forth from the house to greet me. She explained that breakfast would not be served for some time, and that she wished to catch the doctor before he went away. I informed her that this functionary had come and departed, and I repeated to her what he had told me about his dismissal. This made Miss Ambient very serious, very serious indeed, and she sank into a bench, with dilated eyes, hugging her elbows with crossed arms. She indulged in many ejaculations, she confessed that she was infinitely perplexed, and she finally told me what her own last news of her nephew had been. She had sat up very late, — after me, after Mark, — and before going to bed had knocked at the door of the child’s room, which was opened to her by the nurse. This good woman had admitted her, and she had found Dolcino quiet, but flushed and “unnatural,” with his mother sitting beside his bed. “She held his hand in one of hers,” said Miss Ambient, “and in the other — what do you think? — the proof-sheets of Mark’s new book! She was reading them there, intently: did you ever hear of anything so extraordinary? Such a very odd time to be reading an author whom she never could abide!” In her agitation Miss Ambient was guilty of this vulgarism of speech, and I was so impressed by her narrative that it was only in recalling her words later that I noticed the lapse. Mrs. Ambient had looked up from her reading with her finger on her lips — I recognized the gesture she had addressed to me in the afternoon — and, though the nurse was about to go to rest, had not encouraged her sister-inlaw to relieve her of any part of her vigil. But certainly, then, Dolcino’s condition was far from reassuring, — his poor little breathing was most painful; and what change could have taken place in him in those few hours that would justify Beatrice in denying the physician access to him? This was the moral of Miss Ambient’s anecdote, the moral for herself at least. The moral for me, rather, was that it was a very singular time for Mrs. Ambient to be going into a novelist she had never appreciated, and who had simply happened to be recommended to her by a young American she disliked. I thought of her sitting there in the sick-chamber in the still hours of the night, after the nurse had left her, turning over those pages of genius and wrestling with their magical influence.

I must relate very briefly the circumstances of the rest of my visit to Mark Ambient, — it lasted but a few hours longer, — and devote but three words to my later acquaintance with him. That lasted five years, — till his death, — and was full of interest, of satisfaction, and, I may add, of sadness. The main thing to be said with regard to it, is that I had a secret from him. I believe he never suspected it, though of this I am not absolutely sure. If he did, the line he had taken, the line of absolute negation of the matter to himself, shows an immense effort of the will. I may tell my secret now, giving it for what it is worth, now that Mark Ambient has gone, that he has begun to be alluded to as one of the famous early dead, and that his wife does not survive him; now, too, that Miss Ambient, whom I also saw at intervals during the years that followed, has, with her embroideries and her attitudes, her necromantic glances and strange intuitions, retired to a Sisterhood, where, as I am told, she is deeply immured and quite lost to the world.

Mark came in to breakfast after his sister and I had for some time been seated there. He shook hands with me in silence, kissed his sister, opened his letters and newspapers, and pretended to drink his coffee. But I could see that these movements were mechanical, and I was little surprised when, suddenly, he pushed away everything that was before him, and, with his head in his hands and his elbows on the table, sat staring strangely at the cloth.

“What is the matter, fratello mio?” Miss Ambient inquired, peeping from behind the urn.

He answered nothing, but got up with a certain violence and strode to the window. We rose to our feet, his sister and I, by a common impulse, exchanging a glance of some alarm, while he stared for a moment into the garden. “In Heaven’s name what has got possession of Beatrice?” he cried at last, turning round with an almost haggard face. And he looked from one of us to the other; the appeal was addressed to me as well as to his sister.

Miss Ambient gave a shrug. “My poor Mark, Beatrice is always — Beatrice!”

“She has locked herself up with the boy — bolted and barred the door; she refuses to let me come near him!” Ambient went on.

“She refused to let the doctor see him an hour ago!” Miss Ambient remarked, with intention, as they say on the stage.

“Refused to let the doctor see him? By heaven, I ‘ll smash in the door!” And Mark brought his fist down upon the table, so that all the breakfast-service rang.

I begged Miss Ambient to go up and try to have speech of her sister-inlaw, and I drew Mark out into the garden. “You ‘re exceedingly nervous, and Mrs. Ambient is probably right,” I said to him. “Women know; women should be supreme in such a situation. Trust a mother — a devoted mother, my dear friend!” With such words as these I tried to soothe and comfort him, and, marvellous to relate, I succeeded, with the help of many cigarettes, in making him walk about the garden and talk, or listen at least to my own ingenious chatter, for nearly an hour. At the end of this time Miss Ambient returned to us, with a very rapid step, holding her hand to her heart.

“Go for the doctor, Mark, go for the doctor this moment!”

“Is he dying? Has she killed him?” poor Ambient cried, flinging away his cigarette.

“I don’t know what she has done! But she’s frightened, and now she wants the doctor.”

“He told me he would be hanged if he came back!” I felt myself obliged to announce.

“Precisely — therefore Mark himself must go for him, and not a messenger. You must see him, and tell him it ‘s to save your child. The trap has been ordered — it’s ready.”

“To save him? I ‘ll save him, please God!” Ambient cried, bounding with his great strides across the lawn.

As soon as he had gone I felt that I ought to have volunteered in his place, and I said as much to Miss Ambient; but she checked me by grasping my arm quickly, while we heard the wheels of the dog-cart rattle away from the gate. “He’s off — he’s off — and now I can think! To get him away — while I think — while I think!”

“While you think of what, Miss Ambient?”

“Of the unspeakable thing that has happened under this roof!”

Her manner was habitually that of such a prophetess of ill that my first impulse was to believe I must allow here for a great exaggeration. But in a moment I saw that her emotion was real. “Dolcino is dying then, — he is dead?”

“It’s too late to save him. His mother has let him die! I tell you that because you are sympathetic, because you have imagination,” Miss Ambient was good enough to add, interrupting my expression of horror. “That’s why you had the idea of making her read Mark’s new book!”

“What has that to do with it? I don’t understand you; your accusation is monstrous.”

“I see it all; I’m not stupid,” Miss Ambient went on, heedless of the harshness of my tone. “It was the book that finished her; it was that decided her!”

“Decided her? Do you mean she has murdered her child?” I demanded, trembling at my own words.

“She sacrificed him; she determined to do nothing to make him live. Why else did she lock herself up, why else did she turn away the doctor? The book gave her a horror; she determined to rescue him, — to prevent him from ever being touched. He had a crisis at two o’clock in the morning. I know that from the nurse, who had left her then, but whom, for a short time, she called back. Dolcino got much worse, but she insisted on the nurse’s going back to bed, and after that she was alone with him for hours.”

“Do you pretend that she has no pity, that she’s insane?”

“She held him in her arms, she pressed him to her breast, not to see him; but she gave him no remedies; she did nothing the doctor ordered. Everything is there, untouched. She has had the honesty not even to throw the drugs away!”

I dropped upon the nearest bench, overcome with wonder and agitation, quite as much at Miss Armbient’s terrible lucidity as at the charge she made against her sister-inlaw. There was an amazing coherency in her story, and it was dreadful to me to see myself figuring in it as so proximate a cause.

“You are a very strange woman, and you say strange things.”

“You think it necessary to protest, but you are quite ready to believe me. You have received an impression of my sister-inlaw, you have guessed of what she is capable.”

I do not feel bound to say what concession, on this point, I made to Miss Ambient, who went on to relate to me that within the last half-hour Beatrice had had a revulsion; that she was tremendously frightened at what she had done; that her fright itself betrayed her; and that she would now give heaven and earth to save the child. “Let us hope she will!” I said, looking at my watch and trying to time poor Ambient; whereupon my companion repeated, in a singular tone, “Let us hope so!” When I asked her if she herself could do nothing, and whether she ought not to be with her sister-inlaw, she replied, “You had better go and judge; she is like a wounded tigress!”

I never saw Mrs. Ambient till six months after this, and therefore cannot pretend to have verified the comparison. At the latter period she was again the type of the lady. “She’ll treat him better after this,” I remember Miss Ambient saying, in response to some quick outburst (on my part) of compassion for her brother. Although I had been in the house but thirty-six hours, this young lady had treated me with extraordinary confidence, and there was therefore a certain demand which, as an intimate, I might make of her. I extracted from her a pledge that she would never say to her brother what she had just said to me; she would leave him to form his own theory of his wife’s conduct. She agreed with me that there was misery enough in the house, without her contributing a new anguish, and that Mrs. Ambient’s proceedings might be explained, to her husband’s mind, by the extravagance of a jealous devotion. Poor Mark came back with the doctor much sooner than we could have hoped, but we knew, five minutes afterwards, that they arrived too late. Poor little Dolcino was more exquisitely beautiful in death than he had been in life. Mrs. Ambient’s grief was frantic; she lost her head and said strange things. As for Mark’s — but I will not speak of that. Basta, as he used to say. Miss Ambient kept her secret, — I have already had occasion to say that she had her good points, — but it rankled in her conscience like a guilty participation, and, I imagine, had something to do with her retiring ultimately to a Sisterhood. And, à propos of consciences, the reader is now in a position to judge of my compunction for my effort to convert Mrs. Ambient. I ought to mention that the death of her child in some degree converted her. When the new book came out — it was long delayed — she read it over as a whole, and her husband told me that a few months before her death, — she failed rapidly after losing her son, sank into a consumption, and faded away at Mentone, — during those few supreme weeks she even dipped into Beltraffio.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56