The Tree of Knowledge, by Henry James


He had of course before long to meet the boy himself on it and to hear that practically everything was settled. Lance was not to go up again, but to go instead to Paris where, since the die was cast, he would find the best advantages. Peter had always felt he must be taken as he was, but had never perhaps found him so much of that pattern as on this occasion. ‘You chuck Cambridge then altogether? Doesn’t that seem rather a pity?’

Lance would have been like his father, to his friend’s sense, had he had less humour, and like his mother had he had more beauty. Yet it was a good middle way for Peter that, in the modern manner, he was, to the eye, rather the young stock-broker than the young artist. The youth reasoned that it was a question of time — there was such a mill to go through, such an awful lot to learn. He had talked with fellows and had judged. ‘One has got, today,’ he said, ‘don’t you see? to know.’

His interlocutor, at this, gave a groan. ‘Oh hang it, don’t know!’

Lance wondered. ‘“Don’t”? Then what’s the use —?’

‘The use of what?’

‘Why of anything. Don’t you think I’ve talent?’

Peter smoked away for a little in silence; then went on: ‘It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that — as we’ve been beautifully told — is bliss.’

‘Don’t you think I’ve talent?’ Lance repeated.

Peter, with his trick of queer kind demonstrations, passed his arm round his godson and held him a moment. ‘How do I know?’

‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s your own ignorance you’re defending —!’

Again, for a pause, on the sofa, his godfather smoked. ‘It isn’t. I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.’

‘Oh well,’ Lance laughed again, ‘if you know too much —!’

‘That’s what I do, and it’s why I’m so wretched.’

Lance’s gaiety grew. ‘Wretched? Come, I say!’

‘But I forgot,’ his companion went on — ‘you’re not to know about that. It would indeed for you too make the too much. Only I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ And Peter got up from the sofa. ‘If you’ll go up again I’ll pay your way at Cambridge.’

Lance stared, a little rueful in spite of being still more amused. ‘Oh Peter! You disapprove so of Paris?’

‘Well, I’m afraid of it.’

‘Ah I see!’

‘No, you don’t see — yet. But you will — that is you would. And you mustn’t.’

The young man thought more gravely. ‘But one’s innocence, already —!’

‘Is considerably damaged? Ah that won’t matter,’ Peter persisted — ‘we’ll patch it up here.’

‘Here? Then you want me to stay at home?’

Peter almost confessed to it. ‘Well, we’re so right — we four together — just as we are. We’re so safe. Come, don’t spoil it.’

The boy, who had turned to gravity, turned from this, on the real pressure of his friend’s tone, to consternation. ‘Then what’s a fellow to be?’

‘My particular care. Come, old man’ — and Peter now fairly pleaded — ‘I’ll look out for you.’

Lance, who had remained on the sofa with his legs out and his hands in his pockets, watched him with eyes that showed suspicion. Then he got up. ‘You think there’s something the matter with me — that I can’t make a success.’

‘Well, what do you call a success?’

Lance thought again. ‘Why the best sort, I suppose, is to please one’s self. Isn’t that the sort that, in spite of cabals and things, is — in his own peculiar line — the Master’s?’

There were so much too many things in this question to be answered at once that they practically checked the discussion, which became particularly difficult in the light of such renewed proof that, though the young man’s innocence might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what above all he desired; yet perversely enough it gave him a chill. The boy believed in the cabals and things, believed in the peculiar line, believed, to be brief, in the Master. What happened a month or two later wasn’t that he went up again at the expense of his godfather, but that a fortnight after he had got settled in Paris this personage sent him fifty pounds.

He had meanwhile at home, this personage, made up his mind to the worst; and what that might be had never yet grown quite so vivid to him as when, on his presenting himself one Sunday night, as he never failed to do, for supper, the mistress of Carrara Lodge met him with an appeal as to — of all things in the world — the wealth of the Canadians. She was earnest, she was even excited. ‘Are many of them really rich?’

He had to confess he knew nothing about them, but he often thought afterwards of that evening. The room in which they sat was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius, which had the merit of being, as Mrs Mallow herself frequently suggested, of an unusually convenient size. They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel, and they had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small. The Master’s idea, either in respect to this matter or to any other, had in almost any case, even after years, remained undiscoverable to Peter Brench. The creations that so failed to reveal it stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which ‘scale’ had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental; branches at any rate, markedly, of a family in which stature was rather oddly irrespective of function, age and sex. They formed, like the Mallows themselves, poor Brench’s own family — having at least to such a degree the note of familiarity. The occasion was one of those he had long ago learnt to know and to name — short flickers of the faint flame, soft gusts of a kinder air. Twice a year regularly the Master believed in his fortune, in addition to believing all the year round in his genius. This time it was to be made by a bereaved couple from Toronto, who had given him the handsomest order for a tomb to three lost children, each of whom they desired to see, in the composition, emblematically and characteristically represented.

Such was naturally the moral of Mrs Mallow’s question: if their wealth was to be assumed, it was clear, from the nature of their admiration, as well as from mysterious hints thrown out (they were a little odd!) as to other possibilities of the same mortuary sort, what their further patronage might be; and not less evident that should the Master become at all known in those climes nothing would be more inevitable than a run of Canadian custom. Peter had been present before at runs of custom, colonial and domestic — present at each of those of which the aggregation had left so few gaps in the marble company round him; but it was his habit never at these junctures to prick the bubble in advance. The fond illusion, while it lasted, eased the wound of elections never won, the long ache of medals and diplomas carried off, on every chance, by everyone but the Master; it moreover lighted the lamp that would glimmer through the next eclipse. They lived, however, after all — as it was always beautiful to see — at a height scarce susceptible of ups and downs. They strained a point at times charmingly, strained it to admit that the public was here and there not too bad to buy; but they would have been nowhere without their attitude that the Master was always too good to sell. They were at all events deliciously formed, Peter often said to himself, for their fate; the Master had a vanity, his wife had a loyalty, of which success, depriving these things of innocence, would have diminished the merit and the grace. Anyone could be charming under a charm, and as he looked about him at a world of prosperity more void of proportion even than the Master’s museum he wondered if he knew another pair that so completely escaped vulgarity.

‘What a pity Lance isn’t with us to rejoice!’ Mrs Mallow on this occasion sighed at supper.

‘We’ll drink to the health of the absent,’ her husband replied, filling his friend’s glass and his own and giving a drop to their companion; ‘but we must hope he’s preparing himself for a happiness much less like this of ours this evening — excusable as I grant it to be! — than like the comfort we have always (whatever has happened or has not happened) been able to trust ourselves to enjoy. The comfort,’ the Master explained, leaning back in the pleasant lamplight and firelight, holding up his glass and looking round at his marble family, quartered more or less, a monstrous brood, in every room — ‘the comfort of art in itself!’

Peter looked a little shyly at his wine. ‘Well — I don’t care what you may call it when a fellow doesn’t — but Lance must learn to sell, you know. I drink to his acquisition of the secret of a base popularity!’

‘Oh yes, he must sell,’ the boy’s mother, who was still more, however, this seemed to give out, the Master’s wife, rather artlessly allowed.

‘Ah,’ the sculptor after a moment confidently pronounced, ‘Lance will. Don’t be afraid. He’ll have learnt.’

‘Which is exactly what Peter,’ Mrs Mallow gaily returned — ‘why in the world were you so perverse, Peter? — wouldn’t, when he told him, hear of.’

Peter, when this lady looked at him with accusatory affection — a grace on her part not infrequent — could never find a word; but the Master, who was always all amenity and tact, helped him out now as he had often helped him before. ‘That’s his old idea, you know — on which we’ve so often differed: his theory that the artist should be all impulse and instinct. I go in of course for a certain amount of school. Not too much — but a due proportion. There’s where his protest came in,’ he continued to explain to his wife, ‘as against what might, don’t you see? be in question for Lance.’

‘Ah well’ — and Mrs Mallow turned the violet eyes across the table at the subject of this discourse — ‘he’s sure to have meant of course nothing but good. Only that wouldn’t have prevented him, if Lance had taken his advice, from being in effect horribly cruel.’

They had a sociable way of talking of him to his face as if he had been in the clay or — at most — in the plaster, and the Master was unfailingly generous. He might have been waving Egidio to make him revolve. ‘Ah but poor Peter wasn’t so wrong as to what it may after all come to that he will learn.’

‘Oh but nothing artistically bad,’ she urged — still, for poor Peter, arch and dewy.

‘Why just the little French tricks,’ said the Master: on which their friend had to pretend to admit, when pressed by Mrs Mallow, that these æsthetic vices had been the objects of his dread.

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