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“Delicious my having come down to tell him of it!” Mr. Morrow ejaculated. “My cab was at the door twenty minutes after The Empire had been laid on my breakfast-table. Now what have you got for me?” he continued, dropping again into his chair, from which, however, he the next moment eagerly rose. “I was shown into the drawing-room, but there must be more to see—his study, his literary sanctum, the little things he has about, or other domestic objects and features. He wouldn’t be lying down on his study-table? There’s a great interest always felt in the scene of an author’s labours. Sometimes we’re favoured with very delightful peeps. Dora Forbes showed me all his table-drawers, and almost jammed my hand into one into which I made a dash! I don’t ask that of you, but if we could talk things over right there where he sits I feel as if I should get the keynote.”
I had no wish whatever to be rude to Mr. Morrow, I was much too initiated not to tend to more diplomacy; but I had a quick inspiration, and I entertained an insurmountable, an almost superstitious objection to his crossing the threshold of my friend’s little lonely shabby consecrated workshop. “No, no—we shan’t get at his life that way,” I said. “The way to get at his life is to—But wait a moment!” I broke off and went quickly into the house, whence I in three minutes reappeared before Mr. Morrow with the two volumes of Paraday’s new book. “His life’s here,” I went on, “and I’m so full of this admirable thing that I can’t talk of anything else. The artist’s life’s his work, and this is the place to observe him. What he has to tell us he tells us with this perfection. My dear sir, the best interviewer is the best reader.”
Mr. Morrow good-humouredly protested. “Do you mean to say that no other source of information should be open to us?”
“None other till this particular one—by far the most copious—has been quite exhausted. Have you exhausted it, my dear sir? Had you exhausted it when you came down here? It seems to me in our time almost wholly neglected, and something should surely be done to restore its ruined credit. It’s the course to which the artist himself at every step, and with such pathetic confidence, refers us. This last book of Mr. Paraday’s is full of revelations.”
“Revelations?” panted Mr. Morrow, whom I had forced again into his chair.
“The only kind that count. It tells you with a perfection that seems to me quite final all the author thinks, for instance, about the advent of the ‘larger latitude.’”
“Where does it do that?” asked Mr. Morrow, who had picked up the second volume and was insincerely thumbing it.
“Everywhere—in the whole treatment of his case. Extract the opinion, disengage the answer—those are the real acts of homage.”
Mr. Morrow, after a minute, tossed the book away. “Ah but you mustn’t take me for a reviewer.”
“Heaven forbid I should take you for anything so dreadful! You came down to perform a little act of sympathy, and so, I may confide to you, did I. Let us perform our little act together. These pages overflow with the testimony we want: let us read them and taste them and interpret them. You’ll of course have perceived for yourself that one scarcely does read Neil Paraday till one reads him aloud; he gives out to the ear an extraordinary full tone, and it’s only when you expose it confidently to that test that you really get near his style. Take up your book again and let me listen, while you pay it out, to that wonderful fifteenth chapter. If you feel you can’t do it justice, compose yourself to attention while I produce for you—I think I can!—this scarcely less admirable ninth.”
Mr. Morrow gave me a straight look which was as hard as a blow between the eyes; he had turned rather red, and a question had formed itself in his mind which reached my sense as distinctly as if he had uttered it: “What sort of a damned fool are you?” Then he got up, gathering together his hat and gloves, buttoning his coat, projecting hungrily all over the place the big transparency of his mask. It seemed to flare over Fleet Street and somehow made the actual spot distressingly humble: there was so little for it to feed on unless he counted the blisters of our stucco or saw his way to do something with the roses. Even the poor roses were common kinds. Presently his eyes fell on the manuscript from which Paraday had been reading to me and which still lay on the bench. As my own followed them I saw it looked promising, looked pregnant, as if it gently throbbed with the life the reader had given it. Mr. Morrow indulged in a nod at it and a vague thrust of his umbrella. “What’s that?”
“Oh, it’s a plan—a secret.”
“A secret!” There was an instant’s silence, and then Mr. Morrow made another movement. I may have been mistaken, but it affected me as the translated impulse of the desire to lay hands on the manuscript, and this led me to indulge in a quick anticipatory grab which may very well have seemed ungraceful, or even impertinent, and which at any rate left Mr. Paraday’s two admirers very erect, glaring at each other while one of them held a bundle of papers well behind him. An instant later Mr. Morrow quitted me abruptly, as if he had really carried something off with him. To reassure myself, watching his broad back recede, I only grasped my manuscript the tighter. He went to the back door of the house, the one he had come out from, but on trying the handle he appeared to find it fastened. So he passed round into the front garden, and by listening intently enough I could presently hear the outer gate close behind him with a bang. I thought again of the thirty-seven influential journals and wondered what would be his revenge. I hasten to add that he was magnanimous: which was just the most dreadful thing he could have been. The Tatler published a charming chatty familiar account of Mr. Paraday’s “Home-life,” and on the wings of the thirty-seven influential journals it went, to use Mr. Morrow’s own expression, right round the globe.
A week later, early in May, my glorified friend came up to town, where, it may be veraciously recorded he was the king of the beasts of the year. No advancement was ever more rapid, no exaltation more complete, no bewilderment more teachable. His book sold but moderately, though the article in The Empire had done unwonted wonders for it; but he circulated in person to a measure that the libraries might well have envied. His formula had been found—he was a “revelation.” His momentary terror had been real, just as mine had been—the overclouding of his passionate desire to be left to finish his work. He was far from unsociable, but he had the finest conception of being let alone that I’ve ever met. For the time, none the less, he took his profit where it seemed most to crowd on him, having in his pocket the portable sophistries about the nature of the artist’s task. Observation too was a kind of work and experience a kind of success; London dinners were all material and London ladies were fruitful toil. “No one has the faintest conception of what I’m trying for,” he said to me, “and not many have read three pages that I’ve written; but I must dine with them first—they’ll find out why when they’ve time.” It was rather rude justice perhaps; but the fatigue had the merit of being a new sort, while the phantasmagoric town was probably after all less of a battlefield than the haunted study. He once told me that he had had no personal life to speak of since his fortieth year, but had had more than was good for him before. London closed the parenthesis and exhibited him in relations; one of the most inevitable of these being that in which he found himself to Mrs. Weeks Wimbush, wife of the boundless brewer and proprietress of the universal menagerie. In this establishment, as everybody knows, on occasions when the crush is great, the animals rub shoulders freely with the spectators and the lions sit down for whole evenings with the lambs.
It had been ominously clear to me from the first that in Neil Paraday this lady, who, as all the world agreed, was tremendous fun, considered that she had secured a prime attraction, a creature of almost heraldic oddity. Nothing could exceed her enthusiasm over her capture, and nothing could exceed the confused apprehensions it excited in me. I had an instinctive fear of her which I tried without effect to conceal from her victim, but which I let her notice with perfect impunity. Paraday heeded it, but she never did, for her conscience was that of a romping child. She was a blind violent force to which I could attach no more idea of responsibility than to the creaking of a sign in the wind. It was difficult to say what she conduced to but circulation. She was constructed of steel and leather, and all I asked of her for our tractable friend was not to do him to death. He had consented for a time to be of india-rubber, but my thoughts were fixed on the day he should resume his shape or at least get back into his box. It was evidently all right, but I should be glad when it was well over. I had a special fear—the impression was ineffaceable of the hour when, after Mr. Morrow’s departure, I had found him on the sofa in his study. That pretext of indisposition had not in the least been meant as a snub to the envoy of The Tatler—he had gone to lie down in very truth. He had felt a pang of his old pain, the result of the agitation wrought in him by this forcing open of a new period. His old programme, his old ideal even had to be changed. Say what one would, success was a complication and recognition had to be reciprocal. The monastic life, the pious illumination of the missal in the convent cell were things of the gathered past. It didn’t engender despair, but at least it required adjustment. Before I left him on that occasion we had passed a bargain, my part of which was that I should make it my business to take care of him. Let whoever would represent the interest in his presence (I must have had a mystical prevision of Mrs. Weeks Wimbush) I should represent the interest in his work—or otherwise expressed in his absence. These two interests were in their essence opposed; and I doubt, as youth is fleeting, if I shall ever again know the intensity of joy with which I felt that in so good a cause I was willing to make myself odious.
One day in Sloane Street I found myself questioning Paraday’s landlord, who had come to the door in answer to my knock. Two vehicles, a barouche and a smart hansom, were drawn up before the house.
“In the drawing-room, sir? Mrs. Weeks Wimbush.”
“And in the dining-room?”
“A young lady, sir—waiting: I think a foreigner.”
It was three o’clock, and on days when Paraday didn’t lunch out he attached a value to these appropriated hours. On which days, however, didn’t the dear man lunch out? Mrs. Wimbush, at such a crisis, would have rushed round immediately after her own repast. I went into the dining-room first, postponing the pleasure of seeing how, upstairs, the lady of the barouche would, on my arrival, point the moral of my sweet solicitude. No one took such an interest as herself in his doing only what was good for him, and she was always on the spot to see that he did it. She made appointments with him to discuss the best means of economising his time and protecting his privacy. She further made his health her special business, and had so much sympathy with my own zeal for it that she was the author of pleasing fictions on the subject of what my devotion had led me to give up. I gave up nothing (I don’t count Mr. Pinhorn) because I had nothing, and all I had as yet achieved was to find myself also in the menagerie. I had dashed in to save my friend, but I had only got domesticated and wedged; so that I could do little more for him than exchange with him over people’s heads looks of intense but futile intelligence.
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