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The Poems And Prose Of Ernest Dowson by Ernest Dowson et al

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Iquique is not Paris; it is not even Valparaiso; but it is a city of
civilisation; and but two days' ride from the pestilential stew, where
we nursed our lives doggedly on quinine and hope, the ultimate hope of
evasion. The lives of most Englishmen yonder, who superintend works in the
interior, are held on the same tenure: you know them by a certain savage,
hungry look in their eyes. In the meantime, while they wait for their luck,
most of them are glad enough when business calls them down for a day or
two to Iquique. There are shops and streets, lit streets through which
blackeyed Senoritas pass in their lace mantilas; there are _cafes_ too; and
faro for those who reck of it; and bull fights, and newspapers younger
than six weeks; and in the harbour, taking in their fill of nitrates, many
ships, not to be considered without envy, because they are coming, within
a limit of days to England. But Iquique had no charm for Michael Garth,
and when one of us must go, it was usually I, his subordinate, who being
delegated, congratulated myself on his indifference. Hard-earned dollars
melted at Iquique; and to Garth, life in Chili had long been solely a
matter of amassing them. So he stayed on, in the prickly heat of Agnas
Blancas, and grimly counted the days, and the money (although his nature, I
believe, was fundamentally generous, in his set concentration of purpose,
he had grown morbidly avaricious) which should restore him to his beautiful
mistress. Morose, reticent, unsociable as he had become, he had still, I
discovered by degrees, a leaning towards the humanities, a nice taste,
such as could only be the result of much knowledge, in the fine things of
literature. His infinitesimal library, a few French novels, an Horace,
and some well thumbed volumes of the modern English poets in the familiar
edition of Tauchnitz, he put at my disposal, in return for a collection,
somewhat similar, although a little larger, of my own. In his rare moments
of amiability, he could talk on such matters with _verve_ and originality:
more usually he preferred to pursue with the bitterest animosity an
abstract fetish which he called his "luck." He was by temperament an
enraged pessimist; and I could believe, that he seriously attributed to
Providence, some quality inconceivably malignant, directed in all things
personally against himself. His immense bitterness and his careful avarice,
alike, I could explain, and in a measure justify, when I came to understand
that he had felt the sharpest stings of poverty, and, moreover, was
passionately in love, in love _comme on ne l'est plus_. As to what his
previous resources had been, I knew nothing, nor why they had failed him;
but I gathered that the crisis had come, just when his life was complicated
by the sudden blossoming of an old friendship into love, in his case, at
least, to be complete and final. The girl too was poor; they were poorer
than most poor persons: how could he refuse the post, which, through
the good offices of a friend, was just then unexpectedly offered him?
Certainly, it was abroad; it implied five years' solitude in Equatorial
America. Separation and change were to be accounted; perhaps, diseases and
death, and certainly his 'luck,' which seemed to include all these. But it
also promised, when the term of his exile was up, and there were means of
shortening it, a certain competence, and very likely wealth; escaping those
other contingencies, marriage. There seemed no other way. The girl was
very young: there was no question of an early marriage; there was not even
a definite engagement. Garth would take no promise from her: only for
himself, he was her bound lover while he breathed; would keep himself
free to claim her, when he came back in five years, or ten, or twenty, if
she had not chosen better. He would not bind her; but I can imagine how
impressive his dark, bitter face must have made this renunciation to the
little girl with the violet eyes; how tenderly she repudiated her freedom.
She went out as a governess, and sat down to wait. And absence only
rivetted faster the chain of her affection: it set Garth more securely on
the pedestal of her idea; for in love it is most usually the reverse of
that social maxim, _les absents ont toujours tort_, which is true.

Garth, on his side, writing to her, month by month, while her picture
smiled on him from the wall, if he was careful always to insist on her
perfect freedom, added, in effect, so much more than this, that the
renunciation lost its benefit. He lived in a dream of her; and the memory
of her eyes and her hair was a perpetual presence with him, less ghostly
than the real company among whom he mechanically transacted his daily
business. Burnt away and consumed by desire of her living arms, he was
counting the hours which still prevented him from them. Yet, when his
five years were done, he delayed his return, although his economies had
justified it; settled down for another term of five years, which was to
be prolonged to seven. Actually, the memory of his old poverty, with its
attendant dishonours, was grown a fury, pursuing him ceaselessly with
whips. The lust of gain, always for the girl's sake, and so, as it were,
sanctified, had become a second nature to him; an intimate madness, which
left him no peace. His worst nightmare was to wake with a sudden shock,
imagining that he had lost everything, that he was reduced to his former
poverty: a cold sweat would break all over him before he had mastered the
horror. The recurrence of it, time after time, made him vow grimly, that
he would go home a rich man, rich enough to laugh at the fantasies of his
luck. Latterly, indeed, this seemed to have changed; so that his vow was
fortunately kept. He made money lavishly at last: all his operations were
successful, even those which seemed the wildest gambling: and the most
forlorn speculations turned round, and shewed a pretty harvest, when Garth
meddled with their stock.

And all the time he was waiting there, and scheming, at Agnas Blancas, in a
feverish concentration of himself upon his ultimate reunion with the girl
at home, the man was growing old: gradually at first, and insensibly; but
towards the end, by leaps and starts, with an increasing consciousness
of how he aged and altered, which did but feed his black melancholy.
It was borne upon him, perhaps, a little brutally, and not by direct
self-examination, when there came another photograph from England. A
beautiful face still, but certainly the face of a woman, who had passed
from the grace of girlhood (seven years now separated her from it), to a
dignity touched with sadness: a face, upon which life had already written
some of its cruelties. For many days after this arrival, Garth was silent
and moody, even beyond his wont: then he studiously concealed it. He threw
himself again furiously into his economic battle; he had gone back to the
inspiration of that other, older portrait: the charming, oval face of a
young girl, almost a child, with great eyes, that one guessed one knew not
why, to be the colour of violets.

As the time of our departure approached, a week or two before we had gone
down to Valparaiso, where Garth had business to wind up, I was enabled to
study more intimately the morbid demon which possessed him. It was the most
singular thing in the world: no man had hated the country more, had been
more passionately determined for a period of years to escape from it; and
now that his chance was come the emotion with which he viewed it was nearer
akin to terror than to the joy of a reasonable man who is about to compass
the desire of his life. He had kept the covenant which he had made with
himself; he was a rich man, richer than he had ever meant to be. Even now
he was full of vigour, and not much past the threshold of middle age, and
he was going home to the woman whom for the best part of fifteen years he
had adored with an unexampled constancy, whose fidelity had been to him all
through that exile as the shadow of a rock in a desert land: he was going
home to an honourable marriage. But withal he was a man with an incurable
sadness; miserable and afraid. It seemed to me at times that he would have
been glad if she had kept her troth less well, had only availed herself of
that freedom which he gave her, to disregard her promise. And this was the
more strange in that I never doubted the strength of his attachment; it
remained engrossing and unchanged, the largest part of his life. No alien
shadow had ever come between him and the memory of the little girl with
the violet eyes, to whom he at least was bound. But a shadow was there;
fantastic it seemed to me at first, too grotesque to be met with argument,
but in whose very lack of substance, as I came to see, lay its ultimate
strength. The notion of the woman, which now she was, came between him and
the girl whom he had loved, whom he still loved with passion, and separated
them. It was only on our voyage home, when we walked the deck together
interminably during the hot, sleepless nights, that he first revealed to me
without subterfuge, the slow agony by which this phantom slew him. And his
old bitter conviction of the malignity of his luck, which had lain dormant
in the first flush of his material prosperity, returned to him. The
apparent change in it seemed to him just then, the last irony of those
hostile powers which had pursued him.

'It came to me suddenly,' he said, 'just before I left Agnas, when I had
been adding up my pile and saw there was nothing to keep me, that it was
all wrong. I had been a blamed fool! I might have gone home years ago.
Where is the best of my life? Burnt out, wasted, buried in that cursed
oven! Dollars? If I had all the metal in Chili, I couldn't buy one day of
youth. Her youth too; that has gone with the rest; that's the worst part!'

Despite all my protests, his despondency increased as the steamer ploughed
her way towards England, with the ceaseless throb of her screw, which was
like the panting of a great beast. Once, when we had been talking of other
matters, of certain living poets whom he favoured, he broke off with a
quotation from the 'Prince's Progress' of Miss Rossetti:

'Ten years ago, five years ago,
One year ago,
Even then you had arrived in time;
Though somewhat slow;
Then you had known her living face
Which now you cannot know.'

He stopped sharply, with a tone in his voice which seemed to intend, in the
lines, a personal instance.

'I beg your pardon!' I protested. 'I don't see the analogy. You haven't
loitered; you don't come too late. A brave woman has waited for you; you
have a fine felicity before you: it should be all the better, because you
have won it laboriously. For heaven's sake, be reasonable!' He shook his
head sadly; then added, with a gesture of sudden passion, looking out over
the taffrail, at the heaving gray waters: 'It's finished. I haven't any
longer the courage.' 'Ah!' I exclaimed impatiently, 'say once for all,
outright, that you are tired of her, that you want to back out of it.'
'No,' he said drearily, 'it isn't that. I can't reproach myself with the
least wavering. I have had a single passion; I have given my life to it;
it is there still, consuming me. Only the girl I loved: it's as if she had
died. Yes, she is dead, as dead as Helen: and I have not the consolation of
knowing where they have laid her. Our marriage will be a ghastly mockery: a
marriage of corpses. Her heart, how can she give it me? She gave it years
ago to the man I was, the man who is dead. We, who are left, are nothing to
one another, mere strangers.'

One could not argue with a perversity so infatuate: it was useless to point
out, that in life a distinction so arbitrary as the one which haunted him
does not exist. It was only left me to wait, hoping that in the actual
event of their meeting, his malady would be healed. But this meeting,
would it ever be compassed? There were moments when his dread of it seemed
to have grown so extreme, that he would be capable of any cowardice, any
compromise to postpone it, to render it impossible. He was afraid that she
would read his revulsion in his eyes, would suspect how time and his very
constancy had given her the one rival with whom she could never compete;
the memory of her old self, of her gracious girlhood, which was dead. Might
not she too, actually, welcome a reprieve; however readily she would have
submitted out of honour or lassitude, to a marriage which could only be a
parody of what might have been?

At Lisbon, I hoped that he had settled these questions, had grown
reasonable and sane, for he wrote a long letter to her which was
subsequently a matter of much curiosity to me; and he wore, for a day or
two afterwards, an air almost of assurance which deceived me. I wondered
what he had put in that epistle, how far he had explained himself,
justified his curious attitude. Or was it simply a _resume_, a conclusion
to those many letters which he had written at Agnas Blancas, the last one
which he would ever address to the little girl of the earlier photograph?

Later, I would have given much to decide this, but she herself, the woman
who read it, maintained unbroken silence. In return, I kept a secret from
her, my private interpretation of the accident of his death. It seemed to
me a knowledge tragical enough for her, that he should have died as he did,
so nearly in English waters; within a few days of the home coming, which
they had passionately expected for years.

It would have been mere brutality to afflict her further, by lifting the
veil of obscurity, which hangs over that calm, moonless night, by pointing
to the note of intention in it. For it is in my experience, that accidents
so opportune do not in real life occur, and I could not forget that,
from Garth's point of view, death was certainly a solution. Was it not,
moreover, precisely a solution, which so little time before he had the
appearance of having found? Indeed when the first shock of his death was
past, I could feel that it was after all a solution: with his 'luck' to
handicap him, he had perhaps avoided worse things than the death he met.
For the luck of such a man, is it not his temperament, his character? Can
any one escape from that? May it not have been an escape for the poor devil
himself, an escape too for the woman who loved him, that he chose to drop
down, fathoms down, into the calm, irrecoverable depths of the Atlantic,
when he did, bearing with him at least an unspoilt ideal, and leaving her a
memory that experience could never tarnish, nor custom stale?

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