These new friendships, and many others, added much to my enjoyment of Paris; but the core of my life was under my own roof, among my books and my intimate friends. Above all it was in my work, which was growing and spreading, and absorbing more and more of my time and my imagination.
I had continued steadily at my story-telling, from which nothing could ever distract me for long, and during the busy happy Parisian years, and especially after the appearance of “The House of Mirth,” a growing sense of mastery made the work more and more absorbing. In 1908 I published “The Hermit and the Wild Woman,” a volume of short stories, in 1910 another, called “Tales of Men and Ghosts,” and between the two the record of some of our motor journeys in France.
But the book to the making of which I brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease was “Ethan Frome.” For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life even in my own time, and a thousandfold more a generation earlier, utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett. In those days the snow-bound villages of Western Massachusetts were still grim places, morally and physically: insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village street, or in the isolated farm-houses on the neighbouring hills; and Emily Bronte would have found as savage tragedies in our remoter valleys as on her Yorkshire moors. In this connection, I may mention that every detail about the colony of drunken mountain outlaws described in “Summer” was given to me by the rector of the church at Lenox (near which we lived), and that the lonely peak I have called “the Mountain” was in reality Bear Mountain, an isolated summit not more than twelve miles from our own home. The rector had been fetched there by one of the mountain outlaws to read the Burial Service over a woman of evil reputation; and when he arrived every one in the house of mourning was drunk, and the service was performed as I have related it. The rector’s predecessor in the fashionable parish of Lenox had, I believe, once been called for on a similar errand, but had prudently refused to go; my friend, however, thought it his duty to do so, and drove off alone with the outlaw — coming back with his eyes full of horror and his heart of anguish and pity. Needless to say, when “Summer” appeared, this chapter was received with indignant denial by many reviewers and readers; and not the least vociferous were the New Englanders who had for years sought the reflection of local life in the rose-and-lavender pages of their favourite authoresses — and had forgotten to look into Hawthorne’s.
“Ethan Frome” shocked my readers less than “Summer”; but it was frequently criticized as “painful,” and at first had much less success than my previous books. I have a clearer recollection of its beginnings than of those of my other tales, through the singular accident that its first pages were written — in French! I had determined, when we came to live in Paris, to polish and enlarge my French vocabulary; for though I had spoken the language since the age of four I had never had much occasion to talk it, for any length of time, with cultivated people, having usually, since my marriage, wandered through France as a tourist. The result was that I had kept up the language chiefly through reading, and the favourite French authors of my early youth being Bossuet, Racine, Corneille and Labruyere, most of my polite locutions dated from the seventeenth century, and Bourget used to laugh at me for speaking “the purest Louis Quatorze.” To bring my idioms up to date I asked Charles Du Bos to find, among his friends, a young professor who would come and talk with me two or three times a week. An amiable young man was found; but, being too amiable ever to correct my spoken mistakes, he finally hit on the expedient of asking me to prepare an “exercise” before each visit. The easiest thing for me was to write a story; and thus the French version of “Ethan Frome” was begun, and carried on for a few weeks. Then the lessons were given up, and the copy-book containing my “exercise” vanished forever. But a few years later, during one of our summer sojourns at the Mount, a distant glimpse of Bear Mountain brought Ethan back to my memory, and the following winter in Paris I wrote the tale as it now stands, reading my morning’s work aloud each evening to Walter Berry, who was as familiar as I was with the lives led in those half-deserted villages before the coming of motor and telephone. We talked the tale over page by page, so that its accuracy of “atmosphere” is doubly assured — and I mention this because not long since, in an article by an American literary critic, I saw “Ethan Frome” cited as an interesting example of a successful New England story written by some one who knew nothing of New England! “Ethan Frome” was written after I had spent ten years in the hill-region where the scene is laid, during which years I had come to know well the aspect, dialect, and mental and moral attitude of the hill-people. The fact that “Summer” deals with the same class and type as those portrayed in “Ethan Frome,” and has the same setting, might have sufficed to disprove the legend — but once such a legend is started it echoes on as long as its subject survives.
Almost all my intimate friends from England and America used to come to stay with us in Paris; Walter Berry, whenever he could escape from his hard work as one of the Judges of the International Tribunal at Cairo; Henry James, Howard Sturgis, Percy Lubbock, Gaillard Lapsley, Robert Norton and John Hugh–Smith. I also continued to see a great deal of Egerton Winthrop, Robert Minturn, and many other old friends from America, who came annually to Paris; and usually, before going back to the Mount for the summer, or on my return from America in the autumn, I snatched a few weeks in England, dividing them between Lamb House, Queen’s Acre, and Hill Hall, Mrs. Charles Hunter’s place in Essex.
Mrs. Charles Hunter was so much a part of my annual English holiday, so much the centre of my picture of the English world, that when she died the other day, for me at least, almost the whole fabric went with her. Henry James, who was her devoted friend, had long wanted us to meet; but knowing of her only as a fashionable hostess and indefatigable entertainer, and not wishing to plunge again into the world of big house-parties and London “crushes,” I had evaded all suggestions and invitations. And then suddenly — I forgot when or where — we met, and became friends.
Sargent’s portrait (given by her to the Tate Gallery) renders Mary Hunter’s fair abundant beauty in all its harvest brightness; and it was thus that I first knew her — still beautiful, wealthy, hospitable and boundlessly generous, with no clear idea about money except that, if one had it, it was to be spent for the pleasure of others. Later, when her fortune, which was entirely in coal, dwindled to nothing with the other great English mining-fortunes, she bore the loss with dauntless good humour, a spirit of “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,” of which I know few finer examples; but her notion of money remained as hazy when every penny mattered as when wealth poured uncounted through her lavish hands. As one of her friends said: “Mary is a cornucopia”; and to the end of her life generosity, pity, eagerness to help and to make happy, kept spilling out of her in words and deeds when they could no longer be expressed in cheques.
A year or two before her death we were staying at the same house in the country, and having broken her motoring spectacles she asked me to take her to an opticians’s to buy another pair. She was already ruined, and living in such narrow circumstances that I thought it quite natural for her to consider the price. “How much do you suppose they’ll cost, my dear? Not above two or three pounds?” she asked anxiously. I burst out laughing. “Bless you, no! Not above two or three shillings.” I expected a sigh of relief; but she gave no sign of seeing any difference, and to the very end such shades of more-or-less remained too microscopic for her notice.
The golden waves of prosperity were rolling higher and higher about when our acquaintance began. Her husband, who adored her, wished her to enjoy every luxury; but he had always refused to give her a town house, fearing, as he said, that life in London would lead to extravagance beyond even his resources. He bestowed on her instead, Hill Hall, a William-and-Mary house of stately proportions, built about a great interior quadrangle, and dominating the blue distances of Essex; and for the London season she hired one of the ornate seventeenth century houses attached to the Burlington Hotel. This she furnished luxuriously, and lived in it exactly as if it were her own — save that the upkeep stopped when she was not in town.
At Hill no limits were set, but the house was not expensively furnished, though arranged with much taste, and containing a few good pictures. Life there was on a large scale, for there were many rooms, and in addition to the perpetual come-and-go of married daughters, grandchildren, and other relations, there was a succession of friends for a good part of the year, and a bit house-party for every week-end.
I used sometimes to wonder what Rosa de Fitz–James, with her careful sense of conformity, of selection, her French cult of the ce-qui-se-fait, would have thought of those happy-go-lucky week-ends, with friends tumbling in unexpectedly from everywhere, extra seats being hastily crowded into the long dining-room, fresh provisions hurried to the already groaning tea-table, spare-rooms prepared, messages telephoned, people passing in and out with a sort of smiling fatalism, no questions asked, no explanations expected, just a continuous surge of easy good-humoured life through the big house, the broad flagged terraces and the crowded tennis-courts. I was about to add “and the gardens” when I remembered that, oddly enough for an Englishwoman, Mary Hunter was congenitally incapable of interesting herself in horticulture, her only attempt in that line being a made-to-order rose-garden of which Percy Lubbock remarked that it looked “as if no one had ever said a kind word to it.”
Mary Hunter’s hospitality was more comprehensive than Madame de Fitz–James’, not only because her nature was larger and more impetuous, but because all the meticulous French discriminations would have been meaningless to her, and to her world, where numbers had a secret magic, and even to the intelligent the sense of being in a crowd was more stimulating than that of being too carefully shielded from it. Mrs. Hunter’s guests, however, were combined with unusual discrimination, for though she herself had — as far as I could see — no particular pleasure in good talk, she enjoyed it vicariously, as a good hostess, and, as a clever one, managed to get together the elements to create it. Even her most haphazard parties contained a nucleus of intimate friends with literary and artistic tastes, and this saved the weekends of Hill from the dullness usual in such assemblages. Moreover, Mrs. Hunter’s watchful solicitude made her combine her inner group with a view to the enjoyment of all its members, and when I went to Hill I usually found there some of my own friends, among whom Henry James, Percy Lubbock, and Howard Sturgis were the most frequent.
In earlier days she had gathered about her many painters and musicians, and more than once, especially among the painters, her generous encouragement gave the first impetus to a successful career. Sargent’s portrait of herself, and the famous one of her three daughters (now in the National Gallery), are known to every one; but she and her family were also repeatedly painted by Mancini, and by Mrs. Swinnerton; and she was the lifelong friend of Sargent, Walter Sickert, Rodin (who made a fine bust of her), Professor Tonks, Mr. Steer, Claude Monet and Jacques–Emile Blanche. As is usual with hostesses of her kind, the thought of the illustrious unsociable would not let her sleep, and she was determined not only to admire and help her celebrities (and help them she did, in every possible way) but to enjoy their society on her own terms; that is, in the crowd and tumult of the Hill week-ends. She had all the tenacity and inventiveness of the celebrity-collector, and there is a tale of her, already a legend when I heard it, but so characteristic that it may well be true. She was a great admirer of Mancini’s art, and hearing that he was staying in London she immediately introduced herself by telephone, and besought him to come down to Hill for the following Sunday. But he was poor, solitary-minded, and unable to speak English; and to excuse himself he enumerated all these objections. Go to stay with Mrs. Hunter — but he couldn’t possibly! Why, to begin with, he didn’t even own a dress-coat.
“Is that all? Nonsense! My husband’ll lend you one.”
“Oh, but that’s nothing, I don’t speak English — not more than two words. And I don’t understand anything that is said to me.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter either. So-and-so and so-and-so, who are coming, both speak Italian perfectly.”
“Ah, but you don’t understand. I couldn’t even buy my railway-ticket, or find my way from my hotel to the station.”
“My dear Signor Mancini, don’t worry about that. I have an Italian footman — a perfect genius of a footman. He’ll be at your hotel with a cab tomorrow afternoon at four; he’ll pack your things, take you to the train, bring you down, and wait on you while you’re here.”
There was a faint murmur of surrender from Mancini, and Mary Hunter instantly called up a London tailoring establishment and ordered a dress-suit (it is not recorded how she obtained the measures). She then telephoned to an employment agency for an Italian footman, and on being told that they had none on their list, and could not possibly engage to produce one at such short notice, replied calmly: “You MUST find me one at any price, and he must bring Signor Mancini down to Hill tomorrow afternoon.” And he was found, and brought Mancini down — with the dress-clothes smuggled into the latter’s suit-case.
When I first went to Hill those epic days were over. Most of the painter friends of my hostess’s youth were already middle-aged and illustrious, and except in two or three cases the intimacy, though not the friendship, had probably declined; or else Mrs. Hunter may have divided her friends into separate groups, for I seldom met any painters or musicians at Hill, and the “nucleus” in my time was usually literary. James was, of course, its central figure, welcomed and delighted in by all the family, and enveloped by the most discerning affection. The rival luminary, who hated and envied James, and missed no chance to belittle and sneer at him, was George Moore. I shall never forget a luncheon at Hill when John Hugh–Smith with seeming artlessness drew Moore out on his great contemporaries, and James, Conrad, Hardy, and all others of any worth, were swept away on a torrent of venom. It was the tone of “The Dunciad” without its wit. But that was George Moore’s way; and I recall another instance of it at the house of Jacques Blanche, one of his most devoted and long-suffering friends. My husband and I often went to the Blanches’ literary and artistic luncheons, and one day George Moore was of the party. When we returned to the big studio after luncheon, and coffee and cigarettes were served, Moore ostentatiously drew out his cigar-case, lit a big cigar, and offered one to my husband. The latter, though he loved a good cigar, declined, and Moore said in a loud voice: “If you haven’t brought any of your own you’d better take one of mine. They never give them here.” “I know,” replied my husband quietly; “that’s why I never bring one.”
Mary Hunter could not resist baiting her hospitable hook with a name like James’s. She loved and admired him so much that she wanted his glory to shine over as many of her parties as possible, and forgetting that its light, if intense, was not far-spread, she sometimes mentioned him as an inducement to guests who had never even heard his name. I was at Hill on one such occasion, when, on the arrival of a fashionable beauty, her hostess welcomed her with: “And tomorrow, you know, you’re going to see Henry James!”
The lady’s perplexity was great, but so also was her frankness. Who in the world, she asked, was Henry James, and why should she particularly want to see him? Mrs. Hunter was dumbfounded: was it possible that dear Lady —— really didn’t know? No; she really didn’t. But she was goodnaturedly ready to be enlightened, and having been told that Henry James was one of the greatest of living novelists, she suffered “The Wings of the Dove” and “The Golden Bowl” to be pressed into her submissive hands, and obediently agreed to read them both before the next afternoon!
When she came down the following day, just before luncheon, I was sitting in the hall. The four fat volumes were under her arm, and she thumped them down on the table, and turned her lovely smile on me. “Well — of all the TOSH!” she said gaily.
Knowing that Henry James, though he suffered acutely from the criticisms of the literary, would enjoy this fresh breeze out of Philistia, I told him the tale as soon as he arrived. He welcomed it with a joyful chuckle; and when he and the lady met that evening they at once became the best of friends.
This anecdote leads me to two others which I may as well insert at this point into my English picture. Once when James and I were staying together in the country our host suggested taking us to call on a charming neighbour, formerly, I think, a celebrated music-hall artist. James, I believe, had met the lady at a theatrical supper some twenty years earlier, and he declared himself delighted to renew the acquaintance. The lady, who also remembered the far-off supper, welcomed him cordially; and in the course of the visit, drawing me aside, she expressed her pleasure at seeing dear Mr. James again after so many years, and added; “I’ve so often wondered what had happened to him since. Do tell me — HAS HE KEPT UP HIS WRITING?”
My other tale concerns Lamb House, but at a much later time, when, after James’s death, it was tenanted for some years by Robert Norton, who had known James well, and treated the house and its contents with the same veneration as the guardian of “The Birthplace” treated that shrine in James’s story. Robert Norton happened one day to run across a London great lady, an old acquaintance of his, who was staying near Rye. She told him she had been longing for years to visit Lamb House, of which she had heard so much, and begged him to let her come to see it. She came, and he took her all over, showing each room, each piece of furniture, each relic, and explaining: “Here James dictated to his secretary every morning; under this weeping ash he used to sit in hot weather; this silver-point was done of him by Sargent before he shaved his beard; this is a replica of his bust by — — ” till finally the great lady, grateful but bewildered, interrupted him to ask: “I’ve heard so much of Lamb House, as a particularly charming specimen of a small Georgian house — but WOULD you mind telling me who this Mr. Henry James is, who appears to have lived there?”
The keeper of the “Birthplace” remembered “The Death of the Lion,” and answered her question with a smile.
Henry James’s visits to the rue de Varenne were always a busy time for me. He had been much in Paris in his youth, had frequented the great generation of the Goncourt “garret,” met Flaubert frequently, and been intimate with Turgeniev, and later with Alphonse Daudet, and of course with Bourget. His description of taking Daudet down to Box Hill to see Meredith, and of the two great writers, both stricken with the same fatal malady, advancing painfully towards each other across the platform of the little country station, was one of the most moving things I ever heard him relate. He also piloted Bourget about London and Oxford, on the latter’s first visit to England, when he was preparing the English impressions afterward included in “Etudes et Portraits”; and all these contacts had made James’s name familiar among French intellectuals long before they struggled to decipher his books.
James’s unusual social gifts, and keen enjoyment of society (once he had escaped from its tyrannous routine), lent a school-boy’s zest to his Paris visits. The first time he stayed with us there must have been in 1905, before the rue de Varenne days, when my brother Harry, who had a flat in Paris, lent it to us during a temporary absence. It was in that year, I think, that James, through my intervention, sat to Blanche for the admirable portrait which distressed the sitter because of the “Daniel Lambert” curve of the rather florid waistcoat; and during those sittings, and on other occasions at the Blanches’, he made many new acquaintances, and renewed some old friendships.
James’s simple cordiality would have made him welcome anywhere; but he was particularly popular among his French friends, not only on account of his quickness and adaptability, but because his youthful frequentations in the French world of letters, following on the school-years in Geneva, had so steeped him in continental culture that the cautious and inhospitable French intelligence felt at once at ease with him. This feeling was increased by his mastery of the language. French people have told me that they had never met an Anglo–Saxon who spoke French like James; not only correctly and fluently, but — well, just as they did themselves; avoiding alike platitudes and pomposity, and using the language as spontaneously as if it were his own.
It was no wonder therefore that James enjoyed his French holidays. He was invited out continually, and the only difficulty was to capture him now and then for an evening in the rue de Varenne. The contrast to the severe winter routine of Rye, the change of scene, of food, of point of view — the very differences in the houses and streets, in the mental attitude and the moral conventions — of all these nothing escaped him, nothing failed to amuse him. In the intervals between dining out he liked a dash in the motor; and among other jolly expeditions, I remember a visit to Nohant, when he saw for the first time George Sand’s house. I had been there before, and knew how to ingratiate myself with the tall impressive guardian of the shrine, a handsome Berrichonne who could remember, as a very little girl, helping “Madame” to dress Maurice’s marionettes, which still dangled wistfully from their hooks in the little theatre below stairs.
James, who shared my delight in the enchanting “Histoire de ma Vie” and the “Lettres d’un Voyageur,” had known personally a number of the illustrious pilgrims — Flaubert, Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas fils and others — who used to come to Nohant in the serene old age of its tumultuous chatelaine. He was therefore fascinated by every detail of the scene, deeply moved by the inscriptions on the family grave-stones under the wall of the tiny ancient church — especially in the tragic Solange’s: “La Mere de Jeanne” — and absorbed in the study of the family portraits, from the Elector of Saxony and the Mesdemoiselles Verrier to Maurice and his children. He lingered delightedly over the puppet theatre with Maurice’s grimacing dolls, and the gay costumes stitched by his mother; then we wandered out into the garden, and looking up at the plain old house, tried to guess behind which windows the various famous visitors had slept. James stood there a long time, gazing and brooding beneath the row of closed shutters. “And in which of those rooms, I wonder, did George herself sleep?” I heard him suddenly mutter. “Though in which, indeed — ” with a twinkle — “in which indeed, my dear, did she NOT?”
A vision especially dear to me is associated with one of James’s visits to the rue de Varenne. It is that of the exquisite picture of Paris by night in the tale — perhaps the most beautiful of his later short stories — called “The Velvet Glove.” He and I had often talked over the subject of this story, which was suggested by the fact that a very beautiful young Englishwoman of great position, and unappeased literary ambitions, had once tried to beguile him into contributing an introduction to a novel she was writing — or else into reviewing the book; I forget which. She had sought from him, at any rate, a literary “boost” which all his admiration and liking for her could not, he thought, justify his giving; and they parted, though still friends, with evidences on her part of visible disappointment — and surprise. The incident certainly gave him a theme “to his hand”; but it lay unused for lack of a setting, for he wanted to make of it, not a mere ironic anecdote — that was too easy — but a little episode steeped in wistfulness and poetry. And then, one soft spring evening, after we had dined somewhere out of town — possibly at Versailles, or at a restaurant in the Bois — knowing his love for motoring at night, I proposed a circuit in the environs, which finally brought us home by way of Saint Cloud; and as we hung there, high above the moonlit lamplit city and the gleaming curves of the Seine, he suddenly “held” his setting, as the painters say, and, though I knew nothing of it till long afterward, “The Velvet Glove” took shape that night.
The theatre was of course one of James’s great interests when he was in Paris; but he was so much invited out, and so much amused by his glimpses of a new and stimulating social scene, that he could seldom spare an evening. When he did, it was usually for the first night of some well-known dramatist, such as Paul Hervieu, or in later years Henry Bataille or Henry Bernstein. James’s interest in the theatre was sustained by the conviction (which it took so many bitter disappointments to eradicate) that he would one day achieve popular success as a playwright. It is an illusion often nursed by novelists, especially those who, like James, are gradually dominated by the sense of “situation,” the strictly scenic element, in their subjects. It is difficult to understand that there is little connection between the novelist’s sense of a situation and that of the playwright, and James was persuaded to the end that his constructive instinct ought to have served in play-building as well as in story-telling. Perhaps it might have, if he had not been so oddly enslaved by what might be called the Dumas-fils convention (a tradition from which the French have now so wholly emancipated themselves). The typical Dumas-fils play was a miracle of neat joinery, culminating in a “moral” of which all his characters were merely the subservient tools. It seems odd that James, whose conception of the novel was so independent and original, regarded these stage conventions as inevitable. He admired Ibsen, but seems never to have felt any incongruity between the two conceptions of the theatre, much less to have contemplated the possibility of creating a formula of his own for his plays, as he had for his novels.
James’s interest in the stage naturally included the world of the theatre, with its rivalries and scandals, its generosities and absurdities, and all its grandeurs et miseres. He was always particularly amused by anecdotes about theatrical people, and I remember a report of one conversation with a retired actress which delighted his listeners. The lady in question, in far-off days, had had a brief career on the London stage in classical tragedy, but long before James’s coming to England she had married a man who had given her a place in the most conservative circles of early Victorian London. Always irreproachable in conduct and reputation, she yet yearned now and then for an opportunity to speak of her theatrical years, and especially to dwell on the perils to which the virtuous actress is exposed. On one occasion she had been detailing these at some length to James, and after complacently enumerating the various forms of temptation she had successfully resisted, she added: “And would you believe it, Mr. James? ONE FIEND IN HUMAN SHAPE ACTUALLY OFFERED ME CAMEOS.”
There were many amusing incidents connected with Henry James’s visits to Paris. I was the object of much attention on the part of hostesses who wished to use him as a social “draw,” and of literary ladies who aspired to translate his novels; and among the advances made by the latter I remember two over which, when they were reported to him, his chuckles were particularly prolonged. In one case a fervent translatress besought me to recommend her to the Master as particularly qualified to translate “The Golden Bowl” because she had just dealt successfully with a work called “The Filigree Box”; while another tried to ingratiate herself by assuring me that her deep appreciation of my own great work, “The House of the Myrtles,” was surpassed only by her unbounded admiration for that supreme anatomical masterpiece, “The Golden Bowel.”
Ah, how we used to come back from those parties bearing our sheaves of laughter — and how the laughter still rings in my ears as I call up the scenes that provoked it!
“Well, I am glad to welcome to the White House some one to whom I can quote ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ without being asked what I mean!”
Such was my first greeting from Theodore Roosevelt after his accession to the Presidency — a date so much earlier than that of my sojourn in Paris that I ought to have introduced it before, had it not seemed simpler to gather into one chapter the record of our too infrequent meetings. Though I had known Theodore Roosevelt since my first youth, and though his second wife is my distant cousin, I had met him only at long intervals — usually at my sister-in-law’s, in New York — and we had never “hooked” (in the French sense of the atomes crochus) until after the publication of “The Valley of Decision.” He had a great liking for the book, which he wanted, after his usual fashion, to rearrange in conformity with his theory of domestic morals and the strenuous life; but when I pointed out that these ideals did not happen to prevail in the decadent Italian principalities which Napoleon was so soon to wipe out or to remodel, he laughingly acknowledged the fact, and thereafter we became great friends. My intimacy with Bay Lodge, and with the Jusserands, with whom my friendship dated back to my childhood, created other links between the Roosevelts and myself, and the first time I went to Washington after they were installed in the White House I was promptly summoned to lunch, and welcomed on the threshold by the President’s vehement cry: “At last I can quote ‘the Hunting of the Snark’!”
“Would you believe it,” he added, “no one in the Administration has ever heard of Alice, much less of the Snark, and the other day, when I said to the Secretary of the Navy: ‘Mr. Secretary, What I say three times is true’,” he did not recognize the allusion, and answered with an aggrieved air: ‘Mr. President, it would never for a moment have occurred to me to impugn your veracity’!”
These whirlwind welcomes were very characteristic, for Theodore Roosevelt had in his mind so clear a vision of each interlocutor’s range of subjects, and his own was so extensive, and so varied, that when he met any one who interested him he could never bear to waste a moment in preliminaries.
I remember another instance of this impatient desire to get to his point, however remote from the topics of the moment. Many years ago, that charming old institution, Williams College, conferred an honorary degree on Roosevelt, and the college authorities invited me to the Commencement ceremonies. I motored from the Mount to Williamstown, and when I appeared at the reception, which took place after the conferring of the degrees, the President, who probably did not expect to meet me there, uttered an exclamation of surprise, and cried out; “But you’re the very person I wanted to see! Of course you’ve read that wonderful new book of de la Gorce’s, the ‘History of the Second Empire’? What an amazing thing! Let’s go off into a corner at once and have a good talk about it.”
And go off into a corner we did, and talked about it at some length, to the visible interruption of the academic formalities; but that was the President’s way, and as everybody loved him, everybody forgave him; and moreover they all knew that in another ten minutes he would be cornering somebody else on some other equally absorbing subject. What he could not and would not endure was talking about things which did not interest him when there were so many that DID— so far too many for the brief time he had to spare for them. One feels, in looking back, something premonitory in this impatience, this thirst to slake an intellectual curiosity almost as fervent as his moral ardours.
With his faculty of instantly extracting the best that each person had to give, he seldom failed, when we met, to turn the talk to books. So much of his time was spent among the bookless that many people never suspected either the range of his literary culture or his learned interest in the natural sciences; and in Washington they were probably fully known only to the small group of people to whom he turned for intellectual stimulus — such as the Cabot Lodges, Henry Adams, Walter Berry, the Jusserands and Spring–Rice.
But there was another tie between us. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most humorous raconteurs I ever knew, and a very good mimic; and when we were among a little band of fun-lovers — say with Bay Lodge, the President’s sister, Mrs. Douglas Robinson, and a few other collectors of good nonsense — he kept us rocking with his cow-boy tales and his evocations of White House visitors. His liberty of speech, even in mixed company, was startling. Once, at a moment of acute tension between the President and the Senate, I was lunching at the White House with a big and haphazard party, among whom were several guests who had never before met the President, and at least one journalist; and suddenly I heard him break out to the assembled table: “Well, yes, I’m tired; I’m terribly tired. I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with me; but if only we could revive the good old Roman customs, I know a bath in Senator —— ‘s blood would set me right in no time.”
He was noted for speaking recklessly before people incapable of appreciating either his humour or his irony, and to whom it must often have been a temptation to quote his personal comments; yet it was always said that during his two terms of office no public advantage was ever taken of these indiscretions, and in a country like ours there could be no greater proof of the degree to which he was loved and respected.
One of our last meetings was in the rue de Varenne, in the course of the astonishing world-tour of 1909–10, when, after completing his second term of office as the most famous man in America, he discovered that his celebrity also embraced the other side of the globe. On this tour, during which, in spite of his repeated protests that he was only a private citizen, he was received with sovereign honours by every European government, he came to Paris to give a lecture at the Sorbonne. Through his old friend Jusserand, then Ambassador in Washington, who had arranged to meet him in Paris, I was notified that he would like to come to the rue de Varenne. He sent me word to invite a few people to meet him — not governmental or “universitaire,” since he was sure to see them elsewhere, but my own group of friends; and every one I summoned answered to the call, for the desire to meet him was intense. I tried to choose, in the literary and academic line, principally those who spoke English; but unhappily they were few; and though Roosevelt knew French well, he spoke it badly, and with a rather bewildering pronunciation. The consequence was that, having found among my guests an Academician (I forget who) who was a specialist on some subject which particularly interested him, and could talk to him about it in English, he broke up the royal “circle” (of which he was of course expected to go the round), and by isolating himself too long with this particular interlocutor caused much disappointment to some of my other guests.
Such an omission was not easily understood or forgiven; but it was difficult to stem the current of the President’s eloquence, and the President he still was, to all intents and purposes. I was made to feel afterward that Jusserand and I had failed in our duty in not organizing the party in such a way that each guest should have a few minutes’ talk with the great man; for it was inconceivable to my amiable but highly disciplined guests that either the President or his hostess should unintentionally omit a single move of the traditional game they had been invited to play with him.
I was only once at Sagamore — and I think it was there that I saw Theodore Roosevelt for the last time. There could not have been a fitter setting for what turned out to be our goodbye; for it was only at Sagamore that the least known side of his character was revealed, and ranchero and statesman both made way for the private man, absorbed in books and nature, and in the quiet interests of a country life.
What a good day that was! My husband and I went down to lunch, and found no one but the family (a term which, as in my own house, always included two or three busy and extremely interested dogs). The house was like one big library, and the whole tranquil place breathed of the love of books and of the country, so that I felt immediately at home there. After luncheon Mr. Roosevelt, with a good deal of simple amusement, showed us the photographs taken of himself and the Emperor William during the famous German manoeuvres. He was perfectly aware of the studied impertinence of the Kaiser’s famous inscription on one of the photographs — it read, I think: “President Roosevelt shows the Emperor of Germany how to command an attack,” or something of the kind — but he treated it as an imperial appeal to his sense of humour, which indeed it probably was.
In looking back over my memories of Theodore Roosevelt I am surprised to find how very seldom I saw him, and yet how sure I am that he was my friend. He had the rare gift of bridging over in an instant those long intervals between meetings that so often benumb even the best of friends, and he was so alive at all points, and so gifted with the rare faculty of living intensely and entirely in every moment as it passed, that each of those encounters glows in me like a tiny morsel of radium.
During our first years in Paris the friend of my childhood, Henry White, was our Ambassador there. He had married our beautiful neighbour at Newport, Margaret Rutherford, whose two equally beautiful young brothers, Lewis and Winthrop, had been (with the exception of Madame Jusserand and Daisy Terry) my earliest playmates. The intimacy between the two families had never relaxed, and during the years when Henry White was first Secretary at our London Embassy he and his wife were the means of my meeting many interesting people whenever I went to England. The Whites, in their youth, and even in their middle age, were one of the handsomest couples I have ever seen, and on the Rutherfurd side the beauty of the whole family was proverbial. The story was told of an Englishman and an American who were strolling down Piccadilly together, and discussing the relative degree of good looks of their respective compatriots. “I grant you,” the Englishman said, “that your women are lovely; perhaps not as regularly beautiful as ours, but often prettier and more graceful. But your men — yes, of course, I’ve seen very good-looking American men; but nothing — if you’ll excuse my saying so — to compare with our young Englishmen of the Public School and University type, our splendid young athletes: there, like these two who are just coming toward us — ” and the two in question were Margaret White’s brothers, the young Rutherfurds.
Another story, also turning on young masculine beauty, was told to me by one of two other proverbially handsome brothers, Grafton and Howard Cushing of Boston. Once, when these two ambrosial youths were staying in London, the eldest, Grafton, was asked by Queen Victoria’s niece, the Countless Feo Gleichen, who was a sculptor of talent, to sit to her for a bust. The sittings took place in Countess Gleichen’s apartment in Saint James’s Palace; and Howard, who lived in lodgings with his brother, told me how one morning very early he was awakened by a hammering at the door, and heard the excited voice of the lodging-house buttons crying out: “If you please, sir, her Majesty has sent word to say that she expects you at Buckingham Palace this morning at nine o’clock sharp, and you’re to wear the same shirt that you wore yesterday.”
In Paris our Embassy, as long as the Whites were there, was a second home to me, and Harry, who was never happier than in contriving happiness for others, was always arranging for me to meet interesting people. I remember, in particular, lunching at the Embassy one day with Orville Wright, the survivor of the two famous brothers, who had come to Paris, I think, for the inauguration of the statue at Le Mans commemorative of their first flight on French soil. Walter Berry, who was also at the lunch, had for many years been the counsel of the French Embassy in Washington. He was the intimate friend of Jusserand, and when, in 1905, or there abouts, the French Government sent a military mission to America to investigate the queer new “flying machine” which two unknown craftsmen of Dayton, Ohio, had invented. Walter Berry was requested by the Ambassador to accompany the mission to Dayton as legal adviser. He stayed there for three weeks, saw the machine “levitate” a few inches above the earth, and came back awed by the possibility of the “strange futures beautiful and new” folded up within those clumsy wings, and much impressed by the two shy taciturn men who had called the monster into being. I remember his telling me that when he discussed with Wilbur Wright the future of aviation, the latter said; “I can conceive that aeroplanes might possibly be of some use in war, but never for any commercial purpose, or as a regular means of communication.”
It must have been about the same time that I was invited by the Marquis de Polignac to see an exhibition of flying in the aerodrome he had constructed at Reims. I went there with Walter Berry, and in the presence of a large assemblage of scientific notabilities we saw several glorious “aces” (whose names, alas, I have forgotten) execute, at a height of a few yards above the ground, non-stop flights around the aerodrome, which, as I remember it, must have had about the dimensions of an ordinary polo-field. And that was only two or three years before the war!
Fate seemed to have conspired to fill those last years of peace with every charm and pleasure. “Eyes, look your last” — in and about Paris all things seemed to utter the same cry: the smiling suburbs unmarred by hideous advertisements, the unravaged cornfields of Millet and Monet, still spreading in sunny opulence to the city’s edge, the Champs–Elysees in their last expiring elegance, and the great buildings, statues and fountains withdrawn at dusk into silence and secrecy, instead of being torn from their mystery by the vulgar intrusion of flood-lighting.
One of the loveliest flowers on the bough so soon to be broken was the dancing of Isadora Duncan. Hardly any one in Paris had heard of her when she first appeared there, but in me her name woke an old memory. Years before, a philanthropic Boston lady who spent her summers at Newport had invited her friends to a garden party at which Isadora Duncan was to dance. “Isadora Duncan?” people repeated the unknown name, wondering why it had been used to bait Miss Mason’s invitation. Only two kinds of dancing were familiar to that generation: waltzing in the ball-room and pirouetting on the stage. I hated pirouetting, and did not go to Miss Mason’s. Those who did smiled, and said they supposed their hostess had asked the young woman to dance out of charity — as I daresay she did. Nobody had ever seen anything like it; you couldn’t call it dancing, they said. No other Newport hostess engaged Miss Duncan, and her name vanished from everybody’s mind. And then, nearly twenty years later, I went one night to the Opera in Paris, to see a strange new dancer about whom the artists were beginning to talk . . .
I suppose that liking or not liking the conventional form of ballet-dancing is as little to be accounted for as one’s feeling about olives or caviar. To me the word “dancing” had always suggested a joyful abandon, a plastic improvisation, the visual equivalent of
Like to a moving vintage down they came, Crowned with green leaves, and faces all on flame . . .
in Keats’s glorious bacchanal. The traditional ballet-dancing, the swollen feet in ugly shoes performing impossible tours de force of poising and bounding, reminded me, on the contrary, of “But, oh, what labour — Prince, what pain!,” and except in Carpeaux’s intoxicating group, and Titian’s “Triumph of Bacchus,” I had never seen dancing as I inwardly imagined it. And then, when the curtain was drawn back from the great stage of the Opera, and before a background of grayish-green hangings a single figure appeared — a tall, rather awkwardly made woman, dragging a scarf after her — then suddenly I beheld the dance I had always dreamed of, a flowing of movement into movement, an endless interweaving of motion and music, satisfying every sense as a flower does, or a phrase of Mozart’s.
That first sight of Isadora’s dancing was a white milestone to me. It shed a light on every kind of beauty, and showed me for the first time how each flows into the other as the music merged with her dancing. All through the immense rapt audience one felt the rush of her inspiration, as one feels the blowing open of the door in the “Walkyrie,” when Sieglinde cries out: “Wer ging?” and Sigmund answers: “Einer kam. Es war der lenz!”
Yes; it was the spring, the bursting into bloom of acres and acres of silver fruit-blossom where a week before there had been only dead boughs. And I believe it was that fertilizing magic which evoked our next and last vision of beauty before the war: the Russian Ballet. Every one who saw the Imperial ballet in St Petersburg, in its official setting, has assured me that when Diaghilew brought his dancers to Paris he infused new life into them, broke down old barriers of convention, and taught their exquisitely disciplined steps to flow into wild free measures. It is hard to believe that Isadora’s inspiration had no part in the change.
It seemed as if those years contained some generative fire which called forth masterpieces; for close on Isadora, and on Diaghilew’s dancers, came Proust’s first volume. Proust — a name almost as unfamiliar as Isadora’s, and destined, like hers, to fly through our imaginations on a shower of spring blossoms: the hawthorn hedge of “Du cote de chez Swann.” At the moment it merely recalled to me some clever skits on contemporary writers which I had glanced at from time to time in the “Figaro.” I forget who first spoke to me about the book, but it may have been Blanche, who was one of Proust’s earliest friends and admirers. I began to read languidly, felt myself, after two pages, in the hands of a master, and was presently trembling with the excitement which only genius can communicate.
I sent the book immediately to James, and his letter to me shows how deeply it impressed him. James, at that time, was already an old man and, as I have said, his literary judgments had long been hampered by his increasing preoccupation with the structure of the novel, and his unwillingness to concede that the vital centre (when there was any) could lie elsewhere. Even when I first knew him he read contemporary novels (except Wells’s and a few of Conrad’s) rarely, and with ill-concealed impatience; and as time passed, and intricate problems of form and structure engrossed him more deeply, it became almost impossible to persuade him that there might be merit in the work of writers apparently insensible to these sterner demands of the art. I remember, for instance, that when he published his “Notes on Novelists,” one of our friends, who had been greatly struck by Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” reproached James for having dealt so summarily with a new novelist who was beginning to attract the attention of intelligent readers. James’s reply was evasive and unsatisfactory, and at last his interlocutor exclaimed: “Come, now! Have you ever read any of Lawrence’s novels — really read them?” James’s most mischievous smile crept down from his eyes to his lips. “I-I have trifled with the exordia,” he murmured with a wicked twinkle.
No one but a novelist knows how hard it is for one of the craft to read other people’s novels; but in the presence of a masterpiece all of James’s prejudices and reluctances vanished. He seized upon “Du cote de chez Swann” and devoured it in a passion of curiosity and admiration. Here, in the first volume of a long chronicle-novel — the very type of the unrolling tapestry which was so contrary to his own conception of form — he instantly recognized a new mastery, a new vision, and a structural design as yet unintelligible to him, but as surely there as hard bone under soft flesh in a living organism. I wonder if in any other art the joy of such recognition is as great as it is to the born novelist who loves his craft, and sees its subtle and Protean form so often stretched out of shape by insensitive hands. I look back with peculiar pleasure at having made Proust known to James, for the encounter gave him his last, and one of his strongest, artistic emotions.
Neither James nor I ever met Proust. In my case the meeting could have been easily arranged, for he was the friend of some of my most intimate friends. But what I heard about him, even from the people who were fondest of him, did not increase my desire to meet him. I did not then know how ill he already was — at that time even his intimates scarcely guessed it — and to be told that the only people who really interested him were Dukes and Duchesses, and that the only place where one could hope to find him was at the Ritz, after midnight, was enough to put me off. When I first read “Du cote de chez Swann” I was on the point of pouring out my admiration in a letter; but supposing that many readers must have yielded to the same impulse, I remained silent. When I read Proust’s correspondence, and discovered that “Swann” (on the whole the most perfect of the series) had fallen flat even among his intimates, and that a word of praise, though from a casual stranger, would have been priceless to him, I bitterly regretted my discretion. But by the time I had found out who he was, and through whom I could have made his acquaintance, his books were already the fashion in the very circles least capable of reading or understanding him — and on the whole I am glad I did not try to pursue him there. His greatness lay in his art, his incredible littleness in the quality of his social admirations. But in this, after all, he merely exemplified the tendency not infrequent in novelists of manners — Balzac and Thackeray among them — to be dazzled by contact with the very society they satirize. If it is true that pour comprendre il faut aimer this seeming inconsistency may, in some, be a deep necessity of the creative imagination.
We still went home every summer to the Mount, and all our old friends returned year after year to stay with us: chief among them, as usual, Egerton Winthrop, Walter Berry, Robert Minturn, the Jusserands from Washington. Robert Grant and his wife from Boston, Bay Lodge and his beautiful Bessy, and another old Boston friend, William Richardson. But much as I loved the place, the glowing summer weeks, and the woodland pageantry of our matchless New England autumn, it was all darkened by my husband’s growing ill-health. Since the first years of our marriage his condition, in spite of intervals of apparent health, had become steadily graver. His sweetness of temper and boyish enjoyment of life struggled long against the creeping darkness of neurasthenia, but all the neurologists we consulted were of the opinion that there could be no real recovery; and time confirmed their verdict. Such borderland cases are notoriously difficult, and for a long time my husband’s family would not see, or at any rate acknowledge, the gravity of his state, and any kind of consecutive treatment was therefore impossible. But at length they understood that he could no longer lead a life of normal activity, and in bringing them to recognize this I had the help of some of his oldest friends, whose affectionate sympathy never failed me in those difficult years.
The care of the Mount had been my husband’s chief interest and occupation, and the place had now to be sold, for much as I loved it the burden would have been too heavy for me to carry alone. It was sad to leave that lovely country, and for the moment I did not feel like making another country home for myself; so I lingered on in the rue de Varenne during the last two or three years before the war, going away only for a few weeks now and then, to visit friends or to travel.
Among the friends made at this time I must put first the Berensons. I had known them slightly for some years, but our real friendship dated from my first visit to their villa near Florence, in 1910, or thereabouts; and since then a pilgrimage to I Tatti has been one of my annual joys. I had never before stayed in a house where I could lead exactly the same life as in my own; working in the morning, and browsing at all hours in a library which, though incalculably bigger and more important than mine, was based on the same requirements; abroad and firm foundation of books of reference constantly replenished and kept up to date; all the still LIVING classics, in Greek, Latin and the principal modern languages, and an annual influx of the best in current letters. Henry James and Howard Sturgis had nothing nearer to a library than a few dozen shelves of heterogeneous volumes; and indeed, even in houses commonly held to be “booky” one finds, nine times out of ten, not a library but a book-dump. But such a library as that of I Tatti is the book-worm’s heaven: the fulfilment of all he has dreamed that a great working library ought to be, continually weeded out and renewed, “not made of spent deeds but of doing,” not a dusty mausoleum of dead authors but a glorious assemblage of eternally living ones.
This “great good place,” which at first consisted in one noble room, lined with books to the high vaulted ceiling, and used not only as a library but as a living-room, was added to the original house by my dear friend Geoffrey Scott, and Cecil Pinsent, his partner; and they presently built out from it a wing containing two long conventual book-rooms with tall doors leading out to a terrace of clipped box.
When I first knew Geoffrey Scott he was still practising as an architect, and not long afterward he brought out that perfect book — or shall I say, that perfect introduction to a book? — “The Architecture of Humanism.” My interest in the Italian architecture of the Renaissance, and the styles deriving from it, created one of the first links between us, and led to many delightful pilgrimages. Geoffrey Scott was at that time established in Florence with his partner, and whenever I went to stay with the Berensons we used to go off on architectural excursions and garden hunts, to Siena, Montepulciano, and all through Tuscany and Umbria. But one of our most amusing journeys took us to the Emilia, when I introduced Geoffrey to the little fairy-tale town of Sabbioneta, then so far from the beaten-track that it had remained undisturbed in its decaying beauty. There are people who, wherever they go, attract droll adventures, little lurking picturesquenesses of incident. Geoffrey was one of them, and all our excursions were spangled with laughter. At Sabbioneta, when we arrived, the village boys were having a bicycle race about the green facing the little garden-palace of the Dukes of Sabbioneta (a junior branch of the Mantuan Gonzagas). The instant we appeared racers and spectators abandoned the track for the more novel sport of hunting us through the deserted grassy streets, yelling out comments on our nationality, speech and appearance, crowding in upon us in the crumbling palaces and hushed church, and rudely breaking the spell of the sleepy place.
Finally I could stand it no longer, and having run down in his den the local carabiniere, I besought him to come to our protection. Such was my respect for those beautifully uniformed and highly varnished guardians of the peace that I doubted not but one word from him would scatter our enemies; but he was alone, and could not leave his post. He assured me, however, that he would send his comrade to our relief as soon as the latter returned.
So on we surged, the mob triumphant at our discomfiture, and finally, in despair, ended up at the little garden-palace. There, just as our persecutors were crowding in with us, the promised carabiniere did appear. He wore spectacles, he carried a book in his hand — but still, he represented the law in a land accustomed (as I thought) to respect it. “NOW you’ll see!” I triumphed to Geoffrey.
The carabiniere saluted us and turned to face the pack. He looked at them over his spectacles, he opened his mouth, and spoke. “Bisogna,” he said, “adoperare un po’ piu di prudenza.” (You must really try to conduct yourselves with more circumspection.) Whereupon he stretched one arm across the threshold, pulled us in with the other, and hastily locked out the yelping band. In the palace he followed us about, listened attentively to the explanations of the custodian, and studied his little volume — which was apparently a local guide-book!
During those last pre-war years I travelled more, and in more different directions than ever before. Breaking with the seductive habit of going always and only to Italy, I made, one spring, a motor-trip to Spain with Madame de Fitz–James and a dear friend of hers and mine, Jean du Breuil de Saint Germain. Before the war motoring in Spain was still something of an adventure; the roads were notoriously bad, motor-maps were few and unreliable, the village inns dubious. However, we set forth, and having carefully worked out our itinerary I was delighted to find that we were following, stage by stage, Theophile Gautier’s route of sixty or seventy years earlier, and that so little was changed in the character of the towns and villages through which we passed that his charming “Voyage en Espagne” was still a perfect guide-book. We went by way of Pamplona, Burgos, Avila and Salamanca to Madrid; but there we were held up by the impossibility of going farther south on wheels. Even the few miles from Madrid to Toledo were impassable, and we were warned that we must make the trip by train!
Spain was enriched for me by a rush of juvenile memories which made me exclaim at each step: “But I’ve been here before! I’ve seen this already!” Whenever I go back there everything I see is suffused in this faint glow of associations, as if my receptive faculties were afloat in a rich thick medium like the fond de cuisson without which no good French cook will practise his art. A child of four stores up by anticipation so much of what the mature self is later to enjoy that the adventures of a little girl may incalculably enrich the inner life of an old woman.
I was eager to return to Spain in more adventurous company, and go to more out of-the-way places; and I made two more Spanish journeys before 1914. Each year the roads were improving, and it was becoming easier to get information about their condition; and being with a companion who was not afraid of the unknown, and wanted to see what I did, I managed to enlarge my map very considerably. These travels took in, on the east coast, the Seo d’Urgel, Ripoll, Gerona and Barcelona; and we even motored to Montserrat, though at that time the road thither from Barcelona was so hard to find, and so nearly impracticable, that the ascent took the best part of a day, and we had to spend the night at the monastery. Foreign visitors, other than pilgrims, were still infrequent, and the brother who received us explained that there were two hostelries for pilgrims, and asked us to choose between the one with a communal kitchen, where we could cook our own food, and the other, and more expensive one, to which a restaurant was attached. Feeling rather vulgar and purse-proud, we chose the latter, and having asked for four rooms were shown into an icy vaulted chamber with a stone floor, and four niches in the walls, each containing a bed. Our Spanish was not adequate to dealing with this difficulty, but supplementing it by pantomime we finally induced the brother to give us two four-niched rooms instead of one! I have never since cared to return to Montserrat, which may now be reached from Barcelona in an hour, by a perfect road lined with cafes and places of amusement, and leading to the luxurious hotels on the summit.
Thence we went to Jaca and Huesca, returned to Burgos and Avila, and managed, on the way back, to get from the Alcalde of Santillana the keys of the prehistoric cave of Altamira, then still abandoned to the care of a local peasant, who guided us through it with one smoky candle, which he held up recklessly to show the brilliant and delicate paintings. I think it was only after the war that the Duke of Alba succeeded in convincing King Alfonso of the necessity of giving proper protection to this incomparable treasure, and lighting it with electricity.
In the summer of 1912 or 1913 I went to Germany with Bernard Berenson. We motored to Berlin by the lovely route of the Rhine and the Thuringian forest, and for the first time I saw Weimar, so small and smiling in its leafy quiet, and Wetzlar, with Lotte’s quaint wedge-shaped house, unchanged without and within since she lived there. In Berlin we spent eight crowded days, during which I trotted about the great Museums after my learned companion (who has always accused me of not properly appreciating the privilege), and was rewarded by a holiday in Dresden, and a day’s dash to the picturesque heights of Saxon Switzerland. But the evenings in Berlin also brought their reward, for we not only heard “The Ring” admirably given at the Opera but saw a memorable performance of Tolstoy’s “Living Corpse,” and an enchanting one of the first part of Faust at the Kleines Theatre, with charming scenery by Reinhardt, a Gretchen of eighteen, a Faust to match, and a Mephistopheles of twenty-five — budding understudies of the stars who were away on their summer holiday. But the crowning joy was “Der Rosenkavalier,” which neither Berenson nor I had yet heard, even in snatches on the gramophone. The sensations of that evening rank with my first sight of Isadora’s dancing, my first Russian ballet, my first reading of “Du cote de chez Swann.” They were vernal hours — es war der Lenz! But already the sickles were sharpening for the harvest . . .
One afternoon at the Adlon, just before leaving Berlin, we came upon a quietly dressed elderly lady who greeted Berenson as an old friend, and introduced to us the silent and rather sad-looking young man who was with her. The lady was the Princess of Thurn and Taxis, and the young man Rainer Maria Rilke, the exquisite poet, whose work I already knew and admired, though his greatest poems, the “Duineser Elegien,” written at the Princess’s castle of Duino, near Trieste, were still in manuscript. She spoke to me, I remember, of their remote and mysterious beauty, while Berenson was talking to Rilke; and I longed for a better chance of seeing him than that hurried encounter over clattering teacups. The better chance never came. Rilke died soon after the war, and once more I cursed the shyness which had prevented my telling him then and there how much I cared for his writings.
I had the luck, in those years, to make two other enchanting journeys. The first, in 1913, took us through the length and breadth of Sicily, of which hitherto I had seen only Palermo and the towns of the east coast. Now we explored also the great central ridge across which Goethe laboured on horse-back, and from there went to Segesta, Trapani and Selinonte, then still a desert beach strewn with prone columns and mighty architectural fragments. The other tour, in the early spring of 1914, was made with Percy Lubbock and Gaillard Lapsley. We started by motor from Algiers, and after a day at the exquisite oasis of Bou–Saada, in southern Algeria, turned eastward across the mountains of Kabylia to Timgad, Constantine and Tunis, and from Tunis, by Sfax and Souss, to Kairouan the fabulous, and thence to El Djem, Gabes (whence we tried in vain to cross to Djerba, the Lotus-eaters’ island), and southward to the mysterious town of Medenine, beyond which there were then no roads for motor-travel.
I have yielded to the temptation of setting down these names for the sake of their magic properties; but such a journey is now a commonplace of North African travel, and a dash across the desert from Tozeur to Gardaia less of an adventure than our run from Gabes to Medenine. Though such recollections constitute the traveller’s joy they may easily become the reader’s weariness. In writing one’s personal reminiscences it is not always easy to discriminate between one’s self and one’s audience, and the peril of prolixity lies in wait for the writer who begins his first paragraph with “I remember.” As long as the scenes or incidents remembered are distant enough to revive a lost touch of local colour, or of vanished customs, to enlarge on them may be excusable; and if I could recall the details of my diligence journey through Spain at the age of four I might conceivably produce a tale as captivating as Theophile Gautier’s or Washington Irving’s. But to readers who may fly to Ur, or motor across the Atlas to Timbuctoo, in the course of an ordinary holiday excursion, it can be of little interest to learn how Timgad looked to me under a full moon, or what song the siren sang when I tried to pick up a passage from Gabes to the Lotus-eaters. All this is locked away in me in a safe place; but I must go there alone to count my treasures, for if I offered them to other eyes they might turn into a pinch of dust, like that beautiful Etruscan queen too rashly dragged from her painted tomb into the daylight.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56