Part 1 out of 4
Online Distributed Proofreading Team
SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE
A NOVEL IN THREE EPISODES
BY ARNOLD BENNETT
TO MY FRIEND EDEN PHILLPOTTS
THE NOVELIST FOR WHOM MAN AND NATURE ARE INSEPARABLE WITH PROFOUND
RESPECT FOR THE CLASSICAL DIGNITY OF HIS AIM AND EQUAL ADMIRATION
FOR THE AUSTERE SPLENDOUR OF HIS PERFORMANCE
IN THE NIGHT
THREE HUMAN HEARTS
_'How I have wept, the long night through, over the poor women of the
past, so beautiful, so tender, so sweet, whose arms have opened for the
kiss, and who are dead! The kiss--it is immortal! It passes from lip to
lip, from century to century, from age to age. Men gather it, give it
back, and die.'_--GUY DE MAUPASSANT.
SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE
IN THE NIGHT
For years I had been preoccupied with thoughts of love--and by love I
mean a noble and sensuous passion, absorbing the energies of the
soul, fulfilling destiny, and reducing all that has gone before it to
the level of a mere prelude. And that afternoon in autumn, the eve of
my twenty-first birthday, I was more deeply than ever immersed in
I, in my modern costume, sat down between two pairs of candles to the
piano in the decaying drawing-room, which like a spinster strove to
conceal its age. A generous fire flamed in the wide grate behind me:
warmth has always been to me the first necessary of life. I turned round
on the revolving stool and faced the fire, and felt it on my cheeks, and
I asked myself: 'Why am I affected like this? Why am I what I am?' For
even before beginning to play the Fantasia of Chopin, I was moved, and
the tears had come into my eyes, and the shudder to my spine. I gazed at
the room inquiringly, and of course I found no answer. It was one of
those rooms whose spacious and consistent ugliness grows old into a sort
of beauty, formidable and repellent, but impressive; an early Victorian
room, large and stately and symmetrical, full--but not too full--of
twisted and tortured mahogany, green rep, lustres, valances, fringes,
gilt tassels. The green and gold drapery of the two high windows, and
here and there a fine curve in a piece of furniture, recalled the Empire
period and the deserted Napoleonic palaces of France. The expanse of
yellow and green carpet had been married to the floor by two generations
of decorous feet, and the meaning of its tints was long since explained
away. Never have I seen a carpet with less individuality of its own than
that carpet; it was so sweetly faded, amiable, and flat, that its sole
mission in the world seemed to be to make things smooth for the chairs.
The wall-paper looked like pale green silk, and the candles were
reflected in it as they were reflected in the crystals of the chandelier.
The grand piano, a Collard and Collard, made a vast mass of walnut in the
chamber, incongruous, perhaps, but still there was something in its mild
and indecisive tone that responded to the furniture. It, too, spoke of
Evangelicalism, the Christian Year, and a dignified reserved confidence
in Christ's blood. It, too, defied the assault of time and the invasion
of ideas. It, too, protested against Chopin and romance, and demanded
Thalberg's variations on 'Home, Sweet Home.'
My great-grandfather, the famous potter--second in renown only to
Wedgwood--had built that Georgian house, and my grandfather had furnished
it; and my parents, long since dead, had placidly accepted it and the
ideal that it stood for; and it had devolved upon my Aunt Constance, and
ultimately it would devolve on me, the scarlet woman in a dress of
virginal white, the inexplicable offspring of two changeless and
blameless families, the secret revolutionary, the living lie! How had I
I went to the window, and, pulling the curtain aside, looked vaguely out
into the damp, black garden, from which the last light was fading. The
red, rectangular house stood in the midst of the garden, and the garden
was surrounded by four brick walls, which preserved it from four streets
where dwelt artisans of the upper class. The occasional rattling of a
cart was all we caught of the peaceable rumour of the town; but on clear
nights the furnaces of Cauldon Bar Ironworks lit the valley for us, and
we were reminded that our refined and inviolate calm was hemmed in by
rude activities. On the east border of the garden was a row of poplars,
and from the window I could see the naked branches of the endmost. A
gas-lamp suddenly blazed behind it in Acre Lane, and I descried a bird in
the tree. And as the tree waved its plume in the night-wind, and the bird
swayed on the moving twig, and the gas-lamp burned meekly and patiently
beyond, I seemed to catch in these simple things a glimpse of the secret
meaning of human existence, such as one gets sometimes, startlingly, in a
mood of idle receptiveness. And it was so sad and so beautiful, so full
of an ecstatic melancholy, that I dropped the curtain. And my thought
ranged lovingly over our household--prim, regular, and perfect: my old
aunt embroidering in the breakfast-room, and Rebecca and Lucy ironing in
the impeachable kitchen, and not one of them with the least suspicion
that Adam had not really waked up one morning minus a rib. I wandered in
fancy all over the house--the attics, my aunt's bedroom so miraculously
neat, and mine so unkempt, and the dark places in the corridors where
I had the sense of the curious compact organism of which my aunt was the
head, and into which my soul had strayed by some caprice of fate. What I
felt was that the organism was suspended in a sort of enchantment,
lifelessly alive, unconsciously expectant of the magic touch which would
break the spell, and I wondered how long I must wait before I began to
live. I know now that I was happy in those serene preliminary years, but
nevertheless I had the illusion of spiritual woe. I sighed grievously as
I went back to the piano, and opened the volume of Mikuli's Chopin.
Just as I was beginning to play, Rebecca came into the room. She was a
maid of forty years, and stout; absolutely certain of a few things, and
quite satisfied in her ignorance of all else; an important person in our
house, and therefore an important person in the created universe, of
which our house was for her the centre. She wore the white cap with
distinction, and when an apron was suspended round her immense waist it
ceased to be an apron, and became a symbol, like the apron of a
'Well, Rebecca?' I said, without turning my head.
I guessed urgency, otherwise Rebecca would have delegated Lucy.
'If you please, Miss Carlotta, your aunt is not feeling well, and she
will not be able to go to the concert to-night.'
'Not be able to go to the concert!' I repeated mechanically.
'I will come downstairs.'
'If I were you, I shouldn't, miss. She's dozing a bit just now.'
I went on playing. But Chopin, who was the chief factor in my emotional
life; who had taught me nearly all I knew of grace, wit, and tenderness;
who had discovered for me the beauty that lay in everything, in sensuous
exaltation as well as in asceticism, in grief as well as in joy; who had
shown me that each moment of life, no matter what its import, should be
lived intensely and fully; who had carried me with him to the dizziest
heights of which passion is capable; whose music I spiritually
comprehended to a degree which I felt to be extraordinary--Chopin had
almost no significance for me as I played then the most glorious of his
compositions. His message was only a blurred sound in my ears. And
gradually I perceived, as the soldier gradually perceives who has been
hit by a bullet, that I was wounded.
The shock was of such severity that at first I had scarcely noticed it.
What? My aunt not going to the concert? That meant that I could not go.
But it was impossible that I should not go. I could not conceive my
absence from the concert--the concert which I had been anticipating and
preparing for during many weeks. We went out but little, Aunt Constance
and I. An oratorio, an amateur operatic performance, a ballad concert in
the Bursley Town Hall--no more than that; never the Hanbridge Theatre.
And now Diaz was coming down to give a pianoforte recital in the Jubilee
Hall at Hanbridge; Diaz, the darling of European capitals; Diaz, whose
name in seven years had grown legendary; Diaz, the Liszt and the
Rubenstein of my generation, and the greatest interpreter of Chopin since
Chopin died--Diaz! Diaz! No such concert had ever been announced in the
Five Towns, and I was to miss it! Our tickets had been taken, and they
were not to be used! Unthinkable! A photograph of Diaz stood in a silver
frame on the piano; I gazed at it fervently. I said: 'I will hear you
play the Fantasia this night, if I am cut in pieces for it to-morrow!'
Diaz represented for me, then, all that I desired of men. All my dreams
of love and freedom crystallized suddenly into Diaz.
I ran downstairs to the breakfast-room.
'You aren't going to the concert, auntie?' I almost sobbed.
She sat in her rocking-chair, and the gray woollen shawl thrown round her
shoulders mingled with her gray hair. Her long, handsome face was a
little pale, and her dark eyes darker than usual.
'I don't feel well enough,' she replied calmly.
She had not observed the tremor in my voice.
'But what's the matter?' I insisted.
'Nothing in particular, my dear. I do not feel equal to the exertion.'
'But, auntie--then I can't go, either.'
'I'm very sorry, dear,' she said. 'We will go to the next concert.'
'Diaz will never come again!' I exclaimed passionately. 'And the tickets
will be wasted.'
'My dear,' my Aunt Constance repeated, 'I am not equal to it. And you
cannot go alone.'
I was utterly selfish in that moment. I cared nothing whatever for my
aunt's indisposition. Indeed, I secretly accused her of maliciously
choosing that night of all nights for her mysterious fatigue.
'But, auntie,' I said, controlling myself, 'I must go, really. I shall
send Lucy over with a note to Ethel Ryley to ask her to go with me.'
'Do,' said my aunt, after a considerable pause, 'if you are bent
I have often thought since that during that pause, while we faced each
other, my aunt had for the first time fully realized how little she knew
of me; she must surely have detected in my glance a strangeness, a
contemptuous indifference, an implacable obstinacy, which she had never
seen in it before. And, indeed, these things were in my glance. Yet I
loved my aunt with a deep affection. I had only one grievance against
her. Although excessively proud, she would always, in conversation with
men, admit her mental and imaginative inferiority, and that of her sex.
She would admit, without being asked, that being a woman she could not
see far, that her feminine brain could not carry an argument to the end,
and that her feminine purpose was too infirm for any great enterprise.
She seemed to find a morbid pleasure in such confessions. As regards
herself, they were accurate enough; the dear creature was a singularly
good judge of her own character. What I objected to was her assumption,
so calm and gratuitous, that her individuality, with all its confessed
limitations, was, of course, superior--stronger, wiser, subtler than
mine. She never allowed me to argue with her; or if she did, she treated
my remarks with a high, amused tolerance. 'Wait till you grow older,' she
would observe, magnificently ignorant of the fact that my soul was
already far older than hers. This attitude naturally made me secretive in
all affairs of the mind, and most affairs of the heart.
We took in the county paper, the _Staffordshire Recorder,_ and the _Rock_
and the _Quiver_. With the help of these organs of thought, which I
detested and despised, I was supposed to be able to keep discreetly and
sufficiently abreast of the times. But I had other aids. I went to the
Girls' High School at Oldcastle till I was nearly eighteen. One of the
mistresses there used to read continually a red book covered with brown
paper. I knew it to be a red book because the paper was gone at the
corners. I admired the woman immensely, and her extraordinary interest in
the book--she would pick it up at every spare moment--excited in me an
ardent curiosity. One day I got a chance to open it, and I read on the
title-page, _Introduction to the Study of Sociology_, by Herbert Spencer.
Turning the pages, I encountered some remarks on Napoleon that astonished
and charmed me. I said: 'Why are not our school histories like this?' The
owner of the book caught me. I asked her to lend it to me, but she would
not, nor would she give me any reason for declining. Soon afterwards I
left school. I persuaded my aunt to let me join the Free Library at the
Wedgwood Institution. But the book was not in the catalogue. (How often,
in exchanging volumes, did I not gaze into the reading-room, where men
read the daily papers and the magazines, without daring to enter!) At
length I audaciously decided to buy the book. I ordered it, not at our
regular stationer's in Oldcastle Street, but at a little shop of the
same kind in Trafalgar Road. In three days it arrived. I called for it,
and took it home secretly in a cardboard envelope-box. I went to bed
early, and I began to read. I read all night, thirteen hours. O book with
the misleading title--for you have nothing to do with sociology, and you
ought to have been called _How to Think Honestly_--my face flushed again
and again as I perused your ugly yellowish pages! Again and again I
exclaimed: 'But this is marvellous!' I had not guessed that anything so
honest, and so courageous, and so simple, and so convincing had ever been
written. I am capable now of suspecting that Spencer was not a supreme
genius; but he taught me intellectual courage; he taught me that nothing
is sacred that will not bear inspection; and I adore his memory. The next
morning after breakfast I fell asleep in a chair. 'My dear!' protested
Aunt Constance. 'Ah,' I thought, 'if you knew, Aunt Constance, if you had
the least suspicion, of the ideas that are surging and shining in my
head, you would go mad--go simply mad!' I did not care much for
deception, but I positively hated clumsy concealment, and the red book
was in the house; at any moment it might be seized. On a shelf of books
in my bedroom was a novel called _The Old Helmet_, probably the silliest
novel in the world. I tore the pages from the binding and burnt them; I
tore the binding from Spencer and burnt it; and I put my treasure in the
covers of _The Old Helmet_. Once Rebecca, a person privileged, took the
thing away to read; but she soon brought it back. She told me she had
always understood that _The Old Helmet_ was more, interesting than that.
Later, I discovered _The Origin of Species_ in the Free Library. It
finished the work of corruption. Spencer had shown me how to think;
Darwin told me what to think. The whole of my upbringing went for naught
thenceforward. I lived a double life. I said nothing to my aunt of the
miracle wrought within me, and she suspected nothing. Strange and
uncanny, is it not, that such miracles can escape the observation of a
loving heart? I loved her as much as ever, perhaps more than ever. Thank
Heaven that love can laugh at reason!
So much for my intellectual inner life. My emotional inner life is less
easy to indicate. I became a woman at fifteen--years, interminable years,
before I left school. I guessed even then, vaguely, that my nature was
extremely emotional and passionate. And I had nothing literary on which
to feed my dreams, save a few novels which I despised, and the Bible and
the plays and poems of Shakespeare. It is wonderful, though, what good I
managed to find in those two use-worn volumes. I knew most of the Song of
Solomon by heart, and many of the sonnets; and I will not mince the fact
that my favourite play was _Measure for Measure_. I was an innocent
virgin, in the restricted sense in which most girls of my class and age
are innocent, but I obtained from these works many a lofty pang of
thrilling pleasure. They illustrated Chopin for me, giving precision and
particularity to his messages. And I was ashamed of myself. Yes; at the
bottom of my heart I was ashamed of myself because my sensuous being
responded to the call of these masterpieces. In my ignorance I thought I
was lapsing from a sane and proper ideal. And then--the second miracle in
my career, which has been full of miracles--I came across a casual
reference, in the _Staffordshire Recorder_, of all places, to the
_Mademoiselle de Maupin_ of Theophile Gautier. Something in the
reference, I no longer remember what, caused me to guess that the book
was a revelation of matters hidden from me. I bought it. With the
assistance of a dictionary, I read it, nightly, in about a week. Except
_Picciola_, it was the first French novel I had ever read. It held me
throughout; it revealed something on nearly every page. But the climax
dazzled and blinded me. It was exquisite, so high and pure, so
startling, so bold, that it made me ill. When I recovered I had fast in
my heart's keeping the new truth that in the body, and the instincts of
the body, there should be no shame, but rather a frank, joyous pride.
From that moment I ceased to be ashamed of anything that I honestly
liked. But I dared not keep the book. The knowledge of its contents would
have killed my aunt. I read it again; I read the last pages several
times, and then I burnt it and breathed freely.
Such was I, as I forced my will on my aunt in the affair of the concert.
And I say that she who had never suspected the existence of the real me,
suspected it then, when we glanced at each other across the
breakfast-room. Upon these apparent trifles life swings, as upon a pivot,
into new directions.
I sat with my aunt while Lucy went with the note. She returned soon with
the reply, and the reply was:
'So sorry I can't accept your kind invitation. I should have liked to go
awfully. But Fred has got the toothache, and I must not leave him.'
The toothache! And my very life, so it seemed to me, hung in the balance.
I did not hesitate one second.
'Hurrah!' I cried. 'She can go. I am to call for her in the cab.'
And I crushed the note cruelly, and threw it in the fire.
'Tell him to call at Ryleys',' I said to Rebecca as she was putting me
and my dress into the cab.
And she told the cabman with that sharp voice of hers, always arrogant
towards inferiors, to call at Ryleys.'
I put my head out of the cab window as soon as we were in
'Drive straight to Hanbridge,' I ordered.
The thing was done.
He was like his photograph, but the photograph had given me only the most
inadequate idea of him. The photograph could not render his extraordinary
fairness, nor the rich gold of his hair, nor the blue of his dazzling
eyes. The first impression was that he was too beautiful for a man, that
he had a woman's beauty, that he had the waxen beauty of a doll; but the
firm, decisive lines of the mouth and chin, the overhanging brows, and
the luxuriance of his amber moustache, spoke more sternly. Gradually one
perceived that beneath the girlish mask, beneath the contours and the
complexion incomparably delicate, there was an individuality intensely
and provocatively male. His body was rather less than tall, and it was
muscular and springy. He walked on to the platform as an unspoilt man
should walk, and he bowed to the applause as if bowing chivalrously to a
woman whom he respected but did not love. Diaz was twenty-six that year;
he had recently returned from a tour round the world; he was filled full
of triumph, renown, and adoration. As I have said, he was already
legendary. He had become so great and so marvellous that those who had
never seen him were in danger of forgetting that he was a living human
being, obliged to eat and drink, and practise scales, and visit his
tailor's. Thus it had happened to me. During the first moments I found
myself thinking, 'This cannot be Diaz. It is not true that at last I see
him. There must be some mistake.' Then he sat down leisurely to the
piano; his gaze ranged across the hall, and I fancied that, for a second,
it met mine. My two seats were in the first row of the stalls, and I
could see every slightest change of his face. So that at length I felt
that Diaz was real, and that he was really there close in front of me, a
seraph and yet very human. He was all alone on the great platform, and
the ebonized piano seemed enormous and formidable before him. And all
around was the careless public--ignorant, unsympathetic, exigent,
impatient, even inimical--two thousand persons who would get value for
their money or know the reason why. The electric light and the inclement
gaze of society rained down cruelly upon that defenceless head. I wanted
to protect it. The tears rose to my eyes, and I stretched out towards
Diaz the hands of my soul. My passionate sympathy must have reached him
like a beneficent influence, of which, despite the perfect
self-possession and self-confidence of his demeanour, it seemed to me
that he had need.
I had risked much that night. I had committed an enormity. No one but a
grown woman who still vividly remembers her girlhood can appreciate my
feelings as I drove from Bursley to Hanbridge in the cab, and as I got
out of the cab in the crowd, and gave up my ticket, and entered the
glittering auditorium of the Jubilee Hall. I was alone, at night, in the
public places, under the eye of the world. And I was guiltily alone.
Every fibre of my body throbbed with the daring and the danger and the
romance of the adventure. The horror of revealing the truth to Aunt
Constance, as I was bound to do--of telling her that I had lied, and that
I had left my maiden's modesty behind in my bedroom, gripped me at
intervals like some appalling and exquisite instrument of torture. And
yet, ere Diaz had touched the piano with his broad white hand, I was
content, I was rewarded, and I was justified.
The programme began with Chopin's first Ballade.
There was an imperative summons, briefly sustained, which developed into
an appeal and an invocation, ascending, falling, and still higher
ascending, till it faded and expired, and then, after a little pause, was
revived; then silence, and two chords, defining and clarifying the
vagueness of the appeal and the invocation. And then, almost before I was
aware of it, there stole forth from under the fingers of Diaz the song of
the soul of man, timid, questioning, plaintive, neither sad nor joyous,
but simply human, seeking what it might find on earth. The song changed
subtly from mood to mood, expressing that which nothing but itself could
express; and presently there was a low and gentle menace, thrice repeated
under the melody of the song, and the reply of the song was a proud cry,
a haughty contempt of these furtive warnings, and a sudden winged leap
into the empyrean towards the Eternal Spirit. And then the melody was
lost in a depth, and the song became turgid and wild and wilder,
hysteric, irresolute, frantically groping, until at last it found its
peace and its salvation. And the treasure was veiled in a mist of
arpeggios, but one by one these were torn away, and there was a hush, a
pause, and a preparation; and the soul of man broke into a new song of
what it had found on earth--the magic of the tenderness of love--an air
so caressing and so sweet, so calmly happy and so mournfully sane, so
bereft of illusions and so naive, that it seemed to reveal in a few
miraculous phrases the secret intentions of God. It was too beautiful; it
told me too much about myself; it vibrated my nerves to such an
unbearable spasm of pleasure that I might have died had I not willed to
live.... It gave place momentarily to the song of the question and the
search, but only to return, and to return again, with a more thrilling
and glorious assurance. It was drowned in doubt, but it emerged
triumphantly, covered with noble and delicious ornaments, and swimming
strongly on mysterious waves. And finally, with speed and with fire, it
was transformed and caught up into the last ecstasy, the ultimate
passion. The soul swept madly between earth and heaven, fell, rose; and
there was a dreadful halt. Then a loud blast, a distortion of the magic,
an upward rush, another and a louder blast, and a thunderous fall,
followed by two massive and terrifying chords....
Diaz was standing up and bowing to his public. What did they understand?
Did they understand anything? I cannot tell. But I know that they felt.
A shudder of feeling had gone through the hall. It was in vain that
people tried to emancipate themselves from the spell by the violence of
their applause. They could not. We were all together under the
enchantment. Some may have seen clearly, some darkly, but we were equal
before the throne of that mighty enchanter. And the enchanter bowed and
bowed with a grave, sympathetic smile, and then disappeared. I had not
clapped my hands; I had not moved. Only my full eyes had followed him as
he left the platform; and when he returned--because the applause would
not cease--my eyes watched over him as he came back to the centre of the
platform. He stood directly in front of me, smiling more gaily now. And
suddenly our glances met! Yes; I could not be mistaken. They met, and
mine held his for several seconds.... Diaz had looked at me. Diaz had
singled me out from the crowd. I blushed hotly, and I was conscious of a
surpassing joy. My spirit was transfigured. I knew that such a man was
above kings. I knew that the world and everything of loveliness that it
contained was his. I knew that he moved like a beautiful god through the
groves of delight, and that what he did was right, and whom he beckoned
came, and whom he touched was blessed. And my eyes had held his eyes for
a little space.
The enchantment deepened. I had read that the secret of playing Chopin
had died with Chopin; but I felt sure that evening, as I have felt sure
since, that Chopin himself, aristocrat of the soul as he was, would have
received Diaz as an equal, might even have acknowledged in him a
superior. For Diaz had a physique, and he had a mastery, a tyranny, of
the keyboard that Chopin could not have possessed. Diaz had come to the
front in a generation of pianists who had lifted technique to a plane of
which neither Liszt nor Rubinstein dreamed. He had succeeded primarily by
his gigantic and incredible technique. And then, when his technique had
astounded the world, he had invited the world to forget it, as the glass
is forgotten through which is seen beauty. And Diaz's gift was now such
that there appeared to intervene nothing between his conception of the
music and the strings of the piano, so perfected was the mechanism.
Difficulties had ceased to exist.
The performance of some pianists is so wonderful that it seems as if
they were crossing Niagara on a tight-rope, and you tremble lest they
should fall off. It was not so with Diaz. When Diaz played you
experienced the pure emotions caused by the unblurred contemplation of
that beauty which the great masters had created, and which Diaz had
tinted with the rare dyes of his personality. You forgot all but beauty.
The piano was not a piano; it was an Arabian magic beyond physical laws,
and it, too, had a soul.
So Diaz laid upon us the enchantment of Chopin and of himself. Mazurkas,
nocturnes, waltzes, scherzos, polonaises, preludes, he exhibited to us in
groups those manifestations of that supreme spirit--that spirit at once
stern and tender, not more sad than joyous, and always sane, always
perfectly balanced, always preoccupied with beauty. The singular myth of
a Chopin decadent, weary, erratic, mournful, hysterical, at odds with
fate, was completely dissipated; and we perceived instead the grave
artist nourished on Bach and studious in form, and the strong soul that
had dared to look on life as it is, and had found beauty everywhere. Ah!
how the air trembled and glittered with visions! How melody and harmony
filled every corner of the hall with the silver and gold of sound! How
the world was changed out of recognition! How that which had seemed
unreal became real, and that which had seemed real receded to a horizon
remote and fantastic!...
He was playing the fifteenth Prelude in D flat now, and the water was
dropping, dropping ceaselessly on the dead body, and the beautiful calm
song rose serenely in the dream, and then lost itself amid the presaging
chords of some sinister fate, and came again, exquisite and fresh as
ever, and then was interrupted by a high note like a clarion; and while
Diaz held that imperious, compelling note, he turned his face slightly
from the piano and gazed at me. Several times since the first time our
eyes had met, by accident as I thought. But this was a deliberate seeking
on his part. Again I flushed hotly. Again I had the terrible shudder of
joy. I feared for a moment lest all the Five Towns was staring at me,
thus singled out by Diaz; but it was not so: I had the wit to perceive
that no one could remark me as the recipient of that hurried and burning
glance. He had half a dozen bars to play, yet his eyes did not leave
mine, and I would not let mine leave his. He remained moveless while the
last chord expired, and then it seemed to me that his gaze had gone
further, had passed through me into some unknown. The applause startled
him to his feet.
My thought was: 'What can he be thinking of me?... But hundreds of women
must have loved him!'
In the interval an attendant came on to the platform and altered the
position of the piano. Everybody asked: 'What's that for?' For the new
position was quite an unusual one; it brought the tail of the piano
nearer to the audience, and gave a better view of the keyboard to the
occupants of the seats in the orchestra behind the platform. 'It's a
question of the acoustics, that's what it is,' observed a man near me,
and a woman replied: 'Oh, I see!'
When Diaz returned and seated himself to play the Berceuse, I saw that he
could look at me without turning his head. And now, instead of flushing,
I went cold. My spine gave way suddenly. I began to be afraid; but of
what I was afraid I had not the least idea. I fixed my eyes on my
programme as he launched into the Berceuse. Twice I glanced up, without,
however, moving my head, and each time his burning blue eyes met mine.
(But why did I choose moments when the playing of the piece demanded less
than all his attention?) The Berceuse was a favourite. In sentiment it
was simpler than the great pieces that had preceded it. Its excessive
delicacy attracted; the finesse of its embroidery swayed and enraptured
the audience; and the applause at the close was mad, deafening, and
peremptory. But Diaz was notorious as a refuser of encores. It had been
said that he would see a hall wrecked by an angry mob before he would
enlarge his programme. Four times he came forward and acknowledged the
tribute, and four times he went back. At the fifth response he halted
directly in front of me, and in his bold, grave eyes I saw a question. I
saw it, and I would not answer. If he had spoken aloud to me I could not
have more clearly understood. But I would not answer. And then some power
within myself, hitherto unsuspected by me, some natural force, took
possession of me, and I nodded my head.... Diaz went to the piano.
He hesitated, brushing lightly the keys.
'The Prelude in F sharp,' my thought ran. 'If he would play that!'
And instantly he broke into that sweet air, with its fateful hushed
accompaniment--the trifle which Chopin threw off in a moment of his
'It is the thirteenth Prelude,' I reflected. I was disturbed,
The next piece was the last, and it was the Fantasia, the masterpiece
In the Fantasia there speaks the voice of a spirit which has attained all
that humanity may attain: of wisdom, of power, of pride and glory. And
now it is like the roll of an army marching slowly through terrific
defiles; and now it is like the quiet song of royal wanderers meditating
in vast garden landscapes, with mossy masonry and long pools and
cypresses, and a sapphire star shining in the purple sky on the shoulder
of a cypress; and now it is like the cry of a lost traveller, who,
plunging heavily through a virgin forest, comes suddenly upon a green
circular sward, smooth as a carpet, with an antique statue of a beautiful
nude girl in the midst; and now it is like the oratory of richly-gowned
philosophers awaiting death in gorgeous and gloomy palaces; and now it is
like the upward rush of winged things that are determined to achieve,
knowing well the while that the ecstasy of longing is better than the
assuaging of desire. And though the voice of this spirit speaking in the
music disguises itself so variously, it is always the same. For it
cannot, and it would not, hide the strange and rare timbre which
distinguishes it from all others--that quality which springs from a pure
and calm vision, of life. The voice of this spirit says that it has lost
every illusion about life, and that life seems only the more beautiful.
It says that activity is but another form of contemplation, pain but
another form of pleasure, power but another form of weakness, hate but
another form of love, and that it is well these things should be so. It
says there is no end, only a means; and that the highest joy is to
suffer, and the supreme wisdom is to exist. If you will but live, it
cries, that grave but yet passionate voice--if you will but live! Were
there a heaven, and you reached it, you could do no more than live. The
true heaven is here where you live, where you strive and lose, and weep
and laugh. And the true hell is here, where you forget to live, and blind
your eyes to the omnipresent and terrible beauty of existence....
No, no; I cannot--I cannot describe further the experiences of my soul
while Diaz played. When words cease, music has scarcely begun. I know
now--I did not know it then--that Diaz was playing as perhaps he had
never played before. The very air was charged with exquisite emotion,
which went in waves across the hall, changing and blanching faces,
troubling hearts, and moistening eyes.... And then he finished. It was
over. In every trembling breast was a pang of regret that this spell,
this miracle, this divine revolution, could not last into eternity....
He stood bowing, one hand touching the piano. And as the revolution he
had accomplished in us was divine, so was he divine. I felt, and many
another woman in the audience felt, that no reward could be too great for
the beautiful and gifted creature who had entranced us and forced us to
see what alone in life was worth seeing: that the whole world should be
his absolute dominion; that his happiness should be the first concern of
mankind; that if a thousand suffered in order to make him happy for a
moment, it mattered not; that laws were not for him; that if he sinned,
his sin must not be called a sin, and that he must be excused from
remorse and from any manner of woe.
The applauding multitude stood up, and moved slightly towards the exits,
and then stopped, as if ashamed of this readiness to desert the sacred
temple. Diaz came forward three times, and each time the applause
increased to a tempest; but he only smiled--smiled gravely. I could not
see distinctly whether his eyes had sought mine, for mine were full of
tears. No persuasions could induce him to show himself a fourth time, and
at length a middle-aged man appeared and stated that Diaz was extremely
gratified by his reception, but that he was also extremely exhausted and
had left the hall.
We departed, we mortals; and I was among the last to leave the
auditorium. As I left the lights were being extinguished over the
platform, and an attendant was closing the piano. The foyer was crowded
with people waiting to get out. The word passed that it was raining
heavily. I wondered how I should find my cab. I felt very lonely and
unknown; I was overcome with sadness--with a sense of the futility and
frustration of my life. Such is the logic of the soul, and such the force
of reaction. Gradually the foyer emptied.
'You think I am happy,' said Diaz, gazing at me with a smile
suddenly grave; 'but I am not. I seek something which I cannot find.
And my playing is only a relief from the fruitless search; only
that. I am forlorn.'
'You!' I exclaimed, and my eyes rested on his, long.
Yes, we had met. Perhaps it had been inevitable since the beginning of
time that we should meet; but it was none the less amazing. Perhaps I had
inwardly known that we should meet; but, none the less, I was astounded
when a coated and muffled figure came up swiftly to me in the emptying
foyer, and said: 'Ah! you are here! I cannot leave without thanking you
for your sympathy. I have never before felt such sympathy while playing.'
It was a golden voice, pitched low, and the words were uttered with a
very slight foreign accent, which gave them piquancy. I could not reply;
something rose in my throat, and the caressing voice continued: 'You are
pale. Do you feel ill? What can I do? Come with me to the artists' room;
my secretary is there.' I put out a hand gropingly, for I could not see
clearly, and I thought I should reel and fall. It touched his shoulder.
He took my arm, and we went; no one had noticed us, and I had not spoken
a word. In the room to which he guided me, through a long and sombre
corridor, there was no sign of a secretary. I drank some water. 'There,
you are better!' he cried. 'Thank you,' I said, but scarcely whispering.
'How fortunate I ventured to come to you just at that moment! You might
have fallen'; and he smiled again. I shook my head. I said: 'It was your
coming--that--that--made me dizzy!' 'I profoundly regret--' he began.
'No, no,' I interrupted him; and in that instant I knew I was about to
say something which society would, justifiably, deem unpardonable in a
girl situated as I was. 'I am so glad you came'; and I smiled, courageous
and encouraging. For once in my life--for the first time in my adult
life--I determined to be my honest self to another. 'Your voice is
exquisitely beautiful,' he murmured. I thrilled.
Of what use to chronicle the steps, now halting, now only too hasty, by
which our intimacy progressed in that gaunt and echoing room? He asked me
no questions as to my identity. He just said that he would like to play
to me in private if that would give me pleasure, and that possibly I
could spare an hour and would go with him.... Afterwards his brougham
would be at my disposal. His tone was the perfection of deferential
courtesy. Once the secretary came in--a young man rather like
himself--and they talked together in a foreign language that was not
French nor German; then the secretary bowed and retired.... We were
alone.... There can be no sort of doubt that unless I was prepared to
flout the wisdom of the ages, I ought to have refused his suggestion. But
is not the wisdom of the ages a medicine for majorities? And, indeed, I
was prepared to flout it, as in our highest and our lowest moments we
often are. Moreover, how many women in my place, confronted by that
divine creature, wooed by that wondrous personality, intoxicated by that
smile and that voice, allured by the appeal of those marvellous hands,
would have found the strength to resist? I did not resist, I yielded; I
accepted. I was already in disgrace with Aunt Constance--as well be
drowned in twelve feet of water as in six!
So we drove rapidly away in the brougham, through the miry,
light-reflecting streets of Hanbridge in the direction of Knype. And the
raindrops ran down the windows of the brougham, and in the cushioned
interior we could see each other darkly. He did his best to be at ease,
and he almost succeeded. My feeling towards him, as regards the external
management, the social guidance, of the affair, was as though we were at
sea in a dangerous storm, and he was on the bridge and I was a mere
passenger, and could take no responsibility. Who knew through what
difficult channels we might not have to steer, and from what lee-shores
we might not have to beat away? I saw that he perceived this. When I
offered him some awkward compliment about his good English, he seized the
chance of a narrative, and told me about his parentage: how his mother
was Scotch, and his father Danish, and how, after his father's death, his
mother had married Emilio Diaz, a Spanish teacher of music in Edinburgh,
and how he had taken, by force of early habit, the name of his
stepfather. The whole world was familiar with these facts, and I was
familiar with them; but their recital served our turn in the brougham,
and, of course, Diaz could add touches which had escaped the
_Staffordshire Recorder_, and perhaps all other papers. He was explaining
to me that his secretary was his stepfather's son by another wife, when
we arrived at the Five Towns Hotel, opposite Knype Railway Station. I
might have foreseen that that would be our destination. I hooded myself
as well as I could, and followed him quickly to the first-floor. I sank
down into a chair nearly breathless in his sitting-room, and he took my
cloak, and then poked the bright fire that was burning. On a small table
were some glasses and a decanter, and a few sandwiches. I surmised that
the secretary had been before us and arranged things, and discreetly
departed. My adventure appeared to me suddenly and over-poweringly in its
full enormity. 'Oh,' I sighed, 'if I were a man like you!' Then it was
that, gazing up at me from the fire, Diaz had said that he was not happy,
that he was forlorn.
'Yes,' he proceeded, sitting down and crossing his legs; 'I am profoundly
dissatisfied. What is my life? Eight or nine months in the year it is a
homeless life of hotels and strange faces and strange pianos. You do not
know how I hate a strange piano. That one'--he pointed to a huge
instrument which had evidently been placed in the room specially for
him--'is not very bad; but I made its acquaintance only yesterday, and
after to-morrow I shall never see it again. I wander across the world,
and everybody I meet looks at me as if I ought to be in a museum, and
bids me make acquaintance with a strange piano.'
'But have you no friends?' I ventured.
'Who can tell?' he replied. 'If I have, I scarcely ever see them.'
'And no home?'
'I have a home on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, and I
'Why do you loathe it?'
'Ah! For what it has witnessed--for what it has witnessed.' He sighed.
'Suppose we discuss something else.'
You must remember my youth, my inexperience, my lack of adroitness in
social intercourse. I talked quietly and slowly, like my aunt, and I know
that I had a tremendous air of sagacity and self-possession; but beneath
that my brain and heart were whirling, bewildered in a delicious,
dazzling haze of novel sensations. It was not I who spoke, but a new
being, excessively perturbed into a consciousness of new powers. I said:
'You say you are friendless, but I wonder how many women are dying for
love of you.'
He started. There was a pause. I felt myself blushing.
'Let me guess at your history,' he said. 'You have lived much alone with
your thoughts, and you have read a great deal of the finest romantic
poetry, and you have been silent, especially with men. You have seen
little of men.'
'But I understand them,' I answered boldly.
'I believe you do,' he admitted; and he laughed. 'So I needn't explain to
you that a thousand women dying of love for one man will not help that
man to happiness, unless he is dying of love for the thousand and first.'
'And have you never loved?'
The words came of themselves out of my mouth.
'I have deceived myself--in my quest of sympathy,' he said.
'Can you be sure that, in your quest of sympathy, you are not deceiving
'Yes,' he cried quickly, 'I can.' And he sprang up and almost ran to the
piano. 'You remember the D flat Prelude?' he said, breaking into the
latter part of the air, and looking at me the while. 'When I came to that
note and caught your gaze'--he struck the B flat and held it--'I knew
that I had found sympathy. I knew it! I knew it! I knew it! Do you
'The way we looked at each other.'
'Yes,' I breathed, 'I remember.'
'How can I thank you? How can I thank you?'
He seemed to be meditating. His simplicity, his humility, his kindliness
were more than I could bear.
'Please do not speak like that,' I entreated him, pained. 'You are the
greatest artist in the world, and I am nobody--nobody at all. I do not
know why I am here. I cannot imagine what you have seen in me. Everything
is a mystery. All I feel is that I am in your presence, and that I am not
worthy to be. No matter how long I live, I shall never experience again
the joy that I have now. But if you talk about thanking me, I must run
away, because I cannot stand it--and--and--you haven't played for me, and
you said you would.'
He approached me, and bent his head towards mine, and I glanced up
through a mist and saw his eyes and the short, curly auburn locks on
'The most beautiful things, and the most vital things, and the most
lasting things,' he said softly, 'are often mysterious and inexplicable
and sudden. And let me tell you that you do not know how lovely you are.
You do not know the magic of your voice, nor the grace of your gestures.
But time and man will teach you. What shall I play?'
He was very close to me.
'Bach,' I ejaculated, pointing impatiently to the piano.
I fancied that Bach would spread peace abroad in my soul.
He resumed his place at the piano, and touched the keys.
'Another thing that makes me more sure that I am not deceiving myself
to-night,' he said, taking his fingers off the keys, but staring at the
keyboard, 'is that you have not regretted coming here. You have not
called yourself a wicked woman. You have not even accused me of taking
advantage of your innocence.'
And ere I could say a word he had begun the Chromatic Fantasia,
And I had hoped for peace from Bach! I had often suspected that deep
passion was concealed almost everywhere within the restraint and the
apparent calm of Bach's music, but the full force of it had not been
shown to me till this glorious night. Diaz' playing was tenfold more
impressive, more effective, more revealing in the hotel parlour than in
the great hall. The Chromatic Fantasia seemed as full of the magnificence
of life as that other Fantasia which he had given an hour or so earlier.
Instead of peace I had the whirlwind; instead of tranquillity a riot;
instead of the poppy an alarming potion. The rendering was masterly to
the extreme of masterliness.
When he had finished I rose and passed to the fireplace in silence; he
did not stir.
'Do you always play like that?' I asked at length.
'No,' he said; 'only when you are there. I have never played the Chopin
Fantasia as I played it to-night. The Chopin was all right; but do not
be under any illusion: what you have just heard is Bach played by a
Then he left the piano and went to the small table where the
'You must be in need of refreshment,' he whispered gaily. 'Nothing is
more exhausting than listening to the finest music.'
'It is you who ought to be tired,' I replied; 'after that long concert,
to be playing now.'
'I have the physique of a camel,' he said. 'I am never tired so long as I
am sure of my listeners. I would play for you till breakfast to-morrow.'
The decanter contained a fluid of a pleasant green tint. He poured very
carefully this fluid to the depth of half an inch in one glass and
three-quarters of an inch in another glass. Then he filled both glasses
to the brim with water, accomplishing the feat with infinite pains and
enjoyment, as though it had been part of a ritual.
'There!' he said, offering me in his steady hand the glass which had
received the smaller quantity of the green fluid. 'Taste.'
'But what is it?' I demanded.
'Taste,' he repeated, and he himself tasted.
I obeyed. At the first mouthful I thought the liquid was somewhat
sinister and disagreeable, but immediately afterwards I changed my
opinion, and found it ingratiating, enticing, and stimulating, and yet
'Do you like it?' he asked.
I nodded, and drank again.
'It is wonderful,' I answered. 'What do you call it?'
'Men call it absinthe,' he said.
I put the glass on the mantelpiece and picked it up again.
'Don't be frightened,' he soothed me. 'I know what you were going to
say. You have always heard that absinthe is the deadliest of all poisons,
that it is the curse of Paris, and that it makes the most terrible of all
drunkards. So it is; so it does. But not as we are drinking it; not as I
invariably drink it.'
'Of course,' I said, proudly confident in him. 'You would not have
offered it to me otherwise.'
'Of course I should not,' he agreed. 'I give you my word that a few drops
of absinthe in a tumbler of water make the most effective and the least
harmful stimulant in the world.'
'I am sure of it,' I said.
'But drink slowly,' he advised me.
I refused the sandwiches. I had no need of them. I felt sufficient unto
myself. I no longer had any apprehension. My body, my brain, and my soul
seemed to be at the highest pitch of efficiency. The fear of being
maladroit departed from me. Ideas--delicate and subtle ideas--welled up
in me one after another; I was bound to give utterance to them. I began
to talk about my idol Chopin, and I explained to Diaz my esoteric
interpretation of the Fantasia. He was sitting down now, but I still
stood by the fire.
'Yes, he said, 'that is very interesting.'
'What does the Fantasia mean to you?' I asked him.
'Nothing,' he said.
'Nothing, in the sense you wish to convey. Everything, in another sense.
You can attach any ideas you please to music, but music, if you will
forgive me saying so, rejects them all equally. Art has to do with
emotions, not with ideas, and the great defect of literature is that it
can only express emotions by means of ideas. What makes music the
greatest of all the arts is that it can express emotions without ideas.
Literature can appeal to the soul only through the mind. Music goes
direct. Its language is a language which the soul alone understands, but
which the soul can never translate. Therefore all I can say of the
Fantasia is that it moves me profoundly. I _know how_ it moves me, but I
cannot tell you; I cannot even tell myself.'
Vistas of comprehension opened out before me.
'Oh, do go on,' I entreated him. 'Tell me more about music. Do you not
think Chopin the greatest composer that ever lived? You must do, since
you always play him.'
'No,' he said, 'I do not. For me there is no supremacy in art. When
fifty artists have contrived to be supreme, supremacy becomes
impossible. Take a little song by Grieg. It is perfect, it is supreme.
No one could be greater than Grieg was great when he wrote that song.
The whole last act of _The Twilight of the Gods_ is not greater than a
little song of Grieg's.'
'I see,' I murmured humbly. '_The Twilight of the Gods_--that is Wagner,
'Yes. Don't you know your Wagner?'
'You don't know _Tristan_?'
He jumped up, excited.
'How could I know it?' I expostulated. 'I have never seen any opera. I
know the marches from _Tannhaeuser_ and _Lohengrin_, and "O Star of Eve!"'
'But it is impossible that you don't know _Tristan_!' he exclaimed. 'The
second act of _Tristan_ is the greatest piece of love-music--No, it
isn't.' He laughed. 'I must not contradict myself. But it is
marvellous--marvellous! You know the story?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Play me some of it.'
'I will play the Prelude,' he answered.
I gulped down the remaining drops in my glass and crossed the room to a
chair where I could see his face. And he played the Prelude to the most
passionately voluptuous opera ever written. It was my first real
introduction to Wagner, my first glimpse of that enchanted field. I was
ravished, rapt away.
'Wagner was a great artist in spite of himself,' said Diaz, when he had
finished. 'He assigned definite and precise ideas to all those melodies.
Nothing could be more futile. I shall not label them for you. But perhaps
you can guess the love-motive for yourself.'
'Yes, I can,' I said positively. 'It is this.'
I tried to hum the theme, but my voice refused obedience. So I came to
the piano, and played the theme high up in the treble, while Diaz was
still sitting on the piano-stool. I trembled even to touch the piano in
his presence; but I did it.
'You have guessed right,' he said; and then he asked me in a casual tone:
'Do you ever play pianoforte duets?'
'Often,' I replied unsuspectingly, 'with my aunt. We play the symphonies
of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, and overtures, and so on.'
'Awfully good fun, isn't it?' he smiled.
'Splendid!' I said.
'I've got _Tristan_ here arranged for pianoforte duet,' he said.
'Tony, my secretary, enjoys playing it. You shall play part of the
second act with me.'
'Me! With you!'
'Impossible! I should never dare! How do you know I can play at all?'
'You have just proved it to me,' said he. 'Come; you will not
refuse me this!'
I wanted to leave the vicinity of the piano. I felt that, once out of the
immediate circle of his tremendous physical influence, I might manage to
escape the ordeal which he had suggested. But I could not go away. The
silken nets of his personality had been cast, and I was enmeshed. And if
I was happy, it was with a dreadful happiness.
'But, really, I can't play with you,' I said weakly.
His response was merely to look up at me over his shoulder. His beautiful
face was so close to mine, and it expressed such a naive and strong
yearning for my active and intimate sympathy, and such divine frankness,
and such perfect kindliness, that I had no more will to resist. I knew I
should suffer horribly in spoiling by my coarse amateurishness the
miraculous finesse of his performance, but I resigned myself to
suffering. I felt towards him as I had felt during the concert: that he
must have his way at no matter what cost, that he had already earned the
infinite gratitude of the entire world--in short, I raised him in my soul
to a god's throne; and I accepted humbly the great, the incredible honour
he did me. And I was right--a thousand times right.
And in the same moment he was like a charming child to me: such is always
in some wise the relation between the creature born to enjoy and the
creature born to suffer.
'I'll try,' I said; 'but it will be appalling.'
I laughed and shook my head.
'We shall see how appalling it will be,' he murmured, as he got the
volume of music.
He fetched a chair for me, and we sat down side by side, he on the stool
and I on the chair.
'I'm afraid my chair is too low,' I said.
'And I'm sure this stool is too high,' he said. 'Suppose we exchange.'
So we both rose to change the positions of the chair and the stool, and
our garments touched and almost our faces, and at that very moment there
was a loud rap at the door.
I darted away from him.
'What's that?' I cried, low in a fit of terror.
'Who's there?' he called quietly; but he did not stir.
We gazed at each other.
The knock was repeated, sharply and firmly.
'Who's there?' Diaz demanded again.
'Go to the door,' I whispered.
He hesitated, and then we heard footsteps receding down the corridor.
Diaz went slowly to the door, opened it wide, slipped out into the
corridor, and looked into the darkness.
'Curious!' he commented tranquilly. 'I see no one.'
He came back into the room and shut the door softly, and seemed thereby
to shut us in, to enclose us against the world in a sweet domesticity of
our own. The fire was burning brightly, the glasses and the decanter on
the small table spoke of cheer, the curtains were drawn, and through a
half-open door behind the piano one had a hint of a mysterious other
room; one could see nothing within it save a large brass knob or ball,
which caught the light of the candle on the piano.
'You were startled,' he said. 'You must have a little more of our
cordial--just a spoonful.'
He poured out for me an infinitesimal quantity, and the same for himself.
I sighed with relief as I drank. My terror left me. But the trifling
incident had given me the clearest perception of what I was doing, and
that did not leave me.
We sat down a second time to the piano.
'You understand,' he explained, staring absently at the double page of
music, 'this is the garden scene. When the curtain goes up it is dark in
the garden, and Isolda is there with her maid Brangaena. The king, her
husband, has just gone off hunting--you will hear the horns dying in the
distance--and Isolda is expecting her lover, Tristan. A torch is burning
in the wall of the castle, and as soon as she gives him the signal by
extinguishing it he comes to her. You will know the exact moment when
they meet. Then there is the love-scene. Oh! when we arrive at that you
will be astounded. You will hear the very heart-beats of the lovers. Are
We began to play. But it was ridiculous. I knew it would be ridiculous.
I was too dazed, and artistically too intimidated, to read the notes.
The notes danced and pranced before me. All I could see on my page was
the big black letters at the top, 'Zweiter Aufzug.' And furthermore, on
that first page both the theme and the accompaniment were in the bass of
the piano. Diaz had scarcely anything to do. I threw up my hands and
closed my eyes.
'I can't,' I whispered, 'I can't. I would if I could.'
He gently took my hand.
'My dear companion,' he said, 'tell me your name.'
I was surprised. Memories of the Bible, for some inexplicable reason,
flashed through my mind.
'Magdalen,' I replied, and my voice was so deceptively quiet and sincere
that he believed it.
I could see that he was taken aback.
'It is a holy name and a good name,' he said, after a pause. 'Magda, you
are perfectly capable of reading this music with me, and you will read
it, won't you? Let us begin afresh. Leave the accompaniment with me, and
play the theme only. Further on it gets easier.'
And in another moment we were launched on that sea so strange to me. The
influence of Diaz over me was complete. Inspired by his will, I had
resolved intensely to read the music correctly and sympathetically, and
lo! I was succeeding! He turned the page with the incredible rapidity and
dexterity of which only great pianists seem to have the secret, and in
conjunction with my air in the bass he was suddenly, magically, drawing
out from the upper notes the sweetest and most intoxicating melody I had
ever heard. The exceeding beauty of the thing laid hold on me, and I
abandoned myself to it. I felt sure now that, at any rate, I should not
'Unless it was Chopin,' whispered Diaz. 'No one could ever see two things
at once as well as Wagner.'
We surged on through the second page. Again the lightning turn of the
page, and then the hunters' horns were heard departing from the garden of
love, receding, receding, until they subsided into a scarce-heard drone,
out of which rose another air. And as the sound of the horns died away,
so died away all my past and all my solicitudes for the future. I
surrendered utterly and passionately to the spell of the beauty which we
were opening like a long scroll. I had ceased to suffer.
The absinthe and Diaz had conjured a spirit in me which was at once
feverish and calm. I was reading at sight difficult music full of
modulations and of colour, and I was reading it with calm assurance of
heart and brain. Deeper down the fever raged, but so separately that I
might have had two individualities. Enchanted as I was by the rich and
complex concourse of melodies which ascended from the piano and swam
about our heads, this fluctuating tempest of sound was after all only a
background for the emotions to which it gave birth in me. Naturally they
were the emotions of love--the sense of the splendour of love, the
headlong passion of love, the transcendent carelessness of love, the
finality of love. I saw in love the sole and sacred purpose of the
universe, and my heart whispered, with a new import: 'Where love is,
there is God also.'
The fever of the music increased, and with it my fever. We seemed to be
approaching some mighty climax. I thought I might faint with ecstasy,
but I held on, and the climax arrived--a climax which touched the
limits of expression in expressing all that two souls could feel in
'Tristan has come into the garden,' I muttered.
And Diaz, turning his face towards me, nodded.
We plunged forward into the love-scene itself--the scene in which the
miracle of love is solemnized and celebrated. I thought that of all
miracles, the miracle which had occurred that night, and was even then
occurring, might be counted among the most wondrous. What occult forces,
what secret influences of soul on soul, what courage on his part, what
sublime immodesty and unworldliness on mine had brought it about! In
what dreadful disaster would it not end! ... I cared not in that
marvellous hectic hour how it would end. I knew I had been blessed beyond
the common lot of women. I knew that I was living more intensely and more
fully than I could have hoped to live. I knew that my experience was a
supreme experience, and that another such could not be contained in my
life.... And Diaz was so close, so at one with me.... A hush descended on
the music, and I found myself playing strange disturbing chords with the
left hand, irregularly repeated, opposing the normal accent of the bar,
and becoming stranger and more disturbing. And Diaz was playing an air
fragmentary and poignant. The lovers were waiting; the very atmosphere of
the garden was drenched with an agonizing and exquisite anticipation. The
whole world stood still, expectant, while the strange chords fought
gently and persistently against the rhythm.
'Hear the beating of their hearts,' Diaz' whisper floated over the
It was too much. The obsession of his presence, reinforced by the
vibrating of his wistful, sensuous voice, overcame me suddenly. My hands
fell from the keyboard. He looked at me--and with what a glance!
'I can bear no more,' I cried wildly. 'It is too beautiful, too
And I rushed from the piano, and sat down in an easy-chair, and hid my
face in my hands.
He came to me, and bent over me.
'Magda,' he whispered, 'show me your face.' With his hands he delicately
persuaded my hands away from my face, and forced me to look on him. 'How
dark and splendid you are, Magda!' he said, still holding my hands. 'How
humid and flashing your eyes! And those eyelashes, and that hair--dark,
dark! And that bosom, with its rise and fall! And that low, rich voice,
that is like dark wine! And that dress--dark, and full of mysterious
shadows, like our souls! Magda, we must have known each other in a
previous life. There can be no other explanation. And this moment is the
fulfilment of that other life, which was not aroused. You were to be
mine. You are mine, Magda!'
There is a fatalism in love. I felt it then. I had been called by destiny
to give happiness, perhaps for a lifetime, but perhaps only for a brief
instant, to this noble and glorious creature, on whom the gods had
showered all gifts. Could I shrink back from my fate? And had he not
already given me far more than I could ever return? The conventions of
society seemed then like sand, foolishly raised to imprison the
resistless tide of ocean. Nature, after all, is eternal and unchangeable,
and everywhere the same. The great and solemn fact for me was that we
were together, and he held me while our burning pulses throbbed in
contact. He held me; he clasped me, and, despite my innocence, I knew at
once that those hands were as expert to caress as to make music. I was
proud and glad that he was not clumsy, that he was a master. And at that
point I ceased to have volition....
When I woke up, perplexed at first, but gradually remembering where I
was, and what had occurred to me, the realistic and uncompromising light
of dawn had commenced its pitiless inquiry, and it fell on the brass
knob, which I had noticed a few hours before, from the other room, and
on another brass knob a few feet away. My eyes smarted; I had
disconcerting sensations at the back of my head; my hair was brittle,
and as though charged with a dull electricity; I was conscious of actual
pain, and an incubus, crushing but intangible, lay heavily, like a
physical weight, on my heart. After the crest of the wave the trough--it
must be so; but how profound the instinct which complains! I listened. I
could hear his faint, regular breathing. I raised myself carefully on
one elbow and looked at him. He was as beautiful in sleep as in
consciousness; his lips were slightly parted, his cheek exquisitely
flushed, and nothing could disarrange that short, curly hair. He slept
with the calmness of the natural innocent man, to whom the assuaging of
desires brings only content.
I felt that I must go, and hastily, frantically. I could not face him
when he woke; I should not have known what to say; I should have been
abashed, timid, clumsy, unequal to myself. And, moreover, I had the
egoist's deep need to be alone, to examine my soul, to understand it
intimately and utterly. And, lastly, I wanted to pay the bill of pleasure
at once. I could never tolerate credit; I was like my aunt in that.
Therefore, I must go home and settle the account in some way. I knew not
how; I knew only that the thing must be done. Diaz had nothing to do with
that; it was not his affair, and I should have resented his interference.
Ah! when I was in the bill-paying mood, how hard I could be, how stony,
how blind! And that morning I was like a Malay running amok.
Think not that when I was ready to depart I stopped and stooped to give
him a final tender kiss. I did not even scribble a word of adieu or of
explanation. I stole away on tiptoe, without looking at him. This sounds
brutal, but it is a truth of my life, and I am writing my life--at
least, I am writing those brief hours of my existence during which I
lived. I had always a sort of fierce courage; and as I had proved the
courage of my passion in the night, so I proved the courage of my--not
my remorse, not my compunction, not my regret--but of my intellectual
honesty in the morning. Proud and vain words, perhaps. Who can tell? No
matter what sympathies I alienate, I am bound to say plainly that,
though I am passionate, I am not sentimental. I came to him out of the
void, and I went from him into the void. He found me, and he lost me.
Between the autumn sunset and the autumn sunrise he had learnt to know
me well, but he did not know my name nor my history; he had no clue, no
cord to pull me back.
I passed into the sitting-room, dimly lighted through the drawn curtains,
and there was the score of _Tristan_ open on the piano. Yes; and if I
were the ordinary woman I would add that there also were the ashes in the
cold grate, and so symbolize the bitterness of memory and bring about a
pang. But I have never regretted what is past. The cinders of that fire
were to me cinders of a fire and nothing more.
In the doorway I halted. To go into the corridor was like braving the
blast of the world, and I hesitated. Possibly I hesitated for a very
little thing. Only the women among you will guess it. My dress was dark
and severe. I had a simple, dark cloak. But I had no hat. I had no hat,
and the most important fact in the universe for me then was that I had no
hat. My whole life was changed; my heart and mind were in the throes of a
revolution. I dared not imagine what would happen between my aunt and me;
but this deficiency in my attire distressed me more than all else. At the
other end of the obscure corridor was a chambermaid kneeling down and
washing the linoleum. Ah, maid! Would I not have exchanged fates with
you, then! I walked boldly up to her. She seemed to be surprised, but she
continued to wring out a cloth in her pail as she looked at me.
'What time is it, please?' I asked her.
'Better than half-past six, ma'am,' said she.
She was young and emaciated.
'Have you got a hat you can lend me? Or I'll buy it from you.'
'A hat, ma'am?'
'Yes, a hat,' I repeated impatiently. And I flushed. 'I must go out at
once, and I've--I've no hat And I can't--'
It is extraordinary how in a crisis one's organism surprises one. I had
thought I was calm and full of self-control, but I had almost no command
over my voice.
'I've got a boat-shaped straw, ma'am, if that's any use to you,' said the
What she surmised or what she knew I could not say. But I have found out
since in my travels, that hotel chambermaids lose their illusions early.
At any rate her tone was kindly.
'Get it me, there's a good girl,' I entreated her.
And when she brought it, I drew out the imitation pearl pins and put them
between my teeth, and jammed the hat on my head and skewered it savagely
with the pins.
'Is that right?'
'It suits you better than it does me, ma'am, I do declare,' she said.
'Oh, ma'am, this is too much--I really couldn't!'
I had given her five shillings.
'Nonsense! I am very much obliged to you,' I whispered hurriedly,
and ran off.
She was a good girl. I hope she has never suffered. And yet I would
not like to think she had died of consumption before she knew what
I hastened from the hotel. A man in a blue waistcoat with shining black
sleeves was moving a large cocoa-nut mat in the hall, and the pattern of
the mat was shown in dust on the tiles where the mat had been. He glanced
at me absently as I flitted past; I encountered no other person. The
square between the hotel and the station was bathed in pure
sunshine--such sunshine as reaches the Five Towns only after a rain-storm
has washed the soot out of the air. I felt, for a moment, obscene in that
sunshine; but I had another and a stronger feeling. Although there was
not a soul in the square, I felt as if I was regarding the world and
mankind with different eyes from those of yesterday. Then I knew nothing;
to-day I knew everything--so it seemed to me. It seemed to me that I
understood all sorts of vague, subtle things that I had not understood
before; that I had been blind and now saw; that I had become kinder, more
sympathetic, more human. What these things were that I understood, or
thought I understood, I could not have explained. All I felt was that a
radical change of attitude had occurred in me. 'Poor world!
Poor humanity! My heart melts for you!' Thus spoke my soul, pouring
itself out. The very stone facings of the station and the hotel seemed
somehow to be humanized and to need my compassion.
I walked with eyes downcast into the station. I had determined to take
the train from Knype to Shawport, a distance of three miles, and then to
walk up the hill from Shawport through Oldcastle Street to Bursley. I
hoped that by such a route at such an hour, I should be unlikely to meet
acquaintances, of whom, in any case, I had few. My hopes appeared to be
well founded, for the large booking-hall at the station was thronged with
a multitude entirely strange to me--workmen and workwomen and workgirls
crowded the place. The first-class and second-class booking-windows were
shut, and a long tail of muscular men, pale men, stout women, and thin
women pushed to take tickets at the other window. I was obliged to join
them, and to wait my turn amid the odour of corduroy and shawl, and the
strong odour of humanity; my nostrils were peculiarly sensitive that
morning. Some of the men had herculean arms and necks, and it was these
who wore pieces of string tied round their trousers below the knee,
disclosing the lines of their formidable calves. The women were mostly
pallid and quiet. All carried cans, or satchels, or baskets; here and
there a man swung lightly on his shoulder a huge bag of tools, which I
could scarcely have raised from the ground. Everybody was natural,
direct, and eager; and no one attempted to be genteel or refined; no one
pretended that he did not toil with his hands for dear life. I
anticipated that I should excite curiosity, but I did not. The people had
a preoccupied, hurried air. Only at the window itself, when the
ticket-clerk, having made me repeat my demand, went to a distant part of
his lair to get my ticket, did I detect behind me a wave of impatient and
inimical interest in this drone who caused delay to busy people.
It was the same on the up-platform, the same in the subway, and the same
on the down-platform. I was plunged in a sea of real, raw life; but I
could not mingle with it; I was a bit of manufactured lace on that full
tide of nature. The porters cried in a different tone from what they
employed when the London and Manchester expresses, and the polite trains
generally, were alongside. They cried fraternally, rudely; they were at
one with the passengers. I alone was a stranger.
'These are the folk! These are the basis of society, and the fountain of
_our_ wealth and luxury!' I thought; for I was just beginning, at that
period, to be interested in the disquieting aspects of the social
organism, and my ideas were hot and crude. I was aware of these people on
paper, but now, for the first time, I realized the immense rush and sweep
of their existence, their nearness to Nature, their formidable
directness. They frightened me with their vivid humanity.
I could find no first-class carriage on the train, and I got into a
compartment where there were several girls and one young man. The girls
were evidently employed in the earthenware manufacture. Each had her
dinner-basket. Most of them were extremely neat; one or two wore gloves.
From the young man's soiled white jacket under his black coat, I
gathered that he was an engineer. The train moved out of the station and
left the platform nearly empty. I pictured the train, a long procession
of compartments like ours, full of rough, natural, ungenteel people.
None of my companions spoke; none gave me more than a passing glance. It
Still, the fundamental, cardinal quality of my adventure remained
prominent in my being, and it gave me countenance among these taciturn,
musing workgirls, who were always at grips with the realities of life.
'Ah,' I thought, 'you little know what I know! I may appear a butterfly,
but I have learnt the secret meaning of existence. I am above you, beyond
you, by my experience, and by my terrible situation, and by the turmoil
in my heart!' And then, quite suddenly, I reflected that they probably
knew all that I knew, that some of them might have forgotten more than I
had ever learnt. I remembered an absorbing correspondence about the
manners of the Five Towns in the columns of the _Staffordshire
Recorder_--a correspondence which had driven Aunt Constance to conceal
the paper after the second week. I guessed that they might smile at the
simplicity of my heart could they see it. Meaning of existence! Why, they
were reared in it! The naturalness of natural people and of natural acts
struck me like a blow, and I withdrew, whipped, into myself. My adventure
grew smaller. But I recalled its ecstasies. I dwelt on the romantic
perfection of Diaz. It seemed to me amazing, incredible, that Diaz, the
glorious and incomparable Diaz, had loved me--_me_! out of all the
ardent, worshipping women that the world contained. I wondered if he had
wakened up, and I felt sorry for him. So far, I had not decided how soon,
if at all, I should communicate with him. My mind was incapable of
reaching past the next few hours--the next hour.
We stopped at a station surrounded by the evidences of that tireless,
unceasing, and tremendous manufacturing industry which distinguishes the
Five Towns, and I was left alone in the compartment. The train rumbled on
through a landscape of fiery furnaces, and burning slag-heaps, and foul
canals reflecting great smoking chimneys, all steeped in the mild
sunshine. Could the toil-worn agents of this never-ending and gigantic
productiveness find time for love? Perhaps they loved quickly and forgot,
like animals. Thoughts such as these lurked sinister and carnal, strange
beasts in the jungle of my poor brain. Then the train arrived at
Shawport, and I was obliged to get out. I say 'obliged,' because I
violently wished not to get out. I wished to travel on in that train to
some impossible place, where things were arranged differently.
The station clock showed only five minutes to seven. I was astounded. It
seemed to me that all the real world had been astir and busy for hours.
And this extraordinary activity went on every morning while Aunt
Constance and I lay in our beds and thought well of ourselves.
I shivered, and walked quickly up the street. I had positively not
noticed that I was cold. I had scarcely left the station before Fred
Ryley appeared in front of me. I saw that his face was swollen. My
heart stopped. Of course, he would tell Ethel.... He passed me
sheepishly without stopping, merely raising his hat, and murmuring the
'We're both very, very sorry.'
What in the name of Heaven could they possibly know, he and Ethel? And
what right had he to ...? Did he smile furtively? Fred Ryley had
sometimes a strange smile. I reddened, angry and frightened.
The distance between the station and our house proved horribly short. And
when I arrived in front of the green gates, and put my hand on the latch,
I knew that I had formed no plan whatever. I opened the right-hand gate
and entered the garden. The blinds were still down, and the house looked
so decorous and innocent in its age. My poor aunt! What a night she must
have been through! It was inconceivable that I should tell her what had
happened to me. Indeed, under the windows of that house it seemed
inconceivable that the thing had happened which had happened.
Inconceivable! Grotesque! Monstrous!
But could I lie? Could I rise to the height of some sufficient and
A hand drew slightly aside the blind of the window over the porch. I
sighed, and went wearily, in my boat-shaped straw, up the gravelled path
to the door.
Rebecca met me at the door. It was so early that she had not yet put on
an apron. She looked tired, as if she had not slept.
'Come in, miss,' she said weakly, holding open the door.
It seemed to me that I did not need this invitation from a servant.
'I suppose you've all been fearfully upset, wondering where I was,' I
began, entering the hall.
My adventure appeared fantastically unreal to me in the presence of this
buxom creature, whom I knew to be incapable of imagining anything one
hundredth part so dreadful.
'No, miss; I wasn't upset on account of you. You're always so sensible
like. You always know what to do. I knew as you must have stopped the
night with friends in Hanbridge on account of the heavy rain, and perhaps
that there silly cabman not turning up, and them tramcars all crowded;
and, of course, you couldn't telegraph.'
This view that I was specially sagacious and equal to emergencies rather
'But auntie?' I demanded, trembling.
'Oh, miss!' cried Rebecca, glancing timidly over her shoulder, 'I want
you to come with me into the dining-room before you go upstairs.'
In the dining-room I went at once to the window to draw up the blinds.
'Not that, not that!' Rebecca appealed, weeping. 'For pity's sake!' And
she caught my hand.
I then noticed that Lucy was standing in the doorway, also weeping.
Rebecca noticed this too.
'Lucy, you go to your kitchen this minute,' she said sharply, and then
turned to me and began to cry again. 'Miss Peel--how can I tell you?'
'Why do you call me Miss Peel?' I asked her.
But I knew why. The thing flashed over me instantly. My dear aunt was
'You've got no aunt,' said Rebecca. 'My poor dear! And you at the
I dropped my head and my bosom on the bare mahogany table and cried.
Never before, and never since, have I spilt such tears--hot, painful
drops, distilled plenteously from a heart too crushed and torn.
'There, there!' muttered Rebecca. 'I wish I could have told you
different--less cruel; but it wasn't in me to do it.'
'And she's lying upstairs this very moment all cold and stiff,' a wailing
voice broke in.
It was Lucy, who could not keep herself away from us.
'Will you go to your kitchen, my girl!'
Rebecca drove her off. 'And the poor thing's not stiff either. Her poor
body's as soft as if she was only asleep, and doctor says it will be for
a day or two. It's like that when they're took off like that, he says.
Oh, Miss Carlotta--'
'Tell me all about it before I go upstairs,' I said.
I had recovered.
'Your poor aunt went to bed just as soon as you were gone, miss,' said
Rebecca. 'She would have it she was quite well, only tired. I took her up
a cup of cocoa at ten o'clock, and she seemed all right, and then I sends
Lucy to bed, and I sits up in the kitchen to wait for you. Not a sound
from your poor aunt. I must have dropped asleep, miss, in my chair, and I
woke up with a start like, and the kitchen clock was near on one. Thinks
I, perhaps Miss Carlotta's been knocking and ringing all this time and me
not heard, and I rushes to the front door. But of course you weren't
there. The porch was nothing but a pool o' water. I says to myself she's
stopping somewhere, I says. And I felt it was my duty to go and tell your
aunt, whether she was asleep or whether she wasn't asleep.... Well, and
there she was, miss, with her eyes closed, and as soft as a child. I
spoke to her, loud, more than once. "Miss Carlotta a'n't come," I says.
"Miss Carlotta a'n't come, ma'am," I says. She never stirred. Thinks I,
this is queer this is. And I goes up to her and touches her. Chilly! Then
I takes the liberty of pushing back your poor aunt's eyelids, and I could
but see the whites of her eyes; the eyeballs was gone up, and a bit
outwards. Yes; and her poor dear chin was dropped. Thinks I, here's
trouble, and Miss Carlotta at the concert. I runs to our bedroom, and I
tells Lucy to put a cloak on and fetch Dr. Roycroft. "Who for?" she says.
"Never you mind who for!" I says, says I. "You up and quick. But you can
tell the doctor it's missis as is took." And in ten minutes he was here,
miss. But it's only across the garden, like. "Yes," he said, "she's been
dead an hour or more. Failure of the heart's action," he said. "She died
in her sleep," he said. "Thank God she died in her sleep if she was to
die, the pure angel!" I says. I told the doctor as you were away for the
night, miss. And I laid her out, miss, and your poor auntie wasn't my
first, either. I've seen trouble--I've--'
And Rebecca's tears overcame her voice.
'I'll go upstairs with you, miss,' she struggled out.
One thought that flew across my mind was that Doctor Roycroft was very
intimate with the Ryleys, and had doubtless somehow informed them of my
aunt's death. This explained Fred Ryley's strange words and attitude to
me on the way from the station. The young man had been too timid to stop
me. The matter was a trifle, but another idea that struck me was not a
trifle, though I strove to make it so. My aunt had died about midnight,
and it was at midnight that Diaz and I had heard the mysterious knock on
his sitting-room door. At the time I had remarked how it resembled my
aunt's knock. Occasionally, when the servants overslept themselves, Aunt
Constance would go to their rooms in her pale-blue dressing-gown and
knock on their door exactly like that. Could it be that this was one of
those psychical manifestations of which I had read? Had my aunt, in
passing from this existence to the next, paused a moment to warn me of
my terrible danger? My intellect replied that a disembodied soul could
not knock, and that the phenomenon had been due simply to some guest or
servant of the hotel who had mistaken the room, and discovered his error
in time. Nevertheless, the instinctive part of me--that part of us which
refuses to fraternize with reason, and which we call the superstitious
because we cannot explain it--would not let go the spiritualistic
theory, and during all my life has never quite surrendered it to the
attacks of my brain.
There was a long pause.
'No,' I said; 'I will go upstairs alone;' and I went, leaving my cloak
and hat with Rebecca.
Already, to my hypersensitive nostrils, there was a slight odour in the
darkened bedroom. What lay on the bed, straight and long and thin,
resembled almost exactly my aunt as she lived. I forced myself to look on
it. Except that the face was paler than usual, and had a curious
transparent, waxy appearance, and that the cheeks were a little hollowed,
and the lines from the nose to the corners of the mouth somewhat
deepened, there had been no outward change.... And _this_ once was she! I
thought, Where is she, then? Where is the soul? Where is that which loved
me without understanding me? Where is that which I loved? The baffling,
sad enigma of death confronted me in all its terrifying crudity. The
shaft of love and the desolation of death had struck me almost in the
same hour, and before these twin mysteries, supremely equal, I recoiled
and quailed. I had neither faith nor friend. I was solitary, and my soul
also was solitary. The difficulties of Being seemed insoluble. I was not
a moral coward, I was not prone to facile repentances; but as I gazed at
that calm and unsullied mask I realized, whatever I had gained, how much
I had lost. At twenty-one I knew more of the fountains of life than Aunt
Constance at over sixty. Poor aged thing that had walked among men for
interminable years, and never _known_! It seemed impossible, shockingly
against Nature, that my aunt's existence should have been so! I pitied
her profoundly. I felt that essentially she was girlish compared to me.
And yet--and yet--that which she had kept and which I had given away was
precious, too--indefinably and wonderfully precious! The price of
knowledge and of ecstasy seemed heavy to me then. The girl that had gone
with Diaz into that hotel apartment had come out no more. She had expired
there, and her extinction was the price, Oh, innocence! Oh, divine
ignorance! Oh, refusal! None knows your value save her who has bartered
you! And herein is the woman's tragedy.
There in that mausoleum I decided that I must never see Diaz again. He
was fast in my heart, a flashing, glorious treasure, but I must never see
him again. I must devote myself to memory.
On the dressing-table lay a brown-paper parcel which seemed out of place
there. I opened it, and it contained a magnificently-bound copy of _The
Imitation of Christ_. Upon the flyleaf was written: 'To dearest Carlotta
on attaining her majority. With fondest love. C.P.'
It was too much; it was overwhelming. I wept again. Soul so kind and
pure! The sense of my loss, the sense of the simple, proud rectitude of
her life, laid me low.
Train journeys have too often been sorrowful for me, so much so that the
conception itself of a train, crawling over the country like a snake, or
flying across it like a winged monster, fills me with melancholy. Trains
loaded with human parcels of sadness and illusion and brief joy,
wandering about, crossing, and occasionally colliding in the murk of
existence; trains warmed and lighted in winter; trains open to catch the
air of your own passage in summer; night-trains that pierce the night
with your yellow, glaring eyes, and waken mysterious villages, and leave
the night behind and run into the dawn as into a station; trains that
carry bread and meats for the human parcels, and pillows and fountains of
fresh water; trains that sweep haughtily and wearily indifferent through
the landscapes and the towns, sufficient unto yourselves, hasty, panting,
formidable, and yet mournful entities: I have understood you in your
arrogance and your pathos.
That little journey from Knype to Shawport had implanted itself painfully
in my memory, as though during it I had peered too close into the face of
life. And now I had undertaken another, and a longer one. Three months
had elapsed--three months of growing misery and despair; three months of
tedious familiarity with lawyers and distant relatives, and all the
exasperating camp-followers of death; three months of secret and strange
fear, waxing daily. And at last, amid the expostulations and the shrugs
of wisdom and age, I had decided to go to London. I had little energy,
and no interest, but I saw that I must go to London; I was driven there
by my secret fear; I dared not delay. And not a soul in the wide waste of
the Five Towns comprehended me, or could have comprehended me had it been
so minded. I might have shut up the house for a time. But no; I would
not. Always I have been sudden, violent, and arbitrary; I have never been
able to tolerate half-measures, or to wait upon occasion. I sold the
house; I sold the furniture. Yes; and I dismissed my faithful Rebecca
and the clinging Lucy, and they departed, God knows where; it was as
though I had sold them into slavery. Again and again, in the final week,
I cut myself to the quick, recklessly, perhaps purposely; I moved in a
sort of terrible languor, deaf to every appeal, pretending to be stony,
and yet tortured by my secret fear, and by a hemorrhage of the heart that
no philosophy could stanch. And I swear that nothing desolated me more
than the strapping and the labelling of my trunks that morning after I
had slept, dreamfully, in the bed that I should never use again--the bed
that, indeed, was even then the property of a furniture dealer. Had I
wept at all, I should have wept as I wrote out the labels for my trunks:
'Miss Peel, passenger to Golden Cross Hotel, London. Euston via Rugby,'
with two thick lines drawn under the 'Euston.' That writing of labels was
the climax. With a desperate effort I tore myself up by the roots, and
all bleeding I left the Five Towns. I have never seen them since. Some
day, when I shall have attained serenity and peace, when the battle has
been fought and lost, I will revisit my youth. I have always loved
passionately the disfigured hills and valleys of the Five Towns. And as I
think of Oldcastle Street, dropping away sleepily and respectably from
the Town Hall of Bursley, with the gold angel holding a gold crown on its
spire, I vibrate with an inexplicable emotion. What is there in Oldcastle
Street to disturb the dust of the soul?
I must tell you here that Diaz had gone to South America on a triumphal
tour of concerts, lest I forget! I read it in the paper.
So I arrived in London on a February day, about one o'clock. And the
hall-porter at the Golden Cross Hotel, and the two pale girls in the
bureau of the hotel, were sympathetic and sweet to me, because I was
young and alone, and in mourning, and because I had great rings round my
eyes. It was a fine day, blue and mild. At half-past three I had nothing
in the world to do. I had come to London without a plan, without a
purpose, with scarcely an introduction; I wished simply to plunge myself
into its solitude, and to be alone with my secret fear. I walked out into
the street, slowly, like one whom ennui has taught to lose no chance of
dissipating time. I neither liked nor disliked London. I had no feelings
towards it save one of perplexity. I thought it noisy, dirty, and
hurried. Its great name roused no thrill in my bosom. On the morrow, I
said, I would seek a lodging, and perhaps write to Ethel Ryley.
Meanwhile I strolled up into Trafalgar Square, and so into Charing Cross
Road. And in Charing Cross Road--it was the curst accident of fate--I saw
the signboard of the celebrated old firm of publishers, Oakley and
Dalbiac. It is my intention to speak of my books as little as possible in
this history. I must, however, explain that six months before my aunt's
death I had already written my first novel, _The Jest_, and sent it to
precisely Oakley and Dalbiac. It was a wild welter of youthful
extravagances, and it aimed to depict London society, of which I knew
nothing whatever, with a flippant and cynical pen. Oakley and Dalbiac had
kept silence for several months, and had then stated, in an extremely
formal epistle, that they thought the book might have some chance of
success, and that they would be prepared to publish it on certain terms,
but that I must not expect, etc. By that time I had lost my original
sublime faith in the exceeding excellence of my story, and I replied that
I preferred to withdraw the book. To this letter I had received no
answer. When I saw the famous sign over a doorway the impulse seized me
to enter and get the manuscript, with the object of rewriting it. Soon, I
reflected, I might not be able to enter; the portals of mankind might be
barred to me for a space.... I saw in a flash of insight that my
salvation lay in work, and in nothing else. I entered, resolutely. A
brougham was waiting at the doors.
After passing along counters furnished with ledgers and clerks, through a
long, lofty room lined with great pigeon-holes containing thousands of
books each wrapped separately in white paper, I was shown into what the
clerk who acted as chamberlain called the office of the principal. This
room, too, was spacious, but so sombre that the electric light was
already burning. The first thing I noticed was that the window gave on a
wall of white tiles. In the middle of the somewhat dingy apartment was a
vast, square table, and at this table sat a pale, tall man, whose youth
astonished me--for the firm of Oakley and Dalbiac was historic.
He did not look up exactly at the instant of my entering, but when he did
look up, when he saw me, he stared for an instant, and then sprang from
his chair as though magically startled into activity. His age was about
thirty, and he had large, dark eyes, and a slight, dark moustache, and
his face generally was interesting; he wore a dark gray suit. I was
nervous, but he was even more nervous; yet in the moment of looking up he
had not seemed nervous. He could not do enough, apparently, to make me
feel at ease, and to show his appreciation of me and my work. He spoke
enthusiastically of _The Jest_, begging me neither to suppress it nor to
alter it. And, without the least suggestion from me, he offered me a
considerable sum of money in advance of royalties. At that time I
scarcely knew what royalties were. But although my ignorance of business
was complete, I guessed that this man was behaving in a manner highly
unusual among publishers. He was also patently contradicting the tenor of
his firm's letter to me. I thanked him, and said I should like, at any
rate, to glance through the manuscript.
'Don't alter it, Miss Peel, I beg,' he said. 'It is "young," I know;
but it ought to be. I remember my wife said--my wife reads many of our
manuscripts--by the way--' He went to a door, opened it, and called
A tall and slim woman, extremely elegant, appeared in reply to this
appeal. Her hair was gray above the ears, and I judged that she was four
or five years older than the man. She had a kind, thin face, with shining
gray eyes, and she was wearing a hat.
'Mary, this is Miss Peel, the author of _The Jest_--you remember. Miss
Peel, my wife.'
The woman welcomed me with quick, sincere gestures. Her smile was very
pleasant, and yet a sad smile. The husband also had an air of quiet,
restrained, cheerful sadness.
'My wife is frequently here in the afternoon like this,' said the
'Yes,' she laughed; 'it's quite a family affair, and I'm almost on the
staff. I distinctly remember your manuscript, Miss Peel, and how very
clever and amusing it was.'
Her praise was spontaneous and cordial, but it was a different thing from
the praise of her husband. He obviously noticed the difference.
'I was just saying to Miss Peel--' he began, with increased nervousness.
'Pardon me,' I interrupted. 'But am I speaking to Mr. Oakley or
'To neither,' said he. 'My name is Ispenlove, and I am the nephew of the
late Mr. Dalbiac. Mr. Oakley died thirty years ago. I have no partner.'
'You expected to see a very old gentleman, no doubt,' Mrs.
'Yes,' I smiled.
'People often do. And Frank is so very young. You live in London?'
'No,' I said; 'I have just come up.'
'Yes. My aunt died a few months ago. I am all that is left of my
Mrs. Ispenlove's eyes filled with tears, and she fingered a gold chain
that hung from her neck.
'But have you got rooms--a house?'
'I am at a hotel for the moment.'
'But you have friends?'
I shook my head. Mr. Ispenlove was glancing rapidly from one to the
other of us.
'My dear young lady!' exclaimed his wife. Then she hesitated, and said:
'Excuse my abruptness, but do let me beg you to come and have tea with us
this afternoon. We live quite near--in Bloomsbury Square. The carriage is
waiting. Frank, you can come?'
'I can come for an hour,' said Mr. Ispenlove.
I wanted very much to decline, but I could not. I could not disappoint
that honest and generous kindliness, with its touch of melancholy. I
could not refuse those shining gray eyes. I saw that my situation and my
youth had lacerated Mrs. Ispenlove's sensitive heart, and that she wished
to give it balm by being humane to me.
We seemed, so rapid was our passage, to be whisked on an Arabian carpet
to a spacious drawing-room, richly furnished, with thick rugs and ample
cushions and countless knicknacks and photographs and delicately-tinted
lampshades. There was a grand piano by Steinway, and on it Mendelssohn's
'Songs without Words.' The fire slumbered in a curious grate that
projected several feet into the room--such a contrivance I had never seen
before. Near it sat Mrs. Ispenlove, entrenched behind a vast copper disc
on a low wicker stand, pouring out tea. Mr. Ispenlove hovered about. He
and his wife called each other 'dearest.' 'Ring the bell for me,
dearest.' 'Yes, dearest.' I felt sure that they had no children. They
were very intimate, very kind, and always gently sad. The atmosphere was
charmingly domestic, even cosy, despite the size of the room--a most
pleasing contrast to the offices which we had just left. Mrs. Ispenlove
told her husband to look after me well, and he devoted himself to me.
'Do you know,' said Mrs. Ispenlove, 'I am gradually recalling the details
of your book, and you are not at all the sort of person that I should
have expected to see.'
'But that poor little book isn't _me_,' I answered. 'I shall never write
another like it. I only--'
'Shall you not?' Mr. Ispenlove interjected. 'I hope you will, though.'
'I only did it to see what I could do. I am going to begin something
'It appears to me,' said Mrs. Ispenlove--'and I must again ask you to
excuse my freedom, but I feel as if I had known you a long time--it
appears to me that what you want immediately is a complete rest.'
'Why do you say that?' I demanded.
'You do not look well. You look exhausted and worn out.'
I blushed as she gazed at me. Could she--? No. Those simple gray eyes
could not imagine evil. Nevertheless, I saw too plainly how foolish I had
been. I, with my secret fear, that was becoming less a fear than a
dreadful certainty, to permit myself to venture into that house! I might
have to fly ignominiously before long, to practise elaborate falsehood,
'Perhaps you are right,' I agreed.
The conversation grew fragmentary, and less and less formal. Mrs.
Ispenlove was the chief talker. I remember she said that she was always
being thrown among clever people, people who could do things, and that
her own inability to do anything at all was getting to be an obsession
with her; and that people like me could have no idea of the tortures of
self-depreciation which she suffered. Her voice was strangely wistful
during this confession. She also spoke--once only, and quite shortly,
but with what naive enthusiasm!--of the high mission and influence of the
novelist who wrote purely and conscientiously. After this, though my
liking for her was undiminished, I had summed her up. Mr. Ispenlove
offered no commentary on his wife's sentiments. He struck me as being a
reserved man, whose inner life was intense and sufficient to him.
'Ah!' I reflected, as Mrs. Ispenlove, with an almost motherly accent,
urged me to have another cup of tea, 'if you knew me, if you knew me,
what would you say to me? Would your charity be strong enough to overcome
your instincts?' And as I had felt older than my aunt, so I felt older
than Mrs. Ispenlove.
I left, but I had to promise to come again on the morrow, after I had
seen Mr. Ispenlove on business. The publisher took me down to my hotel in
the brougham (and I thought of the drive with Diaz, but the water was not
streaming down the windows), and then he returned to his office.
Without troubling to turn on the light in my bedroom, I sank sighing on
to the bed. The events of the afternoon had roused me from my terrible
lethargy, but now it overcame me again. I tried to think clearly about
the Ispenloves and what the new acquaintance meant for me; but I could
not think clearly. I had not been able to think clearly for two months. I
wished only to die. For a moment I meditated vaguely on suicide, but
suicide seemed to involve an amount of complicated enterprise far beyond