HotFreeBooks.com
Nights - Rome, Venice, in the Aesthetic Eighties; London, Paris, in the Fighting Nineties
by Elizabeth Robins Pennell
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Had the old room been seedier and duller—dull our company never was—I still would have seen it through the glamour of youth and thought it the one place in which to study Venice and Venetian life. But nobody who ever sat there with us could have complained of dulness so long as Duveneck presided at our table. In Duveneck's case I cannot help breaking my golden rule never to speak in print of the living—rules were made to be broken. And why shouldn't I? I might as well not write at all about our nights in Venice as to leave him out of them, he who held them together and fashioned them into what they were. In the Atlantic, as a makeshift, I called him Inglehart, the disguise under which he figures in one of Howells's novels. But why not call him boldly by his name when Inglehart is the thinnest and flimsiest of masks, as friends of his were quick to tell me, and Duveneck means so much more to all who know—and all who do not know are not worth bothering about. It was only yesterday at San Francisco that the artists of America gave an unmistakable proof of what their opinion of Duveneck is now. In the Eighties "the boys" already thought as much of him and a hundred times more.

Duveneck, as I remember him then—I have seen him but once since—was large, fair, golden-haired, with long drooping golden moustache, of a type apt to suggest indolence and indifference. As he lolled against the red velvet cushions smoking his Cavour, enjoying the talk of others as much as his own or more—for he had the talent of eloquent silence when he chose to cultivate it—his eyes half shut, smiling with casual benevolence, he may have looked to a stranger incapable of action, and as if he did not know whether he was alone or not, and cared less. And yet he had a big record of activity behind him, young as he was; he always inspired activity in others, he was rarely without a large and devoted following. He it was who drew "the boys" to Munich, then from Munich to Florence, and then from Florence to Venice, and "the boys" have passed into the history of American Art and the history of Venice—wouldn't that give me away and explain who he was if I called him Inglehart dozens of times over? And he also it was who packed them off again before they learnt how easy it is to be content in Venice without doing anything at all, though I used to fancy that he would have been rather glad to indulge in that content himself. How far he was from the pleasant Venetian habit of idling all day, his Venetian etchings, at which he was working that spring—the etchings that on their appearance in London were the innocent cause of a stirring chapter in The Gentle Art—are an enduring proof. And I knew a good deal of what was going on in his studio at the time, for J. spent many busy hours with him there, while I, left to my own devices, stared industriously from the windows of the Casa Kirsch, making believe I was gathering material, or strolled along the Riva pretending it was to market for my midday meal, though the baker was almost next door, and the man from whom I bought the little dried figs that nowhere are so dried and shrivelled up as in Venice, was seldom more than a minute away. I can see now, when I consider how my Venetian days were spent, that I came perilously near to sinking to the deepest depths of Venetian idleness myself.

We were never alone with Duveneck at the Orientale. The American Consul was sure to drop in, as he had for so many years that half his occupation would have gone if he hadn't dropped in any longer. Martin joined us because he loved to argue anybody into a temper and, as he was an awful bore, succeeded with most people. He could drive me to proving that white was black, to overturning all my most cherished idols, or to forgetting my timidity and laying down the law upon any point of art he might bring up. Duveneck alone refused to be roused and Martin, who could not understand or accept his failure, was forever coming back, making himself a bigger bore than ever, by trying again. But Shinn was the only man I ever knew to put Duveneck into something like a temper, and that was by asking him deferentially one night if he did not think St. Mark's a very fine church—the next minute, however, calming him down by inviting him out "in my gandler."

Arnold was as regular in attendance. He found the cafe as comfortable a place to sleep in as any other. Like Sancho Panza he had a talent for sleeping. He had made his name and fame as one of the Harvard baseball team in I will not say what year, and sleep had been his chief occupation ever since. No end of stories were going the round of the studios and cafes—he invited them without wanting it or meaning to. He was supposed to be in Venice to study with Duveneck, at whose studio he was said to arrive regularly at the same hour every morning. And as regularly he was snoring before he had been sitting in front of his easel for ten minutes. During his nap, Duveneck would come round and shake him and before he slept again put a touch to the study and, as Arnold promptly dozed off, would work on it until it was finished, and unless it slid down the canvas with the quantity of bitumen Arnold used—there was one story of the beautiful eyes in a beautiful portrait, before they could be stopped, sliding into the chin of the pretty girl who was posing—Arnold, waking up eventually, would carry off the painting unconscious that he had not finished it himself. Nobody can say how many Duvenecks are masquerading at home as Arnolds while their owners wonder why Arnold has never since done any work a tenth as good.

The one thing that roused him was baseball, and he was in fine form on the afternoons when he and a few other enthusiasts spent an hour or so on the Lido for practice. The Englishmen did not believe in the prodigies they heard of him as a baseball player. It wasn't easy for anybody to believe that a man who was always tumbling off to sleep on the slightest provocation could play anything decently. But I was told that one day he was wide enough awake to be irritated, and he bet them a dinner he could pitch the swell British cricketer among them three balls not any one of which the Briton could catch. And on Easter Monday they all went over to the Lido. The Briton asked for a high ball: it skimmed along near the ground and then rose over his head as he stooped for it. He asked for a low one: it came straight for his nose and, when he dodged it, dropped and went between his legs. He asked for a medium one: it curved away out to the right, he rushed for it, it curved back again and took him in his manly bosom. The rest of the Britons and "the boys," they say, enjoyed the dinner more than he did. Such was the affair as it was described to me and confirmed by gossip. I pretend to no authority on a subject I understand so little as balls and the pitching of them.

A better contrast to Arnold could not have been found than the artist with the part Spanish, part German name who called himself a Frenchman, and who aimed to give his pose the mystery that crept, or bounded when encouraged, into his incessant talk. I am afraid his chief encouragement came from me. The others were as irritated by his dabbling in magic as most of us had been in Rome by Forepaugh's theosophic adventures. But he amused me; he did not deal in the prose of his brand of magic, the Black, of which so much was beginning to be heard, and still more was to be heard, in Paris. He was all innuendo and strange hints and whispered secrets, and I-could-if-I-woulds. One of my recent winters had been devoted, not to dabbling in magic, for which I have not the temperament, but to reading the literature of magic or of all things psychical, and I could then, though I could not now, have passed a fairly good examination in the modern authorities, from Madame Blavatsky to Louis Jacolliot. Therefore I proved a sympathetic listener and heard, for my pains, of the revival of old religions, and above all of old rites, and of his dignity as high-priest, a figure of mystery and command moving here and there among shadowy disciples in shadowy sanctuaries. For one sunk such fathoms deep in mystery he was surprisingly concerned for the outward sign. Like Huysmans's hero, he believed in the significance of the material background, entertaining me with a detailed description of his apartment in Paris, and I have not yet lost the vision he permitted me of a bedroom hung and painted with scarlet, and of himself enshrined in it, magnificent in scarlet silk pajamas. Probably it was to deceive the world that he carried a tiny paint-box. I never saw him open it.

But most constant of our little party was Jobbins, our one Englishman, who came in late to the Orientale—where, or if, he dined none of us could say—with the stool and canvas and paint-box he had been carrying about all day from one campo, or calle, or canale, to another, in search of a subject. Jobbins's trouble was that he had passed too brilliantly through South Kensington to do the teaching for which he was trained, or to be willing to do anything but paint great pictures the subjects for which he could never find; his mistake was to want to paint them in Venice where there is nothing to paint that has not been painted hundreds, or thousands, or millions of times before; and his misfortune was not to seek in adversity the comfort and hope which the philosopher believes to be its reward. He had become, as a consequence, the weariest man who breathed. It made me tired to look at him. Later, he was forced to abandon his high ambition and he accepted a good post as teacher somewhere in India. But he lived a short time to enjoy it and I am sure he was homesick for Venice, and the search after the impossible, and the old days when he was so abominably hard up that even J. and I were richer. Of the complete crash by which we all gained—including the man who got the Whistler painted on the back of a Jobbins panel—I still have reminders in a brass plaque and bits of embroideries hung up on our walls and brocades made into screens, which J. bought from him to save the situation, at the risk of creating a new one from which somebody would have to save us.

For all his weariness, Jobbins looked ridiculously young. He insisted that this was what lost him his one chance of selling a picture. He was painting in the Frari a subject which he vainly hoped was his own, when an American family of three came and stared over his shoulder.

"Why, it's going to be a picture!" the small child discovered.

"And he such a boy too!" the mother marvelled.

"Then it can't be of any value," the father said in the loud cheerful voice in which American and English tourists in Venice make their most personal comments, convinced that nobody can understand, though every other person they meet is a fellow countryman. A story used to be told of Bunney at work in the Piazza, on his endless study of St. Mark's for Ruskin, one bitter winter morning, when three English girls, wrapped in furs, passed. One stopped behind him:

"Oh Maud! Ethel!" she called, "do come back and see what this poor shivering old wretch is doing."

The talk in our corner of the Orientale kept us in the past until I began to fear that, just as some people grow prematurely grey, so J. and I, not a year married, had prematurely reached the time for creeping in close about the fire—or a cafe table—and telling grey tales of what we had been. It was a very different past from that which tourists were then bullied by Ruskin into believing should alone concern them in Venice—indeed, my greatest astonishment in this astonishing year was that, while the people who were not artists but posed as knowing all about art did nothing but quote Ruskin, artists never quoted him, and never mentioned him except to show how little use they had for him. But then, as I was beginning to find out, it is the privilege of the artist to think what he knows and to say what he thinks. We were none of us tourists at our little table, we were none of us seeing sights, being far too busy doing the work we were in Venice to do; and no matter what Ruskin and Baedeker taught, "the boys" gave the date which overshadowed for us every other in Venetian history. Nothing that had happened in Venice before or after counted, though "the boys" themselves were in their turn a good deal overshadowed by Whistler, who had been there with them for a while.

It was extraordinary how the Whistler tradition had developed and strengthened in the little more than four years since he had left Venice. I had never met him then, though J. had a few months before in London. I hardly hoped ever to meet him; I certainly could not expect that the day would come when he would be our friend, with us constantly, letting us learn far more about him and far more intimately than from all the talk at a cafe table of those who already knew him, accepted him as a master, and loved him as a man. But had my knowledge of him come solely from those months in Venice I should still have realized the power of his personality and the force of his influence. He seemed to pervade the place, to colour the atmosphere. He had stayed in Venice only about a year. In the early Eighties little had been written of him except in contempt or ridicule. But to the artist he had become as essentially a part of Venice, his work as inseparable from its associations, as the Venetian painters like Carpaccio and Tintoretto who had lived and worked there all their lives and about whom a voluminous literature had grown up, culminating in the big and little volumes by Ruskin upon which the public crowding to Venice based their artistic creed. During those old nights I heard far more of the few little inches of Whistler's etchings and of Whistler's pastels than of the great expanse of Tintoretto's Paradise or of Carpaccio's decorations in the little church of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The fact made and has left the greater impression because the winter in Rome had not worn off, for me, the novelty of artists' talk or quite accustomed me to their point of view, to their surprising independence in not accepting the current and easy doctrine that everything old is sacred, everything modern insignificant. Because a painter happened to paint a couple of hundred years or more ago did not place him above their criticism; because he happened to paint to-day was apt to make him more interesting to them.

At the Orientale the talk could never keep very long from Whistler. It might be of art—question of technique, of treatment, of arrangement, of any or all the artist's problems—and sooner or later it would be referred to what Whistler did or did not. Or the talk might grow reminiscent and again it was sure to return to Whistler. Not only at the Orientale, but at any cafe or restaurant or house or gallery where two or three artists were gathered together, Whistler stories were always told before the meeting broke up. It was then we first heard the gold-fish story, and the devil-in-the-glass story, and the Wolkoff-pastel story, and the farewell-feast story, and the innumerable stories labelled and pigeon-holed by "the boys" for future use, and so recently told by J. and myself in the greatest story of all—the story of his Life—that it is too soon for me to tell them again. Up till then I had shared the popular idea of him as a man who might be ridiculed, abused, feared, hated, anything rather than loved. But none of the men in Venice could speak of him without affection. "Not a bad chap," Jobbins would forget his weariness to say, "not half a bad chap!" and one night he told one of the few Whistler stories never yet told in print, except in the Atlantic Monthly where this chapter was first published.

"He rather liked me," said Jobbins, "liked to have me about, and to help on Sundays when he showed his pastels. But that wasn't my game, you know, and I got tired of it, and one Sunday when lots of people were there and he asked me to bring out that drawing of a calle with tall houses, and away up above clothes hung out to dry, and a pair of trousers in the middle, I said: 'Have you got a title for it, Whistler?' 'No,' he said. 'Well,' I said, 'call it an Arrangement in Trousers,' and everybody laughed. I'd have sneaked away, for he was furious. But he wouldn't let me, kept his eye on me, though he didn't say a word until they'd all gone. Then he looked at me rather with that Shakespeare fellow's Et tu Brute look: 'Why, Jobbins, you, who are so amiable?' That was all. No, not half a bad chap."

Now and then talk of Whistler and "the boys" reminded Duveneck of his own student days, and would lead him into personal reminiscences, when the stories were of his adventures; sometimes on Bavarian roads, singing and fiddling his way from village to village, or in Bavarian convents, teaching drawing to pretty novices, receiving commissions from stern Reverend Mothers; and sometimes in American towns painting the earliest American mural decoration that prepared the way, through various stages, for the latest American series of all—at the San Francisco Exposition where Duveneck was acclaimed as the American master of to-day. But in his story, as he told it to us, he had not got as far as Florence when a new turn was given to his reminiscences and to our evening talk by the descent upon Venice of the men from Munich.

IV

They were only three—McFarlane, Anthony and Thompson, shall I call them?—but they had not journeyed all the way from Munich to talk about "the boys" and to drop sentimental tears over old love tales. They were off on an Easter holiday and meant to make the most of it. Because Duveneck was Duveneck they gave up the gayer cafes in the Piazza to be with him in the sleepy old Orientale. But they were not going to let it stay a sleepy old Orientale if they could help themselves. Their very first evening Duveneck called for two glasses of milk—to steady his nerves, he said, though he politely attributed the unsteadiness not to this new excitement but to the tea he had been drinking. People drifted to our room from outside and from the new room to see what the noise was about, until there was not a table to be had. The old Englishman and his son put down the Standard and laughed with us. The caramei man went away with an empty tray, I do believe the only time he was ever bought out in his life, and McFarlane treated us all to tamarindo to drink with the fruit, and he wound up his horrible extravagance by buying a copy of the Venetian paper "the boys" used to call the Barabowow. It was nothing short of a Venetian orgy.

Nor did the transformation end here. The men from Munich were so smart, especially McFarlane, in white waistcoat, with a flower in his button-hole and a gold-headed cane in his hand, that we were shocked into the consciousness of our shabbiness. Duveneck, who, until then, had been happy in an old ulster with holes in the pockets and rips in the seams, dazzled the cafe by appearing in a jaunty spring overcoat. J. exchanged his old trousers with a green stain of acid down the leg for the new pair he had hitherto worn only when he went to call on the Bronsons or to dine with Mr. Horatio Brown, where I could not go because I was so much more hopelessly unprepared to dine anywhere outside the Panada or the Kitchen of the Casa Kirsch. But in the Merceria I could at least supply myself with gloves and veils, while Jobbins unearthed a fresh cravat from somewhere. And we began to feel apologetic for the dinginess and general down-at-heeledness of Venice which bored the men from Munich to extinction—really they were so bored, they said, that all day they found themselves looking forward to the caramei man as the town's one excitement. I thought the illuminations on Easter Sunday evening, when the Piazza was "a fairyland in the night," and the music deafened us, and the Bengal lights blinded us, would help to give them a livelier impression; but, though they came with us to Florian's, it was plain they pitied us for being so pleased.

They couldn't, for the life of them, see why the place had been so cracked up by Ruskin. Nothing was right. The Piazza was just simply the town's meeting place and centre of gossip, like the country village store, only on a more architectural and uncomfortable scale. The canals were breeding holes for malaria. The streets wouldn't be put up with as alleys at home. The language was not worth learning. At the Panada, after we had given our order for dinner, McFarlane would murmur languidly 'Lo stesso' and declare it to be the one useful word in the Italian dictionary; to this Johnson added a mysterious 'Sensa crab' when Rossi suggested 'piccoli fees' under the delusion that he was talking English; while Anthony was quite content with the vocabulary the other two supplied him. The climate was as deplorable: either wet and cold, when the Italian scaldino wasn't a patch on the German stove and a gondola became a freezing machine; or warm and enervating when they couldn't keep awake.

They dozed in their gondola, they yawned in St. Mark's and the Ducal Palace and in all the other churches and palaces, and in front of all the old doorways and bridges and boat-building yards and traghettos and fishing boats and wells and "bits" that Camillo, their gondolier, was inhuman enough to wake them up to look at. The beauty of Venice was exaggerated, or if they did come to a "subject" that made them pull their sketch books out of their pockets, Camillo was at once bothering them to do it from just where Guardi, or Canaletto, or Rico, or Whistler, or Ruskin, or some other old boy had painted, etched, or drawn it—Whistler alone had finished Venice for every artist who came after him and they were tired of his very name, and never wanted to have his etchings and pastels thrown in their faces again. What they would like to do was to discover the Italian town or village where no artist had ever been seen and the word art had never been uttered.

But it was Venetian painting that got most on their nerves. They had given it a fair chance, they protested. "Trot out your Tintorettos," they said to Camillo every morning, and he carried them off to the Palace, and the Academy, and more churches than they thought there were in the world, and at last to the Scuola di San Rocco. And there a solemn man in spectacles took them in hand. They said to him too: "Trot our your Tintorettos," and he led them up to a big, dingy canvas, and they said: "Trot out your next," and they went the rounds of them all, and they asked, "Where's your Duveneck?" and he said he had never heard of Duveneck, and they said, "Why, he's here!" and they left him hunting, and were back in their gondola in ten minutes, and they guessed they could do with Rubens! I trembled to think of the shock to tourists and my highly intellectual friends at home, religiously studying Baedeker and reading Ruskin, could they have heard the men from Munich talking of art and of Venice. And I must have been painfully scandalized had I not got so much further on with my education as to have a glimmering of the truth Whistler was trying to beat into the unwilling head of the British public—that an artist knows more about art than the man who isn't an artist, and has the best right to an opinion on the subject.

Perhaps their disappointment in Venice was the reason of their pre-occupation with Munich. Certainly "Now, at Munich" was the beginning and end of the talk as "when 'the boys' were here" had been before they came. They would not admit that anything good could exist outside of Munich. I remember Duveneck once suggesting that Paris was the best place for the student, to whom it was a help just to see what was going on around him.

"But what does go on round the student there?" McFarlane interrupted. "It's all fads in Paris. What do they talk about in Paris to-day but values? [This, remember, was more than a quarter of a century ago.] That's all they teach the student, all they think of. Look at Bisbing's picture last year. They all raved over it, said it was the clou of the Salon, medalled it, bought it for the Luxembourg, and I don't know what all. And what was it?—Pale green sheep in the foreground, pale green mountains in the background, so pale you could shoot peas through them. That's what you have to do now to make a success in Paris—get your values so that you can shoot peas through 'em. And what will it be to-morrow? And what help is it to the student, anyway?"

But one thing certain is, that whatever the fads and movements in the Paris studios happened to be, the American student in those days did see what was going on in Paris, and just to see, just to feel it, was, as Duveneck held, a help, an inspiration. To-day, living in his own pensions, studying in his own schools, loafing in his own clubs, he does not take any interest in what is going on outside of them and will talk about what "the Frenchmen are doing" as if he were still in Kalamazoo or Oshkosh.

What the student, in Duveneck's and McFarlane's time saw going on round him in Munich was, as well as I could make out, chiefly balls and pageants. To this day I cannot help thinking of life in Munich as one long spectacle and dance. Duveneck, who could talk with calmness of his painting, was stirred to animation when he recalled the costumes he had invented for himself and his friends. He could not conceal his pride in the success of a South Sea Islander he had designed, the effect achieved by the simple means of burnt Sienna rubbed into the poor man, but so vigorously that it took months to get it out again, and a blanket which he mislaid towards morning so that his walk home at dawn, like a savage skulking in the shadows, was a triumph of realism. Pride, too, coloured Duveneck's account of the appearance of the Socialist Carpenter of his creation who made a huge sensation by inciting to riot in the streets of an elaborate Old Munich—the origin of Old London and Old Paris and all the sham Old Towns that Exhibitions have long since staled for us. But his masterpiece was the Dissipated Gentleman, like all masterpieces a marvel of simplicity—hired evening clothes, a good long roll in the muddiest gutter on the way to the ball, and it was done; but the art, Duveneck said, was in the rolling, which in this case, under his direction, was so masterly that at the door the Dissipated Gentleman was mistaken for the real thing and, if friends had not come up in the nick of time, the door would have been shut in his face.

Duveneck was as enthusiastic over the Charles V. ball, though all the artists of Munich contributed to its splendour, working out their costumes with such respect for truth and so regardless of cost that for months and years afterwards not a bit of old brocade or lace was to be had in the antiquity shops of Bavaria. And the students were responsible for the siege of an old castle outside the town, and in their archaeological ardour persuaded the Museum to lend the armour and arms of the correct date, and, in their appreciation of the favour, fought with so much restraint that the casualties were a couple of spears snapped. And, in my recollection, their recollections stood for such truth and gorgeousness that when England, years afterwards, took to celebrating its past with pageants, more than once I found myself thinking how much better they order these things in Munich!

And from the studios came the inspiration for that ball Munich talks of to this day in which all the nations were represented. There was a Hindu temple, a Chinese pagoda, and an Indian wigwam. But the crowning touch was the Esquimaux hut. Placed in a hall apart, at the foot of a great stairway, it was built of some composition in which pitch was freely used, lit by tallow candles, and hung with herrings offered for sale by nine Esquimaux dressed in woollen imitation of skins with the furry side turned out. All evening the hut was surrounded, only towards midnight could the crowd be induced to move on to some fresh attraction. In the moment's lull, one of the Esquimaux was tying up a new line of herrings when he brushed a candle with his arm. In a second he was blazing. Another ran to his rescue. In another second the hut was a furnace and nine men were in flames, with pitch and wool for fuel. One of the few people still lounging about the hut, fearing a panic, gave the signal to the band, who struck up Carmen. Never since, McFarlane said, had he listened to the music of Carmen, never again could he listen to it, without seeing the burning hut, the men rushing out of it with the flames leaping high above them, tearing at the blazing wool, in their agony turning and twisting as in some wild fantastic dance, while above the music he could hear the laughter of the crowd, who thought it a joke—a new scene in the spectacle.

He snatched a rug from somewhere and tried to throw it over one of the men, but the man flew past to the top of the great stairway. There he was seized and rolled over and over on the carpet until the flames were out. He got up, walked downstairs, asked for beer, drank it to the dregs, and fell dead with the glass in his hand—the first to die, the first freed from his agony. Of the nine, but two survived. Seven lay with their hut, a charred heap upon the ground, before the laughing crowd realized what a pageant of horror Fate had planned for them.

Munich stories, before the night was over, had to be washed down with Munich beer, which, at that time as still, I fancy, was best at Bauer's. By some unwritten law, inscrutable as the written, it was decreed that, though I might sit all evening the only woman at our table in the Orientale—oftener than not the only woman in the cafe—it was not "the thing" for me to go on to Bauer's. Therefore, first, the whole company would see me home. It was a short stroll along the Riva, but the Lagoon, dim and shadowy, stretched away beyond us, dimmer islands resting on its waters, the lights of the boats sprinkling it with gold under the high Venetian sky sprinkled with stars; and so beautiful was it, and so sweet the April night, that the men from Munich could not hold out against the enchantment of Venice in spring. I felt it a concession when McFarlane admitted the loveliness of Venice by starlight, and his languor dropped from him under the spell, and I knew the game of boredom was up when, in this starlight, he decided that, after all, there might be more in the Tintorettos than he thought if only he had time to study them. But Easter holidays do not last for ever, and the day soon came when the men from Munich had to go back to where all was for the best in the best of all towns, but where no doubt, on the principle that we always prefer what we have not got at the moment, they told "the fellows" in the Bier Kellars that only in Venice was life worth while, that Rubens was dingy, and that they guessed they could do with Tintoretto.

V

Somehow, we were never the same after they left us; not, I fancy, because we missed them, but because we could hold out still less than they against the spring. When the sun was so warm and the air so soft, when in the little canals wistaria bloomed over high brick walls, when boatloads of flowers came into Venice with the morning, when at noon the Riva was strewn with sleepers—then indoors and work became an impertinence. On the slightest excuse J. and Duveneck no longer shut themselves in the studio, I gave up collecting material from my window and lunch from the Riva, Jobbins interrupted his search and Martin his argument, the Consul fought shy of the old corner in the cafe. And in the languid laziness that stole upon Venice, as well as upon us, I penetrated for the first time to the inner meaning of the chapter in his Venetian Life that Howells labels Comincia far Caldo, the season when repose takes you to her inner heart and you learn her secrets, when at last you know why it was an Abyssinian maid who played upon her dulcimer, at last you recognize in Xanadu the land where you were born.

There was never a festa in the Piazza that we were not there, watching or walking with the bewildering procession of elegant young Venetians, and peasants from the mainland, and officers, and soldiers, and gondoliers with big caps set jauntily on their curls, and beautiful girls in the gay fringed shawls that have disappeared from Venice and the wooden shoes that once made an endless clatter along the Riva but are heard no more, and Greeks, and Armenians, and priests, and beggars, passing up and down between the arcades and the cafe tables that overflowed far into the square, St. Mark's more unreal in its splendour than ever with its domes and galleries and traceries against the blue of the Venetian night.

There was never a side-show on the Riva that we did not interrupt our work to go and see it; whether it was the circus in the little tent, with the live pony, the most marvellous of all sights in Venice; or the acrobats tumbling on their square of carpet; or the blindfolded, toothless old fortune-teller, whose shrill voice I can still hear mumbling "Una volta soltanta per Napoli!" when she was asked if Naples, this coming summer, as the last, would be ravaged by cholera. She was right, for in the town, cleaned out of picturesqueness, cholera could not again do its work in the old wholesale fashion.

There was never an excursion to the Islands that we did not join it. To visit some of the further Islands was not so easy in those days, except for tourists with a fortune to spend on gondolas, and we were grateful to the occasional little steamboat that undertook to get us there, though with a crowd and noise and a brass band, for all the world like an excursion to Coney Island, and though most people, except the grateful natives, were obediently believing with Ruskin that it was the symbol of the degeneracy of Venice and would have thought themselves disgraced forever if they were seen on it. But the Lagoon was as beautiful from the noisy, fussy little steamboat as from a gondola, the sails of the fishing boats touching it with as brilliant colour, the Islands lying as peacefully upon its shining waters, the bells of the many campanili coming as sweetly to our ears, the sky above as pure and radiant; and it mattered not how we reached the Islands, they were as enchanting when we landed.

One wonderful day was at Torcello, where nothing could mar the loveliness of its solitude and desolation, its old cathedral full of strange mosaics and stranger memories, the green space in front that was once a Piazza tangled with blossoms and sweet-scented in the May sunshine, the purple hills on the mainland melting into the pale sky. And a second day as wonderful was at Burano, with its rose-flushed houses and gardens and traditions of noise and quarrels, and the girls who followed the boat along the bank and pelted us with roses until Jobbins vowed he would go and live there—and he did, but a market boat brought him back in a week. And other excursions took us to Chioggia, the canals there alive with fishing boats and the banks with fishermen mending their nets; and to Murano, busy and beautiful both, with the throb of its glass furnaces and the peace of the fields where the dead sleep; and again and again to the Lido where green meadows were sprinkled with daisies and birds were singing.

More wonderful were the nights, coming home, when the gold had faded from sea and sky, the palaces and towers of Venice rising low on the horizon as in a City of Dreams, the Lagoon turned by the moon into a sheet of silver, lights like great fireflies stealing over the water, ghostly gondolas gliding past,—then we were the real Lotus Eaters drifting to the only Lotus Land where all things have rest.

The fussy little steamboat, I found, could rock ambition to sleep as well as a gondola, and life seemed to offer nothing better than an endless succession of days and nights spent on its deck bound for wherever it might bear us. I understood and sympathized with the men who lay asleep all day in the sunshine on the Riva and who sang all night on the bridge below our windows. What is more, I envied them and wished they would take me into partnership. Were they not putting into practice the philosophy our ancient friend Davies had preached to me in Rome? But only the Venetian can master the secret of doing nothing with nothing to do it on, and if J. and I were to hope for figs with our bread, or even for bread by itself, we had to move on to the next place where work awaited us. And so the last of our nights in Venice came before spring had ripened into summer, and the last of our mornings when porters again scrambled for our bags, and we again stumbled after them up the long platform; and then there were again yells, but this time of "Partenza" and "Pronti," and the train hurried us away from the Panada, and the Orientale, and the Lagoon, to a world where no lotus grows and life is all labour.



IV

NIGHTS IN LONDON



IN LONDON

I

I cannot remember how or why we began our Thursday nights. I rather think they began themselves and we kept them up to protect our days against our friends.

It was an unusually busy time with us—or perhaps I ought to say with me, for, to my knowledge, J. has never known the time that was anything else. After our years of wandering, years of hotels and rooms and lodgings, we had just settled in London in the first place we had ever called our own—the old chambers in the old Buckingham Street house overlooking the river; I was doing more regular newspaper work than I had ever done before or ever hope to do again; we were in the Eighteen-Nineties, and I need neither the magnifying glasses through which age has the reputation of looking backward, nor the clever young men of to-day who write about that delectable decade and no doubt deplore my indiscretion in being alive to write about it myself, to show me how very much more amusing and interesting life was then than now.

There is no question that people, especially people doing our sort of work, were much more awake in the Nineties, much more alive, much more keen about everything, even a fight, or above all a fight, if they thought a fight would clear the air. Those clever young men, self-appointed historians of a period they know only by hearsay, may deplore or envy its decadence. But because a small clique wrote anaemic verse and bragged of the vices for which they had not the strength, because a few youthful artists invented new methods of expression the outsider did not understand, that does not mean decadence. A period of revolt against decadence, of insurrection, of vigorous warfare it seemed to me who lived and worked through it. The Yellow Nineties, the Glorious Nineties, the Naughty Nineties, the Rococo Nineties, are descriptions I have seen, but the Fighting Nineties would be mine. As I recall those stimulating days, the prevailing attitude of the artist in his studio, the author at his desk, the critic at his task, was that of Henley's Man in the Street:

Hands in your pockets, eyes on the pavement, Where in the world is the fun of it all? But a row—but a rush—but a face for your fist. Then a crash through the dark—and a fall.

Scarcely an important picture was painted, an important illustration published, an important book written, an important criticism made, that it did not lead to battle. Few of the Young Men of the Nineties accomplished all the triumphant things they thought they could, but the one thing they never failed to do and to let the world know they were doing was to fight, and they loved nothing better—coats off, sleeves rolled up, arms squared. Whatever happened was to them a challenge. Whistler began the Nineties with his Exhibition at the Groupil Gallery and it was a rout for the enemy. The harmless portrait of Desboutin by Degas was hung at the New English Art Club and straightaway artists and critics were bludgeoning each other in the press. Men were elected to the Royal Academy, pictures were bought by the Chantrey Bequest; new papers and magazines were started by young enthusiasts with something to say and no place to say it in; new poets, yearning for degeneracy, read their poems to each other in a public house they preferred to re-christen a tavern; new printing presses were founded to prove the superiority of the esoteric few; new criticism—new because honest and intelligent—was launched; everything suddenly became fin-de-siecle in the passing catchword of the day borrowed from Paris; every fad of the Continent was adopted; but no matter what it might be, the incident, or work, or publication that roused any interest at all was the signal for the clash of arms, for the row and the rush. Everybody had to be in revolt, though it might not always have been easy to say against just what. I remember once, at the show of a group of young painters who fancied themselves fiery Independents, running across Felix Buhot, the most inflammable man in the world, and his telling me, with his wild eyes more aflame than usual, that he could smell the powder. He was not far wrong, if his metaphor was a trifle out of proportion to those very self-conscious young rebels. A good deal of powder was flying about in the Nineties, and when powder flies, whatever else may come of it, one thing sure is that nobody can sleep and most people want to talk.

I had not been in London a year before I knew that there the cafe was not the place to talk in. I have dreary memories of the first efforts J. and I, fresh from Italy, made to go on leading the easy, free-from-care life in restaurants and cafes we had led in Rome and Venice. But it was not to be done. The distances were too great, the weather too atrocious, the little restaurants too impossible, the big restaurants too beyond our purse, and the only real cafe was the Cafe Royal. At an earlier date Whistler had drawn his followers to it. In the Nineties Frederick Sandys was one of its most familiar figures. Even now, especially on Saturday nights, young men, in long hair and strange hats and laboriously unconventional clothes, are to be met there, looking a trifle solemnized by their share in so un-English an entertainment. For this is the trouble: The cafe is not an English institution and something in the atmosphere tells you right away that it isn't. It might, it may still, serve us for an occasion, its mirrors and gilding and red velvet pleasantly reminiscent, but for night after night it would not answer at all as the Nazionale had answered in Rome, the Orientale in Venice.

However, Buckingham Street made a good substitute as an extremely convenient centre for talk, and its convenience was so well taken advantage of that, at this distance of time, I am puzzled to see how we ever got any work done. J. and I have never been given to inhospitality, and we both liked the talk. But the day of reckoning came when, sitting down to lunch one morning, we realized that it was the first time we had eaten that simple meal alone for we could not remember how long. The lunch for which no preparation is made and at which the company is uninvited but amusing may be one of the most agreeable of feasts, but we knew too well that if we went on cutting short our days of work to enjoy it, we ran the risk of no lunch ever again for ourselves, let alone for anybody else.

To be interrupted in the evening did not matter so much, though our evenings were not altogether free of work—nor are J.'s even yet, the years proving less kind in moulding him to the indolence to which, with age, I often find myself pleasantly yielding. Our friends, when we stopped them dropping in by day, began dropping in by night instead, and one group of friends to whom Thursday night was particularly well adapted for the purpose gradually turned their dropping in from a chance into a habit until, before we knew it, we were regularly at home every Thursday after dinner.



The entertainment, if it can be called by so fine a name, always retained something of the character of chance with which it began. We sent out no invitations, we attempted no formality. Nobody was asked to play at anything or to listen to anything. Nobody was expected to dress, though anybody who wanted to could—everybody was welcome in the clothes they wore, whether they came straight from the studio or a dinner. If eventually I provided sandwiches—in addition to the tobacco always at hand in the home of the man who smokes and the whiskey-and-soda without which an Englishman cannot exist through an evening—it was because I got too hungry not to need something to eat before the last of the company had said good-night. We did not offer even the comfort of space. Once the small dining-room that had been Etty's studio, and the not over-large room that was J.'s, and the nondescript room that was drawing-room and my workroom combined, were packed solid, there was no place to overflow into except the short, narrow entrance hall, and I still grow hot at the thought of what became of hats and coats if it also was filled. I can never forget the distressing evening when in the bathroom—which, with the ingenuity of the designer of flats, had been fitted in at the end of the narrow hall and was the reason of its shortness—I caught William Penn devouring the gloves of an artist's wife who I do not believe has forgiven him to this day; nor the still more distressing occasion when I discovered Bobbie, William's poor timid successor, curled up on a brand-new bonnet of feathers and lace.

But it was the very informality, so long as it led to no crimes on the part of our badly brought-up cats, that attracted the friends who were as busy and hard-working as ourselves,—this, and the freedom to talk without being silenced for the music that no talker wants to hear when he can listen to his own voice, or for the dances that nobody wants to watch if he can follow his own argument, or for the introductions that invariably interrupt at the wrong moment, or for the games and innumerable devices without which intelligent human beings are not supposed to be able to survive an evening in each other's company. The idle who play golf all day and bridge all night, who cannot eat in the short intervals between without music, believe that talk has gone out of fashion. My experience had been in Rome and Venice, was then in London, and is now, that men and women who have something to talk about are always anxious to talk about it, if only the opportunity is given to them, and the one attraction we offered was just this opportunity for people who had been doing more or less the same sort of work all day to meet and talk about it all night—the reason why, despite heat and discomfort, despite meagre fare and the risk to hats and coats, Thursday after Thursday crowded our rooms to suffocation as soon as evening came.



II

As, in memory, I listen to the endless talk of our Thursday nights, the leading voice, when not J.'s, is Henley's, which is natural since it was Henley, followed by his Young Men,—our name for his devoted staff always in attendance at his office and out of it,—who got so into the habit of dropping in to see us on Thursday night that we got into the habit of staying at home to see him. For Thursday was the night when the National Observer, which he was editing at the time, went to press and Ballantynes, the printers, were not more than five minutes away in Covent Garden. At about ten his work was over and he and his Young Men were free to do nothing save talk for the rest of the week if they chose—and they usually did choose—and Buckingham Street was a handy place to begin it in. Our rooms were already fairly well packed, pleasantly smoky, and echoing with the agreeable roar of battle when they arrived.

I like to remember Henley as I saw him then, especially if my quite superfluous feeling of responsibility as hostess had brought me on some equally superfluous mission into the little hall at the moment of his arrival. As the door opened he would stand there at the threshold, his tall soft black hat still crowning his massive head, leaning on his crutch and stick as he waited to take breath after his climb up our three flights of stone stairs—"Did I really ever climb those stairs at Buckingham Street?"—he asked me the last time I saw him, some years later, at Worthing when he was ill and broken, and I have often marvelled myself how he managed it. But breathless as he might be, he always laughed his greeting. I cannot think of Henley as he was in his prime, to borrow a word that was a favourite with him, without hearing his laugh and seeing his face illuminated by it. Rarely has a man so hampered by his body kept his spirit so gay. He was meant to be a splendid creature physically and fate made of him a helpless cripple—who was it once described him as "the wounded Titan"? Everybody knows the story: he made sure that everybody should by telling it in his Hospital Verses. But everybody cannot know who did not know him how bravely he accepted his disaster. It seemed to me characteristic once when a young cousin of mine, a girl at the most susceptible age of hero-worship, meeting him for the first time in our chambers and volunteering, in the absence of anybody else available, to fetch the cab he needed, thought his allowing her to go on such an errand for him the eccentricity of genius and never suspected his lameness until he stood up and took his crutch from the corner. There was nothing about him to suggest the cripple.



He was a remarkably handsome man, despite his disability, tall and large and fair, a noble head and profile, a shock of red hair, short red beard, keen pale blue eyes, his indomitable gaiety filling his face with life and animation, smoothing out the lines of pain and care. He was so striking in every way, his individuality so strangely marked that the wonder is the good portrait of him should be the exception. Nicholson, when painting him, was a good deal preoccupied with the big soft hat and blue shirt and flowing tie, feeling their picturesque value, and turned him into a brigand, a land pirate, to the joy of Henley, whom I always suspected of feeling this value himself and dressing as he did for the sake of picturesqueness. Simon Bussy seemed to see, not Henley, but Stevenson's caricature—the John Silver of Treasure Island, the cripple with the face as big as a ham. Even Whistler failed and never printed more than one or two proofs of the lithograph for which Henley sat. Rodin came nearest success, his bust giving the dignity and ruggedness and character of head and profile both. He and Nicholson together go far to explain the man.

Unfortunately there is no biography at all. Charles Whibley was to have written the authorized life, but the world still waits. Cope Cornford attempted a sketch, but scarcely the shadow of Henley emerges from its pages. Because he thundered and denounced and condemned and slashed to pieces in the National Observer, his contemporaries imagined that Henley did nothing anywhere at any time save thunder and denounce and condemn and slash to pieces and that he was altogether a fierce, choleric, intolerant, impossible sort of a person. The chances are few now realize that Henley was enough of an influence in his generation for it to have mattered to anybody what manner of man he was. A glimpse of him remains here and there. Stevenson has left the description of his personality, so strong that he was felt in a room before he was seen. His vigour and his manliness, survive in his work, but cannot quite explain the commanding power he was in his generation, while neither he nor his friends have shewn, as it should be shewn, the other side to his character, the gay, the kindly side, so that I feel almost as if I owed it to his memory to put on record my impressions of my first meeting with him, since it was only this side he then gave me the chance to see.

I wonder sometimes why I had never met Henley before. When J. and I came to London he was editing the Magazine of Art, a little later he managed the Art Journal, and in both he published a number of J.'s drawings, and we had letters from him. We went to houses where he often visited. I remember hearing him announced once at the Robinsons' in Earl's Terrace, but Miss Mary Robinson, as she was then—Madame Duclaux as she is now—left everybody in the drawing-room while she went to see him downstairs, because of his lameness she said, but partly, I fancied, because she wanted to keep him to herself to discuss a new series of articles. She had just "come out" in literature and was as fluttered by her every new appearance in print as most girls are by theirs in a ball-room. In other houses, more than once I just missed him, I had never got nearer than business correspondence when he left London to edit the Scots Observer in Edinburgh, and he stayed there until the Scots became the National Observer with its offices in London.

I had heard more than enough about him in the meanwhile. The man who says what he believes to be the truth—the man who sits in, and talks from, the chair of the scorners—is bound to get himself hated, and Henley came in for his fair share of abuse. As somebody says, truth never goes without a scratched face.

But, like all men hated by the many, Henley inspired devotion in the few who, in his case, were not only devoted themselves but eager to make their friends devoted too. When he got back to London one of his Young Men, whom I do not see why I should not call Charles Whibley, insisted that J. and I must meet Henley first in the right way, that all our future relations with him depended upon it, and that this right way would be for him to ask Henley and ourselves, and nobody else, to dinner in his rooms.

When the evening came J. was off on a journey for work and I went alone to Fig-Tree House—the little old house, with a poor shabby London apology of a fig-tree in front, on Milbank Street by the riverside, which, with Henley's near Great College Street office round the corner, has disappeared in the fury of municipal town-disfigurement. A popular young man, in making his plans, cannot afford to reckon without his friends. Four uninvited guests, all men, had arrived before me, a fifth appeared as I did, and he was about the last man any of the party could have wanted at that particular moment—a good and old and intimate friend of Stevenson's, whose own name I am too discreet to mention but to whom, for reasons I am also too discreet to explain, I may give that of Michael Finsbury instead. Whoever has read The Wrong Box knows that Michael Finsbury enjoyed intervals of relaxation from work, knows also the nature of the relaxation. I had struck him at the high tide of one of these intervals. It was terribly awkward for everybody, especially for me. I have got now to an age when I could face that sort of awkwardness with equanimity, even with amusement. But I was young then, I had not lived down my foolish shyness, and I would have run if, in my embarrassment, I had had the courage,—would have run anyhow, I do believe, if it had not been for Henley. He seized the situation and mastered it. He had the reputation of being the most brutal of men, but he showed a delicacy that few could have surpassed or equalled under the circumstances. He simply forced me to forget the presence of the objectionable Michael Finsbury, who at the other end of the table, I learned afterwards, was overwhelming his neighbours with a worse embarrassment than mine by finding me every bit as objectionable as I found him, and saying so with a frankness it was not in me to emulate.

The force Henley used with such success was simply his talk. He did not let my attention wander for one minute, so full of interest was all he had to say, while the enthusiasm with which he said it became contagious. I can remember to this day how he made me see a miracle in the mere number of the Velasquezes in the Prado, an adventure in every hansom drive through the London streets, an event in the dressing of the salad for dinner—how he transformed life into one long Arabian Nights' Entertainment, which is why I suppose it has always been my pride that his poem called by that name he dedicated to me. And so the evening that began as one of the most embarrassing in my experience ended as one of the most delightful, and the man whom I had trembled to meet because of his reputation with those who did not know him or understand intolerance in a just cause, won me over completely by his kindness, his consideration, his charm.

Henley delighted in talk, that was why he talked so well. On Thursday night his crutch would be left with his big hat at the front door; then, one hand leaning on his cane, the other against the wall for support, he would hobble over to the chair waiting for him, usually by the window for he loved to look out on the river, and there, seldom moving except to stand bending over with both arms on the back of the chair, which was his way of resting, and always with his Young Men round him, the talk would begin and the talk would last until only my foolish ideas of civility kept me up to listen. As a woman, I had not then, nor have I yet, ceased to be astonished by man's passion for talking shop and his power of going on with it forever. My explanation of this special power used to be that the occupation supplied him by the necessity of keeping his pipe or his cigarette or his cigar going, with the inevitable interruptions and pauses and movement, and the excitement of the eternal hunt for the matches, made the difference and helped to keep him awake—there is nothing more difficult for me personally than to sit still long when my hands are idle, unless I am reading. But the women I know who smoke are not men's equals in the capacity for endless talk and the reason must be to seek elsewhere. He who divines it will have gone far to solving the tedious problem of sex.

Of Henley the talker, at least, one portrait remains. He was the original of Stevenson's Burly—the talker who would roar you down, bury his face in his hands, undergo passions of revolt and agony, letting loose a spring torrent of words. There was always a wild flood and storm of talk wherever Henley might be. He and his Young Men were the most clamorous group of the clamorous Nineties, though curiously their clamour seems faint in the ears of the present authorities on that noisy period. I have read one of these authorities' description of the London of the Nineties dressed in a powder puff, dancing beneath Chinese lanterns, being as wicked as could be in artificial rose-gardens. But had Henley and his Young Men suspected the existence of a London like that, they would have overthrown it with their voices, as Joshua overthrew the walls of Jericho with his trumpets. To other authorities the Nineties represent an endless orgy of societies—Independent Theatre Societies, Fabian Societies, Browning Societies, every possible kind of societies—but the National Observer, with its keen scent for shams, was as ready to pounce upon any and all of them for the good of their health, and to upbraid their members as cranks. It was a paper that existed to protest against just this sort of thing, as against most other things in a sentimental and artificial and reforming and ignorant world. It made as much noise in print as its editorial staff made in talk. The main function of criticism, according to Henley, was to increase the powers of depreciation rather than of appreciation, and what a healthy doctrine it is! As editor, he roared down his opponents no less lustily than he roared them down as talkers, and he had the strong wit and the strong heart that a man must have, or so it is said, to know when to tell the truth, which, with him, was always. He could not stand anything like affectation, or what people were calling aestheticism and decadence. To him, literature was literature and art was art, and not puling sentiment, affected posturing, lilies and sunflowers. The National Observer was the housetop from which he shouted for all who passed to hear that it did not matter twopence what the dabbler wanted to express if he could not express it, if he had not the technique of his medium at his fingers' ends and under his perfect control. A man might indulge in noble and beautiful ideas, and if he did not know how to put them in beautiful words or in beautiful paint or in beautiful sound, he was anathema, to be cast into outer darkness where there is gnashing of teeth—the doctrine of art for art's sake which the advanced young leaders of the new generation assure me is hopelessly out of date. Pretence of any kind was as the red rag; "bleat" was the unpardonable sin; the man who was "human" was the man to be praised. I would not pretend to say who invented this meaning for the word "human." Perhaps Louis Stevenson. As far back as 1880, in a letter from Davos describing the people "in a kind of damned hotel" where he had put up, I find him using it as Henley and his Young Men used it later:

Eleven English Parsons, all Entirely inoffensive; four True human beings—what I call Human—the deuce a cipher more.

Stevenson may even then have learned it from Henley. But however that may have been, "bleat" and "human" were the two words ever recurring like a refrain in the columns of the National Observer, ever the beginning and end of argument in the heated atmosphere of Buckingham Street.

In my memory, every Thursday night stands for a battle. Henley was then always at his best. His week's task was done, he was not due at his house in Addiscombe until the next day, for he always stayed in his Great College Street rooms from Monday to Friday—and the night was before him. At first I trembled a little at the smell of powder under my own roof, at turning our chambers into the firing line when friends came to them to pass a peaceful friendly evening—the Roman and Venetian cafes and restaurants of my earlier experience had been common ground on which combatants shared equal rights or, better, no rights at all. It was probably my old Philadelphia bringing up that made me question the propriety of the same freedom at home, that made me doubt its being quite "the thing" when J., who is an excellent fighter though a Philadelphian, met Henley in a clash of words. But I quickly got accustomed to the fight and enjoyed it and would not have had it otherwise.

Some friends who came, I must confess, enjoyed it less, especially if they were still smarting from a recent attack in the National Observer. There were evenings when it took a good deal of skilful manoeuvring on everybody's part to keep Henley and his victims at a safe distance from each other. More than once in later days Walter Crane laughed with us at the memory of a Thursday night, just after he had been torn to pieces in the best National Observer style, when he gradually realized that he was being kept a prisoner in the corner into which he had been driven on his arrival, and he could not understand why until, breaking loose, he discovered Henley in the next room. Our alarm was not surprising, knowing as we did what a valiant fighter Crane was himself: as a socialist waving the red flag in the face of the world, as an artist forever rushing into the papers to defend his theories of art, as a man refusing to see his glory in passing by an offence. Not very long before, J. had exasperated him in print, by the honest expression of an opinion he did not happen to like, into threats of a big stick ready for attack the next time J. ventured upon his walks abroad. I need not add that J. did not bother to stay at home, that the big stick never materialized, that, though this was only the first of many fights between the two, Walter Crane was our friend to the end. But the little episode gives the true spirit of the Nineties.

I can still see Beardsley dodging from group to group to escape Henley, for he never recovered from the fright of the first encounter. He told me the story at the time. He had gone, by special appointment, to call on Henley, under his arm the little portfolio he was rarely without in those early days, ready and enchanted as he always was to show his drawings to anybody willing to look at them. As he went up the two flights of stairs to Henley's Great College Street rooms, he heard a voice, loud, angry, terrifying; at the top, through an open door, he saw a youth standing in the middle of the room listening in abject terror to a large red man at a desk whom he knew instinctively to be Henley;—one glance, and he turned and fled, down the stairs, into the street, the little portfolio under his arm, his pace never slackening until he got well beyond the Houses of Parliament, through the Horse Guards into the Park.

Other friends would not come at all on Thursday because of Henley, just as later more than one stayed away altogether because of Whistler. I was wretchedly nervous when they did come and brave a face-to-face meeting. Henley was not the sort of man to shirk a fight in the open. The principal reason for his unpopularity was just that habit of his of saying what he thought no matter where or when or to whom. He did not spare his friends, for he would not have kept them as friends had they not held some opinions worth his attacking, and they understood and respected him for it. Moreover, he said what he had to say in the plainest language. He roared his adversary down in good, strong, picturesque English, if that was any consolation, and with a splendidly rugged eloquence.

I wish I could remember the words as well as the roar. Henley's eloquence cannot be forgotten by those who ever once listened to him, but his wit was not, like Whistler's, so keen nor his thrust so direct that the phrase, the one word of the retort or the attack, was unforgettable. He had his little affectations of speech as of style, and they added to its picturesqueness. But it was what he said that counted, the talk itself that probably inspired more sound thought and sound writing than most talk heard in the England of the Nineties. But it fell unrecorded on paper and memory could not be trusted after all these years.

It is the greater pity because his books are few. He was poor when he started in life; almost at once he married; he was generous to a fault, and the generous man never yet lived who was not pursued by parasites; and as he was obliged to earn money and as his books were not of the stuff that makes the "best sellers," his criticism of life and art was expressed mainly in journalism.

Unfortunately, no just idea of the amount or the quality of his journalistic work is now to be had even from the files of the National Observer. He had a way of editing every article sent in to him until it became more than a fair imitation of his own. I can sympathize with his object—the artist's desire for harmony, for the unity of the paper as a whole. But if he succeeded, as he did, it was at the sacrifice of the force, the effect, the character of individual contributions, and nobody can now say for sure which were Henley's save those he re-published in book form. When articles I wrote for him appeared in print, it was an open question with me whether I had the right to call them mine and to take any money for them. His Views and Reviews gathered from the National Observer and other papers and periodicals, his three or four small volumes of verse, the plays he wrote with Stevenson, an anthology or two, a few books of his editing, are scarcely sufficient to explain to the present generation his importance in his day and why his influence made itself felt in literature as keenly as Whistler's in art, through all the movements and excitements and enthusiasms of the Nineties. The joyous wars that marked the beginning of my life in London, when not led by Whistler's "Ha! Ha!" were commanded by Henley's roar.

No man was ever more in need of a Boswell than Henley. Dr. Weir Mitchell once complained to me that in America nobody waited upon great men to report their sayings, while in England a young man was always somewhere near with a clean cuff to scribble them on. The enthusiast, with his cuff an impatient blank, never hung about Henley. Anyway, that was not what our Thursday evenings were for. Of all his Young Men who climbed up the Buckingham Street stairs with him on Thursday night and sat round him, his devoted disciples, until they climbed down the Buckingham Street stairs with him again, not one seems to have hit upon this useful way of proving his devotion.

I do not need to be told that this was no excuse for my not having my cuff ready. But, foolishly perhaps, I too often spent my Thursday nights oppressed by other cares. For one thing, I could seldom keep my weekly article on Cookery out of my mind. Without it Saturday's Pall-Mall, I felt, would lose its brilliancy and my bank account, I knew, would grow appreciably less, and Friday was my day for writing it. A serious question therefore was, how, if I did not get to bed until two or three or four o'clock on Friday morning, was I to sit down at my desk at nine and be the brilliant authority on Eating that I thought I was?

Another distraction grew out of my mistaken sense of duty as hostess, my feeling of responsibility in providing for all a share in the cheerful smell of powder and the stimulating sound of strife.

Also, men being at best selfish animals, their wives, whose love of battle was less, were often an anxiety.

These seemed big things at the time, though in retrospect they have dwindled into trifles that I had no business to let come between me and my opportunities to store up for future generations talk as brilliant as any on record. Of course I heard a great deal of it, and what I missed at home on our Thursday nights, I made up for at Henley's, and at friends' houses on many other occasions, and few can answer better than I for the quality of Henley's talk if I have forgotten the actual words. Its strength was its simple directness,—no posing, no phrasing, no attitudinizing for effect. This, I know, was always what most struck people when they first met him on our Thursday nights, especially Americans, for with us in America the man who has won the reputation of greatness too often seems afraid he will lose it if he does not forever advertise it by fireworks of cleverness and wit.

Henley's talk had too a strange mixture of the brutal and the tender, the rough and the fine, a blending of the highest things with what might seem to the ordinary man the most trivial. I asked two old friends of his the other day what they remembered best of him and of his talk. The answer of one was: "He was certainly the most stupendous Jove-like creature who ever lived, and I did not in the least mind his calling me Billy, which I have always hated from others." The second answer was: "He talked as he wrote, and I know of nothing more characteristic of his talking and his writing than that tragic poem in which, with his heart crying for the child he had adored and lost, he could compare himself to 'an old black rotter of a boat' past service, and could see, when criticised for it, nothing discordant in that slang rotter dropped into such verse!" A good deal of Henley is in both answers. This curious blend must have especially struck everybody who saw him and listened to him in his own home. I can recall summer Sunday afternoons at Addiscombe, with Henley sitting on a rug spread on the lawn behind his house, Mrs. Henley at his side, his eyes following with twinkling tenderness his little daughter as she ran backwards and forwards busy with the manifold cares of childhood, while all the time, to his Young Men gathered round him, he was thundering against the last book, or the last picture show, or the last new music, in language not unworthy of Defoe or Smollett, for Henley could call a spade not only a spade but a steam shovel when so minded. He could soar to the heights and dive to the depths in the same breath.

But Henley's talk was animated above all by the intense and virile love of life that I was so conscious of in him personally, that reveals itself in every line he wrote, and that is what I liked best about him. He was so alive, so exhilarated with the sense of being alive. The tremendous vitality of the man, that should have found its legitimate outlet in physical activity, seemed to have gone instead into his thought and his expression of it—as if the very fact that fate forced him to remain a looker-on had made him the more sensitive to the beauty, the joy, the challenge in everything life gave him to look at. He could wrest romance even out of the drear, drab hospital—there is another characteristic glimpse in one of Stevenson's letters, a picture of Henley sitting up in his hospital bed, his hair and beard all tangled, "talking as cheerfully as if he had been in a King's palace, or the great King's palace of the blue air."

His interest in life was far too large and all-embracing for him to be indifferent to the smallest or most insignificant part of it. He had none of the disdain for everyday details, none of the fear of the commonplace that oppresses many men who think themselves great. Nothing that lived came amiss to his philosophy or his pleasure. He could talk as brilliantly upon the affairs of the kitchen as upon those of state, he could appreciate gossip as well as verse, he could laugh over an absurdity as easily as he could extol the masterpiece. Romance for him was everywhere—in the slang of the cockney of the Strand as in a symphony by Berlioz, in 'Arriet's feathers as in the "Don Diegos" of the Prado—the mere sound of the title in his mouth became a tribute to the master he honoured above most—in the patter of the latest Lion-comique of the Halls as in the prose of Meredith or Borrow, in the disreputable cat stealing home through the dull London dawn as in the Romanticists emerging from the chill of Classicism—in everything, big and little, in which he felt the life so dear to him throbbing.

And he loved always the visible sign through which the appeal came. I have seen him lean, spell-bound, from our windows on a blue summer night, thrilled by the presence out there of Cleopatra's Needle, the pagan symbol flaunting its slenderness against river and sky, while in the distance the dome of St. Paul's, the Christian symbol, hung a phantom upon the heavens. His pleasure in the friendship of men of rank and family might have savoured of snobbishness had not one understood how much they stood for to him as symbols. I am sure he could fancy himself with these friends that same King of Babylon who thrills in the lover of his poem. I used to think that for him all the drama of Admiral Guinea, one of the plays he wrote with Stevenson, was concentrated in the tap-tap of the blind man's stick. In his Hospital Verses, his London Voluntaries, his every Rhyme and Rhythm, the outward sign is the expression of the emotion, the thought that is in him. And coming down to more ordinary matters—ordinary, that is, to most people—I shall never forget, once when I was in Spain and he wrote to me there, his decoration of my name on the envelope with the finest ceremonial prefix of the ceremonious Spanish code which to him represented the splendour of the land of Don Diego and Don Quixote.

It was this faculty of entering into the heart, the spirit of life and all things in it that made him the inspiring companion and friend he was, that widened his sympathies until he, whose intolerance was a byword with his contemporaries, showed himself tolerant of everything save sham and incompetence. The men who would tell you in their day, who will tell you now, of the great debt they owe to Henley, are men of the most varied interests, whose style and subject both might have been expected to prove a great gulf to separate them. Ask Arthur Morrison straight from the East End, or FitzMaurice Kelly fresh from Spain; ask W.B. Blakie preoccupied with the modern development of the printed book, or Wells adrift in a world of his own invention; ask Kipling steeped in the real, or Barrie lost in the Kail-Yard; ask Kenneth Grahame on his Olympian heights or George S. Street deep in his study of the prig—ask any one of these men and a score besides what Henley's sympathy, Henley's outstretched hand, meant to him, and some idea of the breadth of his judgment and taste and helpfulness may be had. Why he could condescend even to me when, in my brave ignorance, I undertook to write that weekly column on Cookery for the Pall-Mall. He it was who gave me Dumas's Dictionnaire de la Cuisine, the corner-stone of my collection of cookery books—a fact in which I see so much of Henley that I feel as if the stranger to him who to-day takes the volume down from my shelves and reads on the fly-leaf the simple inscription, "To E.R.P. d.d. W.E.H.," in his little crooked and crabbed writing, must see in it the eloquent clue to his personality that it is to me.

III

I have said that Henley seldom came to us—as indeed he seldom went anywhere or, for that matter, seldom stayed at home—without a contingent of his Young Men in attendance. I do not believe I could ever have gone to his rooms in Great College Street, or to his house at Addiscombe, or in later, sadder days to the other, rather gloomy, house on the riverside at Barnes,—turned into some sort of college the last time I passed, with a long bare students' table in the downstairs dining-room where I had been warmed and thrilled by so much exhilarating talk,—that some of his Young Men were not there before me or did not come in before I left. In London, on his journeys to and fro, they surrounded him as a bodyguard. If on those old Thursday nights, his was the loudest voice, theirs played up to it untiringly. There were no half measures about them. As warriors in the cause of art and literature, they reserved nothing from their devotion to their leader, they exhausted every possibility of that form of flattery usually considered the greatest. They fought Henley's battles with hardly less valour, hardly milder roaring. On Thursday, they had been working with him all day and all evening, they probably had lunched together, and dined together, and yet so far from showing any desire to separate on their arrival in our rooms, they immediately grouped themselves again round Henley.

It was curious, anyway, how strong the tendency was with all the company to break up into groups. Work was the common bond, but there was also a special bond in each different kind of work. On my round as hostess I was sure to find the writers in one corner, the artists in another, the architects in a third—though to this day it is a question with me why we should have had enough architects to make a group and, more puzzling, why, having them, they should have been so unpopular, unless it was because of their air of prosperity and respectability, always as correct in appearance as if there was a possible client at the door. I can still recall the triumphant glee, out of all proportion to the cause, of one of Henley's Young Men the Thursday night he came to tell me that all the architects were safe out of the way in the studio, and "I have shut both doors," he added, "and now that we are rid of them we can talk." As if any of Henley's Young Men under any circumstances ever did anything else.

Some of Henley's staff, if I remember, never came to us, others came only occasionally, but a few failed us as rarely as Henley himself. The Thursday night was the exception that did not see Charles Whibley at Henley's right hand even as he was in the pages of the National Observer, not merely ready for the fight but provoking it, insisting upon it, forcing it, boisterous in battle, looking like an undergraduate, talking like a pastmaster of the art of invective, with a little stammer that gave point to his lightest commonplace. Rarely lagging very far behind came Marriott Watson, young, tall, blonde, good-looking—a something exotic, foreign in the good looks that I put down to New Zealand, for I suppose New Zealand as well as America has produced a type—not quite so truculent in talk as in print, more inclined to fight with a smile. A third was Wilfred Pollock, forgotten save by his friends I am afraid; and a fourth, Vernon Blackburn, who began life as a monk at Fort Augustus and finished it as a musical critic, he too I fear scarcely more than a name; and a fifth, Jack Stuart, and a sixth, Harold Parsons, and a seventh, and an eighth, and I can hardly now say how many more long since dead, now for me vague ghosts from out that old past so overflowing with life.

When William Waldorf Astor bought the Pall Mall Gazette and started the weekly Pall Mall Budget and the monthly Pall Mall Magazine, he presented Henley with two or three new Young Men and added to our company on Thursday nights, little as he had either of these achievements in view. His plunge into newspaper proprietorship was one of the newspaper ventures that counted for most in the Nineties. It was a venture inclining to amateurism in detail, but run on business, not romantic, lines and therefore it was less talked about than those purely amateur plunges into journalism which gave the Nineties so much of their picturesqueness. But all the same, we saw revolution in it, the possibility of wholesale regeneration, the inauguration of a new era, when "sham" would be exposed, and "Bleat" silenced, and art grow "Human" once more. In the Budget and the Magazine it was likewise to be proved that America and France were not alone in understanding and valuing the art of illustration:—vain hopes!

Henley and his Young Men rejoiced in a new sphere for fighting, certain of a brilliant victory, since they were to have a share in the command. Astor, with a fine fling for independence—his only one in public—or else with that old gentlemanly dream of a newspaper "written by gentlemen for gentlemen," had captured his editors in regions where editors are not usually hunted—Henry Cust, heir to a title, for the Gazette, Lord Frederick Hamilton, his title already inherited, for the Magazine. Fleet Street shrugged its shoulders, laughed a little, not believing title and rank to have the same value in journalism as in society. Cust, to do him justice, agreed with Fleet Street, and, knowing that he was without experience, had the sense to appeal for help to those with it. By good luck he went to Henley, who was not free to do much for the paper save give it his advice, offer it those of his Young Men whom he could spare, and take under his wing the new Young Men it invented for itself. When new enthusiasts fell into Henley's train, it was never long before they followed him to Buckingham Street on Thursday nights.

I could scarcely label as anybody's Young Man Iwan-Mueller, huge, half Russian, half English, all good comrade, who had come up from Manchester and the editorship of a leading paper there to be Cust's Assistant Editor. He was nearly Henley's contemporary, but he did not, for such a trifle as age, let any one of Henley's Young Men exceed him in devotion, and his laugh became the unfailing accompaniment of Henley's talk, so much so that I am convinced if Henley still leads the talk in the land beyond the grave, Iwan-Mueller still punctuates it with the big bracing laugh that was as big as himself.



At the other extreme, younger than the youngest of the Young Men he joined, came George W. Steevens, fresh from Oxford, Balliol Prize Scholar, shy and carrying it off, in the Briton's way, with appalling rudeness and more appalling silence. I remember J., upon whose nerves as well as mine this silence got, taking me apart one Thursday evening to tell me that if that young Oxford prig was too superior to talk to anybody, why then he was too superior to come to us at all, and he must be made to understand it. Eventually he learned to talk, with us anyway—he was always a silent man with most people. And I got to know him well, to like him, to admire him,—to respect him too through the long summer when his friends were doing their best to dissuade him from his proposed marriage with a woman many years older than he. The men of the National Observer and the Pall Mall were such keen fighters that they could not be kind or sentimental—and they grew maudlinly sentimental over Steevens's engagement—without a fight for it. They thought he was making a mistake, forgetting that it was his business, not theirs, if he was. He fought alone against them, but he held his place like a man and won. Our Thursday nights had come to an end before he went to America, to Germany, to Khartoum with Kitchener, to South Africa, where he passed into the great silence that no protest of ours, or any man's can break. If his work was overrated, he himself as I knew him was as kind and brave as in Henley's verse to his memory.

Others of the same group, the writers' group, who flit across the scene in my memory are less intimately associated with Henley. Harold Frederic wrote for him occasionally—wrote few things, indeed, more amusing than his Observations in Philistia, a satire first published in the National Observer—but his chief business was the novel and the New York Times correspondence. He was an able man, something more than the typical clever American journalist, a writer of books that deserve to be remembered but that have hardly outlived him. He was an amusing companion, the sort of man it was delightful to run across by chance in unexpected places, for which reason my most agreeable recollections of him are not in Buckingham Street but in the streets and cafes of Berlin and Vienna that summer he was studying Jews in Southeastern Europe, and first knew there were Jews in Vienna when J., who afterwards began to study them for himself, introduced him to the Juden Gasse. He liked a good dinner, and gave us more than one, and he was an amusing talker over it and also on our Thursday nights until he got to the stage he always did get to of telling tales of his boyhood when he carried milk to the big people in his part of the Mohawk Valley, was dazzled by his first vision of Brussels carpet on their floors, and determined to have Brussels carpet on his own before he was many years older, and I can answer for it that, by the time I knew him, his house was all Brussels carpet from top to bottom. They were most creditable tales and entertaining too at a first hearing, but they staled, as all tales must, with repetition.

S.R. Crockett never wrote anything for Henley. Henley would have been outraged by the bare suggestion, and Crockett the writer was never handled with the gloves by Henley's Young Men in the National Observer. But with Crockett himself they had no quarrel. We all liked him—a large red and white Scotchman, the Scots strong in every word he spoke, hustling us all off for a fish dinner at Greenwich on the strength of his first big cheque for royalties; or as happy to spend the evening sitting on our floor and diverting William Penn with the ball of paper on the end of a string that William never wearied of pursuing, partly for his amusement, partly because, with his innate politeness, he knew it contributed to ours.

I cannot imagine a Thursday night without Rosamund Marriott-Watson,—Graham R. Tomson as she was then,—beautiful, reminiscent of Rossetti in her tall, willowy slimness, with her long neck like a column and her great halo of black hair and her big brown eyes, appealing, confinding, beseeching. Fashion as she, the poetess, extolled it week by week in the National Observer, became a poem with a stately measure in frocks and hats, a flowing rhythm in every frill and furbelow. I lost sight of her later, for reasons neither here nor there, but it pleases me to know that not many months before her death she looked back to those years as her happiest when weekly, almost daily, she was going up and down the Buckingham Street stairs which her ghost, she said, must haunt until they go the way of too many old stairs leading up to old London chambers. Violet Hunt was almost as faithful. And both contributed, as I did, a weekly column—mine that amazing article on cookery—to the Pall Mall's daily Wares of Autolycus, daily written by women and I daresay believed by us to be the most entertaining array of unconsidered trifles that any Autolycus had ever offered to any eager world. Graham Tomson was even moved to commemorate our collaboration in verse the inspiration of which is not far to seek, but of which all I remember now is the beginning:

O, there's Mrs. Meynell and Mrs. Pennell, There's Violet Hunt and me!

for Mrs. Meynell contributed a fourth column, though she never contributed her presence to Buckingham Street.

Once or twice, George Moore hovered from group to group, his childlike eyes of wonder protruding, wide open, and his ears open too, no doubt, for, if I can judge from his several books of reminiscences, his ears have rarely been closed to talk going on about him. After reading the Irish series I should suspect him not only of well-opened ears but of an inexhaustible supply of cuffs safely stored up his sleeves. Bernard Shaw honoured us occasionally, but I have learned that, bent as he is upon talking about himself, whatever he has to say, he grows more fastidious when others talk about him and say what they have to. Now and then, Henry Norman, journalist, his title and seat in Parliament yet to come, dropped in. Now and then Miss Preston and Miss Dodge came, both in London to finish in the British Museum the studies begun in Rome. Rarely a week passed that James G. Legge was not with us, then deep in his work at the Home Office but full of joy in everything that was most joyful in the Nineties—its fights, its books, its prints, its posters. And I might name many besides, some forgotten, some dead, some seen no more by me, life being often more cruel than death in the separations and divisions it makes. But two voices above the others are almost as persistent in my ears as Henley's—the voices of Bob Stevenson and Henry Harland.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse