I have no fancy for nicknames in any place or at any time. I have suffered too much from my own. But I dislike the familiarity of them above all in print. And yet, I could no more call Bob Stevenson anything save Bob than I could venture to abbreviate the Robert or the Louis of his cousin. He had been given in baptism a more formal name—in fact, he had been given three of unquestioned dignity: Robert Alan Mowbray. But I doubt if anybody had ever known him by them or if he had ever used them himself. When he wrote he signed his fine array of initials, and when he was not R.A.M.S., he was Bob.
It seems to me now a curious chance, as well as a piece of good luck, that the two most eloquent of the company in Louis Stevenson's Talk and Talkers should have come to us on our Thursday nights, for Bob was the Spring-Heeled Jack, "the loud, copious, and intolerant talker" of that essay just as Henley was the Burly.
He was not more spring-heeled in his talk than in evading capture for it. In his later years he made few visits. If we wanted him we had to gather him up by the wayside and bring him home with us. The newspaper work I was doing then took me the rounds of the London galleries on press days and, as he was the art critic of the Pall Mall, I was continually coming across him busy about the same work in Bond Street or Piccadilly. Nothing pleased me better than to meet him on these occasions, for he could make the dull show that I, in my dull way, was finding dull the most entrancing entertainment in London. His every visit to a gallery was to him an adventure and every picture a romance, and the best of it for his friends was that he would willingly share the inspiration which he, but nobody else, could find in the most uninspiring canvas, an inspiration to criticism that is, not to admiration—he never wavered in his allegiance to the "Almighty Swells" of Art. Once he began to talk I did not care to have him stop, and I would say, "Why not come to Buckingham Street with me? You have not seen J. for a long while." He would vow he couldn't, he must get back to Kew to do his article. I would insist a little, he would waver a little, and at last he would agree to a minute's talk with J., excusing himself to himself by protesting that Buckingham Street was on his way to the Underground, as it was if he chose to go out of his way to make it so. Before he knew it, the minute had stretched out to our dinner hour when he was persuaded that he would save time by dining with us, as he must dine somewhere; if he went right afterwards, he could still be back at Kew in plenty of time to finish his article for the last post.
Of course he never did go right afterwards—what talker ever did go right anywhere immediately after dinner when the real talk is only beginning? Presently people would filter in and now, well adrift on the flood of his own eloquence, nothing could interrupt him and he was the last to leave us, the later it grew the more easily induced to stay because he knew that the last train and the last post and all the last things of the day had gone and that he must now wait for the first things of the morning.
If I could talk like Bob Stevenson I would not be interrupted either. Greater excitement could not be had out of the most exciting story of adventure, and I do not believe he knew until he got to the end any more where his talk was going to lead him than the reader knows how the story is going to turn out until the last chapter is reached. Louis Stevenson described certain qualities of his talk, but made no effort to give the talk itself, and in Bob's case, as in Henley's, it was the talk itself that counted. There was no acting in it as in Henley's or in Whistler's—no burying of his head in his hands and violent gestures—no well-placed laugh and familiar phrase. The talk came in a steady stream, laughter occasionally in the voice, but no break, no movement, no dramatic action—the sanest doctrine set forth with almost insane ingenuity, for he was always the "wild dog outside the kennel" who wouldn't imitate and hence kept free, as Louis Stevenson told him; extraordinary things treated quite as a matter of course; brilliant flashes of imbecility passed for cool well-balanced argument; until often I would suddenly gasp, wondering into what impossible world I had strayed after him. And he would tell the most extravagant tales, he would confide the most paradoxical philosophy, the most topsy-turvy ethics, with a fantastic seriousness, never approached except in the Arabian Nights of Prince Florizel for the puppets of whose adventures, as for Spring-Heeled Jack, he was the sitter. It was a delightful accomplishment, but dangerous when applied to actual life. I cannot forget his advice once to a friend on the verge of a serious step that might sink him into nobody could foretell what social quagmire. Bob could see in it only the adventure and the joy of adventure, not the price fate was bound to demand for it. To him the mistake was the unlit lamp, the ungirt loin—the adventure lost—and, life being what it is, I am not sure that he was not right.
I think his talk struck me as the more extraordinary because he looked so little like it. In the Nineties he had taken to the Jaegers that usually stand for vegetarianism, teetotalism, hygiene—all the drab things of life. He wore even a Jaeger hat and Jaeger boots—as complete an advertisement for Jaeger as old Joseph Finsbury was for his Doctor. No costume could have seemed so altogether out of character with the fantastic, delightful, extravagant creature inside of it, though, really, none could have been more in character. It had always been Bob's way to play the game of life by dressing the part of the moment. Before I met him I had been told of his influence over Louis Stevenson, whose debt to him for ideas and conceits was said to be immeasurable, and nobody who knew Bob has doubted it. I feel convinced that Louis owed to him also his touch of the fantastic, the unusual, in dress, since it belonged so entirely to Bob and was no less entirely in keeping with his attitude towards the universe and his place in it—his tendency of always probing the real for the romantic.
Knowing one cousin and the books of the other, I should say it was Bob who, in their childhood, originated the drama of the Lantern-Bearers and the evil-smelling lantern under the great coat, symbol of adventure and daring—that it was Bob who, in their gay youth, evolved the black flannel shirts to which they owed the honour of being, with Lord Salisbury, the only Britons ever refused admission to the Casino at Monte Carlo, and which were worn by the Stennis Brothers in The Wrecker,—that it was Bob who impressed upon Louis the importance of being dressed for the scene until he surpassed himself in his amazing get-up for the Epilogue to an Inland Voyage. Bob's own disguises rarely got into print, but in Will Low's Chronicle of Friendships there is a photograph of him in his student days, figuring as a sort of brigand of old-fashioned comic opera, that shows he did not from the beginning shirk the obligations he imposed upon others. I remember a huge ring, inherited from his father to whom the Czar had given it for engineering services in Russia, which he kept for formal occasions so that when I saw it covering his finger, almost his hand, at the dinner to which we had both been invited, I understood that to him the occasion was one of ceremony and he never failed to regulate his conduct accordingly. I was glad the ring did not appear on our Thursday nights, so much freer of formality, and therefore more amusing, was he without it. The large perfection of his Jaegers in his last years was no less symbolic; in them he was dressed for the role of middle age which he, who had the gift of eternal youth, had already reached when I first knew him. It was a role to which, at the time, I attributed his concern about his health—his anxiety to know if we, any of us, had influenza before he would come home with me, his rush from the room or the house at a sniff or a sneeze. The truth is Bob shared Henley's love of the visible sign, or it may be nearer the truth to say that he shared his own love of it with Henley and his cousin who rarely, either of them, wrote anything in which it is not felt.
But Henley loved the visible sign for itself—the romance was actually in the tap-tap of the blind man's staff, in the pagan obelisk towering above the Christian river. Bob loved the visible sign for the hint it gave to his imagination, the adventure upon which it sent him galloping. He could build up a romance out of anything and nothing—he was the modern Scheherezade, but, as time went on, with nobody to repeat his stories. He could have made the fortune of any number of young men with their cuffs ready, but the only young man who ever did use his cuff was Louis Stevenson when they were young together. Bob had not the energy to put down his stories himself—he would not have written a word for publication had he not been forced to. For him the romance would have been lost in the labour of recording it, and, anyway, he was always consistent in not doing more work than he was obliged to in order to live. He had not the talent for combining, or identifying, his pleasure with his work. Painting was the profession for which he had been trained, but with it he amused himself and, as far as I know, never made a penny out of it. When he talked he would have lost his joy in the invention, the fabrication, had he thought he must turn it to profit. Of the curious twist of his imagination there remains but the faint reflection here and there in Prince Florizel and the romantic adventurers swaggering and talking splendid nonsense through the earlier tales by Louis Stevenson, whose books grew less and less fantastic as his path and Bob's spread wider apart. Even in the earlier tales Bob will not be discovered by future generations who have lost the key.
For the sake of posterity, if not for my own, I would have been wiser on Thursday nights to think less of my next morning's article than of his inventions. As it is, I retain merely a general impression and an occasional detail of his talk. I am glad I remember, for one thing, his unfailing prejudice in favour of his friends, so amiable was the side of his character it revealed—though it revealed also his weakness as critic. He had a positive genius for veiling prosaic facts with romance where the people he liked were concerned. How often have we laughed at his amiability to a painter of the commonplace who had happened to be his fellow-student in Paris, whose work, as a consequence, his friendly imagination filled with the fine things that to us were conspicuously missing, and whose name he dragged into every criticism he wrote, even into his Monograph on Velasquez, nor could he be laughed, or argued out of it.
And I am glad I remember another trick of his imagination, though it was like to end in disaster for us all, so equally characteristic was it of his genius in weaving romance from prose. He was talking one evening of wine, upon which he had large—Continental—ideas, declaring he would not have it in his house unless all his family, including the servants, could drink it without stint and also without thought of expense—though, if I am not mistaken, his household staff consisted chiefly of a decent old Scotchwoman who would have scorned wine as a device of the foreigner. The triumphant ring of his voice is still in my ears as he announced that he had found a merchant who could provide him with just the wine he wanted, good, pure, light, white or red, an ordinary brand for sevenpence a bottle, a superior brand for eightpence.
The marvel of it all was that we believed in that wine and when the company left for home, the merchant's address was in almost everybody's pocket. It was not a bad wine in the sample bottles J. and I received a day or two later, nothing much to boast of, but harmless. For the further cheapness promised we next ordered it by the case, one of red and one of white—a rare bargain we thought. But in the end it was the most expensive wine it has ever been our misfortune to invest in. For when it came in cases it was so potent that nobody could drink as much as a glass without going to sleep. I never had it analyzed, but, after a couple of bottles, I did not dare to put it on the table again, or to use it even for cooking or as vinegar. To balance our accounts, we did without wine of any kind, or at any price, for many a week to come. But we had our revenge. In the course of a few months Bob's wine merchant was summoned before the magistrate for manufacturing Bordeaux and Burgundies out of Greek currants and more reprehensible materials in the backyard of his unpretending riverside house, and it was one of our Thursday night fellow victims who had the pleasure of exposing him in the Daily Chronicle. Bob did not share our resentment. He had his pleasure in the charm his imagination gave to every drop of the few bottles he drank and managed not to die of.
I began to notice in the galleries and on Thursday nights that Bob became more and more engrossed in the question of his health and quicker to fly at a sniff or a sneeze. The time came when no persuasion could bring him home with me. He described symptoms rather than pictures, his interest in anything in the shape of paint weakened. I fancied that he was romancing, that he was playing the hypochondriac as part of his role of middle-age, and I thought it a pity. It might provide a new entertainment for him, but it deprived us of the entertainment of his company. Then I hardly met him at all, or if I did he was too nervous to linger before each painting or drawing, to gossip about it and everything under the sun. He would walk through the galleries with one leg dragging a little—the visible sign, I would say to myself, amused to see that he could turn romance into reality as easily as reality into romance. He would start for Kew right off, without any loitering, without any delicious pretending that he was going in the very next train and then not going until the very next train meant the very next day. But before long I learned that there was no romance about it, that it was grim reality, the grimmer to me because I had taken it so lightly. His illness was mere rumour at first, for few people went to his house in far Kew to see him. It was more than rumour when he ceased altogether to appear in the galleries, for we knew he was dependent upon art criticism for his butter, if not for most of his bread. I had not got as far as belief in his illness before the news came that he had set out upon the greatest adventure of all and that no more would Buckingham Street be transfigured in the light of his romancing, glorified by his inexhaustible fancy. I owed him much: the charm of the personality of "this delightful and wonderful creature" in Henley's words of him, pleasure from his talk, stimulus from his criticism, and I wish I had had the common sense to do what I could to make him live as a pleasure and a stimulus to others. My mistake on our Thursday nights was to keep my cuff clean, my note-book empty.
In the case of Henry Harland my conscience makes me no such reproach. If ever a man became his own Boswell it was he, though I do not suppose anything was further from his mind when he sat down to write. But as he talked, so he wrote—he could not help himself—and all who have read the witty, gay, whimsical, fantastic talk of his heroes and heroines, especially in his last three books, have listened to him. He, no less than his Adrian Willes—even if quite another man was the model—never understood how it was possible for people to be bored. Flaubert once said in a letter, "Life is so hideous that the only way of enduring it is to avoid it." But Harland believed in plunging into it headlong and getting everything that is to be got out of it. He had eyes to see that "life is just one sequence of many-coloured astonishments", and the colours were the gayer when he came to our Thursday nights because he was still so young.
He and Mrs. Harland had been in London only a few years, his career as Sydney Luska was behind him, his career as Henry Harland was before him, he was full of life, energy, enthusiasm, deep in long novels, busy for the Daily Chronicle, writing as hard as he talked, and he talked every bit as hard as Bob Stevenson.
Like Bob, he seemed to love talk more than anything, but he must have loved work as Bob never loved it, for he put the quality of his talk into what he wrote. Bob Stevenson's writing never suggested his talk. I might find his point of view and his amiable prejudices in his criticism and his books—only he could have written his Velasquez quite as he wrote it—but nowhere do I find a touch, a trace of the Lantern-Bearer or Prince Florizel or the Young Man with the Cream Tarts. But I never get far away from Harland in his novels. I re-read them a short time ago, and they were a magic carpet to bear me straight back to Buckingham Street, and the crowded, smoky rooms overlooking the river, and the old years when we were all young together.
A delightful thing about Harland was that he did not care to monopolize the talk, to talk everybody else down. On the contrary, I doubt if he was ever happier than when he roused, provoked, stimulated everybody to talk with him. I remember in particular an evening when J. and I were dining with him and Mrs. Harland at their Kensington flat, and Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Gosse were there, and Mr. and Mrs. W.J. Fisher—Fisher was then editor of the Daily Chronicle and Mrs. Fisher was still Adrienne Dayrolles on the stage—and Louis Austen, a handy man of journalism, and when, happening to turn for a minute from Harland by whom I was sitting, and to look round the table, I found I was the only one of the party not talking—and we had got no farther than the fish! But I flatter myself I have few rivals as an accomplished listener.
Often Harland had the floor to himself simply because everybody else wanted to listen too. When what he calls in one of his books "the restorative spirit of nonsense" descended upon him, his talk could whisk off the whole Thursday night crowd, before they knew it, to that delectable Land of Nonsense to which he was an inspired guide. Nobody understood better how to set up the absurd and the impossible in the garb of truth. An old admirer of his reminded me not long since of a tale he used to tell, almost with tears in his voice, of the petit patissier who was hurrying through the streets of Paris to deliver brioches and tarts to customers and who, crossing the Boulevards, was knocked down by a big three-horse omnibus. And as the crowd collected and the sergent-de-ville arrived, he was seen painfully and deliberately freeing his one uninjured arm, feeling carefully in pocket after pocket, and, as he drew his last breath, holding up triumphantly the exact number of francs the Parisian on foot then had to pay for venturing rashly to get in the way of the Paris driver. And Harland told it all with such eloquence that it was some minutes before those who listened realised he was laughing and began to laugh with him. And the tale was typical of many others he loved to tell. As his talk led the way to the Land of Nonsense, so he himself could of a sudden whirl us all off to a restaurant, or a park, or an excursion we had not thought of an hour, a minute before. Many a time, instead of sitting solemnly at home reading or working as we had meant to, we would be going down the river in a penny steamboat, or drinking coffee at the Cafe Royal or tea in Kensington Gardens—but Harland as an inspired guide was at his best in Paris I always thought, perhaps because in Paris he had so much larger scope than in London.
He impressed one as a man who never tired, or who never gave in to being tired, either at work or at play—a man who, knowing his days would be few on this earth, found each fair as it passed and, if he could not bid it stay, was at least determined to fill it as full as it would hold. There was no resisting his restless energy when with him, and it was because he could so little resist it himself, that he was continually seeking new outlets—new forms for its expression. He had just the temperament to take up with the mode of the Nineties that drove the Young Men to asserting themselves and upholding their doctrines in papers and magazines of their own. The pedant may trace the fashion back to the Hobby-horse of the Eighties, or, in a further access of pedantry to the Germ of the early Fifties. He may follow its growth as late as the Blast of yesterday and The Gypsy of to-day. But I do not have to go further than my book shelves, I have only to look and see there the Dial and the Yellow Book and the Savoy and the Butterfly and the Pageant and the Dome and the Evergreen, each with its special train of memories and associations, and I know better than the greatest pedant of them all that the fashion, no matter when it began, no matter when it may end, belongs as essentially to the Nineties as the fashion for the crinoline belongs to the Sixties. Harland was not original in wanting to set up a pulpit for himself—the originality was in the design for it. The Yellow Book was not like any other quarterly from which any other young man or group did his preaching.
Harland shared his pulpit. He would not have found the same design for it without Beardsley, nor would our Thursday nights, where a good deal of that design was thought out and talked out, have been the same without Beardsley. I would find it hard, even had there been no Yellow Book, not to remember Harland and Beardsley together. For it was from Mrs. Harland that we first heard of the wonderful youth, unknown still, an insignificant clerk in some Insurance Company, who made the most amazing drawings—it was she who first sent him to us that J. might look at his work and help him to escape from the office he hated and from the toils of Burne-Jones and the Kelmscott Press in which he was entangled.
He came, the first time, one afternoon in the winter dusk—a boy, tall and slight, long narrow pale clean-shaven face, hair parted in the middle and hanging over his forehead, nose prominent, eyes alight, certain himself of the worth of his drawings, too modest not to fear that other artists might not agree with him. The drawings in his little portfolio were mostly for the Morte d' Arthur, with one or two of those, now cherished by the collector, that have a hint of the Japanese under whose influence he momentarily passed. J. enjoys the reputation, which he deserves, of telling the truth always, no matter how unpleasant to those to whom he tells it. Truth to Beardsley was pleasant and his face was radiant when he left us. J. has also the courage of his convictions, and all he said to Beardsley he repeated promptly to the public in the first number of The Studio, a magazine started not as a pulpit but as a commercial enterprise—started, however, at the right moment to be kindled into life and steered toward success by the enthusiasm and the energy of the Young Men of the Nineties.
Beardsley was bound to become known whether articles were written about him or not. But J.'s was the first and made recognition come the sooner. The heads of many young men grow giddy with the first success; at the exultant top of the winding stair that leads to it, they no longer see those who gave them a hand when they balanced on the lowest rung. But Beardsley was not made that way. He kept his head cool, his eyesight clear. He never forgot. Gratitude coloured the friendship with us that followed, even in the days when he was one of the most talked about men in London. He knew that always by his work alone he would be judged at Buckingham Street, and to J. he brought his drawings and his books for criticism. He brought his schemes as well, just as he brought the youth not only of years but of temperament to our Thursday nights. He came almost as regularly as Henley and Henley's Young Men, adding his young voice to the uproar of discussion, as full of life as if he too, like Harland, grudged a minute of the years he knew for him were counted. In no other house where it was my pleasure to meet him did he seem to me to show to such advantage. In his own home I thought him overburdened by the scheme of decoration he had planned for it. In many houses to which he was asked he was amiable enough to assume the pose expected of him. The lion-hunters hoped that Beardsley would be like his drawings. Strange, decadent, morbid, bizarre, weird, were adjectives bestowed upon them, and he played up to the adjectives for the edification or mystification of the people who invented them and for his own infinite amusement. But with us he did not have to play up to anything and could be just the simple, natural youth he was—as simple and natural as I have always found the really great, more interested in his work than most young men, and keener for success.
I like to insist upon his simplicity because people now, who judge him by his drawings, would so much rather insist upon his perversity and his affectation. How can you reconcile that sort of thing with simplicity? They will ask, pointing to drawings of little mocking satyrs and twisted dwarfs and grotesques and extravagant forms and leering faces and a suggestion of one can hardly say what. But it might as well be asked why the mediaeval artist delighted to carve homely, familiar scenes and incidents, and worse, in the holiest places, to lavish his ingenuity upon the demons and devils above the doors leading into his great churches; why a philosopher like Rabelais chose to express the wisest thought in the most indecent fooling; why every genius does not look out upon life and the world with the same eyes and find the same method to record what he sees. Some men can only marvel with Louis Stevenson at the wide contrast between the "prim obliterated polite face of life" and its "orgiastic foundations"; others are only reconciled to it by the humour in the contrast or by the pity invoked by its victims. What makes the genius is just the fact that he looks out upon life, that he feels, that he uses his eyes, in his own way; also, that he invents his own methods of expression. Beardsley saw the satire of life, he loved the grotesque which has so gone out of date in our matter-of-fact day that we almost forget what it means, and no doubt disease gave a morbid twist to his vision and imagination. But, above all, he was young, splendidly young: young when he began work, young when he finished work. He had the curiosity as to the world and everything in it that is the divine right of youth, and he had the gaiety, the exuberance, the flamboyancy, the fun of the youth destined to do and to triumph. Already, in his later work, are signs of the passing of the first youthful stage of his art. It is suggestive to contrast the conventional landscapes with the grinning little monstrosities in some of the illustrations for the Rape of the Lock; the few drawings for his Volpone have a dignity he had not hitherto achieved.
Nobody can be surprised if some of the gaiety and exuberance and fun got no less into his manner towards the people whose habit is to shield their eyes with the spectacles of convention. Beardsley had a keen sense of humour that helped him to snatch all the joy there is in the old, time-honoured, youthful game of getting on the nerves of established respectability. Naturally, so Robert Ross, his friend, has said of him, "he possessed what is called an artificial manner"; that is, his manner was called affected, as was his art, because it wasn't exactly like everybody else's. I have never yet come across the genius whose manner was exactly like everybody else's, and shyness, self-consciousness, counted for something in his, at least at the start. He had only to exaggerate this manner, or mannerism, to set London talking. It was the easier because rumours quickly began to go about of the darkened room in which he worked, of his turning night into day and day into night like Huysmans's hero, and of this or of that strange habit or taste, until people began to see all sorts of things in him that weren't there, just as they read all sorts of things into his drawings that he never put into them, always seeking what they were determined to find. To many there was uncanniness in the very extent of his knowledge, in his wide reading, in his mastery of more than one art, for, if he had not been an artist, he most assuredly would have been a musician or a writer. Added to all this, was the abnormal notice he attracted almost at once, the diligence with which he was imitated and parodied and the rapidity with which a Beardsley type leaped into fashion.
Of course Beardsley enjoyed it. What youth of his age would not have enjoyed the excitement of such a success? It would have been morbid at his age not to enjoy it. He never seemed to me more simply himself than when he was relating his adventures and laughing at them with all the fresh, gay laughter of the boy—the wonderful boy—he was. Arthur Symons wrote of him, I have forgotten where, that he admired himself enormously. I should say that he was amused by himself enormously and was quite ready to pose and to bewilder for the sake of the amusement it brought him. He was never spoiled nor misled by either his fame or his notoriety.
It was so Beardsley's habit to consult J. that he would have asked advice, if Harland had not, for The Yellow Book which went through several stages of its preliminary planning in the old Buckingham Street chambers. Among the vivid memories of our Thursday nights one is of Harland taking J. apart for long, intimate discussions in a corner of the studio, and another of Beardsley taking him off for confidences as intimate and long, and my impression in looking back, though I may be mistaken, is that each had his personal little scheme for a journal of his own before he decided to share it with the other. It was characteristic of the friendliness of both that they should have insisted upon J. figuring in the first number. As vivid in my memory is the warm spring morning when Beardsley, his face beaming with joy, called to give me an early copy of this first number, with a little inscription from him on the fly-leaf—I have just taken down the volume from the near book shelf—"To Mrs. Pennell from Aubrey Beardsley" I read, as commonplace an inscription as ever artist or author wrote, but, reading it, I see as if it were yesterday the sunlit Buckingham Street room where I used to work, William Penn curled up on my desk, and, coming in the door, the radiant youth with the gay-covered book in his hands.
And there followed the dinner—the amazing dinner as unlike the usual formal dinner of inauguration as could be. It was given in an upper room of the Hotel d'Italie in Old Compton Street and was as free of ceremony as our Thursday nights. The men were in dress suits or tweeds as they chose, the women in evening or tailor gowns according to their convenience. I have an impression that more people came than were expected and that it was all the waiters could do to serve them. I know I was much more concerned with my discomfort to find that Harland and Beardsley, for the first time in my experience, had forgotten how to talk. Everybody else was talking. I can still see the animated faces and hear the animated voices of Mrs. Harland and John Oliver Hobbes and Menie Muriel Dowie and Kenneth Grahame and George Moore and John Lane and Max Beerbohm, and all the brand-new writers prepared to shock, or to "uplift," or to pull down old altars and set up new ones, or any other of the fine things that were to make the Yellow Book a force and famous. But also I can still feel the heavy, unnatural silence of the two editors from which I was the chief sufferer, to me having fallen the honour of sitting in the centre of the high table between them. J. was away and, in his absence, I was distinguished by this mark of Beardsley's appreciation and Harland's friendliness. I was greatly flattered, but less entertained. They were both as nervous as debutantes at a first party. Shrinking from the shadow cast before by their coming speeches, neither of them had as much as a word to throw me. Nor could they concentrate their distracted thoughts upon the menu—plate after plate was taken away untouched, while I kept on emptying mine in self-defence, to pass the time, wondering if, in my role of the Pall Mall's "greedy Autolycus," my friends would now convict me of the sin of public eating as well as what they had been pleased to pretend was my habit of "private eating," for not otherwise, they would assure me, could they account for the unfailing flamboyancy of my weekly article on cookery. Seated between the two men, in their hours of ease when they were not editors, my trouble would have been to listen to both at the same moment and to get a word in edgewise. However, when the speeches were over the strain was relaxed. The evening ended in the accustomed floods of talk;—on the way from the Hotel d'Italie; at the Bodley Head, John Lane's new premises in the Albany to which he took us all that we might see the place from which the Yellow Book was to be published; round a little table with a red-and-white checked cover in the basement of the Monico, the company now reduced to Harland and Mrs. Harland, Beardsley, Max Beerbohm and two or three others whose faces have grown dim in my memory, everybody as unwilling to break up the meeting as on Thursday nights in our Buckingham Street rooms. And with these ceremonies the Yellow Book was launched into life.
I am not sure what the Yellow Book means to others—to those others who buy it now in the thirteen volumes of the new edition and prize it as a strange record of a strange period, from which they feel as far removed as we felt from the Sixties. But to me, the bright yellow-bound volumes mean youth, gay, irresponsible, credulous, hopeful youth, and Thursday night at Buckingham Street in full swing. To be sure the Yellow Book was never so young as it was planned to be. It did not represent only les Jeunes, who would have kept it all to themselves in their first mad, exuberant, reckless springtime. But they were not strong enough to stand alone, as les Jeunes seldom are, or have been through the ages. It was more original in its art than in its literature. Some of the youngest writers were "discoveries" of Henley's, while some who actually were "discovered" by the Yellow Book have faded out of sight. Many were men of name and fame well established. Hamerton, almost at the end of his career, Henry James in the full splendour of his maturity, Edmund Gosse with his reputation already assured, were as welcome as the youngest of the young men and women who had never printed a line before. So identified with "this passage of literary history"—in his words—was Henry James that he has recorded the preliminary visit of "a young friend [Harland of course], a Kensington neighbour and an ardent man of letters," with "a young friend of his own," in whom there is no mistaking Beardsley, "to bespeak my interest for a periodical about to take birth in his hands, on the most original 'lines' and with the happiest omen." But there was youth in this readiness for hero-worship—youth in this tribute to the older men whose years could not dim the brilliance nor lessen the power of their work in the eyes of the new generation—the fragrance of youth exudes from the pages of the Yellow Book as I turn them over again, in places the fragrance of infancy, the young contributors so young as to seem scarcely out of their swaddling clothes. At the time the energy and zest put into it had an equal savour of youth. And altogether it gave us all a great deal to talk about, so that I see in it now a sort of link to join on Thursday nights the different groups from their opposing corners, supplying to writers and artists one subject of the same interest to both. It even opened the door to the architects, one of whom went so far as to neglect architecture and to emulate Ibsen in a play.
The last thing I foresaw for the Yellow Book was a speedy end or, for the matter of that, any end at all, so overflowing was it with the spirit of youth and energy, war and enthusiasm. But the end came surprisingly soon. To remind me, were I in danger of forgetting, another book stands on our shelves close to the First Volume of the Yellow Book:—the First Volume of the Savoy, on its fly-leaf again Beardsley's inscription simple as himself, "Mrs. Pennell, with kindest regards from Aubrey Beardsley," and only a little less than two years between the dates of the two. And the beginning of the Savoy meant the end of the Yellow Book, whose life was short after Beardsley left it. Why he left it has nothing to do with the story of our Thursday nights, when no obstacle, great or small, would have been put in its way by us who held youth and energy, war and enthusiasm above most things in demand and honour. But I question if the time has come for the full telling of the story, wherever or with whom the blame may lie. That an objection was raised to Beardsley's presence in the Yellow Book, though without Beardsley there would have been no Yellow Book, is known and has been told in print, the reason being that Victorian sham prudery and respectability had not been totally wiped out for all the hard fighting of the Fighting Nineties. Beardsley was not slain, he was not defeated, at once he reappeared on the battle-field with the Savoy, Arthur Symons his fellow editor. But by now the enemy never yet conquered on this earth held him in deadly grip, and the fight he had to fight sent him from London to Bournemouth, to Saint-Germain, to Dieppe, to Mentone in search of health. He was the youngest of that old Thursday night crowd and he was the first to go, and the Savoy went with him, and before he had gone our Thursday nights were already but a landmark in memory, so quickly does the flame of youth burn out.
By another of our happy chances Phil May came as assiduously on our Thursday nights as Beardsley, and they were two of the artists, though their art was as the poles apart, who had most influence on the black-and-white of the Nineties—it will be seen from this that I refrain from saying what I think of J. and his influence, but it is considered almost as indiscreet, almost as bad form, to admit the excellence or importance of one's husband's work as to pretend to any in one's own.
If no drawings could have been less like Beardsley's than Phil May's neither could two men have been more utterly unlike. Some friends of Beardsley's believe that he was happiest where there was most noise, most people, most show, which, however, was not my impression. But when there was the noise of people about him, he might be relied upon to contribute his share and to take part in whatever show was going. I question if Phil May was happy at all unless in the midst of many people and much noise, whether at home or abroad, but to their noise, anyway, he had not the least desire to add. Beardsley was fond of talk, always had something to say, was always eager to say it. All Phil May asked was not to be expected to say anything, to be allowed to smile amiably his dissent or approval. Had the rest of our company been of his mind in the matter, it would not have been so much easier for us to start the talk at once than to stop it at a reasonable hour, our Thursday nights would not have been so deafening with talk that I do not yet understand why the other tenants in the house did not unite in an indignant protest to the landlord.
It was not laziness that kept him silent. He had not a touch of laziness in his composition. His drawings look so simple that people thought they were dashed off at odd moments. But over them he took the infinite pains and time considered by the wise to be the true secret of genius. It may be he expressed himself so well in lines he had no use for words. The one indisputable fact is that he would do anything to escape talking. I recall a night—not a Thursday night though he finished it in our rooms—when he had been invited to lecture to a Woman's Club at the Society of Arts. He appeared on the platform with a formidable-looking MS. in his hand, but he put it down at once and spent his appointed hour in making drawings on big sheets of paper arranged for an occasional illustration. He had more to say than I ever heard him say anywhere, when we got back to Buckingham Street. The MS. was all right, he assured us, a capital lecture written for him by a friend, but it began "Far be it from me" something or other, he didn't wait to see what, for, as far as he got, it did not sound like him, did it? and we could honestly agree that it did not.
He could talk. I must not give the idea that he could not. I know some of his friends who do not share or accept unqualified my memory of him as a silent man. But he talked most and best when he had but a single companion, and nothing could persuade me that he was not always relieved, when the chance came, to let others do the talking for him.
I do not know what the attraction was that made everybody like him, not merely the riffraff and the loafers who hung about his studio and waylaid him in the street for what they could get out of him, but all sorts of people who asked for nothing save his company—I could never define the attraction to myself. It was not his looks. Even before his last years, when he was the image of J.J. Shannon's portrait of him, his appearance was not prepossessing. He dressed well according to his ideals. Beardsley was not more of a dandy; but Beardsley was the dandy of Piccadilly or the Boulevards, Phil May was the dandy of the race-course. He brought with him that inevitable, indescribable look that the companionship of horses gives and that in those days broke out largely in short, wide-spreading covert coats and big pearl buttons. I have always been grateful to the man who enlivens the monotony of dress by a special fashion of his own, provided it belongs to him. The horsy costume did belong to May, for he rode and hunted and was a good deal with horses, but it was borrowed by some of his admirers until it degenerated into almost as great an affectation as the artist's velvet jacket and long hair, or the high stock and baggy corduroys of the Latin Quarter imported into Chelsea. When the Beggarstaff Brothers, as Pryde and Nicholson called themselves in those old days, would wander casually into our rooms at the end of six or eight feet of poster that they had brought to show J. and that needed a great deal of manipulation to bring in at all, they looked as if the stable, not the studio, was their workshop. And one young genius of an illustrator, who could not afford to ride, and who I do not believe had ever been on a horse in his life, could not mount the bus in his near suburb without putting on riding breeches. But Phil May's dress was as essentially his as his silence.
Neither his looks nor his silence, however original and personal, could have been the cause of the charm he undeniably possessed. I think he was one of the people whom one feels are nice instinctively, without any reason. He was sympathetic and responsive, serious when the occasion called for it, foolish when folly was in order. It wasn't only in his drawings that he was ready to wear the cap and bells. I know an artist, one of whose cherished memories of Phil May is of the Christmas Eve when they both rang Lord Leighton's door-bell and ran away and back to Phil May's studio on the other side of the road, and Phil May was as pleased as if it had been a masterpiece for Punch. He was naturally kind,—amiable perhaps because it was the simplest thing to be. In his own house his amiability forced him to break his silence, but his remarks then, as far as I heard them, were usually confined to the monotonous offer "Have a cigar!" "Have a whiskey-and-soda!" or "Have a drawing!" if anyone happened to express admiration for his work. Had we accepted this last offer every time it was made to us, we would have a fine collection of Phil May's, while, as it is, we do not own as much as a single sketch given to us by him. Visitors who did not share our scruples have found their steady attendance at his Sunday nights one of the best investments they ever made.
Away from his own house, on our Thursday nights, relieved of the necessity to offer anything, this being now our business, his conversation was more limited than in his own place. My memory of him is of an ugly, delightful, smiling, silent man, sitting astride a chair, his arms resting on the back, a big cigar in his mouth, and around him a band of devoted admirers as fully prepared and equipped to do the talking for him as he was to let them do it. He held his court as royally among illustrators as Henley among his Young Men, and if nobody contributed so little to the talk as Phil May, around nobody else, except Henley, did so much of the talk centre.
In my recollections of Phil May astride his chair on Thursday nights, Hartrick and Sullivan are never very long absent. Nobody knew better than they the beauty of his work—to hear them talk about his line was to be convinced that the supreme interest in life was the expressive quality of a line made with pen in black ink on a piece of white paper. The appearance of The Parson and the Painter was one of the events of the Nineties—though it was not boomed into notoriety as were the performances of some other illustrators of the period as ingenious as Barnum in the art of advertisement—and there was not an artist who did not hail May as a master. But Hartrick and Sullivan went further. They were not only such good artists themselves that they could appreciate genius in others, they were young enough not to be afraid of their enthusiasms. They gave the effect of being with May, with whom they often arrived and stayed until the deplorably early hour of the morning at which he started for home, in order that they might watch over him, and, indeed, he needed watching. He was not readier in offering than in giving anything he was asked for, which was one reason why there was always a procession of waiters and actors and jockeys out of work at his front door—why his pockets were always empty. They even discovered the same genius in May's talk as in his drawing, though the mystery was when they heard the talk. To this day they will quote Phil May while I wonder how it is that while for me Henley's talk has not lost its thunder, nor Bob Stevenson's its brilliant flashes of imbecility, nor Harland's its whimsical twist, nor Beardsley's its fresh gaiety, nothing of Phil May's remains save the familiar refrain "Have a cigar!" "Have a whiskey-and-soda!" "Have a drawing!"
Obsessed by my old-fashioned notion as hostess that people could not enjoy themselves unless they were kept moving, persisting in my vain efforts to break up the groups into which the company invariably fell, again and again I would lure Hartrick and Sullivan away from Phil May. But it was no use. What they all wanted was to talk not only about their shop but their own particular counter in it, and no sooner was my back turned than there they were in the same groups again, Hartrick and Sullivan watching over Phil May, supported by Raven Hill and Edgar Wilson, both then deeply involved in youth's game of shocking the bourgeois by showing on the pages of Pick-Me-Up how the matter of illustration was ordered in France, and presently starting a magazine of their own to show it the better, and to do their share as ardent rebels in the big fight of the Nineties. On my shelves, close by the first number of The Yellow Book and of the Savoy is the first volume of The Butterfly and on its fly-leaf is the inscription: "To Elizabeth Robins Pennell with L. Raven Hill's kind regards," no more startlingly original than Beardsley's inscriptions, but to me full of meaning and memories. I cannot look at it without seeing myself fluttering from one to another of the old Buckingham Street rooms, heavy with the smell of smoke and powder, thunderous not only with the knocking—naturally I quote the Ibsen phrase everybody was quoting in the Nineties—but the banging, the battering, the bombarding of the younger generation at the Victorian door against which it was desperate work to make any impression at all.
In my less responsible intervals it amused me to find the painters running their own shop, or their own little counter, quite apart from the illustrators, and carrying on all by themselves their own special campaign against that obdurate Victorian door. Their campaign, as they ran it, required less talk than most, for they were chiefly men of the New English Art Club—the men who gave the shows where Felix Buhot smelt the powder—the men who were considered apostles of defiance when the inner group held their once-famous exhibition as "London Impressionists"—the men about whom the critics for a while did nothing save talk—but men who had the reputation of talking so little themselves that, when a man came up for election in their Club, his talent for silence was said to be as important a consideration with them as his talent for art. Not that the silence of any one of them could rival Phil May's in eloquence—they never learned to say nothing with his charm. Often the poverty of their conversation had the effect of being involuntary, as if they might have had plenty to say had they known how to say it. More than one struggled to rid himself of his talent with at least an air of success.
The big booming voice of Charles W. Furse was frequently heard, but in it a suspicion of an Academic note unfamiliar in our midst, so that, young as he was, combative, enthusiastic, "a good fellow" as they say in England, still in his Whistler and rebel period, his friends predicted for him the Presidency of the Royal Academy. The first time I ever saw him was the year he was showing at the New English two large upright, full-length portraits of women, highly reminiscent of Whistler, and, on press day, was being turned out of the gallery by the critics who, in revolutionizing criticism, were fighting against the old-fashioned Victorian idea of press views with the artists busy log-rolling and an elaborate lunch, or at least whiskey and cigars behind a screen. The New English men compromised by staying away, but they clung to the lunch, a feast chiefly for their commissionaire and their salesman and the grey-haired critic, a survival, who could not reconcile himself to change and whom I heard once, in another gallery, pronounce the show admirable, "perfect really, your show, but for one thing missing—a decanter and cigars on the table." Furse, who had not heard the critic's cry for reform and could not understand his banishment, lingered in the passage, button-holing everybody who came out, trying to pick up a hint as to what we were all going to say about him. He considered himself a red-hot rebel and the prophetic picture of him scaling Academic heights annoyed him extremely, though he so soon became an Associate of the Academy that I think, had he lived, time would have proved the prophets right.
Walter Sickert's voice, too, was frequently heard at the beginning of a Thursday night, but his promise of brilliancy never struck me as leading anywhere in particular, my personal impression being that with his talk, as with his art, the fulfilment scarcely justified the promise.
D.S. MacColl, young arch-rebel at the time little as the formal official of to-day suggests it, his bombarding of the Victorian door directed chiefly from the sober columns of the Spectator, and later of the Saturday Review, was always well armed with words for the Thursday night battle, conscientious in distributing his blows and shaping them in strict deference to his sense of style, just a touch of the preacher perhaps in his voice and in his fight for art and freedom, as he was the first to acknowledge; more than once I have heard him explain apologetically that his right place was the pulpit for which he had been designed.
Arthur Tomson, one of the best friends in the world, was a spirited revolutionary who went to the length of founding and editing a paper of his own to promote revolution—the Art Weekly, which, not being able to afford illustrations, conducted its warfare solely by its articles, and strong, fearless, knock-you-down articles they were since we all wrote for the paper while it lasted. It did not last long, however, but shared the fate of most revolutionary sheets with more brains than capital. Arthur Tomson himself, out of print, was a quiet, if staunch fighter, another of the old Thursday night group who knew that his years on this earth were to be short. He was not the gayer for it as Harland and Beardsley were, but the sadder, it may be because he foresaw the end long before it came, and he was given to the melancholy that found expression in so many of his paintings.
Wilson Steer, Tonks, Professor Brown passed, and no more, across the stage of our Thursday nights, all three, as I remember them, scrupulous in upholding the reputation for silence of their Club. Conder flitted in and out of our rooms, always agreeable but not the man to lift up his voice in a crowd.
Occasionally, a visitor from abroad appeared—Felix Buhot every Thursday that one winter, or, more rarely Paul Renouard, in London for the Graphic, his appearance an event for the illustrators who already reverenced him as a veteran. Or else it was a representative, a publisher, of les Jeunes over there, bringing fresh stimulus, fresh incentive, especially if his coming meant fresh orders and fresh opportunity to say what had to be said freely and without restraint. Once it was Jules Roque from Paris, of the Courrier Francais in which he published the drawings of Louis Legrand and Forain and other artists accepted as models by the young men of our Thursday nights who believed in themselves the more defiantly when asked to figure in such good company. Once it was Meier Graefe from Berlin, big, handsome, enterprising, not yet encumbered with Post-Impressionism and its outshoots, seeking American and British contributors to the German Pan, a magazine as big and enterprising as himself if not always as handsome, and the younger generation of London had the comfort of knowing that if the Victorian door in England held firm, the door of Europe had opened to them.
Occasionally one of the older, the very much older generation came in to make us feel the younger for his presence—none more imposing than Sandys, most distinguished in his old age, wearing the white waistcoat that was the life-long symbol of his dandyism, full of Pre-Raphaelite reminiscences, and reminiscences of the Italian Primitives could not have seemed more remote. J. sometimes met Holman Hunt in other haunts—at dinners of the Society of Illustrators and elsewhere—and reported him to me as a talker who could, in the quantity and aggressiveness of his talk, have given points to Henley and Henley's Young Men, so I regret that he never was with us to talk over Pre-Raphaelite days with Sandys. The only other possible representative of Pre-Raphaelitism who came was Walter Crane, if so he can be called, for the tradition fell lightly on his shoulders, was a mere re-echo in his work; the only one of Sandys's contemporaries was Whistler, and their meeting of which J. and I have written in another place, does not belong to the story of our Thursday nights, for they were a thing of the past when Whistler returned from Paris, where he had gone to live almost as they began.
Nor did Sandys often appear on Thursdays. He seemed to prefer the evenings when we were alone, to my surprise, for the homage he received when he did come on Thursday must have been pleasant. Drawings of his hung prominently in our rooms, J. then haunting the salesrooms for the originals of the Sixties as industriously as the barrows and shops for their reproductions. And to the man who prefers fame to reach him during his lifetime, surely it should have been an agreeable experience to sit, or to be enthroned as it were, in so friendly an atmosphere, with some of his own finest work on the wall behind him for background, and surrounded by a worshipping group asking nothing better than to be allowed to sit at his feet and listen to his every word—which was a sacrifice for his worshippers in Buckingham Street who rejoiced in the sound of their own voices as did most of the company. But the Nineties are not more wonderful and stimulating to the young men of to-day who look back to them so admiringly, than the Sixties were to us whom they kept up into the small hours of many a Friday morning, inexhaustible as a subject of our talk, and Sandys, standing for the Sixties and all we found in them so admirable, could command any sacrifice. The respect for the Sixties was an article of faith, a dogma of dogmas in the Nineties. If the now younger generation write articles and books about the Nineties—those amazing documents in which I scarcely recognise an age I thought I knew by heart—we were still more zealous in writing books about the Sixties. And we collected the drawings and publications of the Sixties. When J. and I now allowed ourselves an afternoon out, it was to wander from Holywell Street to Mile End Road, from Piccadilly to Holborn, searching the booksellers' barrows and shops for the unsightly, gaudy, badly-bound volumes that contained the illustrations of the Sixties—illustrations ranked amongst the finest ever made. Our bookshelves that are still filled with them represent one of the most animated phases of the Nineties. And we looked upon the "men of the Sixties" as masters, among them giving to Sandys a leading place.
If he was not any longer doing the work for which we took off our hat to him, he certainly looked the leader—tall, handsome, dignified, just enough of a stoop in his shoulders to become his age, his dress irreproachable, the white waistcoat immaculate, pale yellow hair parted in the middle and beautifully brushed, beard not patriarchal exactly but eminently correct and well cared for, manners princely. It was clear that he liked the role of master and his voice was in keeping with the part. But he was a master who presided at his best over a small audience, and, no doubt knowing it, he avoided our Thursdays.
He was also a master given to small gossip. We heard from him less of art, its aims and ideals, its mediums and methods, than of the sayings and doings of the Pre-Raphaelites who were his friends and contemporaries. The name of "Gabriel" was ever in his mouth. It was Rossetti whom he most loved—or love is not the word, less of affection revealed in his memories than a sense of injury, as if it had somehow been the fault of "Gabriel" and the others that he had not come off as well as they, though of all "Gabriel" had been most active in seeing him through the tight places he so successfully got himself into. This, no doubt, was the reason Rossetti felt entitled to a little laugh now and then over Sandys's difficulties. Sandys was a man who needed to be seen through tight places until the end, as we had occasion to know by the urgent note he sent us on a Saturday night, more than once, from the Cafe Royal, his favourite haunt in his later years, where a variety of unavoidable accidents, with a curious faculty for repeating themselves, would keep him prisoner until his friends came to his relief.
He was full of anecdote, which was quite in the order of things, the Sixties having supplied anecdote for a whole library of books and magazines. Could I tell Sandys's stories with Sandys's voice I should be tempted to repeat them yet once again, though many were told us also by Whistler, and these J. and I have recorded in the Life. Whistler told them better, with more truth because with more gaiety and joy in their absurdity. And yet, the solemnity of Sandys added a personal flavour, gave them a character nobody else could give. I have not forgotten how he turned into a parable the tale of the cross-eyed maid in the Morris Shop in Red Lion Square, whose eyes were knocked straight by a shock the company of Morris, Marshall, and Faulkner administered deliberately, and then were knocked crooked again by a shock they had not provided for or against. And, as Sandys recalled them, the strange beasts in "Gabriel's" house and garden might have been let loose from out of the Apocalypse. But Sandys's voice has been stilled forever and the anecdotes have been published oftener, I do believe, than any others in the world's rich store of cliches. The great of his day had all the Boswells they wanted—a retinue of admirers and cuffs ready—at their head William Michael Rossetti to pour out book after book about his brother, to leave little untold about the group that revolved round "Gabriel." Even the third generation, with Ford Madox Hueffer to lead, has taken up the task. The anecdotes have grown familiar, but it is something to have heard them from the men who were their heroes.
Well—our Thursdays were pleasant, an inspiration while they lasted, and for a time I thought they must last as long as we did. But nothing pleasant endures forever, the bravest inspiration flickers and dies almost before we realize its flaring. The stern duty of Friday morning always haunted me in anticipation, for I have never been able to take lightly the work I do with so much difficulty, and Friday morning itself often brought even J. up with a sharp turn to face the fact that man was born into the world to labour in the sweat of his brow, and not simply to talk all night until no work was left in him.
That may have been one reason for our giving up so agreeable a custom. Another perhaps came from the discovery that the freedom of our Thursday nights was sometimes abused. A certain type of Englishman would travel a mile and more for anything he did not have to pay for, even if it was for nothing more substantial than a cigarette, a sandwich, a whiskey-and-soda. There were evenings when, looking round the packed dining-room, it would occur to me that I did not recognise half the people in it. Friends introduced friends and they introduced other friends until, in bewilderment, I asked myself if our Thursday night was ours or somebody else's. And I fancied a tendency to treat it as if it were somebody else's,—to take an ell when we meant to give no more than an inch, and J. was as little inclined as I to furnish a new proof of the wise old proverb. One day a would-be wit who was regular in his attendance and his talk, and who should have known better, asked J., "Are you still running your Thursday Club?" and so helped to precipitate the end. We were not running a Club for anybody, and if the fame of our Thursday night filled our rooms with people who behaved as if we were, the sooner we got rid of them the better.
Besides, as the weeks and the months and the years went on, many who had come and talked and fought our Thursday night through ceased to come altogether. Where I failed in breaking up the groups Time, with its cruel thoroughness, succeeded and began to scatter them far and wide. Death stilled voices that had been loudest. The National Observer passed out of Henley's hands and Henley himself into the Valley of the Shadow. Bob Stevenson said his last good-night to us. Beardsley, Harland, Arthur Tomson, George Steevens, Phil May, Furse, Iwan-Mueller—one after another of our old friends, one after another of those old masters of talk set out on the journey into the Great Silence. It is hard to believe they have gone. I remember how, when they were with us and the talk was at its maddest and somebody would suddenly take breath long enough to look out of our windows, whose curtains were never drawn upon the one spectacle we could offer—the river with the boats trailing their lights down its shadowy reaches, and the Embankment with the lights of the hansoms flying to and fro, and the bridges with the procession of lights from the omnibuses and cabs and the trails of burning cloud from the trains—Henley would say, "How it lives, how it throbs with life out there!" and I would think to myself, "And how it lives, how it throbs with life in here!"—with a life too intense, it seemed, ever to wear itself out. And yet now only two or three of the old friends of the old Thursday nights are left to look down with us upon the river where it flows below our windows—upon the moving lights of London's great traffic, upon London's great life and great beauty, and great movement without end.
It is not only the dead we have lost. Time has made other changes as sad as any wrought by Death. The young have grown old,—have thrown off youth's "proud livery" for the sombre garment of age. The years have turned the rebel of yesterday into the Royal Academician of to-day. The inspired young prophet who protested week by week against mediocrity in paint, settled down to keeping the mediocre paintings against which his protests were loudest. He who thundered against the degeneracy of journalism accepted the patronage of the titled promoter of the half-penny press. Architects carried their respectability to the professional chair it adorns, and illustrators rested in the comfortable berths provided by Punch. Friendships cooled, and friends who never missed a Thursday look the other way when they meet us in the street.
Close to me, as I write, is a bookcase on whose shelves Henley and Henley's Young Men—Marriott Watson, George Steevens, Charles Whibley, Leonard Whibley, Rudyard Kipling, Kenneth Grahame, Arthur Morrison, G.S. Street—jostle each other in the big and little volumes that were to create the world anew. The small green-bound Henleys stand in a row. Salome, The Rape of the Lock, Volpone, with Beardsley's illustrations, are flanked by the more pretentious performances of the Kelmscott Press and the Vale Press and the other Presses aspiring with much advertisement to do what the Constables of Edinburgh did so much better as a matter of course, and, as a reminder of this truth, the Montaigne of the Tudor Series is there and the Apuleius and the Heliodorus, each with its inscription. And the little slim volume, neatly bound by Zaehnsdorf, called Allahakbarries—now a prize for the collector I am told—immortalizes one recreation at least of Henley's Young Men. For it is Barrie's report of the Cricket Team largely made up of these Young Men, of whom he was Captain and who used to play at Shere on the never-to-be-forgotten summer days when beautiful Graham Tomson and I were graciously invited as Patronesses, and little Madge Henley—her death shortly afterwards proving Henley's own death blow—figured as "Captain's Girl" and the National Observer office as "Practice Ground." And if Henley did not drag himself down with us to the pretty Surrey village, he seemed to preside over us all, so much so that when J. and I had the little book bound and added the photographs Harold Frederic—"Photographer" in the report—made of the Team, we included one of Henley, and altogether the tiny volume is as eloquent a document of the Nineties and of Henley and Henley's Young Men as we have, and I wonder what the collector of those snares for the American now catalogued by the bookseller as "Association Books" would not give to own it. And close by our Allahakbarries, Henry Harland's Mademoiselle Miss meets in the old friendly companionship Steevens's Land of the Dollar and Graham Tomson's Poems and Bob Stevenson's Velasquez and Harold Frederic's Return of the O'Mahoney and Bernard Shaw's Cashel Byron's Profession in its rare paper cover, and George Moore's Strike at Arlingford, and Marriott Watson's Diogenes of London, and—but of what use to go through the list, the long catalogue, to the end? Ghosts greet me from those shelves, ghosts from the old Thursdays, from the radiant days when youth was merging into middle age—surely the best period in one's existence—days into which the breath of life never can be breathed again. We could not revive the old nights if we would. I suppose nobody now reads Zola, but we read him in the Nineties and I have always been haunted by his description in L'Oeuvre of the last reunion of the friends who, in their eager youth, had meant to conquer Paris and who used to meet to plan their campaign over a dinner as meagre as their income and gay as their hopes. But when, after years during which money and fame had been heaped up by more than one and disappointment and despair lavished in equal measure upon others, they ventured to dine together again, and the dinner was good and well served as it never had been of old, it turned to dust and ashes in their mouths—a funeral feast. Dust and ashes would be our fare were we so foolish as again to open our doors on the Thursday night consecrated to youth and its battles long ago.
If we have had no more Thursday nights, it does not follow that we have had no other nights. The habit of years is not so easily broken, and our habit was, and is, at night to gather people about us and to talk. Only, after the Nineties, or rather before the end of the Nineties, we never settled again with weekly regularity upon one special night out of the seven for the purpose—on the contrary, we took, and we now take, our nights as they came and come.
They have not been, for that, the less interesting and amusing, not less loud with the sound of battle, not less fragrant with the smell of smoke. It was just after our Thursday nights, for instance, that we began what I might call our Whistler nights, and a more stimulating talker than Whistler never talked, a more stimulating fighter never fought. I do not mean in the impossible way meant by those whose judgment of him rests solely on The Gentle Art. They think he fought for no other end than to make enemies when, really, he enjoyed far more the good give-and-take argument that preserved to him his friends, provided those friends fought fair and did not play the coward, or the toady, to escape the combat.
J. and I have written his Life in vain if everybody who cares to know anything about him does not know that from 1895 and 1896, the greater part of his time was spent in London and that many of his nights were then given to us, more particularly towards the end of the amazing decade. We paid for the privilege by the loss of some of our friends who, for one reason or another, cultivated a wholesome fear of Whistler. Men who had been most constant in dropping in, dropped in no longer—nor, in many cases, have they ever begun to drop in again. More than one would have run miles to escape the chance encounter, trembling with apprehension when in a desperate visit they seemed to court it, and often the several doors opening into our little hall served as important a part in preventing a meeting between Whistler and the enemy as the doors in the old-fashioned farce played in the husband and wife game of hide-and-seek.
It was not too big a price to pay. Whistler's talk was worth a great deal, and the twelve years that have passed since we lost it forever have not lessened its value for us. Ours is a sadder world since we have ceased to hear the memorable and unmistakable knock and ring at our front door, the prelude to the talk, rousing the whole house until every tenant in the other chambers and the housekeeper in her rooms below knew when Whistler came to see us. Our nights, since those he animated and made as "joyous" as he liked to be in his hours of play and battle, have lost their savour. We are perpetually referring to them, quoting, regretting them. Even Augustine looks back to them as making a pleasant epoch in her life. Often she will remind me of this night or that, declaring we have grown dull without him—but do I remember the night when M. Whistlaire argued so hard and with such violence that the print of the rabbit fell from the wall in its frame, the glass shivering in a thousand pieces, just when M. Kennedy was so angry we thought he was going to walk away forever, and how after that there could be no more arguing, and M. Whistlaire laughed as she swept up the pieces, and M. Kennedy did not walk away alone, but later they both walked away together, arm-in-arm, to the hotel where they always stayed?—and do I remember how, during the Boer War, he would come and dine with me alone, his pockets stuffed with newspaper clippings, and how he would put them by his plate, and how long we would sit at table because he would read every one of them to me, with that gay laugh nobody laughs nowadays?—and do I remember that other evening when he and Monsieur disputed and disputed she didn't know about what, and how excited they got, and how he kept banging the table with his knife, the sharp edge down, until he cut a long slit in the cloth, and it was our best tablecloth too?—and do I remember the long stories he would tell us some evenings and his little mocking laugh when she, who could not understand a word, knew he was saying something malicious about somebody?—and do I remember how he liked a good dinner and her cooking because it was French, and how he would never refuse when she promised him her pot-au-feu or one of her salads—and do I remember one after another of those old nights the like of which we shall never see again? Do I remember indeed? They fill too big a space in memory, they overshadow too well the lesser nights with lesser men, they were too joyous an episode in our thirty long years of talk for me ever to forget them. The three classical knocks of the Theatre Francais could not announce more certainly a night of beauty or wit or fun or romance than the violent ring and the resounding knock at the old battered door of the Buckingham Street chambers where, for Whistler, the oak was never sported.
But of our Whistler nights we have already made the record—this is another tale that is already told. I think Whistler knew their value as well as we did, knew what they cost us in the loss of friends, knew what he had given us in return, knew what he had revealed to us of himself in all friendliness, and that this was the reason he looked to us for the record not only of his nights with us, but of his life. Once he had confided that charge to us, the old Buckingham Street nights grew more marvellous still, full of reminiscences, of comment, of criticism, of friendliness, his talk none the less stimulating and splendid because, at his request, the cuff or note-book was always ready. And they continued until the long tragic weeks and months when he was first afraid to go out at night and then unable to, and when the talks were by day instead—not quite the same in the last, the saddest months of all, for weakness and thoughts of the work yet to be done and the feebleness that kept him from doing it fell like a black cloud over all our meetings, even those where the old gaiety asserted itself for a moment and the old light of battle gleamed again in his eyes. To the end he liked the talk no less than we, for to the end he sent for us, to the end he would see us when few besides were admitted. There, for those who would like to question his friendship with us, for those who believe that Whistler never could keep a friend because he never wanted to, is the proof dear to us of the good friend he could be when his friendship was not abused or taken advantage of behind his back.
Many other nights besides there have been—long series of American nights—John Van Dyke nights I might say, Timothy Cole nights,—but no, I am not going to name names and make a catalogue, I am not going to write their story, I am not going to run the risks of the folly I have protested against. I have confessed my safe belief that of the living only good should be spoken, and good only when it is within the bounds of discretion. It is not my ambition to rival at home the unpopularity of N.P. Willis in England after the first of his indiscretions, which seem discretion itself now in the light of to-day's yellow and society journalism.
And there have been English nights—many—nights with old friends who are faithful and new friends who are devoted—nights of late so like the old Thursday nights that both Hartrick and Sullivan, now twenty years older and with no Phil May to revolve round, asked why those old memorable gay nights could not be revived? But would they be gay? Would they not turn out the dust and ashes, the worse than Lenten fare, from which I shrink? Would they not, as I have said, prove as mournful as that banquet of Zola's Conquerors of Paris?
Recently there have been Belgian nights—nights with those Belgian artists whose habit was never to travel at all until they started on their journey as exiles to London—a journey to which the end in a return journey seems to them so tediously long in coming. And there have been War nights when the clash of our battle, in the grim consciousness of that other battle not so far away, is less cheerful. And there have been nights with the great search-lights over the Thames that tell us as much as those young insistent voices in Buckingham Street could tell, but only of things so tragic and so sombre that I am the more eager to finish the story of our London nights with our Thursdays, in the years when we were burdened by no more serious fighting than the endless fight of friend with friend, of fellow worker with fellow worker, fought in the good cause of work and play, faith and doubt, fear and hope—a stirring fight, but one in which words are the weapons, one which can never be won or lost, since no two can ever be found to agree when they talk for pleasure, nor any one man forced to agree with himself for all time.
I still go to Paris every year in May when the Salons open, but now I go alone. The lilacs and horse-chestnuts, that J. used to reproach me for never keeping out of the articles it was my business to write there, still bloom in the Champs-Elysees and the Bois, but now I am no longer tempted to drag them into my MS. The spring nights still are beautiful on the Boulevards and Quais but only ghosts walk with me along the old familiar ways, only ghosts sit with me at table in restaurants where once I always ate in company. Paris has lost half its charm since the days when, as regularly as spring came round, I was one of the little group of critics and artists and friends from London who met in it for a week among the pictures.
It was much the same group, if smaller, that met on our Thursday nights in London. Some of us went for work, to "do" the Salons after we had "done" the Royal Academy and the New Gallery, then the Academy's only London rival: Bob Stevenson for the Pall Mall, D.S. MacColl for the Spectator, Charles Whibley for the National Observer. J., during several years, spared the time from more important things to fight as critic the empty criticism of the moment, the old-fashioned criticism that recognised no masterpiece outside of Burlington House and saw nothing in a picture or a drawing save a story: a thankless task, for already the old-fashioned criticism threatens to become the new-fashioned again. I, for my part, was kept as busy as I knew how to be, and busier, for the Nation and my London papers. Others went because they were artists and wanted to see what Paris was doing and May was the season when Paris was doing most and was most liberal in letting everybody see it. Beardsley and Furse seldom failed, and I do not suppose a year passed that we did not chance upon one or more unexpected friends in a gallery or a cafe and add them to our party. Sometimes a Publisher was with us, his affairs an excuse for a holiday, or sometimes an Architect to show the poor foreigner how respectable British respectability can be and, incidentally, to make his a guarantee of ours that we could have dispensed with. Harland and Mrs. Harland were always there, I do believe for sheer love of Paris in the May-time, and I rather think theirs was the wisest reason of all.
During no week throughout my hard-working year did I have to work harder than during that May week spent in Paris. I am inclined now, in the more leisurely period of life at which I have arrived, to admire myself when I recall how many articles I had to write, how many prints and drawings, statues and pictures, I had to look at in order to write them, and my success in never leaving my editors in the lurch. My admiration is the greater because nobody could know as well as I how slow I have always been with my work and also, to do myself justice, how conscientious, as I do not mind saying, though to be called conscientious by anybody else would seem to me only less offensive than to be called good-natured or amiable. As a critic I never could get to the point of writing round the pictures and saying nothing about them like many I knew for whom five minutes in a gallery sufficed, nor, to be frank, did I try to. Neither could I hang an article on one picture. I might envy George Moore, for an interval the critic of the Speaker, now the London Nation, because he could and did. I can remember him at an Academy Press View making the interminable round with a business-like briskness until, perhaps in the first hour and the last room, he would come upon the painting that gave him the peg for his eloquence, make an elaborate study of it, tell us his task was finished, and hurry off exultant. But envy him as I might, I couldn't borrow his briskness. I had to plod on all morning and again all afternoon until the Academy closed, to look at every picture before I could be sure which was the right peg or whether there might not be a dozen pegs and more. And I had to collect elaborate notes, not daring to trust to my memory alone, and after that to re-write pages that did not satisfy me. Just to see the Academy meant an honest day's labour and in Paris there were two Salons, each immeasurably bigger, and innumerable smaller shows into the bargain. And yet, that laborious May week never seemed to me so much toil as pleasure.
There was a great deal about Paris the toil left me no chance to find out. I should not like to say how many of its sights I have failed regularly to see during the visit I have paid to it every year now for over a quarter of a century. But at least I have learned the best thing worth knowing about it, which is that in no other town can toil look so uncommonly like pleasure, in no other town is it so easy to play hard and to work hard at the same time: precisely the truth the Baedeker student has a knack of missing, the truth the special kind of foreigner, for whom Paris would not be Paris if he could not believe it the abomination of desolation, goes out of his way to miss. I have met some of my own countrymen who have seen everything in Paris but never Paris itself—the old story of not seeing the wood for the trees—and who are absolutely convinced that it is a town in which all the people think of is amusement and that a more frivolous creature than the Parisian never existed. From their comfortable seat of judgment in the correct hotels and the correct show places, they cannot look as far as the schools and factories that make Paris the centre of learning for the world and of industry for France, and they are in their way every bit as dense as the English who take their pleasure so seriously they cannot understand the French who take their work gaily. "Des blagueurs meme au feu," a Belgian officer the other day described to me the French soldiers who had been fighting at his side, and I think it rather finer to face Death—or Work—laughing than in tears. If Paris were not so gay on the surface I am sure I should not find it so stimulating, though how it would be if I lived there I have never dared put to the test, unwilling to run whatever risk there might be if I did. I prefer to keep Paris in reserve for a working holiday or, indeed, any sort of holiday, a preference which, if Heine is to be trusted, I share with le bon Dieu of the old French proverb who, when he is bored in Heaven, opens a window and looks down upon the Boulevards of Paris.
At the first sight, the first sound, the first smell of Paris, the holiday feeling stirred within us. The minute we arrived we began to play at our work as we never did in London, as it never would have occurred to us there that we could.
The Academy, only the week before, had given us the same chance to meet, the same chance to talk, the same chance to lunch together, and of the lunch it had got to be our habit to make a Press Day function. Nowadays at the Academy Press View, when I am hungry, I run up to Stewart's at the corner of Bond Street for a couple of sandwiches, and excellent they are, but, as I eat them in my solitary corner, no flight of my sluggish imagination can make them seem to me more than a stern necessity. There was, however, a festive air about the old Press Day lunch when, towards one o'clock, some six or eight of us adjourned to Solferino's, another vanished landmark of my younger days in London. It was in Rupert Street, the street of Prince Florizel's Divan, which was appropriate, for Bob Stevenson was always with us and but for Bob Prince Florizel might never have existed to run a Divan in Rupert or any other street. Solferino's had a Barsac that Bob liked to order, chiefly I fancy for all it represented to him of Paris and Lavenue's and Barbizon and student days, and the old memories warming him over it as lunch went on, he would unfold one theory of art after another until suddenly a critic, more nervous than the rest, would take out his watch, and the hour he saw there would send us post-haste back to Piccadilly and the Academy, which at that time thought one Press Day sufficient.
But the lunch that seemed a festivity at Solferino's never gave us the holiday sense Paris filled us with from the early hour in the morning when, after our little breakfast, we met downstairs in the unpretentious hotel in the Rue St. Roch where most of us stayed—if we did not stay instead at the Hotel de l'Univers et Portugal for the sake of the name. The Rue St. Roch was convenient and if we were willing to climb to the top of the narrow house, where the smell of dinner hung heavy on the stairs all through the afternoon and evening, we could have our room for the next to nothing at all that suited our purse, and the dining-room—the Coffee Room in gilt letters on its door would have frightened us from it in any case—was so tiny it was a kindness to the patron not to come back for the midday breakfast or the dinner that we could not have been induced to eat in the hotel, under any circumstances, for half the big price he charged. The day's talk was already in full swing as we steamed down the Seine, or walked under the arcade of the Rue de Rivoli and along the Quais, in the cool of the May morning, to the new Salon which was then in the Champ-de-Mars. And one morning at the Salon made it clear to me, as years at the Academy could not, why French criticism permits itself to speak of art as a "game" and of the artist's work as "amusing" and "gay." There were words that got into my article as persistently as the lilacs and the horse-chestnuts.
If we brought to Paris a talent for talk and youth for enjoyment, Paris at the moment was providing liberally more than we could talk about or had time to enjoy. London may have been wide awake—for London—in the Nineties, but it was half asleep compared to Paris and would not have been awake at all if it had not gone to Paris for the "new" it bragged of so loud in art and every excitement it cultivated, and for the "fin-de-siecle," that chance phrase passed lightly from mouth to mouth in Paris of which it made a serious classification.
I have watched with sympathetic amusement these late years one new movement, one new revolt after another, started and led by little men who have not the strength to move anything or the independence to revolt against anything, except in their boast of it, and who would be frightened by the bigness of a movement and revolt like the Secession from the old Salon that followed the International Exposition of 1889. I feel how long ago the Nineties were when I hear the young people in Paris to-day talk of the two Salons as the Artistes-Francais and the Beaux-Arts. In the Nineties we, who watched the parting of the ways, knew them only as the Old Salon and the New Salon because that is what we saw in them and what they really were—unless we distinguished them as the Champ-de-Mars Salon and the Champs-Elysees Salon, for another ten years were to pass before there was a Grand Palais for both to move into. We could not write about either without a reminder of the age of the one and the youth of the other, the Old Salon remaining the home of the tradition that has become hide-bound convention, and the new Salon offering headquarters to the tradition that is being "carried on," as we were forever pointing out, borrowing the phrase from Whistler. We were given in the Nineties to borrowing the things Whistler said and wrote, for we knew, if it is not every critic who does to-day, that he was as great a master of art criticism as of art.
What the men who undertook to carry on tradition did for us was to arrange a good show. They had to, if it meant taking off their coats and rolling up their sleeves and putting themselves down to it in grim earnest, for it was the only way they could justify their action and the existence of their Society, and their choice of a President, the very name of Meissonier seeming to stand for anything rather than secession and experiment and revolt. For the first few exhibitions many of the older men got together small collections of their earlier work that had not been shown publicly for years, and the new Salon's way of arranging each man's work in a separate group or panel made it tell with all the more effect. And then there was the excitement of coming upon paintings or statues long familiar, but only by reputation or reproduction. I cannot forget how we thrilled in front of Whistler's Rosa Corder, which we were none of us, except Bob Stevenson, old enough to have seen when Whistler first exhibited it in London and Paris to a public unwilling to leave him in any doubt as to its indifference, how we talked and talked and talked until we had not time that morning to look at one other painting in the gallery, how it was not the fault of our articles if everybody did not squander upon it the attention refused not much more than a decade before. And the younger men of the moment had to summon up every scrap of individuality they possessed to be admitted, and not to be admitted meant too much conservatism or too much independence. And credentials of fine work had to be presented by the artists from all over the world—Americans, Scandinavians, Dutchmen, Belgians, Russians, Italians, Germans, Austrians, Spaniards,—who couldn't believe they had come off if the New Salon did not let them in, and half the time they hadn't. And with all it was just for the pride of being there, they were not out for medals, since the New Salon gave no awards. And altogether there was about as wide a gulf of principle and performance as could be between the two Salons that are now separated by not much more than the turnstiles in the one building that shelters them both.