Litres Baner

The Death of the LionТекст

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CHAPTER III

I was frankly, at the end of three days, a very prejudiced critic, so that one morning when, in the garden, my great man had offered to read me something I quite held my breath as I listened.  It was the written scheme of another book—something put aside long ago, before his illness, but that he had lately taken out again to reconsider.  He had been turning it round when I came down on him, and it had grown magnificently under this second hand.  Loose liberal confident, it might have passed for a great gossiping eloquent letter—the overflow into talk of an artist’s amorous plan.  The theme I thought singularly rich, quite the strongest he had yet treated; and this familiar statement of it, full too of fine maturities, was really, in summarised splendour, a mine of gold, a precious independent work.  I remember rather profanely wondering whether the ultimate production could possibly keep at the pitch.  His reading of the fond epistle, at any rate, made me feel as if I were, for the advantage of posterity, in close correspondence with him—were the distinguished person to whom it had been affectionately addressed.  It was a high distinction simply to be told such things.  The idea he now communicated had all the freshness, the flushed fairness, of the conception untouched and untried: it was Venus rising from the sea and before the airs had blown upon her.  I had never been so throbbingly present at such an unveiling.  But when he had tossed the last bright word after the others, as I had seen cashiers in banks, weighing mounds of coin, drop a final sovereign into the tray, I knew a sudden prudent alarm.

“My dear master, how, after all, are you going to do it?  It’s infinitely noble, but what time it will take, what patience and independence, what assured, what perfect conditions!  Oh for a lone isle in a tepid sea!”

“Isn’t this practically a lone isle, and aren’t you, as an encircling medium, tepid enough?” he asked, alluding with a laugh to the wonder of my young admiration and the narrow limits of his little provincial home.  “Time isn’t what I’ve lacked hitherto: the question hasn’t been to find it, but to use it.  Of course my illness made, while it lasted, a great hole—but I dare say there would have been a hole at any rate.  The earth we tread has more pockets than a billiard-table.  The great thing is now to keep on my feet.”

“That’s exactly what I mean.”

Neil Paraday looked at me with eyes—such pleasant eyes as he had—in which, as I now recall their expression, I seem to have seen a dim imagination of his fate.  He was fifty years old, and his illness had been cruel, his convalescence slow.  “It isn’t as if I weren’t all right.”

“Oh if you weren’t all right I wouldn’t look at you!” I tenderly said.

We had both got up, quickened as by this clearer air, and he had lighted a cigarette.  I had taken a fresh one, which with an intenser smile, by way of answer to my exclamation, he applied to the flame of his match.  “If I weren’t better I shouldn’t have thought of that!”  He flourished his script in his hand.

“I don’t want to be discouraging, but that’s not true,” I returned.  “I’m sure that during the months you lay here in pain you had visitations sublime.  You thought of a thousand things.  You think of more and more all the while.  That’s what makes you, if you’ll pardon my familiarity, so respectable.  At a time when so many people are spent you come into your second wind.  But, thank God, all the same, you’re better!  Thank God, too, you’re not, as you were telling me yesterday, ‘successful.’  If you weren’t a failure what would be the use of trying?  That’s my one reserve on the subject of your recovery—that it makes you ‘score,’ as the newspapers say.  It looks well in the newspapers, and almost anything that does that’s horrible.  ‘We are happy to announce that Mr. Paraday, the celebrated author, is again in the enjoyment of excellent health.’  Somehow I shouldn’t like to see it.”

“You won’t see it; I’m not in the least celebrated—my obscurity protects me.  But couldn’t you bear even to see I was dying or dead?” my host enquired.

“Dead—passe encore; there’s nothing so safe.  One never knows what a living artist may do—one has mourned so many.  However, one must make the worst of it.  You must be as dead as you can.”

“Don’t I meet that condition in having just published a book?”

“Adequately, let us hope; for the book’s verily a masterpiece.”

At this moment the parlour-maid appeared in the door that opened from the garden: Paraday lived at no great cost, and the frisk of petticoats, with a timorous “Sherry, sir?” was about his modest mahogany.  He allowed half his income to his wife, from whom he had succeeded in separating without redundancy of legend.  I had a general faith in his having behaved well, and I had once, in London, taken Mrs. Paraday down to dinner.  He now turned to speak to the maid, who offered him, on a tray, some card or note, while, agitated, excited, I wandered to the end of the precinct.  The idea of his security became supremely dear to me, and I asked myself if I were the same young man who had come down a few days before to scatter him to the four winds.  When I retraced my steps he had gone into the house, and the woman—the second London post had come in—had placed my letters and a newspaper on a bench.  I sat down there to the letters, which were a brief business, and then, without heeding the address, took the paper from its envelope.  It was the journal of highest renown, The Empire of that morning.  It regularly came to Paraday, but I remembered that neither of us had yet looked at the copy already delivered.  This one had a great mark on the “editorial” page, and, uncrumpling the wrapper, I saw it to be directed to my host and stamped with the name of his publishers.  I instantly divined that The Empire had spoken of him, and I’ve not forgotten the odd little shock of the circumstance.  It checked all eagerness and made me drop the paper a moment.  As I sat there conscious of a palpitation I think I had a vision of what was to be.  I had also a vision of the letter I would presently address to Mr. Pinhorn, breaking, as it were, with Mr. Pinhorn.  Of course, however, the next minute the voice of The Empire was in my ears.

The article wasn’t, I thanked heaven, a review; it was a “leader,” the last of three, presenting Neil Paraday to the human race.  His new book, the fifth from his hand, had been but a day or two out, and The Empire, already aware of it, fired, as if on the birth of a prince, a salute of a whole column.  The guns had been booming these three hours in the house without our suspecting them.  The big blundering newspaper had discovered him, and now he was proclaimed and anointed and crowned.  His place was assigned him as publicly as if a fat usher with a wand had pointed to the topmost chair; he was to pass up and still up, higher and higher, between the watching faces and the envious sounds—away up to the dais and the throne.  The article was “epoch-making,” a landmark in his life; he had taken rank at a bound, waked up a national glory.  A national glory was needed, and it was an immense convenience he was there.  What all this meant rolled over me, and I fear I grew a little faint—it meant so much more than I could say “yea” to on the spot.  In a flash, somehow, all was different; the tremendous wave I speak of had swept something away.  It had knocked down, I suppose, my little customary altar, my twinkling tapers and my flowers, and had reared itself into the likeness of a temple vast and bare.  When Neil Paraday should come out of the house he would come out a contemporary.  That was what had happened: the poor man was to be squeezed into his horrible age.  I felt as if he had been overtaken on the crest of the hill and brought back to the city.  A little more and he would have dipped down the short cut to posterity and escaped.

CHAPTER IV

When he came out it was exactly as if he had been in custody, for beside him walked a stout man with a big black beard, who, save that he wore spectacles, might have been a policeman, and in whom at a second glance I recognised the highest contemporary enterprise.

“This is Mr. Morrow,” said Paraday, looking, I thought, rather white: “he wants to publish heaven knows what about me.”

I winced as I remembered that this was exactly what I myself had wanted.  “Already?” I cried with a sort of sense that my friend had fled to me for protection.

Mr. Morrow glared, agreeably, through his glasses: they suggested the electric headlights of some monstrous modern ship, and I felt as if Paraday and I were tossing terrified under his bows.  I saw his momentum was irresistible.  “I was confident that I should be the first in the field.  A great interest is naturally felt in Mr. Paraday’s surroundings,” he heavily observed.

“I hadn’t the least idea of it,” said Paraday, as if he had been told he had been snoring.

“I find he hasn’t read the article in The Empire,” Mr. Morrow remarked to me.  “That’s so very interesting—it’s something to start with,” he smiled.  He had begun to pull off his gloves, which were violently new, and to look encouragingly round the little garden.  As a “surrounding” I felt how I myself had already been taken in; I was a little fish in the stomach of a bigger one.  “I represent,” our visitor continued, “a syndicate of influential journals, no less than thirty-seven, whose public—whose publics, I may say—are in peculiar sympathy with Mr. Paraday’s line of thought.  They would greatly appreciate any expression of his views on the subject of the art he so nobly exemplifies.  In addition to my connexion with the syndicate just mentioned I hold a particular commission from The Tatler, whose most prominent department, ‘Smatter and Chatter’—I dare say you’ve often enjoyed it—attracts such attention.  I was honoured only last week, as a representative of The Tatler, with the confidence of Guy Walsingham, the brilliant author of ‘Obsessions.’  She pronounced herself thoroughly pleased with my sketch of her method; she went so far as to say that I had made her genius more comprehensible even to herself.”

 

Neil Paraday had dropped on the garden-bench and sat there at once detached and confounded; he looked hard at a bare spot in the lawn, as if with an anxiety that had suddenly made him grave.  His movement had been interpreted by his visitor as an invitation to sink sympathetically into a wicker chair that stood hard by, and while Mr. Morrow so settled himself I felt he had taken official possession and that there was no undoing it.  One had heard of unfortunate people’s having “a man in the house,” and this was just what we had.  There was a silence of a moment, during which we seemed to acknowledge in the only way that was possible the presence of universal fate; the sunny stillness took no pity, and my thought, as I was sure Paraday’s was doing, performed within the minute a great distant revolution.  I saw just how emphatic I should make my rejoinder to Mr. Pinhorn, and that having come, like Mr. Morrow, to betray, I must remain as long as possible to save.  Not because I had brought my mind back, but because our visitors last words were in my ear, I presently enquired with gloomy irrelevance if Guy Walsingham were a woman.

“Oh yes, a mere pseudonym—rather pretty, isn’t it?—and convenient, you know, for a lady who goes in for the larger latitude.  ‘Obsessions, by Miss So-and-so,’ would look a little odd, but men are more naturally indelicate.  Have you peeped into ‘Obsessions’?” Mr. Morrow continued sociably to our companion.

Paraday, still absent, remote, made no answer, as if he hadn’t heard the question: a form of intercourse that appeared to suit the cheerful Mr. Morrow as well as any other.  Imperturbably bland, he was a man of resources—he only needed to be on the spot.  He had pocketed the whole poor place while Paraday and I were wool-gathering, and I could imagine that he had already got his “heads.”  His system, at any rate, was justified by the inevitability with which I replied, to save my friend the trouble: “Dear no—he hasn’t read it.  He doesn’t read such things!” I unwarily added.

“Things that are too far over the fence, eh?”  I was indeed a godsend to Mr. Morrow.  It was the psychological moment; it determined the appearance of his note-book, which, however, he at first kept slightly behind him, even as the dentist approaching his victim keeps the horrible forceps.  “Mr. Paraday holds with the good old proprieties—I see!”  And thinking of the thirty-seven influential journals, I found myself, as I found poor Paraday, helplessly assisting at the promulgation of this ineptitude.  “There’s no point on which distinguished views are so acceptable as on this question—raised perhaps more strikingly than ever by Guy Walsingham—of the permissibility of the larger latitude.  I’ve an appointment, precisely in connexion with it, next week, with Dora Forbes, author of ‘The Other Way Round,’ which everybody’s talking about.  Has Mr. Paraday glanced at ‘The Other Way Round’?”  Mr. Morrow now frankly appealed to me.  I took on myself to repudiate the supposition, while our companion, still silent, got up nervously and walked away.  His visitor paid no heed to his withdrawal; but opened out the note-book with a more fatherly pat.  “Dora Forbes, I gather, takes the ground, the same as Guy Walsingham’s, that the larger latitude has simply got to come.  He holds that it has got to be squarely faced.  Of course his sex makes him a less prejudiced witness.  But an authoritative word from Mr. Paraday—from the point of view of his sex, you know—would go right round the globe.  He takes the line that we haven’t got to face it?”

I was bewildered: it sounded somehow as if there were three sexes.  My interlocutor’s pencil was poised, my private responsibility great.  I simply sat staring, none the less, and only found presence of mind to say: “Is this Miss Forbes a gentleman?”

Mr. Morrow had a subtle smile.  “It wouldn’t be ‘Miss’—there’s a wife!”

“I mean is she a man?”

“The wife?”—Mr. Morrow was for a moment as confused as myself.  But when I explained that I alluded to Dora Forbes in person he informed me, with visible amusement at my being so out of it, that this was the “pen-name” of an indubitable male—he had a big red moustache.  “He goes in for the slight mystification because the ladies are such popular favourites.  A great deal of interest is felt in his acting on that idea—which is clever, isn’t it?—and there’s every prospect of its being widely imitated.”  Our host at this moment joined us again, and Mr. Morrow remarked invitingly that he should be happy to make a note of any observation the movement in question, the bid for success under a lady’s name, might suggest to Mr. Paraday.  But the poor man, without catching the allusion, excused himself, pleading that, though greatly honoured by his visitor’s interest, he suddenly felt unwell and should have to take leave of him—have to go and lie down and keep quiet.  His young friend might be trusted to answer for him, but he hoped Mr. Morrow didn’t expect great things even of his young friend.  His young friend, at this moment, looked at Neil Paraday with an anxious eye, greatly wondering if he were doomed to be ill again; but Paraday’s own kind face met his question reassuringly, seemed to say in a glance intelligible enough: “Oh I’m not ill, but I’m scared: get him out of the house as quietly as possible.”  Getting newspaper-men out of the house was odd business for an emissary of Mr. Pinhorn, and I was so exhilarated by the idea of it that I called after him as he left us: “Read the article in The Empire and you’ll soon be all right!”

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