I must go back a long way to recover the threads leading to my earliest acquaintance with London society. My husband and I took our first dip into it just after the appearance of “The Greater Inclination”; but a dip so brief that I brought back from it hardly more than a list of names. It was then, probably, that I first met Lady Jeune, afterward Lady St Helier, whose friendly interest put me in relation with her large and ever-varying throng of guests. The tastes and interests of Lady St Helier, one of the best-known London hostesses of her day, could hardly have been more remote from my own. She was a born “entertainer” according to the traditional London idea, which regarded (and perhaps still regards) the act of fighting one’s way through a struggling crowd of celebrities as the finest expression of social intercourse. I have always hated “general society,” and Lady St Helier could conceive of no society that was not general. She took a frank and indefatigable interest in celebrities, and was determined to have them all at her house, whereas I was shy, or indifferent, and without any desire to meet any of them, at any rate on such wholesale occasions, except one or two of my own craft. Yet Lady Jeune and I at once became fast friends, and my affection and admiration for her grew with the growth of our friendship. For many years I stayed with her whenever I went to London, gladly undergoing the inevitable series of big lunches and dinners for the sake of the real pleasure I had in being with her. Others have done justice to her tireless and intelligent activities on the London County Council, and in every good cause, political, municipal or philanthropic, which appealed to her wide sympathies. What I wish to record is that this woman, who figured to hundreds merely as the most indefatigable and imperturbable of hostesses, a sort of automatic entertaining machine, had a vigorous personality of her own, and the most generous and independent character. Psychologically, the professional hostess and celebrity-seeker will always remain an enigma to me; but I have known intimately three who were famous in their day, and though nothing could be more divergent than their tastes and mine, yet I was drawn to all three by the same large and generous character, the same capacity for strong individual friendships.
Lady St Helier was perfectly aware of her own foible for hospitality on a large scale, and I remember her being amused and touched by an incident which happened just before one of my visits to her. One of her two married daughters shared her interest in the literary and artistic figures of the day, and as this daughter lived in the country she depended on her mother for her glimpses of the passing show. One day she wrote begging Lady St Helier to invite to dinner, at a date when she, the daughter, was to be in London, a young writer whose first book had caused a passing flutter. Lady St Helier, delighted at the pretext, wrote to the young man, who was a total stranger to her, telling him of her daughter’s admiration, and her own, for his book, and begging him to dine with her the following week. The novelist replied that he could not accept her invitation; he hated dining out, and moreover owned no evening clothes; but he added that he was desperately hard up, and as Lady St Helier had liked his book he hoped she would not mind lending him five pounds. His would-be hostess was disappointed at his refusing her invitation, but delighted with his frankness; and I am certain she sent him the five pounds — and not as a loan.
She would, I am sure, have been equally amused if she had ever heard (as I daresay she did) the story of the cannibal chief who, on the point of consigning a captive explorer to the pot, snatched him back to safety with the exclamation: “But I think I’ve met you at Lady St Helier’s!”
Among the friends I made at that friendly table I remember chiefly Sir George Trevelyan, the historian, Lord Haldane and Lord Goschen — the two latter, I imagine, interested by the accident of my familiarity with German literature. I saw at Lady St Helier’s a long line of men famous in letters and public affairs, but our meetings were seldom renewed, for my visits to London were so crowded and hurried, owing to my husband’s unwillingness to remain in England for more than a few days at a time, that the encounters were at best but passing glimpses. Thomas Hardy, however, I met several times, and though he was as remote and uncommunicative as our most unsocial American men of letters, his silence seemed due to an unconquerable shyness rather than to the great man’s disdain for humbler neighbours. I sometimes sat next to him at luncheon at Lady St Helier’s, and I found it comparatively easy to carry on a mild chat on literary matters. I remember once asking him if it were really true that the editor of the American magazine which had the privilege of publishing “Jude the Obscure” had insisted on his transforming the illegitimate children of Jude and Sue into adopted orphans. He smiled, and said yes, it was a fact; but he added philosophically that he was not much surprised, as the editor of the Scottish magazine which had published his first short story had objected to his making his hero and heroine go for a walk on a Sunday, and obliged him to transfer the stroll to a week-day! He seemed to take little interest in the literary movements of the day, or in fact in any critical discussion of his craft, and I felt that he was completely enclosed in his own creative dream, through which I imagine few voices or influences ever reached him.
One of the things that most struck me when I began to go into general society in England was this indifference of the kind and friendly people whom I met to any but their individual occupations or hobbies. At that time — over thirty years ago — an interest in general ideas, and indeed in any topic whatever outside of the political and social preoccupations of the England of the day, was almost non-existent, except in a small group with which I was not thrown until later. There were, of course, brilliant exceptions, and many of the most cultivated and widely ranging intelligences I have known have been among the Englishmen of that generation. But in general, in the big politico-worldly society in which men of all sorts, sportsmen, soldiers, lawyers, scholars and statesmen, were mingled with the merely frivolous, I found the greater number rather narrowly confined to their own particular topics, and general conversation as rigorously excluded as general ideas.
I remember, at one big dinner in this portion of the London world, hearing some one name Lord Basil Blackwood as we entered the dining-room, and turning eagerly to my neighbour (a famous polo-player, I think) with the question: “Oh, CAN you tell me if that is the wonderful Basil Blackwood who did the pictures for ‘The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts’?” My neighbour gave me a glance of undisguised dismay, and hastily replied: “Oh, please don’t ask me that sort of question! I’m not in the least literary.” His hostess, in sending him in with me, had probably whispered to the unhappy man: “SHE WRITES,” and he was determined to make his position clear from the outset.
On another evening I had as neighbour, at another big dinner in the same set, a friendly young army officer, evidently much engrossed in his profession, who at once disarmed me by confessing that he didn’t know how to talk anything but “shop.” As I foresaw at least ten courses (I think the dinner was at Lord Rothschild’s) I was somewhat disconcerted; but the encounter must have taken place not long after the Boer War, and having just read Conan Doyle’s vivid narrative of that campaign I plunged at once into the subject, and thus kept more or less afloat for the first half hour. But what in the world were we to talk of next —? My neighbour knew I was an American, and I thought his manifest interest in military history might have led him to hear of the American Revolution. I therefore asked him if he had read Sir George Trevelyan’s lately published history of that event. He had never heard of the book or of the author, and to rouse his interest I said I had been told that Lord Wolseley regarded Sir George’s account of the battle of Bunker Hill as the finest description of a military engagement written in our day.
“Ah,” said my neighbour, with awakening interest — “the author’s a soldier himself, then, I suppose?”
“No, he’s not; which makes it all the more remarkable,” I replied (though at the moment I was not sure that it did!).
My reply plunged the young officer into perplexity; then his face lit up. “Ah — I see; he was out there as military correspondent, was he?”
Now and then, of course, there were rich compensations for such evenings. I always said that London dinners reminded me of Clarchen’s song; they could be so “freudvoll” or so “leidvoll” — though “gedankenvoll” they seldom were. But in the course of my London visits I gradually made friends with various intelligent people of the world whose interests were much nearer my own. Most of them figured among the “Souls,” who prided themselves on a title which had been ironically conferred, or among a kindred set of fashionable cosmopolitans, always ready to welcome new ideas, though they could seldom spare the time to understand them. The latter group, though not affiliated to the “Souls,” yet for the most part had the same interests and amusements, and I passed some pleasant hours with both.
One night at a dinner in this milieu — I think at Lady Ripon’s — I found myself next to a man of about thirty-five or forty, whose name I had not caught. We fell into conversation, and within five minutes I was being whirled away on such a quick current of talk as I had not dipped into for many a day. My neighbour moved with dazzling agility from topic to topic, tossing them to and fro like glittering glass balls, always making me share in the game, yet directing it with a practised hand. We soon discovered a common love of letters, and I think it was our main theme that evening. At all events, what I chiefly remember is our having matched, so to speak, the most famous kisses in literature, and my producing as my crowning effect, and to my neighbour’s great admiration, the kiss on the stairs in “The Spoils of Poynton” (which I have always thought one of the most moving love-scenes in fiction), while he quoted in exchange the last desperate embrace of Troilus:
Injurious Time now with a robber’s haste Crams his rich thievery up, he knows not how; As many farewells as be stars in heaven . . . He fumbles up into a loose adieu, And scants us with a single famished kiss Distasted with the salt of broken tears.
Only at the end of the evening did I learn that I had sat next to Harry Cust, one of the most eager and radio-active intelligences in London, unhappily too favoured by fortune to have been forced to canalize his gifts, but a captivating talker and delightful companion in the small circle of his intimates. We struck up a prompt friendship, and thereafter I seldom missed seeing him when I was in London, and keep the memory of delightful lunches and dinners at his picturesque house, looking out over a quiet rose-garden, a stone’s throw from the roar of Knightsbridge.
Among these fashionable cosmopolitans (of whom Lady Ripon was one of the most accomplished) I found again an old friend and contemporary, the beautiful Lady Essex, who had been Adele Grant of New York. She lived at that time at Bourdon House, Mayfair, the charming little brick manor of a famous heiress who, in the seventeenth century, brought her immense estates to the Dukes of Westminster; one of the last, I suppose, of the old country houses to survive till our day in that intensely urban quarter. There, in the friendly setting of old pictures and old furniture of which her friends keep so happy a memory, I met a number of well-known people, among whom I remember especially Claude Phillips, the witty and agreeable director of the Wallace collection, Sir Edmund Gosse, who always showed me great kindness, Mr. H.G. Wells, most stirring and responsive of talkers, the silent William Archer, dramatic critic and translator of Ibsen, and Max Beerbohm the matchless. It was not my good luck to meet the latter often, though he was still living in London, and far from being the recluse he has since (like myself) become. But when we did sit next to each other at lunch or dinner, it was like suddenly growing wings! I don’t, alas, after all these years, remember many of our topics of conversation, or of his lapidary comments; but one of the latter still delights me. We were discussing the works of a well-known novelist whose talk was full of irony and humour, but whose fiction was heavy, and overburdened with unnecessary detail. I remarked that a woman friend of his, who was aware of this defect, had once said to me: “I believe X.‘s insistence on detail is caused by his having to look at everything too closely, owing to his being so shortsighted.”
Max looked at me gravely. “Ah, really? She thinks it’s because he’s so short-sighted? I should have said it was because he was so long-winded!”
The Essexes at that time were in the habit of entertaining big week-end parties at Cassiobury, Lord Essex’s place near St Albans, and one Sunday at the end of a brilliant London season, when my husband and I motored down there to lunch, we found, scattered on the lawn under the great cedars, the very flower and pinnacle of the London world: Mr. Balfour, Lady Desborough, Lady Poynder (now Lady Islington), Lady Wemyss (then Lady Elcho), and John Sargent, Henry James, and many others of that shining galaxy — but one and all so exhausted by the social labours of the last weeks, so talked out with each other and with all the world, that beyond benevolent smiles they had little to give; and I remarked that evening to my husband that meeting them in such circumstances was like seeing their garments hung up in a row, with nobody inside.
To Adele Essex, always a devoted friend and responsive companion, and to Lady Ripon, whose sense of fun and quick enthusiasms always delighted me, I owed on the whole the pleasantest hours of my London visits; though I should be ungrateful not to add to their names those of Sir George Trevelyan, who kept up till his death a friendly interest in my books, of Mrs. Wilfrid Meynell, Mrs. Humphry Ward and my shrewd and independent old friend, Mrs. Alfred Austin. Mrs. Meynell, whose poems I admired far more than her delicate but too self-conscious essays, became interested in me, I think, through her liking for “The Valley of Decision,” and always showed me great kindness when I was in London. On one occasion, knowing my admiration for the poetry of Francis Thompson, she carried her kindness so far as to invite me to lunch with that elusive being (having previously extracted from him a promise that he would really come). But, alas, though Mr. Meynell, for greater security, called at Thompson’s lodgings to fetch him, the poor poet was in an opium dream from which he was not to be roused; and I never met him.
The first time I lunched at Mrs. Meynell’s I was struck by the solemnity with which this tall thin sweet-voiced woman, with melancholy eyes and rather catafalque-like garb, was treated by her husband and children. Mr. Meynell, small and brisk, bustled in ahead of her, as though preceding a sovereign; and all through the luncheon Mrs. Meynell’s utterances, murmured with soft deliberation, were received in an attentive silence punctuated by: “My wife was saying the other day,” “My wife always thinks” — as though each syllable from those lips were final.
I, who had been accustomed at home to dissemble my literary pursuits (as though, to borrow Dr. Johnson’s phrase about portrait painting, they were “indelicate in a female”), was astonished at the prestige surrounding Mrs. Meynell in her own family; and at the Humphrey Wards’ I found the same affectionate deference toward the household celebrity.
I was often a guest of the Wards, in London or at their peaceful country-house near Tring. There were many ties of old friendship, English and American, between us, and Mrs. Ward was unfailingly kind in her estimation of my work, and always eager to make me known to interesting people. Indeed, whenever I have been in England I have found there kindness, hospitality, and a disposition to put me at once on a footing of old friendship. I should be sorry to leave out the names of any to whom I am thus indebted, and at least must add those of Sir Ian and Lady Hamilton, still my friends and my kind hosts on my frequent visits to England, of those dear friends of my childhood, now both dead, Henry and Margaret White (he was then first secretary of our Embassy in London), of Lord and Lady Charles Beresford, Sir Edmund Gosse, Lord and Lady Burghclere, and my husband’s hospitable cousin, Mrs. Adair. Of country life I saw next to nothing, for we were never in England in the autumn and winter, and at the season when we WERE there my husband’s dates were so unalterable that we once missed a weekend at Mentmore with Lord Rosebery because it was considered impossible that we should postpone our sailing for a few days. I have always regretted this, as well as my having been unable to accept two or three invitations to Lord Rosebery’s house in London; for as a girl of seventeen I had met him when he came to America after his marriage, and I had a vivid memory of the light and air he let into the stuffy atmosphere of a Newport season. Unhappily I never saw him again.
Much as I enjoyed these London glimpses they are now no more than a golden blur. So many years have gone by, and that old world of my youth has been so convulsed and shattered, that as I look back, and try to recapture the details of particular scenes and talks, they dissolve into the distance. But in any case I was not made to extract more than a passing amusement from such fugitive dips into a foreign society. My idea of society was (and still is) the daily companionship of the same five or six friends, and its pleasure is based on continuity, whereas the hospitable people who opened their doors to me in London, though of course they all had their own intimate circles, were as much exhilarated by the yearly stream of new faces as a successful shot by the size of his bag. Most of my intimate friendships in England were made later, and in circumstances more favourable (to me, at any rate) than the rush and confusion of a London season. Some of the dearest of them I owe to Howard Sturgis, and to him, and to Queen’s Acre, his house at Windsor, I turn for the setting of my next scene.
A long low drawing-room; white-panelled walls hung with water-colours of varying merit; curtains and furniture of faded slippery chintz; French windows opening on a crazy wooden verandah, through which, on one side, one caught a glimpse of a weedy lawn and a shrubbery edged with an unsuccessful herbaceous border, on the other, of a not too successful rose garden, with a dancing faun poised above an incongruously “arty” blue-tiled pool. Within, profound chintz arm-chairs drawn up about a hearth on which a fire always smouldered; a big table piled with popular novels and picture-magazines; and near the table a lounge on which lay outstretched, his legs covered by a thick shawl, his hands occupied with knitting-needles or embroidery silks, a sturdily-built handsome man with brilliantly white wavy hair, a girlishly clear complexion, a black moustache, and tender mocking eyes under the bold arch of his black brows.
Such was Howard Sturgis, perfect host, matchless friend, drollest, kindest and strangest of men, as he appeared to the startled eyes of newcomers on their first introduction to Queen’s Acre.
It was not there, but at a dinner at Newport, that I first met him, a few years after my marriage. I did not even know who he was; but if ever there was a case of friendship at first sight it was struck up between us then and there. Like me he was a great lover of good talk, and shared my inability to enjoy it except in a small and intimate circle. Continuity in friendship he valued also as much as I did, and from that day until his death, many years later, he and I shared the same small group of intimates.
Howard Sturgis was the youngest son of Mr. Russell Sturgis, of the old Boston family of that name, who for many years had been at the head of an important American banking-house in London. Mr. Sturgis, as became an international banker, was rich, popular and hospitable, kept up a large household, and entertained a great deal in London and at Givens Grove, his country place near Leatherhead. Howard, I think, was born in England, and had probably never been to America till he came out on a visit to his Boston relations, the year I met him at Newport. His mother, Mr. Sturgis’s third wife, was also a Bostonian, and his cousinage was as large as mine in New York, and far more assiduously cultivated. Howard’s closest associations, however, were English, for he had been sent to Eton and thence to Cambridge. At Eton he had been a pupil of Mr. Ainger’s, a privilege never forgotten by an Etonian fortunate enough to have enjoyed it; and Mr. Ainger, whom I often met at Queen’s Acre, had remained one of his most devoted friends. Another friend of his youth was the eccentric and tragic William Cory Johnson, an Eton master of a different stamp, and an exquisite poet in a minor strain; and it is to Howard that I owe my precious first edition of “Ionica,” royally clothed in crimson morocco.
Mr. Russell Sturgis died when Howard was still a youth, and after his father’s death, and the marriages of his brothers and his sister, he found himself alone at home with his mother. Mrs. Sturgis, whom I never knew, is said to have been a very beautiful woman. She was as luxurious in her tastes as her husband, but, I imagine, without his gift of easy hospitality. She continued to keep up handsome establishments at Givens and in London; but she and her son, who was her devoted slave, were frequently absent from England, and when at home kept more and more to themselves; and her death left him, a middle-aged man, as lost and helpless as a child.
When I first knew him this sad phase was past; the London house had been sold, Givens had gone to Howard’s eldest half-brother, and Howard was happily settled in a roomy friendly house on the edge of Windsor Park, where he had gathered about him a company of devoted friends, some of whom were soon to become mine. He detested pomp and circumstance as much as his parents had valued it, and his life was already organized on the simple easy lines from which it never afterward departed. Some of his mother’s old servants remained with him, and when he went to Windsor he took with him Hall, the majestic butler. Hall had been with the family for many years, and was devoted to Howard; but after a few months at Queen’s Acre he announced his intention of leaving. Howard, much distressed, said he supposed Hall did not care to remain in so small an establishment; but Hall replied sadly: “Oh, no, sir, it’s not that; it’s only that I can’t bear never to ‘ear you ring a bell, and ‘ave you always putting your ‘ead out of the door and ‘ollering ‘all [Hall] down the passage.”
Howard felt the justice of the rebuke, but also the impossibility of living up to the old butler’s standards. Always impatient of conventional observances, he could never ring a bell when “‘ollering” brought the necessary response; so Hall departed, and was replaced by a small thin worried man, more in scale with the reduced household whose burdens (and they were not light) he was to bear till death relieved him, soon after the loss of his beloved master. This excellent man, whose name was Robinson, but who had been baptized by Henry James “the little saint and angel,” was dear to all visitors to Queen’s Acre, as were the admirable cook, Mrs. Lees (shall I ever again eat the like of her braised tongue?), and the sturdy old Scottish housemaid, Christina.
There was also, I believe, an old family coachman in the stable behind the shrubbery; but he and his “old family” horses, and the still older and more decayed family brougham, had reached a decrepitude so advanced that they hardly ever emerged from the stable-yard, and guests at Queen’s Acre depended chiefly on station flies, or, in motoring days, on their own cars. Howard, though his means permitted every comfort, would never introduce electric light into the house, much less the telephone and central heating; and his reluctance to repair, to repaint or in any way renovate his dear old house, must have been part of the deep-seated “complex” which made him unwilling to take any decision on whatever subject; for he was the most generous of men, and as careless of money as he was indifferent to all material comforts except good food.
I have sometimes thought that Howard’s old servants represented not inaptly the odd duality of his nature: Robinson his long-suffering sweetness and unselfishness, and the devoted but dour Christina the streak of asperity which sometimes came to the surface. Once when I was staying at Queen’s Acre I was at work on a novel, and writing in bed in the early morning, as my reprehensible habit is, with my inkstand balanced on a writing board. An inadvertent movement caused me to upset the ink, and instantly it poured over my sumptuously monogrammed sheet — doubtless a survival from Mrs. Sturgis’s stores of fine linen. Inkstands and tea-cups are never as full as when one upsets them, and seeing that the disaster was beyond the help of blotting-paper, I hastily rang for Christina. At the sight she threw up her hands in horror, and was seizing the sheet to fly with it to the tub, when I said: “Just a moment, Christina. I want you first to take the sheet to Mr. Sturgis, with this note from me.”
Christina’s jaw fell, and her look said: “Is there no limit to the craziness of these Americans?”
“Did ye say I was to tek a note, mem, to Mr. Sturgis?”
“WITH the sheet.”
“Not the sheet, mem? There’s no reason for Mr. Sturgis to be told about the accident, mem — ” in the conciliatory tone of one who remembers that it is safer to humour lunatics than to oppose them.
“Yes, please, Christina; note AND sheet.”
Reluctantly Christina departed on this insane mission. In the note I had written: “Dearest Howard, the book has been going slowly of late; but the stimulating air of Queen’s Acre has had its usual effect, and as you will see this morning’s chapter has come with a rush.”
A jubilant message of congratulation was brought back, with a clean sheet, by Christina. When the sheet was in place she lingered, perplexity on her face; then, determined to protect her master’s interests, though suspecting that he would be horrified at her means of doing so, she broke out in her fiercest Scots: “I dinna suppose ye mean to replace it, mem? But if ye DID, they coom from Marshall’s.”
The sheet was promptly duplicated by Marshall and Snelgrove, and when it arrived Christina’s heart was softened, and thereafter we were the best of friends.
At Queen’s Acre some of the happiest hours of my life were passed, some of my dearest friendships formed or consolidated, and my own old friends welcomed because they were mine. For Howard Sturgis was not only one of the most amusing and lovable of companions, but untiring in hospitality to the friends of his friends. Indolent and unambitious though he was, his social gifts were irresistible, and his drawing-room — where he spent most of his hours, not from ill-health but through inertia — was always full of visitors. There one found all that was most intelligent and agreeable in the world of Eton, as well as a chosen few from London, and mingled with them a continual and somewhat incongruous stream of cousins from Boston and New York — for Howard cherished with sentimental fervour the ties of consanguinity. There were also other cousins, long established in England and old habitues of Queen’s Acre; chief among them the three daughters of Motley, the historian, Lily Lady Harcourt, Mrs. Sheridan, the kindly hostess of Frampton Court, and Mrs. Mildmay; besides a succession of amiable nieces and nephews, children of Howard’s brothers and sister. But among the transients the chief current was fed by Bostonians and New Yorkers of the old school, whom Howard welcomed with effusion, undismayed by the difficulty of harmonizing them at short notice with the small intimate group who were de fondation about his fireside.
This inner group I see now, gathered around him as the lamps are brought in at the end of a foggy autumn afternoon. In one of the arm-chairs by the fire is sunk the long-limbed frame of the young Percy Lubbock, still carrying in his mind the delightful books he has since given us, and perhaps as yet hardly aware that he was ever to put them on paper; in another sits Gaillard Lapsley, down for the weekend from his tutorial duties at Cambridge, while John Hugh–Smith faces Percy across the fireside, and Robert Norton and I share the corners of the wide chintz sofa behind the tea-table; and dominating the hearth, and all of us, Henry James stands, or heavily pads about the room, listening, muttering, groaning disapproval, or chuckling assent to the paradoxes of the other tea-drinkers. And then, when tea is over, and the tray has disappeared, he stops his prowling to lean against the mantelpiece and plunge into reminiscences of the Paris or London of his youth, or into some slowly elaborated literary disquisition, perhaps on the art of fiction or the theatre, on Balzac, on Tolstoy, or, better still, on one of his own contemporaries. I remember, especially, one afternoon when the question: “And Meredith —?” suddenly freed a “full-length” of that master which, I imagine, still hangs in the mental picture-galleries of all who heard him.
It began, mildly enough, with a discussion of Meredith’s importance as a novelist, in which I think Howard was his principal champion. James, deep-sunk in an arm-chair and in silence, sat listening, and weighing our views, till he suddenly pounced on my avowal that, much as I admired some of the novels, I had never been able to find out what any of them, except “The Egoist” and “Harry Richmond,” were about. I tried to temper this by adding that in many passages, and especially the descriptive ones, the author’s style rose to a height of poetic imagery which — but here James broke in with the cry that I had put my finger on the central weakness of Meredith’s art, its unconscious insincerity. Words — words — poetic imagery, metaphors, epigrams, descriptive passages! How much did any of them weigh in the baggage of the authentic novelist? (By this time he was on his feet, swaying agitatedly to and fro before the fire.) Meredith, he continued, was a sentimental rhetorician, whose natural indolence or congenital insufficiency, or both, made him, in life as in his art, shirk every climax, dodge around it, and veil its absence in a fog of eloquence. Of course, he pursued, neither I nor any other reader could make out what Meredith’s tales were about; and not only what they were about, but even in what country and what century they were situated, all these prosaic details being hopelessly befogged by the famous poetic imagery. He himself, James said, when he read Meredith, was always at a loss to know where he was, or what causes had led to which events, or even to discover by what form of conveyance the elusive characters he was struggling to identify moved from one point of the globe to another (except, Howard interpolated, that the heroines always did so on horseback); till at last the practical exigences of the subject forced the author to provide some specific means of transport, and suddenly, through the fog of his verbiage, the reader caught the far-off tinkle of a bell that (here there was a dramatic pause of suspense) — that turned out to be that of a mere vulgar hansom-cab: “Into which,” James concluded with his wicked twinkle, “I always manage to leap before the hero, and drive straight out of the story.”
Such boutades implied no lack of appreciation of Meredith the poet, still less of regard for the man. James liked and admired Meredith, and esteemed him greatly for the courage and dignity with which he endured the trial of his long illness; but, when the sacred question of the craft was touched upon, all personal sympathies seemed irrelevant, and our friend pronounced his judgments without regard to them.
In Howard Sturgis’s case, even more than in that of James, the lack of a Boswell is to be deplored, for in his talk there was the same odd blending of the whimsical and the shrewd, of scepticism and emotion, as in his character, and the chosen friends who frequented Qu’acre (as its intimates called it) were always at their best in his company. But he has now been dead for over twelve years, and since voices more qualified to speak are still silent, I cannot part from his dear shade without trying to call it back for a moment.
Everything in Howard Sturgis’s life was contradictory, perplexing, and in a sense incomplete. He had begun by writing two charming, if slightly over-sentimental tales, “Tim” and “All That Was Possible,” both of which had been greatly admired by a small circle of appreciative readers, while the latter had won him a wider public. Thereafter he was silent for a number of years, and then, about 1906, he published a long novel called “Belchamber,” which to my mind stands very nearly in the first rank. But “Belchamber” had no success with the public, and less than his other books with most of his friends. Henry James (never to be trusted about the value of any “fiction” which was not built according to his own rigid plan) pointed out with some truth that Howard had failed to utilize what should have been his central effect, and privately pronounced the book old-fashioned and feebly Thackerayan; while the reviewers dismissed it as too “painful” and “unnecessarily disagreeable,” meaning thereby that it “faced the facts” at a time when English fiction had not begun to practice that now too common exercise. The book was in truth a striking study of fashionable London in the ‘nineties, lifted above the level of anecdote by a touch of tragedy, and rising in certain scenes to the quiet power of great fiction. But it was born out of its due time, and sank almost at once into an obscurity from which I am persuaded it will some day emerge, with that entirely different but equally neglected masterpiece, Graham Phillips’s “Susan Lenox.”
Howard, after the failure of “Belchamber,” apparently lost all interest in writing. He was unduly distressed by Henry James’s criticism, and it was in vain that I pointed out how foolish it was to be discouraged by the opinion of a novelist who could no longer judge impartially any novel not built according to his own theories. Howard, by the way, was to see those theories suddenly demolished when, a good many years later, I sent James a copy of “Du Cote de chez Swann” on its first appearance, and all his principles and prejudices went down like straws in the free wind of Proust’s genius; but that was long afterward, and meanwhile, Howard’s native indolence and genuine humility aiding, he accepted James’s verdict and relapsed into knitting and embroidery.
For the joy of his friends this was hardly to be regretted, since it left him free to give them his whole time. Intellectually he combined a kind of sentimental socialism with a hard lucidity of judgment, emotionally he was at once tender and malicious, indulgent and penetrating, and one felt that he saw through one to the marrow at the very moment when, in all sincerity, he was smothering one under exaggerated praise. There was nothing perfidious or calculated in these sudden changes; his affection for his friends co-existed with a pitiless discernment of their weaknesses, but his heart always poured balm on what his tongue could not refrain from lashing.
Howard’s days, once he had abandoned literature, were methodically divided into brief moments of exercise and long hours of immobility. Every morning at the same hour he took a short toddle in Windsor Park with the sad little dog Misery and her rickety out-of-wedlock son, who was the cause of her being so named; Howard’s puritan blood having compelled him to put this brand on his frail pet. He walked very slowly and potteringly, and I have known few more chilly forms of exercise, on a cold damp day, than a “constitutional” with him and James, the latter stopping short every few yards to elaborate a point or propound a problem, while, just as one had got James moving again, Howard was sure to dive into the bushes in pursuit of Misery or her illegitimate offspring.
The walk ended, and an excellent luncheon enjoyed, Howard returned to his lounge and his embroidery, seldom leaving the drawing-room again till it was time to dress for dinner, and gently deriding the vain activities of those who did. I remember, in particular, one occasion when he had invited down for the day my friend Jacques–Emile Blanche and his wife, who were staying in London. It was a lovely summer day, and my impression is that the charms of the Thames valley were unknown to our French guests. At any rate, it was suggested that I should take them, after luncheon, to see the beautiful old alms-houses at Bray, and when this brief excursion was over, and I had driven them back to the railway station, I returned to King’s Road to find Howard in his usual place on the lounge. The afternoon was still young, and as I entered the room I cried out: “Come along, Howard! Put on your bonnet and shawl, and let’s walk down to Eton!”
Cries of dismay and incredulity from Howard. “Walk down to Eton with you? NOW— at this hour of the day? But you went for a walk this morning; and you’ve been motoring all over the place all the afternoon with the Blanches; and now you’re actually suggesting that I should walk all the way to Eton with you before dinner?”
So horrified was he at my mad proposal that it rankled in him for the rest of the evening, and every now and then, as we sat in the drawing-room after dinner, he would appeal plaintively to his other guests: “Did you ever hear of such a thing? After motoring all over the place all the afternoon with the Blanches, she actually came back and said to me: ‘Put on your bonnet and shawl, and let’s walk down to Eton!’”
In my day Howard’s social relations with Eton were limited, at least as far as his guests were concerned, to taking us to call now and then on Mrs. Cornish or Mr. Ainger. But on one occasion we were bidden there for a public ceremony, and one I would not willingly have missed: the inauguration by King Edward VII of the beautiful hall which had been recently built in commemoration of the Etonians who fell in the Boer War. I had never seen King Edward before, and my recollection of the simple and dignified ceremony is naturally centred in his stout but stately figure. I remember being at first slightly shocked by the thick guttural intonation so reminiscent of his Hanoverian descent, and then captivated by the simplicity of his manner and the genuine emotion which his words expressed. Between the King’s disquietingly Teutonic presence, and his audience of so deeply English subjects, the mourning relatives of the dead, one felt at once the current of understanding, the sharing of private grief and national pride, which gives such symbolic value to inherited rule.
As far as I can remember I was taken only once to see Mrs. Cornish, and on this occasion, as so often happened, my incorrigible shyness turned the meeting into a damp-match affair. Mrs. Cornish, wife of the distinguished Vice–Provost of Eton, was one of the most striking figures of that highly specialized world; wherever Eton was mentioned people always said: “You don’t know Mrs. Cornish? Oh, but you MUST know her!”
Mrs. Cornish had once been thrown with the Bourgets, of whom she kept an admiring recollection, and when she heard that I was an intimate friend of theirs she instructed Howard to bring me to tea at the Vice–Provost’s lodge. The only day on which I was free was one on which she happened to have invited a party of Eton boys, and she excused herself for this; but I thought their rosy faces and shining collars well suited to the serene and studious beauty of The Cloisters, with its long low-studded drawing-room, and the flowers and turf of the garden seen through mullioned windows. Mrs. Cornish was eager to hear all I could tell her of the Bourgets, but in spite of my desire to enjoy (and be enjoyed), the silent pink audience communicated its shyness to me. At any rate, no other topic of interest occurred to me or to my hostess when we had used up the theme of our serviceable friends; and after a while Mrs. Cornish, visibly aware of my distress, and herself affected by it, caught at the Bourgets again, like a man overboard swimming back to the spar he has abandoned. One of the Eton boys, a dark good-looking lad, who had been introduced to us as Prince Ruspoli, suddenly fixed her attention, and she swept around on him with her great dominant air.
“And you, Carlo Ruspoli — have you ever read the novels of Paul Bourget?” she abruptly challenged him. All the boys turned pinker at the startling enquiry, and the young prince pinkest.
“I— n-no — I’m afraid I haven’t,” he stammered, disconcerted.
Mrs. Cornish’s inquiring gaze darkened to disapproval. “What, you’ve not read them? Not any of them? Then you should, Carlo Ruspoli; you should read ALL OF THEM immediately,” she surprisingly commanded — for a counsel from Mrs. Cornish was always a command. An inarticulate murmur and a deeper blush were the only response; and thereafter the conversation so excitingly begun trailed off again into commonplaces — or I fear it must have, no doubt through my fault, for I remember of it nothing else of moment.
Not infrequently, on my annual visit to Qu’acre, I “took off” from Lamb House, where I also went annually for a visit to Henry James. The motor run between Rye and Windsor being an easy one, I was often accompanied by Henry James, who generally arranged to have his visit to Qu’acre coincide with mine. James, who was a frequent companion on our English motor-trips, was firmly convinced that, because he lived in England, and our chauffeur (an American) did not, it was necessary that the latter should be guided by him through the intricacies of the English country-side. Sign-posts were rare in England in those days, and for many years afterward, and a truly British reserve seemed to make the local authorities reluctant to communicate with the invading stranger. Indeed, considerable difficulty existed as to the formulating of advice and instructions, and I remember in one village the agitated warning: “Motorists! Beware of the children!” — while in general there was a marked absence of indications as to the whereabouts of the next village.
It chanced, however, that Charles Cook, our faithful and skilful driver, was a born path-finder, while James’s sense of direction was non-existent, or rather actively but always erroneously alert; and the consequences of his intervention were always bewildering, and sometimes extremely fatiguing. The first time that my husband and I went to Lamb House by motor (coming from France) James, who had travelled to Folkestone by train to meet us, insisted on seating himself next to Cook, on the plea that the roads across Romney Marsh formed such a tangle that only an old inhabitant could guide us to Rye. The suggestion resulted in our turning around and around in our tracks till long after dark, though Rye, conspicuous on its conical hill, was just ahead of us, and Cook could easily have landed us there in time for tea.
Another year we had been motoring in the west country, and on the way back were to spend a night at Malvern. As we approached (at the close of a dark rainy afternoon) I saw James growing restless, and was not surprised to hear him say: “My dear, I once spent a summer at Malvern, and know it very well; and as it is rather difficult to find the way to the hotel, it might be well if Edward were to change places with me, and let me sit beside Cook.” My husband of course acceded (though with doubt in his heart), and James having taken his place, we awaited the result. Malvern, if I am not mistaken, is encircled by a sort of upper boulevard, of the kind called in Italy a strada di circonvallazione, and for an hour we circulated about above the outspread city, while James vainly tried to remember which particular street led down most directly to our hotel. At each corner (literally) he stopped the motor, and we heard a muttering, first confident and then anguished. “This — this, my dear Cook, yes . . . this certainly is the right corner. But no; stay! A moment longer, please — in this light it’s so difficult . . . appearances are so misleading . . . It may be . . . yes! I think it IS the next turn . . . ‘a little farther lend thy guiding hand’ . . . that is, drive on; but slowly, please, my dear Cook; VERY slowly!” And at the next corner the same agitated monologue would be repeated; till at length Cook, the mildest of men, interrupted gently: “I guess any turn’ll get us down into the town, Mr. James, and after that I can ask — ” and late, hungry and exhausted we arrived at length at our destination, James still convinced that the next turn would have been the right one, if only we had been more patient.
The most absurd of these episodes occurred on another rainy evening, when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur — perhaps Cook was on a holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting to him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King’s Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. “wait a moment, my dear — I’ll ask him where we are”; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
“My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so,” and as the old man came up: “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from SLOUGH; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently PASSED THROUGH Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.”
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to . . . ”
“Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”
“Ah —? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly IS?”
“Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.
It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than between the hospitality of Queen’s Acre and that of Lamb House. In the former a cheerful lavishness prevailed, and a cook enamoured of her art set a variety of inviting dishes before a table-full of guests, generally reinforced by transients from London or the country. At Lamb House an anxious frugality was combined with the wish that the usually solitary guest (there were never, at most, more than two at a time) should not suffer too greatly from the contrast between his or her supposed habits of luxury, and the privations imposed by the host’s conviction that he was on the brink of ruin. If any one in a pecuniary difficulty appealed to James for help, he gave it without counting; but in his daily life he was haunted by the spectre of impoverishment, and the dreary pudding or pie of which a quarter or half had been consumed at dinner reappeared on the table the next day with its ravages unrepaired.
We used to laugh at Howard Sturgis because, when any new subject was touched on in our talks, he always interrupted us to cry out: “Now please remember that I’ve read nothing, and know nothing, and am not in the least quick or clever or cultivated”; and one day, when I prefaced a remark with “Of course, to people as intelligent as we all are,” he broke in with a sort of passionate terror: “Oh, how can you say such things about us, Edith?” — as though my remark had been a challenge to the Furies.
The same scruples weighed on Henry James; but in his case the pride that apes humility concerned itself (oddly enough) with material things. He lived in terror of being thought rich, worldly or luxurious, and was forever contrasting his visitors’ supposed opulence and self-indulgence with his own hermit-like asceticism, and apologizing for his poor food while he trembled lest it should be thought too good. I have often since wondered if he did not find our visits more of a burden than a pleasure, and if the hospitality he so conscientiously offered and we so carelessly enjoyed did not give him more sleepless nights than happy days.
I hope not; for some of my richest hours were spent under his roof. From the moment when I turned the corner of the grass-grown street mounting steeply between squat brick houses, and caught sight, at its upper end, of the wide Palladian window of the garden-room, a sense of joyous liberation bore me on. There HE stood on the doorstep, the white-panelled hall with its old prints and crowded book-cases forming a background to his heavy loosely-clothed figure. Arms outstretched, lips and eyes twinkling, he came down to the car, uttering cries of mock amazement and mock humility at the undeserved honour of my visit. The arrival at Lamb House was an almost ritual performance, from those first ejaculations to the large hug and the two solemn kisses executed in the middle of the hall rug. Then, arm in arm, through the oak-panelled morning-room we wandered out onto the thin worn turf of the garden, with its ancient mulberry tree, its unkempt flower-borders, the gables of Watchbell Street peeping like village gossips over the creeper-clad walls, and the scent of roses spiced with a strong smell of the sea. Up and down the lawn we strolled with many pauses, exchanging news, answering each other’s questions, delivering messages from the other members of the group, inspecting the strawberries and lettuces in the tiny kitchen-garden, and the chrysanthemums “coming along” in pots in the greenhouse; till at length the parlour-maid appeared with a tea-tray, and I was led up the rickety outside steps to the garden-room, that stately and unexpected appendage to the unadorned cube of the house.
In summer the garden-room, with its high ceiling, its triple window commanding the grass-grown declivity of West Street, and its other window looking along another ancient street to the Gothic mass of the Parish church, was the centre of life at Lamb House. Here, in the morning, James dictated to his secretary, striding incessantly up and down the room, and in the afternoon and evening, when the weather was too cool for the garden, sat with outstretched legs in his deep arm-chair before the hearth, laughing and talking with his guests.
On the whole, he was very happy at Rye, and in spite of the house-keeping cares which he took so hard the change was all to the good for a man who could never resist invitations, yet was wearied and irritated by the incessant strain of social life in London. At Rye, in summer at least, he had as many guests as his nerves could endure, and his sociable relations with his neighbours — among whom were, at one time, his beloved friends, Sir George and Lady Prothero — must have prevented his feeling lonely. He was very proud of his old house, the best of its sober and stately sort in the town, and he who thought himself so detached from material things tasted the simple joys of proprietorship when, with a deprecating air, he showed his fine Georgian panelling and his ancient brick walls to admiring visitors.
Like Howard Sturgis he was waited upon by two or three faithful servants. Foremost among them was the valet and factotum, Burgess, always spoken of by his employer as “poor little Burgess.” Burgess’ broad squat figure and phlegmatic countenance are a familiar memory to all who frequented Lamb House, and James’s friends gratefully recall his devotion to his master during the last unhappy years of nervous breakdown and illness. He had been preceded by a man-servant whom I did not know, but of whom James spoke with regard as an excellent fellow. “The only trouble was that, when I gave him an order, he had to go through three successive mental processes before he could understand what I was saying. First he had to register the fact that he was being spoken to, then to assimilate the meaning of the order given to him, and lastly to think out what practical consequences might be expected to follow if he obeyed it.”
Perhaps these mental gymnastics were excusable in the circumstances; but Burgess apparently soon learned to dispense with them, and without any outward appearance of having understood what his master was saying, carried out his instructions with stolid exactitude. Stolidity was his most marked characteristic. He seldom gave any sign of comprehension when spoken to, and I remember once saying to my Alsatian maid, who was always as quick as a flash at the uptake: “Do you know, I think Burgess must be very stupid. When I speak to him I’m never even sure that he’s heard what I’ve said.”
My maid looked at me gravely. “Oh, no, Madam: Burgess is remarkably intelligent. HE ALWAYS UNDERSTANDS WHAT MR. JAMES SAYS.” And that argument was certainly conclusive.
At Lamb House my host and I usually kept to ourselves until luncheon. Our working hours were the same, and it was only now and then that we went out before one o’clock to take a look at the green peas in the kitchen-garden, or to stroll down the High Street to the Post Office. But as soon as luncheon was despatched (amid unnecessary apologies for its meagreness, and sarcastic allusions to my own supposed culinary extravagances) the real business of the day began. Henry James, an indifferent walker, and incurably sedentary in his habits, had a passion for motoring. He denied himself (I believe quite needlessly) the pleasure and relaxation which a car of his own might have given him, but took advantage, to the last drop of petrol, of the travelling capacity of any visitor’s car. When, a few years after his death, I stayed at Lamb House with the friend who was then its tenant, I got to know for the first time the rosy old town and its sea-blown neighbourhood. In Henry James’s day I was never given the chance, for as soon as luncheon was over we were always whirled miles away, throwing out over the country-side what he called our “great loops” of exploration. Sometimes we went off for two or three days. I remember one beautiful pilgrimage to Winchester, Gloucester and beyond; another long day carried us to the ancient house of Brede, to lunch with the Morton Frewens, another to spend a day near Ashford with the Alfred Austins, in their pleasant old house full of books and flowers. Usually, however, to avoid an interruption to the morning’s work, we lunched at Lamb House, and starting out immediately afterward pushed our explorations of down and weald and seashore to the last limit of the summer twilight.
James was as jubilant as a child. Everything pleased him — the easy locomotion (which often cradled him into a brief nap), the bosky softness of the landscape, the discovery of towns and villages hitherto beyond his range, the magic of ancient names, quaint or impressive, crabbed or melodious. These he would murmur over and over to himself in a low chant, finally creating characters to fit them, and sometimes whole families, with their domestic complications and matrimonial alliances, such as the Dymmes of Dymchurch, one of whom married a Sparkle, and was the mother of little Scintilla Dymme–Sparkle, subject of much mirth and many anecdotes. Except during his naps, nothing escaped him, and I suppose no one ever felt more imaginatively, or with deeper poetic emotion, the beauty of sea and sky, the serenities of the landscape, the sober charm of villages, manor-houses and humble churches, and all the implications of that much-storied corner of England.
One perfect afternoon we spent at Bodiam — my first visit there. It was still the old spell-bound ruin, unrestored, guarded by great trees, and by a network of lanes which baffled the invading charabancs. Tranquil white clouds hung above it in a windless sky, and the silence and solitude were complete as we sat looking across at the crumbling towers, and at their reflection in a moat starred with water-lilies, and danced over by great blue dragon-flies. For a long time no one spoke; then James turned to me and said solemnly: “Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” They were the essence of that hushed scene, those ancient walls; and I never hear them spoken without seeing the towers of Bodiam mirrored in their enchanted moat.
Another day was memorable in another way. We were motoring from Rye to Windsor, to stay, as usual, with Howard Sturgis, and suddenly James said; “The day is so beautiful that I should like to make a little detour, and show you Box Hill.” I was delighted at the prospect of seeing a new bit of English scenery, and perhaps catching a glimpse of George Meredith’s cottage on its leafy hillside. But James’s next words chilled my ardour: “I want you to know Meredith,” he added.
“Oh, no, no!” I protested. I knew enough, by this time, of my inability to profit by such encounters. I was always benumbed by them, and unable to find the right look or the right word, while inwardly I bubbled with fervour, and the longing to express it. I remember once being taken to Miss Jekyll’s famous garden at Great Warley. On that long-desired day I had a hundred questions to ask, a thousand things to learn. I went with a party of fashionable and indifferent people, all totally ignorant of gardens and gardening; I put one timid question to Miss Jekyll, who answered curtly, and turned her back on me to point out a hybrid iris to an eminent statesman who knew neither what a hybrid nor an iris was; and for the rest of the visit she gave me no chance of exchanging a word with her.
To see Meredith and talk with him was a more important affair. In spite of all reservations, my admiration for certain parts of his work was very great. I delighted in his poetry, and treasured two of his novels — “The Egoist” and “Harry Richmond” — and I should have enjoyed telling him just what it was that I most admired in them. But I foresaw the impossibility of doing so at a first meeting which would probably also be the last. I told James this, and added that the great man’s deafness was in itself an insurmountable obstacle, since I cannot make myself heard even by the moderately deaf. James pleaded with me, but I was firm. For months he had been announcing his visit to Meredith, but had always been deterred by the difficulty of getting from Rye to Box Hill without going up to London; and I should really be doing him a great service by allowing him to call there on the way to Windsor. To this, of course, I was obliged to consent; but I stipulated that I should be allowed to wait in the car, and though he tried to convince me that “just to have taken a look at the great man” would be an interesting memory, he knew I hated that kind of human sight-seeing, and did not insist. So we deflected our course to take in Box Hill, and the car climbed the steep ascent to the garden-gate where James was to get out. As he did so he turned to me and said: “Come, my dear! I can’t leave you sitting here alone. I should have you on my mind all the time; and supposing somebody were to come out of the house and find you?”
There was nothing for it but to comply; and somewhat sulkily I followed him up the narrow path, between clumps of sweetwilliam and Scotch pinks. It was a tiny garden patch, and a few steps brought us to the door of a low-studded cottage in a gap of the hanging woods. It was useless to notify Meredith in advance when one went to see him; he had long since been immobilized by illness, and was always there, and always, apparently, delighted to receive his old friends. The maid who announced us at once returned to say that we were to come in, and we were shown into a very small low-ceilinged room, so small and so low that it seemed crowded though there were only four people in it. The four were the great man himself, white of head and beard, and statuesquely throned in a Bath chair; his daughter, the handsome Mrs. Henry Sturgis (wife of Howard’s eldest brother), another man who seemed to me larger than life, perhaps on account of the exiguity of the room, and who turned out to be Mr. Morley Roberts — and lastly a trained nurse, calmly eating her supper at a table only a foot or two from her patient’s chair.
It was the nurse’s presence — and the way she went on steadily eating and drinking — that I found most disconcerting. The house was very small indeed; but was it really so small that there was not a corner of it in which she could have been fed, instead of consuming her evening repast under our eyes and noses? I have always wondered, and never found the answer.
Meanwhile I was being led up and explained by James and Mrs. Sturgis — a laborious business, and agonizing to me, as the room rang and rang again with my unintelligible name. But finally the syllables reached their destination; and then, as they say in detective novels, the unexpected happened. The invalid stretched out a beautiful strong hand — everything about him was strong and beautiful — and lifting up a book which lay open at his elbow, held it out with a smile. I read the title, and the blood rushed over me like fire. It was my own “Motor Flight through France,” then lately published; and he had not known I was to be brought to see him, and he had actually been reading my book when I came in!
At once, in his rich organ tones, he began to say the kindest, most appreciative things; to ask questions, to want particulars — but alas, my unresonant voice found no crack in the wall of his deafness. I longed to tell him that Henry James had been our companion on most of the travels described in my modest work; and James, joining in, tried to explain, to say kind things also; but it was all useless, and Meredith, accustomed to steering a way through these first difficult moments, had presently taken easy hold of the conversation, never again letting it go till we left.
The beauty, the richness, the flexibility of his voice held me captive, and it is that which I remember, not what he said; except that he was all amenity, all kindliness, as if the voice were poured in a healing tide over the misery of my shyness. But the object of the visit was, of course, to give him a chance of talking with James, and presently I drew back and chatted with Mrs. Sturgis and Morley Roberts, while the great bright tide of monologue swept on over my friend. After all, it had been worth coming for; but the really interesting thing about the visit was James’s presence, and the chance of watching from my corner the nobly confronted profiles of the two old friends: Meredith’s so classically distinguished, from the spring of the wavy hair to the line of the straight nose, and the modelling of cheek and throat, but all like a slightly idealized bas-relief “after” a greater original; and James’s heavy Roman head, so realistically and vigorously his own, not a bas-relief but a bust, wrought in the round by harsher but more powerful hands. As they sat there, James benignly listening, Meredith eloquently discoursing, and their old deep regard for each other burning steadily through the surface eloquence and the surface attentiveness, I felt I was in great company, and was glad.
“Well, my dear,” James said to me, as we went out into the dusk, “wasn’t I right?” Yes, he had been right, and I had to own it.
Henry James, after buying Lamb House, had given up his flat in London; but in the autumn and winter he often went up to town for a short visit, staying at his club (the Athenaeum) and “doing” as many lunches and dinners as he could crowd in, besides anything new at the theatres — for his interest in matters theatrical had not waned. Now that he had given up London he returned to it on these occasions with the zest of a truant school-boy. Everything he did exhilarated him, every one he saw amused him, everything he ate agreed with him — and when it was over he would go back, feeling guilty but rejuvenated, to a long stretch of work, and a diet of herbs and cold pudding.
When I was in London he generally joined me there for a day or two, especially if any theatrical event were impending; and I remember going one evening with him to see Mr. Knoblock’s Arabian Nights’ fantasy, “Kismet,” then an innovation in stage-setting and lighting. We were enchanted with this lovely evocation of the bazaars, to which all London was thronging; it was the first time we had either of us seen what was in some sort a dematerialized pantomime, freed of its too realistic trappings — a first bud in the coming springtide of the Russian ballet. Another evening we went to “Androcles and the Lion,” and I think James laughed as much as I did at that enormous fooling, though doubtless with more self-restraint. In reality he was a much better theatre-goer than I, for the material limitations of the stage, and its violent foreshortenings, which always contract my vision, and cut rudely into my dream, seemed to stimulate his imagination, however much he found to criticise in a given play or its acting.
Sometimes, too, our little knot of friends would contrive to be in London at the same time, and I recall one happy evening when Howard Sturgis, Walter Berry, Percy Lubbock and Gaillard Lapsley were dining with me at my hotel. We had hoped that James would join us; but he was already booked for a fashionable dinner from which it was useless to try to detach him. Hardly had we sat down when, to our astonishment, in he walked, resplendent in white waistcoat and white tie, and rubbing his hands as though he nursed between his palms the smile striking up into his face. He had made a mistake in his date; had presented himself at the great house, and been told the dinner was not till the next evening; so here he was, and did we still want him, and was there room for him at the table — oh, he could squeeze into the least little corner, if we’d only let him! And let him we did; and how he enjoyed his dinner, and his glass of champagne (he who, at Rye, thought he could digest nothing heavier than a squeeze of orange juice!), and what a good evening of talk and laughter we had! As I write I yearn back to those lost hours, all the while aware that those who read of them must take their gaiety, their jokes and laughter, on faith, yet unable to detach my memory from them, and loath not to give others a glimpse of that jolliest of comrades, the laughing, chaffing, jubilant yet malicious James, who was so different from the grave personage known to less intimate eyes.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02