The Author of Beltraffio
This etext was scanned from the 1922 Macmillan and Co. edition by
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THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO
by Henry James
Much as I wished to see him I had kept my letter of introduction
three weeks in my pocket-book. I was nervous and timid about
meeting him--conscious of youth and ignorance, convinced that he was
tormented by strangers, and especially by my country-people, and not
exempt from the suspicion that he had the irritability as well as the
dignity of genius. Moreover, the pleasure, if it should occur--for
I could scarcely believe it was near at hand--would be so great that
I wished to think of it in advance, to feel it there against my
breast, not to mix it with satisfactions more superficial and usual.
In the little game of new sensations that I was playing with my
ingenuous mind I wished to keep my visit to the author of
"Beltraffio" as a trump-card. It was three years after the
publication of that fascinating work, which I had read over five
times and which now, with my riper judgement, I admire on the whole
as much as ever. This will give you about the date of my first
visit--of any duration--to England for you will not have forgotten
the commotion, I may even say the scandal, produced by Mark Ambient's
masterpiece. It was the most complete presentation that had yet
been made of the gospel of art; it was a kind of aesthetic war-cry.
People had endeavoured to sail nearer to "truth" in the cut of their
sleeves and the shape of their sideboards; but there had not as yet
been, among English novels, such an example of beauty of execution
and "intimate" importance of theme. Nothing had been done in that
line from the point of view of art for art. That served me as a
fond formula, I may mention, when I was twenty-five; how much it
still serves I won't take upon myself to say--especially as the
discerning reader will be able to judge for himself. I had been in
England, briefly, a twelve-month before the time to which I began by
alluding, and had then learned that Mr. Ambient was in distant lands-
-was making a considerable tour in the East; so that there was
nothing to do but to keep my letter till I should be in London again.
It was of little use to me to hear that his wife had not left England
and was, with her little boy, their only child, spending the period
of her husband's absence--a good many months--at a small place they
had down in Surrey. They had a house in London, but actually in the
occupation of other persons. All this I had picked up, and also
that Mrs. Ambient was charming--my friend the American poet, from
whom I had my introduction, had never seen her, his relations with
the great man confined to the exchange of letters; but she wasn't,
after all, though she had lived so near the rose, the author of
"Beltraffio," and I didn't go down into Surrey to call on her. I
went to the Continent, spent the following winter in Italy, and
returned to London in May. My visit to Italy had opened my eyes to
a good many things, but to nothing more than the beauty of certain
pages in the works of Mark Ambient. I carried his productions about
in my trunk--they are not, as you know, very numerous, but he had
preluded to "Beltraffio" by, some exquisite things--and I used to
read them over in the evening at the inn. I used profoundly to
reason that the man who drew those characters and wrote that style
understood what he saw and knew what he was doing. This is my sole
ground for mentioning my winter in Italy. He had been there much in
former years--he was saturated with what painters call the "feeling"
of that classic land. He expressed the charm of the old hill-cities
of Tuscany, the look of certain lonely grass-grown places which, in
the past, had echoed with life; he understood the great artists, he
understood the spirit of the Renaissance; he understood everything.
The scene of one of his earlier novels was laid in Rome, the scene of
another in Florence, and I had moved through these cities in company
with the figures he set so firmly on their feet. This is why I was
now so much happier even than before in the prospect of making his
At last, when I had dallied with my privilege long enough, I
despatched to him the missive of the American poet. He had already
gone out of town; he shrank from the rigour of the London "season"
and it was his habit to migrate on the first of June. Moreover I
had heard he was this year hard at work on a new book, into which
some of his impressions of the East were to be wrought, so that he
desired nothing so much as quiet days. That knowledge, however,
didn't prevent me--cet age est sans pitie--from sending with my
friend's letter a note of my own, in which I asked his leave to come
down and see him for an hour or two on some day to be named by
himself. My proposal was accompanied with a very frank expression
of my sentiments, and the effect of the entire appeal was to elicit
from the great man the kindest possible invitation. He would be
delighted to see me, especially if I should turn up on the following
Saturday and would remain till the Monday morning. We would take a
walk over the Surrey commons, and I could tell him all about the
other great man, the one in America. He indicated to me the best
train, and it may be imagined whether on the Saturday afternoon I was
punctual at Waterloo. He carried his benevolence to the point of
coming to meet me at the little station at which I was to alight, and
my heart beat very fast as I saw his handsome face, surmounted with a
soft wide-awake and which I knew by a photograph long since enshrined
on my mantel-shelf, scanning the carriage-windows as the train rolled
up. He recognised me as infallibly as I had recognised himself; he
appeared to know by instinct how a young American of critical
pretensions, rash youth, would look when much divided between
eagerness and modesty. He took me by the hand and smiled at me and
said: "You must be--a--YOU, I think!" and asked if I should mind
going on foot to his house, which would take but a few minutes. I
remember feeling it a piece of extraordinary affability that he
should give directions about the conveyance of my bag; I remember
feeling altogether very happy and rosy, in fact quite transported,
when he laid his hand on my shoulder as we came out of the station.
I surveyed him, askance, as we walked together; I had already, I had
indeed instantly, seen him as all delightful. His face is so well
known that I needn't describe it; he looked to me at once an English
gentleman and a man of genius, and I thought that a happy
combination. There was a brush of the Bohemian in his fineness; you
would easily have guessed his belonging to the artist guild. He was
addicted to velvet jackets, to cigarettes, to loose shirt-collars, to
looking a little dishevelled. His features, which were firm but not
perfectly regular, are fairly enough represented in his portraits;
but no portrait I have seen gives any idea of his expression. There
were innumerable things in it, and they chased each other in and out
of his face. I have seen people who were grave and gay in quick
alternation; but Mark Ambient was grave and gay at one and the same
moment. There were other strange oppositions and contradictions in
his slightly faded and fatigued countenance. He affected me somehow
as at once fresh and stale, at once anxious and indifferent. He had
evidently had an active past, which inspired one with curiosity; yet
what was that compared to his obvious future? He was just enough
above middle height to be spoken of as tall, and rather lean and long
in the flank. He had the friendliest frankest manner possible, and
yet I could see it cost him something. It cost him small spasms of
the self-consciousness that is an Englishman's last and dearest
treasure--the thing he pays his way through life by sacrificing small
pieces of even as the gallant but moneyless adventurer in "Quentin
Durward" broke off links of his brave gold chain. He had been
thirty-eight years old at the time "Beltraffio" was published. He
asked me about his friend in America, about the length of my stay in
England, about the last news in London and the people I had seen
there; and I remember looking for the signs of genius in the very
form of his questions and thinking I found it. I liked his voice as
if I were somehow myself having the use of it.
There was genius in his house too I thought when we got there; there
was imagination in the carpets and curtains, in the pictures and
books, in the garden behind it, where certain old brown walls were
muffled in creepers that appeared to me to have been copied from a
masterpiece of one of the pre-Raphaelites. That was the way many
things struck me at that time, in England--as reproductions of
something that existed primarily in art or literature. It was not
the picture, the poem, the fictive page, that seemed to me a copy;
these things were the originals, and the life of happy and
distinguished people was fashioned in their image. Mark Ambient
called his house a cottage, and I saw afterwards he was right for if
it hadn't been a cottage it must have been a villa, and a villa, in
England at least, was not a place in which one could fancy him at
home. But it was, to my vision, a cottage glorified and translated;
it was a palace of art, on a slightly reduced scale--and might
besides have been the dearest haunt of the old English genius loci.
It nestled under a cluster of magnificent beeches, it had little
creaking lattices that opened out of, or into, pendent mats of ivy,
and gables, and old red tiles, as well as a general aspect of being
painted in water-colours and inhabited by people whose lives would go
on in chapters and volumes. The lawn seemed to me of extraordinary
extent, the garden-walls of incalculable height, the whole air of the
place delightfully still, private, proper to itself. "My wife must
be somewhere about," Mark Ambient said as we went in. "We shall
find her perhaps--we've about an hour before dinner. She may be in
the garden. I'll show you my little place."
We passed through the house and into the grounds, as I should have
called them, which extended into the rear. They covered scarce
three or four acres, but, like the house, were very old and crooked
and full of traces of long habitation, with inequalities of level and
little flights of steps--mossy and cracked were these--which
connected the different parts with each other. The limits of the
place, cleverly dissimulated, were muffled in the great verdurous
screens. They formed, as I remember, a thick loose curtain at the
further end, in one of the folds of which, as it were, we presently
made out from afar a little group. "Ah there she is!" said Mark
Ambient; "and she has got the boy." He noted that last fact in a
slightly different tone from any in which he yet had spoken. I
wasn't fully aware of this at the time, but it lingered in my ear and
I afterwards understood it.
"Is it your son?" I inquired, feeling the question not to be
"Yes, my only child. He's always in his mother's pocket. She
coddles him too much." It came back to me afterwards too--the sound
of these critical words. They weren't petulant; they expressed
rather a sudden coldness, a mechanical submission. We went a few
steps further, and then he stopped short and called the boy,
beckoning to him repeatedly.
"Dolcino, come and see your daddy!" There was something in the way
he stood still and waited that made me think he did it for a purpose.
Mrs. Ambient had her arm round the child's waist, and he was leaning
against her knee; but though he moved at his father's call she gave
no sign of releasing him. A lady, apparently a neighbour, was
seated near her, and before them was a garden-table on which a tea-
service had been placed.
Mark Ambient called again, and Dolcino struggled in the maternal
embrace; but, too tightly held, he after two or three fruitless
efforts jerked about and buried his head deep in his mother's lap.
There was a certain awkwardness in the scene; I thought it odd Mrs.
Ambient should pay so little attention to her husband. But I
wouldn't for the world have betrayed my thought, and, to conceal it,
I began loudly to rejoice in the prospect of our having tea in the
garden. "Ah she won't let him come!" said my host with a sigh; and
we went our way till we reached the two ladies. He mentioned my
name to his wife, and I noticed that he addressed her as "My dear,"
very genially, without a trace of resentment at her detention of the
child. The quickness of the transition made me vaguely ask myself
if he were perchance henpecked--a shocking surmise which I instantly
dismissed. Mrs. Ambient was quite such a wife as I should have
expected him to have; slim and fair, with a long neck and pretty eyes
and an air of good breeding. She shone with a certain coldness and
practised in intercourse a certain bland detachment, but she was
clothed in gentleness as in one of those vaporous redundant scarves
that muffle the heroines of Gainsborough and Romney. She had also a
vague air of race, justified by my afterwards learning that she was
"connected with the aristocracy." I have seen poets married to women
of whom it was difficult to conceive that they should gratify the
poetic fancy--women with dull faces and glutinous minds, who were
none the less, however, excellent wives. But there was no obvious
disparity in Mark Ambient's union. My hostess--so far as she could
be called so--delicate and quiet, in a white dress, with her
beautiful child at her side, was worthy of the author of a work so
distinguished as "Beltraffio." Round her neck she wore a black
velvet ribbon, of which the long ends, tied behind, hung down her
back, and to which, in front, was attached a miniature portrait of
her little boy. Her smooth shining hair was confined in a net. She
gave me an adequate greeting, and Dolcino--I thought this small name
of endearment delightful--took advantage of her getting up to slip
away from her and go to his father, who seized him in silence and
held him high for a long moment, kissing him several times.
I had lost no time in observing that the child, not more than seven
years old, was extraordinarily beautiful. He had the face of an
angel--the eyes, the hair, the smile of innocence, the more than
mortal bloom. There was something that deeply touched, that almost
alarmed, in his beauty, composed, one would have said, of elements
too fine and pure for the breath of this world. When I spoke to him
and he came and held out his hand and smiled at me I felt a sudden
strange pity for him--quite as if he had been an orphan or a
changeling or stamped with some social stigma. It was impossible to
be in fact more exempt from these misfortunes, and yet, as one kissed
him, it was hard to keep from murmuring all tenderly "Poor little
devil!" though why one should have applied this epithet to a living
cherub is more than I can say. Afterwards indeed I knew a trifle
better; I grasped the truth of his being too fair to live, wondering
at the same time that his parents shouldn't have guessed it and have
been in proportionate grief and despair. For myself I had no doubt
of his evanescence, having already more than once caught in the fact
the particular infant charm that's as good as a death-warrant.
The lady who had been sitting with Mrs. Ambient was a jolly ruddy
personage in velveteen and limp feathers, whom I guessed to be the
vicar's wife--our hostess didn't introduce me--and who immediately
began to talk to Ambient about chrysanthemums. This was a safe
subject, and yet there was a certain surprise for me in seeing the
author of "Beltraffio" even in such superficial communion with the
Church of England. His writings implied so much detachment from that
institution, expressed a view of life so profane, as it were, so
independent and so little likely in general to be thought edifying,
that I should have expected to find him an object of horror to vicars
and their ladies--of horror repaid on his own part by any amount of
effortless derision. This proved how little I knew as yet of the
English people and their extraordinary talent for keeping up their
forms, as well as of some of the mysteries of Mark Ambient's hearth
and home. I found afterwards that he had, in his study, between
nervous laughs and free cigar-puffs, some wonderful comparisons for
his clerical neighbours; but meanwhile the chrysanthemums were a
source of harmony, he and the vicaress were equally attached to them,
and I was surprised at the knowledge they exhibited of this
interesting plant. The lady's visit, however, had presumably been
long, and she presently rose for departure and kissed Mrs. Ambient.
Mark started to walk with her to the gate of the grounds, holding
Dolcino by the hand.
"Stay with me, darling," Mrs. Ambient said to the boy, who had
surrendered himself to his father.
Mark paid no attention to the summons but Dolcino turned and looked
at her in shy appeal, "Can't I go with papa?"
"Not when I ask you to stay with me."
"But please don't ask me, mamma," said the child in his small clear
"I must ask you when I want you. Come to me, dearest." And Mrs.
Ambient, who had seated herself again, held out her long slender
slightly too osseous hands.
Her husband stopped, his back turned to her, but without releasing
the child. He was still talking to the vicaress, but this good lady,
I think, had lost the thread of her attention. She looked at Mrs.
Ambient and at Dolcino, and then looked at me, smiling in a highly
amused cheerful manner and almost to a grimace.
"Papa," said the child, "mamma wants me not to go with you."
"He's very tired--he has run about all day. He ought to be quiet
till he goes to bed. Otherwise he won't sleep." These declarations
fell successively and very distinctly from Mrs. Ambient's lips.
Her husband, still without turning round, bent over the boy and
looked at him in silence. The vicaress gave a genial irrelevant
laugh and observed that he was a precious little pet. "Let him
choose," said Mark Ambient. "My dear little boy, will you go with me
or will you stay with your mother?"
"Oh it's a shame!" cried the vicar's lady with increased hilarity.
"Papa, I don't think I can choose," the child answered, making his
voice very low and confidential. "But I've been a great deal with
mamma to-day," he then added.
"And very little with papa! My dear fellow, I think you HAVE
chosen!" On which Mark Ambient walked off with his son, accompanied
by re-echoing but inarticulate comments from my fellow-visitor.
His wife had seated herself again, and her fixed eyes, bent on the
ground, expressed for a few moments so much mute agitation that
anything I could think of to say would be but a false note. Yet she
none the less quickly recovered herself, to express the sufficiently
civil hope that I didn't mind having had to walk from the station. I
reassured her on this point, and she went on: "We've got a thing
that might have gone for you, but my husband wouldn't order it."
After which and another longish pause, broken only by my plea that
the pleasure of a walk with our friend would have been quite what I
would have chosen, she found for reply: "I believe the Americans
walk very little."
"Yes, we always run," I laughingly allowed.
She looked at me seriously, yet with an absence in her pretty eyes.
"I suppose your distances are so great."
"Yes, but we break our marches! I can't tell you the pleasure to me
of finding myself here," I added. "I've the greatest admiration for
"He'll like that. He likes being admired."
"He must have a very happy life, then. He has many worshippers."
"Oh yes, I've seen some of them," she dropped, looking away, very far
from me, rather as if such a vision were before her at the moment.
It seemed to indicate, her tone, that the sight was scarcely
edifying, and I guessed her quickly enough to be in no great
intellectual sympathy with the author of "Beltraffio." I thought the
fact strange, but somehow, in the glow of my own enthusiasm, didn't
think it important it only made me wish rather to emphasise that
"For me, you know," I returned--doubtless with a due suffisance--
"he's quite the greatest of living writers."
"Of course I can't judge. Of course he's very clever," she said with
a patient cheer.
"He's nothing less than supreme, Mrs. Ambient! There are pages in
each of his books of a perfection classing them with the greatest
things. Accordingly for me to see him in this familiar way, in his
habit as he lives, and apparently to find the man as delightful as
the artist--well, I can't tell you how much too good to be true it
seems and how great a privilege I think it." I knew I was gushing,
but I couldn't help it, and what I said was a good deal less than
what I felt. I was by no means sure I should dare to say even so
much as this to the master himself, and there was a kind of rapture
in speaking it out to his wife which was not affected by the fact
that, as a wife, she appeared peculiar. She listened to me with her
face grave again and her lips a little compressed, listened as if in
no doubt, of course, that her husband was remarkable, but as if at
the same time she had heard it frequently enough and couldn't treat
it as stirring news. There was even in her manner a suggestion that
I was so young as to expose myself to being called forward--an
imputation and a word I had always loathed; as well as a hinted
reminder that people usually got over their early extravagance. "I
assure you that for me this is a red-letter day," I added.
She didn't take this up, but after a pause, looking round her, said
abruptly and a trifle dryly: "We're very much afraid about the fruit
My eyes wandered to the mossy mottled garden-walls, where plum-trees
and pears, flattened and fastened upon the rusty bricks, looked like
crucified figures with many arms. "Doesn't it promise well?"
"No, the trees look very dull. We had such late frosts."
Then there was another pause. She addressed her attention to the
opposite end of the grounds, kept it for her husband's return with
the child. "Is Mr. Ambient fond of gardening?" it occurred to me to
ask, irresistibly impelled as I felt myself, moreover, to bring the
conversation constantly back to him.
"He's very fond of plums," said his wife.
"Ah well, then, I hope your crop will be better than you fear. It's
a lovely old place," I continued. "The whole impression's that of
certain places he has described. Your house is like one of his
She seemed a bit frigidly amused at my glow. "It's a pleasant little
place. There are hundreds like it."
"Oh it has his TONE," I laughed, but sounding my epithet and
insisting on my point the more sharply that my companion appeared to
see in my appreciation of her simple establishment a mark of mean
It was clear I insisted too much. "His tone?" she repeated with a
harder look at me and a slightly heightened colour.
"Surely he has a tone, Mrs. Ambient."
"Oh yes, he has indeed! But I don't in the least consider that I'm
living in one of his books at all. I shouldn't care for that in the
least," she went on with a smile that had in some degree the effect
of converting her really sharp protest into an insincere joke. "I'm
afraid I'm not very literary. And I'm not artistic," she stated.
"I'm very sure you're not ignorant, not stupid," I ventured to reply,
with the accompaniment of feeling immediately afterwards that I had
been both familiar and patronising. My only consolation was in the
sense that she had begun it, had fairly dragged me into it. She had
thrust forward her limitations.
"Well, whatever I am I'm very different from my husband. If you like
him you won't like me. You needn't say anything. Your liking me
isn't in the least necessary!"
"Don't defy me!" I could but honourably make answer.
She looked as if she hadn't heard me, which was the best thing she
could do; and we sat some time without further speech. Mrs. Ambient
had evidently the enviable English quality of being able to be mute
without unrest. But at last she spoke--she asked me if there seemed
many people in town. I gave her what satisfaction I could on this
point, and we talked a little of London and of some of its
characteristics at that time of the year. At the end of this I came
back irrepressibly to Mark.
"Doesn't he like to be there now? I suppose he doesn't find the
proper quiet for his work. I should think his things had been
written for the most part in a very still place. They suggest a
great stillness following on a kind of tumult. Don't you think so?"
I laboured on. "I suppose London's a tremendous place to collect
impressions, but a refuge like this, in the country, must be better
for working them up. Does he get many of his impressions in London,
should you say?" I proceeded from point to point in this malign
inquiry simply because my hostess, who probably thought me an odious
chattering person, gave me time; for when I paused--I've not
represented my pauses--she simply continued to let her eyes wander
while her long fair fingers played with the medallion on her neck.
When I stopped altogether, however, she was obliged to say something,
and what she said was that she hadn't the least idea where her
husband got his impressions. This made me think her, for a moment,
positively disagreeable; delicate and proper and rather
aristocratically fine as she sat there. But I must either have lost
that view a moment later or been goaded by it to further aggression,
for I remember asking her if our great man were in a good vein of
work and when we might look for the appearance of the book on which
he was engaged. I've every reason now to know that she found me
She gave a strange small laugh as she said: "I'm afraid you think I
know much more about my husband's work than I do. I haven't the
least idea what he's doing," she then added in a slightly different,
that is a more explanatory, tone and as if from a glimpse of the
enormity of her confession. "I don't read what he writes."
She didn't succeed, and wouldn't even had she tried much harder, in
making this seem to me anything less than monstrous. I stared at her
and I think I blushed. "Don't you admire his genius? Don't you
She waited, and I wondered what she could possibly say. She didn't
speak, I could see, the first words that rose to her lips; she
repeated what she had said a few minutes before. "Oh of course he's
very clever!" And with this she got up; our two absentees had
Mrs. Ambient left me and went to meet them; she stopped and had a few
words with her husband that I didn't hear and that ended in her
taking the child by the hand and returning with him to the house.
Her husband joined me in a moment, looking, I thought, the least bit
conscious and constrained, and said that if I would come in with him
he would show me my room. In looking back upon these first moments
of my visit I find it important to avoid the error of appearing to
have at all fully measured his situation from the first or made out
the signs of things mastered only afterwards. This later knowledge
throws a backward light and makes me forget that, at least on the
occasion of my present reference--I mean that first afternoon--Mark
Ambient struck me as only enviable. Allowing for this he must yet
have failed of much expression as we walked back to the house, though
I remember well the answer he made to a remark of mine on his small
"That's an extraordinary little boy of yours. I've never seen such a
"Why," he asked while we went, "do you call him extraordinary?"
"He's so beautiful, so fascinating. He's like some perfect little
work of art."
He turned quickly in the passage, grasping my arm. "Oh don't call
him that, or you'll--you'll--!"
But in his hesitation he broke off suddenly, laughing at my surprise.
Immediately afterwards, however, he added: "You'll make his little
future very difficult."
I declared that I wouldn't for the world take any liberties with his
little future--it seemed to me to hang by threads of such delicacy.
I should only be highly interested in watching it.
"You Americans are very keen," he commented on this. "You notice
more things than we do."
"Ah if you want visitors who aren't struck with you," I cried, "you
shouldn't have asked me down here!"
He showed me my room, a little bower of chintz, with open windows
where the light was green, and before he left me said irrelevantly:
"As for my small son, you know, we shall probably kill him between us
before we've done with him!" And he made this assertion as if he
really believed it, without any appearance of jest, his fine near-
sighted expressive eyes looking straight into mine.
"Do you mean by spoiling him?"
"No, by fighting for him!"
"You had better give him to me to keep for you," I said. "Let me
remove the apple of discord!"
It was my extravagance of course, but he had the air of being
perfectly serious. "It would be quite the best thing we could do. I
should be all ready to do it."
"I'm greatly obliged to you for your confidence."
But he lingered with his hands in his pockets. I felt as if within a
few moments I had, morally speaking, taken several steps nearer to
him. He looked weary, just as he faced me then, looked preoccupied
and as if there were something one might do for him. I was terribly
conscious of the limits of my young ability, but I wondered what such
a service might be, feeling at bottom nevertheless that the only
thing I could do for him was to like him. I suppose he guessed this
and was grateful for what was in my mind, since he went on presently:
"I haven't the advantage of being an American, but I also notice a
little, and I've an idea that"--here he smiled and laid his hand on
my shoulder--"even counting out your nationality you're not destitute
of intelligence. I've only known you half an hour, but--!" For
which again he pulled up. "You're very young, after all."
"But you may treat me as if I could understand you!" I said; and
before he left me to dress for dinner he had virtually given me a
promise that he would.
When I went down into the drawing-room--I was very punctual--I found
that neither my hostess nor my host had appeared. A lady rose from a
sofa, however, and inclined her head as I rather surprisedly gazed at
her. "I daresay you don't know me," she said with the modern laugh.
"I'm Mark Ambient's sister." Whereupon I shook hands with her,
saluting her very low. Her laugh was modern--by which I mean that it
consisted of the vocal agitation serving between people who meet in
drawing-rooms as the solvent of social disparities, the medium of
transitions; but her appearance was--what shall I call it?--medieval.
She was pale and angular, her long thin face was inhabited by sad
dark eyes and her black hair intertwined with golden fillets and
curious clasps. She wore a faded velvet robe which clung to her when
she moved and was "cut," as to the neck and sleeves, like the
garments of old Italians. She suggested a symbolic picture,
something akin even to Durer's Melancholia, and was so perfect an
image of a type which I, in my ignorance, supposed to be extinct,
that while she rose before me I was almost as much startled as if I
had seen a ghost. I afterwards concluded that Miss Ambient wasn't
incapable of deriving pleasure from this weird effect, and I now
believe that reflexion concerned in her having sunk again to her seat
with her long lean but not ungraceful arms locked together in an
archaic manner on her knees and her mournful eyes addressing me a
message of intentness which foreshadowed what I was subsequently to
suffer. She was a singular fatuous artificial creature, and I was
never more than half to penetrate her motives and mysteries. Of one
thing I'm sure at least: that they were considerably less
insuperable than her appearance announced. Miss Ambient was a
restless romantic disappointed spinster, consumed with the love of
Michael-Angelesque attitudes and mystical robes; but I'm now
convinced she hadn't in her nature those depths of unutterable
thought which, when you first knew her, seemed to look out from her
eyes and to prompt her complicated gestures. Those features in
especial had a misleading eloquence; they lingered on you with a far-
off dimness, an air of obstructed sympathy, which was certainly not
always a key to the spirit of their owner; so that, of a truth, a
young lady could scarce have been so dejected and disillusioned
without having committed a crime for which she was consumed with
remorse, or having parted with a hope that she couldn't sanely have
entertained. She had, I believe, the usual allowance of rather vain
motives: she wished to be looked at, she wished to be married, she
wished to be thought original.
It costs me a pang to speak in this irreverent manner of one of
Ambient's name, but I shall have still less gracious things to say
before I've finished my anecdote, and moreover--I confess it--I owe
the young lady a bit of a grudge. Putting aside the curious cast of
her face she had no natural aptitude for an artistic development, had
little real intelligence. But her affectations rubbed off on her
brother's renown, and as there were plenty of people who darkly
disapproved of him they could easily point to his sister as a person
formed by his influence. It was quite possible to regard her as a
warning, and she had almost compromised him with the world at large.
He was the original and she the inevitable imitation. I suppose him
scarce aware of the impression she mainly produced, beyond having a
general idea that she made up very well as a Rossetti; he was used to
her and was sorry for her, wishing she would marry and observing how
she didn't. Doubtless I take her too seriously, for she did me no
harm, though I'm bound to allow that I can only half-account for her.
She wasn't so mystical as she looked, but was a strange indirect
uncomfortable embarrassing woman. My story gives the reader at best
so very small a knot to untie that I needn't hope to excite his
curiosity by delaying to remark that Mrs. Ambient hated her sister-
in-law. This I learned but later on, when other matters came to my
knowledge. I mention it, however, at once, for I shall perhaps not
seem to count too much on having beguiled him if I say he must
promptly have guessed it. Mrs. Ambient, a person of conscience, put
the best face on her kinswoman, who spent a month with her twice a
year; but it took no great insight to recognise the very different
personal paste of the two ladies, and that the usual feminine
hypocrisies would cost them on either side much more than the usual
effort. Mrs. Ambient, smooth-haired, thin-lipped, perpetually fresh,
must have regarded her crumpled and dishevelled visitor as an
equivocal joke; she herself so the opposite of a Rossetti, she
herself a Reynolds or a Lawrence, with no more far-fetched note in
her composition than a cold ladylike candour and a well-starched
It was in a garment and with an expression of this kind that she made
her entrance after I had exchanged a few words with Miss Ambient.
Her husband presently followed her and, there being no other company,
we went to dinner. The impressions I received at that repast are
present to me still. The elements of oddity in the air hovered, as
it were, without descending--to any immediate check of my delight.
This came mainly, of course, from Ambient's talk, the easiest and
richest I had ever heard. I mayn't say to-day whether he laid
himself out to dazzle a rather juvenile pilgrim from over the sea;
but that matters little--it seemed so natural to him to shine. His
spoken wit or wisdom, or whatever, had thus a charm almost beyond his
written; that is if the high finish of his printed prose be really,
as some people have maintained, a fault. There was such a kindness
in him, however, that I've no doubt it gave him ideas for me, or
about me, to see me sit as open-mouthed as I now figure myself. Not
so the two ladies, who not only were very nearly dumb from beginning
to end of the meal, but who hadn't even the air of being struck with
such an exhibition of fancy and taste. Mrs. Ambient, detached, and
inscrutable, met neither my eye nor her husband's; she attended to
her dinner, watched her servants, arranged the puckers in her dress,
exchanged at wide intervals a remark with her sister-in-law and,
while she slowly rubbed her lean white hands between the courses,
looked out of the window at the first signs of evening--the long June
day allowing us to dine without candles. Miss Ambient appeared to
give little direct heed to anything said by her brother; but on the
other hand she was much engaged in watching its effect upon me. Her
"die-away" pupils continued to attach themselves to my countenance,
and it was only her air of belonging to another century that kept
them from being importunate. She seemed to look at me across the
ages, and the interval of time diminished for me the inconvenience.
It was as if she knew in a general way that he must be talking very
well, but she herself was so at home among such allusions that she
had no need to pick them up and was at liberty to see what would
become of the exposure of a candid young American to a high aesthetic
The temperature was aesthetic certainly, but it was less so than I
could have desired, for I failed of any great success in making our
friend abound about himself. I tried to put him on the ground of his
own genius, but he slipped through my fingers every time and shifted
the saddle to one or other of his contemporaries. He talked about
Balzac and Browning, about what was being done in foreign countries,
about his recent tour in the East and the extraordinary forms of life
to be observed in that part of the world. I felt he had reasons for
holding off from a direct profession of literary faith, a full
consistency or sincerity, and therefore dealt instead with certain
social topics, treating them with extraordinary humour and with a due
play of that power of ironic evocation in which his books abound. He
had a deal to say about London as London appears to the observer who
has the courage of some of his conclusions during the high-pressure
time--from April to July--of its gregarious life. He flashed his
faculty of playing with the caught image and liberating the wistful
idea over the whole scheme of manners or conception of intercourse of
his compatriots, among whom there were evidently not a few types for
which he had little love. London in short was grotesque to him, and
he made capital sport of it; his only allusion that I can remember to
his own work was his saying that he meant some day to do an immense
and general, a kind of epic, social satire. Miss Ambient's perpetual
gaze seemed to put to me: "Do you perceive how artistic, how very
strange and interesting, we are? Frankly now is it possible to be
MORE artistic, MORE strange and interesting, than this? You surely
won't deny that we're remarkable." I was irritated by her use of the
plural pronoun, for she had no right to pair herself with her
brother; and moreover, of course, I couldn't see my way to--at all
genially--include Mrs. Ambient. Yet there was no doubt they were,
taken together, unprecedented enough, and, with all allowances, I had
never been left, or condemned, to draw so many rich inferences.
After the ladies had retired my host took me into his study to smoke,
where I appealingly brought him round, or so tried, to some
disclosure of fond ideals. I was bent on proving I was worthy to
listen to him, on repaying him for what he had said to me before
dinner, by showing him how perfectly I understood. He liked to talk;
he liked to defend his convictions and his honour (not that I
attacked them); he liked a little perhaps--it was a pardonable
weakness--to bewilder the youthful mind even while wishing to win it
over. My ingenuous sympathy received at any rate a shock from three
or four of his professions--he made me occasionally gasp and stare.
He couldn't help forgetting, or rather couldn't know, how little, in
another and drier clime, I had ever sat in the school in which he was
master; and he promoted me as at a jump to a sense of its penetralia.
My trepidations, however, were delightful; they were just what I had
hoped for, and their only fault was that they passed away too
quickly; since I found that for the main points I was essentially, I
was quite constitutionally, on Mark Ambient's "side." This was the
taken stand of the artist to whom every manifestation of human energy
was a thrilling spectacle and who felt for ever the desire to resolve
his experience of life into a literary form. On that high head of
the passion for form the attempt at perfection, the quest for which
was to his mind the real search for the holy grail--he said the most
interesting, the most inspiring things. He mixed with them a
thousand illustrations from his own life, from other lives he had
known, from history and fiction, and above all from the annals of the
time that was dear to him beyond all periods, the Italian cinque-
cento. It came to me thus that in his books he had uttered but half
his thought, and that what he had kept back from motives I deplored
when I made them out later--was the finer and braver part. It was
his fate to make a great many still more "prepared" people than me
not inconsiderably wince; but there was no grain of bravado in his
ripest things (I've always maintained it, though often contradicted),
and at bottom the poor fellow, disinterested to his finger-tips and
regarding imperfection not only as an aesthetic but quite also as a
social crime, had an extreme dread of scandal. There are critics who
regret that having gone so far he didn't go further; but I regret
nothing--putting aside two or three of the motives I just mentioned--
since he arrived at a noble rarity and I don't see how you can go
beyond that. The hours I spent in his study--this first one and the
few that followed it; they were not, after all, so numerous--seem to
glow, as I look back on them, with a tone that is partly that of the
brown old room, rich, under the shaded candle-light where we sat and
smoked, with the dusky delicate bindings of valuable books; partly
that of his voice, of which I still catch the echo, charged with the
fancies and figures that came at his command. When we went back to
the drawing-room we found Miss Ambient alone in possession and prompt
to mention that her sister-in-law had a quarter of an hour before
been called by the nurse to see the child, who appeared rather
unwell--a little feverish.
"Feverish! how in the world comes he to be feverish?" Ambient asked.
"He was perfectly right this afternoon."
"Beatrice says you walked him about too much--you almost killed him."
"Beatrice must be very happy--she has an opportunity to triumph!"
said my friend with a bright bitterness which was all I could have
"Surely not if the child's ill," I ventured to remark by way of
pleading for Mrs. Ambient.
"My dear fellow, you aren't married--you don't know the nature of
wives!" my host returned with spirit.
I tried to match it. "Possibly not; but I know the nature of
"Beatrice is perfect as a mother," sighed Miss Ambient quite
tremendously and with her fingers interlaced on her embroidered
"I shall go up and see my boy," her brother went on." Do you suppose
"Beatrice won't let you see him, dear"--as to which our young lady
looked at me, though addressing our companion.
"Do you call that being perfect as a mother?" Ambient asked.
"Yes, from her point of view."
"Damn her point of view!" cried the author of "Beltraffio." And he
left the room; after which we heard him ascend the stairs.
I sat there for some ten minutes with Miss Ambient, and we naturally
had some exchange of remarks, which began, I think, by my asking her
what the point of view of her sister-in-law could be.
"Oh it's so very odd. But we're so very odd altogether. Don't you
find us awfully unlike others of our class?--which indeed mostly, in
England, is awful. We've lived so much abroad. I adore 'abroad.'
Have you people like us in America?"
"You're not all alike, you interesting three--or, counting Dolcino,
four--surely, surely; so that I don't think I understand your
question. We've no one like your brother--I may go so far as that."
"You've probably more persons like his wife," Miss Ambient desolately
"I can tell you that better when you've told me about her point of
"Oh yes--oh yes. Well," said my entertainer, "she doesn't like his
ideas. She doesn't like them for the child. She thinks them
Being quite fresh from the contemplation of some of Mark Ambient's
arcana I was particularly in a position to appreciate this
announcement. But the effect of it was to make me, after staring a
moment, burst into laughter which I instantly checked when I
remembered the indisposed child above and the possibility of parents
nervously or fussily anxious.
"What has that infant to do with ideas?" I asked. "Surely he can't
tell one from another. Has he read his father's novels?"
"He's very precocious and very sensitive, and his mother thinks she
can't begin to guard him too early." Miss Ambient's head drooped a
little to one side and her eyes fixed themselves on futurity. Then
of a sudden came a strange alteration; her face lighted to an effect
more joyless than any gloom, to that indeed of a conscious insincere
grimace, and she added "When one has children what one writes becomes
a great responsibility."
"Children are terrible critics," I prosaically answered. "I'm really
glad I haven't any."
"Do you also write, then? And in the same style as my brother? And
do you like that style? And do people appreciate it in America? I
don't write, but I think I feel." To these and various other
inquiries and observations my young lady treated me till we heard her
brother's step in the hall again and Mark Ambient reappeared. He was
so flushed and grave that I supposed he had seen something
symptomatic in the condition of his child. His sister apparently had
another idea; she gazed at him from afar--as if he had been a burning
ship on the horizon--and simply murmured "Poor old Mark!"
"I hope you're not anxious," I as promptly pronounced.
"No, but I'm disappointed. She won't let me in. She has locked the
door, and I'm afraid to make a noise." I daresay there might have
been a touch of the ridiculous in such a confession, but I liked my
new friend so much that it took nothing for me from his dignity.
"She tells me--from behind the door--that she'll let me know if he's
"It's very good of her," said Miss Ambient with a hollow sound.
I had exchanged a glance with Mark in which it's possible he read
that my pity for him was untinged with contempt, though I scarce know
why he should have cared; and as his sister soon afterward got up and
took her bedroom candlestick he proposed we should go back to his
study. We sat there till after midnight; he put himself into his
slippers and an old velvet jacket, he lighted an ancient pipe, but he
talked considerably less than before. There were longish pauses in
our communion, but they only made me feel we had advanced in
intimacy. They helped me further to understand my friend's personal
situation and to imagine it by no means the happiest possible. When
his face was quiet it was vaguely troubled, showing, to my increase
of interest--if that was all that was wanted!--that for him too life
was the same struggle it had been for so many another man of genius.
At last I prepared to leave him, and then, to my ineffable joy, he
gave me some of the sheets of his forthcoming book--which, though
unfinished, he had indulged in the luxury, so dear to writers of
deliberation, of having "set up," from chapter to chapter, as he
advanced. These early pages, the premices, in the language of
letters, of that new fruit of his imagination, I should take to my
room and look over at my leisure. I was in the act of leaving him
when the door of the study noiselessly opened and Mrs. Ambient stood
before us. She observed us a moment, her candle in her hand, and
then said to her husband that as she supposed he hadn't gone to bed
she had come down to let him know Dolcino was more quiet and would
probably be better in the morning. Mark Ambient made no reply; he
simply slipped past her in the doorway, as if for fear she might
seize him in his passage, and bounded upstairs to judge for himself
of his child's condition. She looked so frankly discomfited that I
for a moment believed her about to give him chase. But she resigned
herself with a sigh and her eyes turned, ruefully and without a ray,
to the lamplit room where various books at which I had been looking
were pulled out of their places on the shelves and the fumes of
tobacco hung in mid-air. I bade her good-night and then, without
intention, by a kind of fatality, a perversity that had already made
me address her overmuch on that question of her husband's powers, I
alluded to the precious proof-sheets with which Ambient had entrusted
me and which I nursed there under my arm. "They're the opening
chapters of his new book," I said. "Fancy my satisfaction at being
allowed to carry them to my room!"
She turned away, leaving me to take my candlestick from the table in
the hall; but before we separated, thinking it apparently a good
occasion to let me know once for all since I was beginning, it would
seem, to be quite "thick" with my host--that there was no fitness in
my appealing to her for sympathy in such a case; before we separated,
I say, she remarked to me with her quick fine well-bred inveterate
curtness: "I daresay you attribute to me ideas I haven't got. I
don't take that sort of interest in my husband's proof-sheets. I
consider his writings most objectionable!"
I had an odd colloquy the next morning with Miss Ambient, whom I
found strolling in the garden before breakfast. The whole place
looked as fresh and trim, amid the twitter of the birds, as if, an
hour before, the housemaids had been turned into it with their dust-
pans and feather-brushes. I almost hesitated to light a cigarette
and was doubly startled when, in the act of doing so, I suddenly saw
the sister of my host, who had, at the best, something of the
weirdness of an apparition, stand before me. She might have been
posing for her photograph. Her sad-coloured robe arranged itself in
serpentine folds at her feet; her hands locked themselves listlessly
together in front; her chin rested on a cinque-cento ruff. The first
thing I did after bidding her good-morning was to ask her for news of
her little nephew--to express the hope she had heard he was better.
She was able to gratify this trust--she spoke as if we might expect
to see him during the day. We walked through the shrubberies
together and she gave me further light on her brother's household,
which offered me an opportunity to repeat to her what his wife had so
startled and distressed me with the night before. WAS it the sorry
truth that she thought his productions objectionable?
"She doesn't usually come out with that so soon!" Miss Ambient
returned in answer to my breathlessness.
"Poor lady," I pleaded, "she saw I'm a fanatic."
"Yes, she won't like you for that. But you mustn't mind, if the rest
of us like you! Beatrice thinks a work of art ought to have a
'purpose.' But she's a charming woman--don't you think her charming?
I find in her quite the grand air."
"She's very beautiful," I produced with an effort; while I reflected
that though it was apparently true that Mark Ambient was mismated it
was also perceptible that his sister was perfidious. She assured me
her brother and his wife had no other difference but this--one that
she thought his writings immoral and his influence pernicious. It
was a fixed idea; she was afraid of these things for the child. I
answered that it was in all conscience enough, the trifle of a
woman's regarding her husband's mind as a well of corruption, and she
seemed much struck with the novelty of my remark. "But there hasn't
been any of the sort of trouble that there so often is among married
people," she said. "I suppose you can judge for yourself that
Beatrice isn't at all--well, whatever they call it when a woman kicks
over! And poor Mark doesn't make love to other people either. You
might think he would, but I assure you he doesn't. All the same of
course, from her point of view, you know, she has a dread of my
brother's influence on the child on the formation of his character,
his 'ideals,' poor little brat, his principles. It's as if it were a
subtle poison or a contagion--something that would rub off on his
tender sensibility when his father kisses him or holds him on his
knee. If she could she'd prevent Mark from even so much as touching
him. Every one knows it--visitors see it for themselves; so there's
no harm in my telling you. Isn't it excessively odd? It comes from
Beatrice's being so religious and so tremendously moral--so a cheval
on fifty thousand riguardi. And then of course we mustn't forget,"
my companion added, a little unexpectedly, to this polyglot
proposition, "that some of Mark's ideas are--well, really--rather
impossible, don't you know?"
I reflected as we went into the house, where we found Ambient
unfolding The Observer at the breakfast-table, that none of them were
probably quite so "impossible, don't you know?" as his sister. Mrs.
Ambient, a little "the worse," as was mentioned, for her
ministrations, during the night, to Dolcino, didn't appear at
breakfast. Her husband described her, however, as hoping to go to
church. I afterwards learnt that she did go, but nothing naturally
was less on the cards than that we should accompany her. It was
while the church-bell droned near at hand that the author of
"Beltraffio" led me forth for the ramble he had spoken of in his
note. I shall attempt here no record of where we went or of what we
saw. We kept to the fields and copses and commons, and breathed the
same sweet air as the nibbling donkeys and the browsing sheep, whose
woolliness seemed to me, in those early days of acquaintance with
English objects, but part of the general texture of the small dense
landscape, which looked as if the harvest were gathered by the shears
and with all nature bleating and braying for the violence.
Everything was full of expression for Mark Ambient's visitor--from
the big bandy-legged geese whose whiteness was a "note" amid all the
tones of green as they wandered beside a neat little oval pool, the
foreground of a thatched and whitewashed inn, with a grassy approach
and a pictorial sign--from these humble wayside animals to the crests
of high woods which let a gable or a pinnacle peep here and there and
looked even at a distance like trees of good company, conscious of an
individual profile. I admired the hedge-rows, I plucked the faint-
hued heather, and I was for ever stopping to say how charming I
thought the thread-like footpaths across the fields, which wandered
in a diagonal of finer grain from one smooth stile to another. Mark
Ambient was abundantly good-natured and was as much struck, dear man,
with some of my observations as I was with the literary allusions of
the landscape. We sat and smoked on stiles, broaching paradoxes in
the decent English air; we took short cuts across a park or two where
the bracken was deep and my companion nodded to the old woman at the
gate; we skirted rank coverts which rustled here and there as we
passed, and we stretched ourselves at last on a heathery hillside
where if the sun wasn't too hot neither was the earth too cold, and
where the country lay beneath us in a rich blue mist. Of course I
had already told him what I thought of his new novel, having the
previous night read every word of the opening chapters before I went
"I'm not without hope of being able to make it decent enough," he
said as I went back to the subject while we turned up our heels to
the sky. "At least the people who dislike my stuff--and there are
plenty of them, I believe--will dislike this thing (if it does turn
out well) most." This was the first time I had heard him allude to
the people who couldn't read him--a class so generally conceived to
sit heavy on the consciousness of the man of letters. A being
organised for literature as Mark Ambient was must certainly have had
the normal proportion of sensitiveness, of irritability; the artistic
ego, capable in some cases of such monstrous development, must have
been in his composition sufficiently erect and active. I won't
therefore go so far as to say that he never thought of his detractors
or that he had any illusions with regard to the number of his
admirers--he could never so far have deceived himself as to believe
he was popular, but I at least then judged (and had occasion to be
sure later on) that stupidity ruffled him visibly but little, that he
had an air of thinking it quite natural he should leave many simple
folk, tasting of him, as simple as ever he found them, and that he
very seldom talked about the newspapers, which, by the way, were
always even abnormally vulgar about him. Of course he may have
thought them over--the newspapers--night and day; the only point I
make is that he didn't show it while at the same time he didn't
strike one as a man actively on his guard. I may add that, touching
his hope of making the work on which he was then engaged the best of
his books, it was only partly carried out. That place belongs
incontestably to "Beltraffio," in spite of the beauty of certain
parts of its successor. I quite believe, however, that he had at the
moment of which I speak no sense of having declined; he was in love
with his idea, which was indeed magnificent, and though for him, as I
suppose for every sane artist, the act of execution had in it as much
torment as joy, he saw his result grow like the crescent of the young
moon and promise to fill the disk. "I want to be truer than I've
ever been," he said, settling himself on his back with his hands
clasped behind his head; "I want to give the impression of life
itself. No, you may say what you will, I've always arranged things
too much, always smoothed them down and rounded them off and tucked
them in--done everything to them that life doesn't do. I've been a
slave to the old superstitions."
"You a slave, my dear Mark Ambient? You've the freest imagination of
"All the more shame to me to have done some of the things I have!
The reconciliation of the two women in 'Natalina,' for instance,
which could never really have taken place. That sort of thing's
ignoble--I blush when I think of it! This new affair must be a
golden vessel, filled with the purest distillation of the actual; and
oh how it worries me, the shaping of the vase, the hammering of the
metal! I have to hammer it so fine, so smooth; I don't do more than
an inch or two a day. And all the while I have to be so careful not
to let a drop of the liquor escape! When I see the kind of things
Life herself, the brazen hussy, does, I despair of ever catching her
peculiar trick. She has an impudence, Life! If one risked a
fiftieth part of the effects she risks! It takes ever so long to
believe it. You don't know yet, my dear youth. It isn't till one
has been watching her some forty years that one finds out half of
what she's up to! Therefore one's earlier things must inevitably
contain a mass of rot. And with what one sees, on one side, with its
tongue in its cheek, defying one to be real enough, and on the other
the bonnes gens rolling up their eyes at one's cynicism, the
situation has elements of the ludicrous which the poor reproducer
himself is doubtless in a position to appreciate better than any one
else. Of course one mustn't worry about the bonnes gens," Mark
Ambient went on while my thoughts reverted to his ladylike wife as
interpreted by his remarkable sister.
"To sink your shaft deep and polish the plate through which people
look into it--that's what your work consists of," I remember
"Ah polishing one's plate--that's the torment of execution!" he
exclaimed, jerking himself up and sitting forward. "The effort to
arrive at a surface, if you think anything of that decent sort
necessary--some people don't, happily for them! My dear fellow, if
you could see the surface I dream of as compared with the one with
which I've to content myself. Life's really too short for art--one
hasn't time to make one's shell ideally hard. Firm and bright, firm
and bright is very well to say--the devilish thing has a way
sometimes of being bright, and even of being hard, as mere tough
frozen pudding is hard, without being firm. When I rap it with my
knuckles it doesn't give the right sound. There are horrible sandy
stretches where I've taken the wrong turn because I couldn't for the
life of me find the right. If you knew what a dunce I am sometimes!
Such things figure to me now base pimples and ulcers on the brow of
"They're very bad, very bad," I said as gravely as I could.
"Very bad? They're the highest social offence I know; it ought--it
absolutely ought; I'm quite serious--to be capital. If I knew I
should be publicly thrashed else I'd manage to find the true word.
The people who can't--some of them don't so much as know it when they
see it--would shut their inkstands, and we shouldn't be deluged by
this flood of rubbish!"
I shall not attempt to repeat everything that passed between us, nor
to explain just how it was that, every moment I spent in his company,
Mark Ambient revealed to me more and more the consistency of his
creative spirit, the spirit in him that felt all life as plastic
material. I could but envy him the force of that passion, and it was
at any rate through the receipt of this impression that by the time
we returned I had gained the sense of intimacy with him that I have
noted. Before we got up for the homeward stretch he alluded to his
wife's having once--or perhaps more than once--asked him whether he
should like Dolcino to read "Beltraffio." He must have been unaware
at the moment of all that this conveyed to me--as well doubtless of
my extreme curiosity to hear what he had replied. He had said how
much he hoped Dolcino would read ALL his works--when he was twenty;
he should like him to know what his father had done. Before twenty
it would be useless; he wouldn't understand them.
"And meanwhile do you propose to hide them--to lock them up in a
drawer?" Mrs. Ambient had proceeded.
"Oh no--we must simply tell him they're not intended for small boys.
If you bring him up properly after that he won't touch them."
To this Mrs. Ambient had made answer that it might be very awkward
when he was about fifteen, say; and I asked her husband if it were
his opinion in general, then, that young people shouldn't read
"Good ones--certainly not!" said my companion. I suppose I had had
other views, for I remember saying that for myself I wasn't sure it
was bad for them if the novels were "good" to the right intensity of
goodness. "Bad for THEM, I don't say so much!" my companion
returned. "But very bad, I'm afraid, for the poor dear old novel
itself." That oblique accidental allusion to his wife's attitude was
followed by a greater breadth of reference as we walked home. "The
difference between us is simply the opposition between two distinct
ways of looking at the world, which have never succeeded in getting
on together, or in making any kind of common household, since the
beginning of time. They've borne all sorts of names, and my wife
would tell you it's the difference between Christian and Pagan. I
may be a pagan, but I don't like the name; it sounds sectarian. She
thinks me at any rate no better than an ancient Greek. It's the
difference between making the most of life and making the least, so
that you'll get another better one in some other time and place.
Will it be a sin to make the most of that one, too, I wonder; and
shall we have to be bribed off in the future state as well as in the
present? Perhaps I care too much for beauty--I don't know, I doubt
if a poor devil CAN; I delight in it, I adore it, I think of it
continually, I try to produce it, to reproduce it. My wife holds
that we shouldn't cultivate or enjoy it without extraordinary
precautions and reserves. She's always afraid of it, always on her
guard. I don't know what it can ever have done to her, what grudge
it owes her or what resentment rides. And she's so pretty, too,
herself! Don't you think she's lovely? She was at any rate when we
married. At that time I wasn't aware of that difference I speak of--
I thought it all came to the same thing: in the end, as they say.
Well, perhaps it will in the end. I don't know what the end will be.
Moreover, I care for seeing things as they are; that's the way I try
to show them in any professed picture. But you mustn't talk to Mrs.
Ambient about things as they are. She has a mortal dread of things
as they are."
"She's afraid of them for Dolcino," I said: surprised a moment
afterwards at being in a position--thanks to Miss Ambient--to be so
explanatory; and surprised even now that Mark shouldn't have shown
visibly that he wondered what the deuce I knew about it. But he
didn't; he simply declared with a tenderness that touched me: "Ah
nothing shall ever hurt HIM!"
He told me more about his wife before we arrived at the gate of home,
and if he be judged to have aired overmuch his grievance I'm afraid I
must admit that he had some of the foibles as well as the gifts of
the artistic temperament; adding, however, instantly that hitherto,
to the best of my belief, he had rarely let this particular cat out
of the bag. "She thinks me immoral--that's the long and short of
it," he said as we paused outside a moment and his hand rested on one
of the bars of his gate; while his conscious expressive perceptive
eyes--the eyes of a foreigner, I had begun to account them, much more
than of the usual Englishman--viewing me now evidently as quite a
familiar friend, took part in the declaration. "It's very strange
when one thinks it all over, and there's a grand comicality in it
that I should like to bring out. She's a very nice woman,
extraordinarily well-behaved, upright and clever and with a
tremendous lot of good sense about a good many matters. Yet her
conception of a novel--she has explained it to me once or twice, and
she doesn't do it badly as exposition--is a thing so false that it
makes me blush. It's a thing so hollow, so dishonest, so lying, in
which life is so blinked and blinded, so dodged and disfigured, that
it makes my ears burn. It's two different ways of looking at the
whole affair," he repeated, pushing open the gate. "And they're
irreconcilable!" he added with a sigh. We went forward to the house,
but on the walk, half-way to the door, he stopped and said to me:
"If you're going into this kind of thing there's a fact you should
know beforehand; it may save you some disappointment. There's a
hatred of art, there's a hatred of literature--I mean of the genuine
kinds. Oh the shams--those they'll swallow by the bucket!" I looked
up at the charming house, with its genial colour and crookedness, and
I answered with a smile that those evil passions might exist, but
that I should never have expected to find them there. "Ah it doesn't
matter after all," he a bit nervously laughed; which I was glad to
hear, for I was reproaching myself with having worked him up.
If I had it soon passed off, for at luncheon he was delightful;
strangely delightful considering that the difference between himself
and his wife was, as he had said, irreconcilable. He had the art, by
his manner, by his smile, by his natural amenity, of reducing the
importance of it in the common concerns of life; and Mrs. Ambient, I
must add, lent herself to this transaction with a very good grace. I
watched her at table for further illustrations of that fixed idea of
which Miss Ambient had spoken to me; for in the light of the united
revelations of her sister-in-law and her husband she had come to seem
to me almost a sinister personage. Yet the signs of a sombre
fanaticism were not more immediately striking in her than before; it
was only after a while that her air of incorruptible conformity, her
tapering monosyllabic correctness, began to affect me as in
themselves a cold thin flame. Certainly, at first, she resembled a
woman with as few passions as possible; but if she had a passion at
all it would indeed be that of Philistinism. She might have been
(for there are guardian-spirits, I suppose, of all great principles)
the very angel of the pink of propriety--putting the pink for a
principle, though I'd rather put some dismal cold blue. Mark
Ambient, apparently, ten years before, had simply and quite
inevitably taken her for an angel, without asking himself of what.
He had been right in calling my attention to her beauty. In looking
for some explanation of his original surrender to her I saw more than
before that she was, physically speaking, a wonderfully cultivated
human plant--that he might well have owed her a brief poetic
inspiration. It was impossible to be more propped and pencilled,
more delicately tinted and petalled.
If I had had it in my heart to think my host a little of a hypocrite
for appearing to forget at table everything he had said to me in our
walk, I should instantly have cancelled such a judgement on
reflecting that the good news his wife was able to give him about
their little boy was ground enough for any optimistic reaction. It
may have come partly, too, from a certain compunction at having
breathed to me at all harshly on the cool fair lady who sat there--a
desire to prove himself not after all so mismated. Dolcino continued
to be much better, and it had been promised him he should come
downstairs after his dinner. As soon as we had risen from our own
meal Mark slipped away, evidently for the purpose of going to his
child; and no sooner had I observed this than I became aware his wife
had simultaneously vanished. It happened that Miss Ambient and I,
both at the same moment, saw the tail of her dress whisk out of a
doorway; an incident that led the young lady to smile at me as if I
now knew all the secrets of the Ambients. I passed with her into the
garden and we sat down on a dear old bench that rested against the
west wall of the house. It was a perfect spot for the middle period
of a Sunday in June, and its felicity seemed to come partly from an
antique sun-dial which, rising in front of us and forming the centre
of a small intricate parterre, measured the moments ever so slowly
and made them safe for leisure and talk. The garden bloomed in the
suffused afternoon, the tall beeches stood still for an example, and,
behind and above us, a rose tree of many seasons, clinging to the
faded grain of the brick, expressed the whole character of the scene
in a familiar exquisite smell. It struck me as a place to offer
genius every favour and sanction--not to bristle with challenges and
checks. Miss Ambient asked me if I had enjoyed my walk with her
brother and whether we had talked of many things.
"Well, of most things," I freely allowed, though I remembered we
hadn't talked of Miss Ambient.
"And don't you think some of his theories are very peculiar?"
"Oh I guess I agree with them all." I was very particular, for Miss
Ambient's entertainment, to guess.
"Do you think art's everything?" she put to me in a moment.
"In art, of course I do!"
"And do you think beauty's everything?"
"Everything's a big word, which I think we should use as little as
possible. But how can we not want beauty?"
"Ah there you are!" she sighed, though I didn't quite know what she
meant by it. "Of course it's difficult for a woman to judge how far
to go," she went on. "I adore everything that gives a charm to life.
I'm intensely sensitive to form. But sometimes I draw back--don't
you see what I mean?--I don't quite see where I shall be landed. I
only want to be quiet, after all," Miss Ambient continued as if she
had long been baffled of this modest desire. "And one must be good,
at any rate, must not one?" she pursued with a dubious quaver--an
intimation apparently that what I might say one way or the other
would settle it for her. It was difficult for me to be very original
in reply, and I'm afraid I repaid her confidence with an unblushing
platitude. I remember, moreover, attaching to it an inquiry, equally
destitute of freshness and still more wanting perhaps in tact, as to
whether she didn't mean to go to church, since that was an obvious
way of being good. She made answer that she had performed this duty
in the morning, and that for her, of Sunday afternoons, supreme
virtue consisted in answering the week's letters. Then suddenly and
without transition she brought out: "It's quite a mistake about
Dolcino's being better. I've seen him and he's not at all right."
I wondered, and somehow I think I scarcely believed. "Surely his
mother would know, wouldn't she?"
She appeared for a moment to be counting the leaves on one of the
great beeches. "As regards most matters one can easily say what, in
a given situation, my sister-in-law will, or would, do. But in the
present case there are strange elements at work."
"Strange elements? Do you mean in the constitution of the child?"
"No, I mean in my sister-in-law's feelings."
"Elements of affection of course; elements of anxiety," I concurred.
"But why do you call them strange?"
She repeated my words. "Elements of affection, elements of anxiety.
She's very anxious."
Miss Ambient put me indescribably ill at ease; she almost scared me,
and I wished she would go and write her letters. "His father will
have seen him now," I said, "and if he's not satisfied he will send
for the doctor."
"The doctor ought to have been here this morning," she promptly
returned. "He lives only two miles away."
I reflected that all this was very possibly but a part of the general
tragedy of Miss Ambient's view of things; yet I asked her why she
hadn't urged that view on her sister-in-law. She answered me with a
smile of extraordinary significance and observed that I must have
very little idea of her "peculiar" relations with Beatrice; but I
must do her the justice that she re-enforced this a little by the
plea that any distinguishable alarm of Mark's was ground enough for a
difference of his wife's. He was always nervous about the child, and
as they were predestined by nature to take opposite views, the only
thing for the mother was to cultivate a false optimism. In Mark's
absence and that of his betrayed fear she would have been less easy.
I remembered what he had said to me about their dealings with their
son--that between them they'd probably put an end to him; but I
didn't repeat this to Miss Ambient: the less so that just then her
brother emerged from the house, carrying the boy in his arms. Close
behind him moved his wife, grave and pale; the little sick face was
turned over Ambient's shoulder and toward the mother. We rose to
receive the group, and as they came near us Dolcino twisted himself
about. His enchanting eyes showed me a smile of recognition, in
which, for the moment, I should have taken a due degree of comfort.
Miss Ambient, however, received another impression, and I make haste
to say that her quick sensibility, which visibly went out to the
child, argues that in spite of her affectations she might have been
of some human use. "It won't do at all--it won't do at all," she
said to me under her breath. "I shall speak to Mark about the
Her small nephew was rather white, but the main difference I saw in
him was that he was even more beautiful than the day before. He had
been dressed in his festal garments--a velvet suit and a crimson
sash--and he looked like a little invalid prince too young to know
condescension and smiling familiarly on his subjects.
"Put him down, Mark, he's not a bit at his ease," Mrs. Ambient said.
"Should you like to stand on your feet, my boy?" his father asked.
He made a motion that quickly responded. "Oh yes; I'm remarkably
Mark placed him on the ground; he had shining pointed shoes with
enormous bows. "Are you happy now, Mr. Ambient?"
"Oh yes, I'm particularly happy," Dolcino replied. But the words
were scarce out of his mouth when his mother caught him up and, in a
moment, holding him on her knees, took her place on the bench where
Miss Ambient and I had been sitting. This young lady said something
to her brother, in consequence of which the two wandered away into
the garden together.
I remained with Mrs. Ambient, but as a servant had brought out a
couple of chairs I wasn't obliged to seat myself beside her. Our
conversation failed of ease, and I, for my part, felt there would be
a shade of hypocrisy in my now trying to make myself agreeable to the
partner of my friend's existence. I didn't dislike her--I rather
admired her; but I was aware that I differed from her inexpressibly.
Then I suspected, what I afterwards definitely knew and have already
intimated, that the poor lady felt small taste for her husband's so
undisguised disciple; and this of course was not encouraging. She
thought me an obtrusive and designing, even perhaps a depraved, young
man whom a perverse Providence had dropped upon their quiet lawn to
flatter his worst tendencies. She did me the honour to say to Miss
Ambient, who repeated the speech, that she didn't know when she had
seen their companion take such a fancy to a visitor; and she measured
apparently my evil influence by Mark's appreciation of my society. I
had a consciousness, not oppressive but quite sufficient, of all
this; though I must say that if it chilled my flow of small-talk it
yet didn't prevent my thinking the beautiful mother and beautiful
child, interlaced there against their background of roses, a picture
such as I doubtless shouldn't soon see again. I was free, I
supposed, to go into the house and write letters, to sit in the
drawing-room, to repair to my own apartment and take a nap; but the
only use I made of my freedom was to linger still in my chair and say
to myself that the light hand of Sir Joshua might have painted Mark
Ambient's wife and son. I found myself looking perpetually at the
latter small mortal, who looked constantly back at me, and that was
enough to detain me. With these vaguely-amused eyes he smiled, and I
felt it an absolute impossibility to abandon a child with such an
expression. His attention never strayed; it attached itself to my
face as if among all the small incipient things of his nature
throbbed a desire to say something to me. If I could have taken him
on my own knee he perhaps would have managed to say it; but it would
have been a critical matter to ask his mother to give him up, and it
has remained a constant regret for me that on that strange Sunday
afternoon I didn't even for a moment hold Dolcino in my arms. He had
said he felt remarkably well and was especially happy; but though
peace may have been with him as he pillowed his charming head on his
mother's breast, dropping his little crimson silk legs from her lap,
I somehow didn't think security was. He made no attempt to walk
about; he was content to swing his legs softly and strike one as
languid and angelic.
Mark returned to us with his sister; and Miss Ambient, repeating her
mention of the claims of her correspondence, passed into the house.
Mark came and stood in front of his wife, looking down at the child,
who immediately took hold of his hand and kept it while he stayed.
"I think Mackintosh ought to see him," he said; "I think I'll walk
over and fetch him."
"That's Gwendolen's idea, I suppose," Mrs. Ambient replied very
"It's not such an out-of-the-way idea when one's child's ill," he
"I'm not ill, papa; I'm much better now," sounded in the boy's silver
"Is that the truth, or are you only saying it to be agreeable?
You've a great idea of being agreeable, you know."
The child seemed to meditate on this distinction, this imputation,
for a moment; then his exaggerated eyes, which had wandered, caught
my own as I watched him. "Do YOU think me agreeable?" he inquired
with the candour of his age and with a look that made his father turn
round to me laughing and ask, without saying it, "Isn't he adorable?"
"Then why don't you hop about, if you feel so lusty?" Ambient went on
while his son swung his hand.
"Because mamma's holding me close!"
"Oh yes; I know how mamma holds you when I come near!" cried Mark
with a grimace at his wife.
She turned her charming eyes up to him without deprecation or
concession. "You can go for Mackintosh if you like. I think myself
it would be better. You ought to drive."
"She says that to get me away," he put to me with a gaiety that I
thought a little false; after which he started for the Doctor's.
I remained there with Mrs. Ambient, though even our exchange of
twaddle had run very thin. The boy's little fixed white face seemed,
as before, to plead with me to stay, and after a while it produced
still another effect, a very curious one, which I shall find it
difficult to express. Of course I expose myself to the charge of an
attempt to justify by a strained logic after the fact a step which
may have been on my part but the fruit of a native want of
discretion; and indeed the traceable consequences of that perversity
were too lamentable to leave me any desire to trifle with the
question. All I can say is that I acted in perfect good faith and
that Dolcino's friendly little gaze gradually kindled the spark of my
inspiration. What helped it to glow were the other influences--the
silent suggestive garden-nook, the perfect opportunity (if it was not
an opportunity for that it was an opportunity for nothing) and the
plea I speak of, which issued from the child's eyes and seemed to
make him say: "The mother who bore me and who presses me here to her
bosom--sympathetic little organism that I am--has really the kind of
sensibility she has been represented to you as lacking, if you only
look for it patiently and respectfully. How is it conceivable she
shouldn't have it? How is it possible that _I_ should have so much
of it--for I'm quite full of it, dear strange gentleman--if it
weren't also in some degree in her? I'm my great father's child, but
I'm also my beautiful mother's, and I'm sorry for the difference
between them!" So it shaped itself before me, the vision of
reconciling Mrs. Ambient with her husband, of putting an end to their
ugly difference. The project was absurd of course, for had I not had
his word for it--spoken with all the bitterness of experience--that
the gulf dividing them was well-nigh bottomless? Nevertheless, a
quarter of an hour after Mark had left us, I observed to my hostess
that I couldn't get over what she had told me the night before about
her thinking her husband's compositions "objectionable." I had been
so very sorry to hear it, had thought of it constantly and wondered
whether it mightn't be possible to make her change her mind. She
gave me a great cold stare, meant apparently as an admonition to me
to mind my business. I wish I had taken this mute counsel, but I
didn't take it. I went on to remark that it seemed an immense pity
so much that was interesting should be lost on her.
"Nothing's lost upon me," she said in a tone that didn't make the
contradiction less. "I know they're very interesting."
"Don't you like papa's books?" Dolcino asked, addressing his mother
but still looking at me. Then he added to me: "Won't you read them
to me, American gentleman?"
"I'd rather tell you some stories of my own," I said. "I know some
that are awfully good."
"When will you tell them? To-morrow?"
"To-morrow with pleasure, if that suits you."
His mother took this in silence. Her husband, during our walk, had
asked me to remain another day; my promise to her son was an
implication that I had consented, and it wasn't possible the news
could please her. This ought doubtless to have made me more careful
as to what I said next, but all I can plead is that it didn't. I
soon mentioned that just after leaving her the evening before, and
after hearing her apply to her husband's writings the epithet already
quoted, I had on going up to my room sat down to the perusal of those
sheets of his new book that he had been so good as to lend me. I had
sat entranced till nearly three in the morning--I had read them twice
over. "You say you haven't looked at them. I think it's such a pity
you shouldn't. Do let me beg you to take them up. They're so very
remarkable. I'm sure they'll convert you. They place him in--
really--such a dazzling light. All that's best in him is there.
I've no doubt it's a great liberty, my saying all this; but pardon
me, and DO read them!"
"Do read them, mamma!" the boy again sweetly shrilled. "Do read
She bent her head and closed his lips with a kiss. "Of course I know
he has worked immensely over them," she said; after which she made no
remark, but attached her eyes thoughtfully to the ground. The tone
of these last words was such as to leave me no spirit for further
pressure, and after hinting at a fear that her husband mightn't have
caught the Doctor I got up and took a turn about the grounds. When I
came back ten minutes later she was still in her place watching her
boy, who had fallen asleep in her lap. As I drew near she put her
finger to her lips and a short time afterwards rose, holding him; it
being now best, she said, that she should take him upstairs. I
offered to carry him and opened my arms for the purpose; but she
thanked me and turned away with the child still in her embrace, his
head on her shoulder. "I'm very strong," was her last word as she
passed into the house, her slim flexible figure bent backward with
the filial weight. So I never laid a longing hand on Dolcino.
I betook myself to Ambient's study, delighted to have a quiet hour to
look over his books by myself. The windows were open to the garden;
the sunny stillness, the mild light of the English summer, filled the
room without quite chasing away the rich dusky tone that was a part
of its charm and that abode in the serried shelves where old morocco
exhaled the fragrance of curious learning, as well as in the brighter
intervals where prints and medals and miniatures were suspended on a
surface of faded stuff. The place had both colour and quiet; I
thought it a perfect room for work and went so far as to say to
myself that, if it were mine to sit and scribble in, there was no
knowing but I might learn to write as well as the author of
"Beltraffio." This distinguished man still didn't reappear, and I
rummaged freely among his treasures. At last I took down a book that
detained me a while and seated myself in a fine old leather chair by
the window to turn it over. I had been occupied in this way for half
an hour--a good part of the afternoon had waned--when I became
conscious of another presence in the room and, looking up from my
quarto, saw that Mrs. Ambient, having pushed open the door quite
again in the same noiseless way marking or disguising her entrance
the night before, had advanced across the threshold. On seeing me
she stopped; she had not, I think, expected to find me. But her
hesitation was only of a moment; she came straight to her husband's
writing-table as if she were looking for something. I got up and
asked her if I could help her. She glanced about an instant and then
put her hand upon a roll of papers which I recognised, as I had
placed it on that spot at the early hour of my descent from my room.
"Is this the new book?" she asked, holding it up.
"The very sheets," I smiled; "with precious annotations."
"I mean to take your advice"--and she tucked the little bundle under
her arm. I congratulated her cordially and ventured to make of my
triumph, as I presumed to call it, a subject of pleasantry. But she
was perfectly grave and turned away from me, as she had presented
herself, without relaxing her rigour; after which I settled down to
my quarto again with the reflexion that Mrs. Ambient was truly an
eccentric. My triumph, too, suddenly seemed to me rather vain. A
woman who couldn't unbend at a moment exquisitely indicated would
never understand Mark Ambient. He came back to us at last in person,
having brought the Doctor with him. "He was away from home," Mark
said, "and I went after him to where he was supposed to be. He had
left the place, and I followed him to two or three others, which
accounts for my delay." He was now with Mrs. Ambient, looking at the
child, and was to see Mark again before leaving the house. My host
noticed at the end of two minutes that the proof-sheets of his new
book had been removed from the table; and when I told him, in reply
to his question as to what I knew about them, that Mrs. Ambient had
carried them off to read he turned almost pale with surprise. "What
has suddenly made her so curious?" he cried; and I was obliged to
tell him that I was at the bottom of the mystery. I had had it on my
conscience to assure her that she really ought to know of what her
husband was capable. "Of what I'm capable? Elle ne s'en doute que
trop!" said Ambient with a laugh; but he took my meddling very good-
naturedly and contented himself with adding that he was really much
afraid she would burn up the sheets, his emendations and all, of
which latter he had no duplicate. The Doctor paid a long visit in
the nursery, and before he came down I retired to my own quarters,
where I remained till dinner-time. On entering the drawing-room at
this hour I found Miss Ambient in possession, as she had been the
"I was right about Dolcino," she said, as soon as she saw me, with an
air of triumph that struck me as the climax of perversity. "He's
really very ill."
"Very ill! Why when I last saw him, at four o'clock, he was in
fairly good form."
"There has been a change for the worse, very sudden and rapid, and
when the Doctor got here he found diphtheritic symptoms. He ought to
have been called, as I knew, in the morning, and the child oughtn't
to have been brought into the garden."
"My dear lady, he was very happy there," I protested with horror.
"He would be very happy anywhere. I've no doubt he's very happy now,
with his poor little temperature--!" She dropped her voice as her
brother came in, and Mark let us know that as a matter of course Mrs.
Ambient wouldn't appear. It was true the boy had developed
diphtheritic symptoms, but he was quiet for the present and his
mother earnestly watching him. She was a perfect nurse, Mark said,
and Mackintosh would come back at ten. Our dinner wasn't very gay--
with my host worried and absent; and his sister annoyed me by her
constant tacit assumption, conveyed in the very way she nibbled her
bread and sipped her wine, of having "told me so." I had had no
disposition to deny anything she might have told me, and I couldn't
see that her satisfaction in being justified by the event relieved
her little nephew's condition. The truth is that, as the sequel was
to prove, Miss Ambient had some of the qualities of the sibyl and had
therefore perhaps a right to the sibylline contortions. Her brother
was so preoccupied that I felt my presence an indiscretion and was
sorry I had promised to remain over the morrow. I put it to Mark
that clearly I had best leave them in the morning; to which he
replied that, on the contrary, if he was to pass the next days in the
fidgets my company would distract his attention. The fidgets had
already begun for him, poor fellow; and as we sat in his study with
our cigars after dinner he wandered to the door whenever he heard the
sound of the Doctor's wheels. Miss Ambient, who shared this
apartment with us, gave me at such moments significant glances; she
had before rejoining us gone upstairs to ask about the child. His
mother and his nurse gave a fair report, but Miss Ambient found his
fever high and his symptoms very grave. The Doctor came at ten
o'clock, and I went to bed after hearing from Mark that he saw no
present cause for alarm. He had made every provision for the night
and was to return early in the morning.
I quitted my room as eight struck the next day and when I came
downstairs saw, through the open door of the house, Mrs. Ambient
standing at the front gate of the grounds in colloquy with
Mackintosh. She wore a white dressing-gown, but her shining hair was
carefully tucked away in its net, and in the morning freshness, after
a night of watching, she looked as much "the type of the lady" as her
sister-in-law had described her. Her appearance, I suppose, ought to
have reassured me; but I was still nervous and uneasy, so that I
shrank from meeting her with the necessary challenge. None the less,
however, was I impatient to learn how the new day found him; and as
Mrs. Ambient hadn't seen me I passed into the grounds by a roundabout
way and, stopping at a further gate, hailed the Doctor just as he was
driving off. Mrs. Ambient had returned to the house before he got
into his cart.
"Pardon me, but as a friend of the family I should like very much to
hear about the little boy."
The stout sharp circumspect man looked at me from head to foot and
then said: "I'm sorry to say I haven't seen him."
"Haven't seen him?"
"Mrs. Ambient came down to meet me as I alighted, and told me he was
sleeping so soundly, after a restless night, that she didn't wish him
disturbed. I assured her I wouldn't disturb him, but she said he was
quite safe now and she could look after him herself."
"Thank you very much. Are you coming back?"
"No, sir; I'll be hanged if I come back!" cried the honest
practitioner in high resentment. And the horse started as he settled
beside his man.
I wandered back into the garden, and five minutes later Miss Ambient
came forth from the house to greet me. She explained that breakfast
wouldn't be served for some time and that she desired a moment
herself with the Doctor. I let her know that the good vexed man had
come and departed, and I repeated to her what he had told me about
his dismissal. This made Miss Ambient very serious, very serious
indeed, and she sank into a bench, with dilated eyes, hugging her
elbows with crossed arms. She indulged in many strange signs, she
confessed herself immensely distressed, and she finally told me what
her own last news of her nephew had been. She had sat up very late--
after me, after Mark--and before going to bed had knocked at the door
of the child's room, opened to her by the nurse. This good woman had
admitted her and she had found him quiet, but flushed and
"unnatural," with his mother sitting by his bed. "She held his hand
in one of hers," said Miss Ambient, "and in the other--what do you
think?--the proof-sheets of Mark's new book!" She was reading them
there intently: "did you ever hear of anything so extraordinary?
Such a very odd time to be reading an author whom she never could
abide!" In her agitation Miss Ambient was guilty of this vulgarism
of speech, and I was so impressed by her narrative that only in
recalling her words later did I notice the lapse. Mrs. Ambient had
looked up from her reading with her finger on her lips--I recognised
the gesture she had addressed me in the afternoon--and, though the
nurse was about to go to rest, had not encouraged her sister-in-law
to relieve her of any part of her vigil. But certainly at that time
the boy's state was far from reassuring--his poor little breathing so
painful; and what change could have taken place in him in those few
hours that would justify Beatrice in denying Mackintosh access? This
was the moral of Miss Ambient's anecdote, the moral for herself at
least. The moral for me, rather, was that it WAS a very singular
time for Mrs. Ambient to be going into a novelist she had never
appreciated and who had simply happened to be recommended to her by a
young American she disliked. I thought of her sitting there in the
sick-chamber in the still hours of the night and after the nurse had
left her, turning and turning those pages of genius and wrestling
with their magical influence.
I must be sparing of the minor facts and the later emotions of this
sojourn--it lasted but a few hours longer--and devote but three words
to my subsequent relations with Ambient. They lasted five years--
till his death--and were full of interest, of satisfaction and, I may
add, of sadness. The main thing to be said of these years is that I
had a secret from him which I guarded to the end. I believe he never
suspected it, though of this I'm not absolutely sure. If he had so
much as an inkling the line he had taken, the line of absolute
negation of the matter to himself, shows an immense effort of the
will. I may at last lay bare my secret, giving it for what it is
worth; now that the main sufferer has gone, that he has begun to be
alluded to as one of the famous early dead and that his wife has
ceased to survive him; now, too, that Miss Ambient, whom I also saw
at intervals during the time that followed, has, with her
embroideries and her attitudes, her necromantic glances and strange
intuitions, retired to a Sisterhood, where, as I am told, she is
deeply immured and quite lost to the world.
Mark came in to breakfast after this lady and I had for some time
been seated there. He shook hands with me in silence, kissed my
companion, opened his letters and newspapers and pretended to drink
his coffee. But I took these movements for mechanical and was little
surprised when he suddenly pushed away everything that was before him
and, with his head in his hands and his elbows on the table, sat
staring strangely at the cloth.
"What's the matter, caro fratello mio?" Miss Ambient quavered,
peeping from behind the urn.
He answered nothing, but got up with a certain violence and strode to
the window. We rose to our feet, his relative and I, by a common
impulse, exchanging a glance of some alarm; and he continued to stare
into the garden. "In heaven's name what has got possession of
Beatrice?" he cried at last, turning round on us a ravaged face. He
looked from one of us to the other--the appeal was addressed to us
Miss Ambient gave a shrug. "My poor Mark, Beatrice is always--
"She has locked herself up with the boy--bolted and barred the door.
She refuses to let me come near him!" he went on.
"She refused to let Mackintosh see him an hour ago!" Miss Ambient
"Refused to let Mackintosh see him? By heaven I'll smash in the
door!" And Mark brought his fist down upon the sideboard, which he
had now approached, so that all the breakfast-service rang.
I begged Miss Ambient to go up and try to have speech of her sister-
in-law, and I drew Mark out into the garden. "You're exceedingly
nervous, and Mrs. Ambient's probably right," I there undertook to
plead. "Women know; women should be supreme in such a situation.
Trust a mother--a devoted mother, my dear friend!" With such words
as these I tried to soothe and comfort him, and, marvellous to
relate, I succeeded, with the help of many cigarettes, in making him
walk about the garden and talk, or suffer me at least to do so, for
near an hour. When about that time had elapsed his sister
reappeared, reaching us rapidly and with a convulsed face while she
held her hand to her heart.
"Go for the Doctor, Mark--go for the Doctor this moment!"
"Is he dying? Has she killed him?" my poor friend cried, flinging
away his cigarette.
"I don't know what she has done! But she's frightened, and now she
wants the Doctor."
"He told me he'd be hanged if he came back!" I felt myself obliged
"Precisely--therefore Mark himself must go for him, and not a
messenger. You must see him and tell him it's to save your child.
The trap has been ordered--it's ready."
"To save him? I'll save him, please God!" Ambient cried, bounding
with his great strides across the lawn.
As soon as he had gone I felt I ought to have volunteered in his
place, and I said as much to Miss Ambient; but she checked me by
grasping my arm while we heard the wheels of the dog-cart rattle away
from the gate. "He's off--he's off--and now I can think! To get him
away--while I think--while I think!"
"While you think of what, Miss Ambient?"
"Of the unspeakable thing that has happened under this roof!"
Her manner was habitually that of such a prophetess of ill that I at
first allowed for some great extravagance. But I looked at her hard,
and the next thing felt myself turn white. "Dolcino IS dying then--
"It's too late to save him. His mother has let him die! I tell you
that because you're sympathetic, because you've imagination," Miss
Ambient was good enough to add, interrupting my expression of horror.
"That's why you had the idea of making her read Mark's new book!"
"What has that to do with it? I don't understand you. Your
"I see it all--I'm not stupid," she went on, heedless of my emphasis.
"It was the book that finished her--it was that decided her!"
"Decided her? Do you mean she has murdered her child?" I demanded,
trembling at my own words.
"She sacrificed him; she determined to do nothing to make him live.
Why else did she lock herself in, why else did she turn away the
Doctor? The book gave her a horror; she determined to rescue him--to
prevent him from ever being touched. He had a crisis at two o'clock
in the morning. I know that from the nurse, who had left her then,
but whom, for a short time, she called back. The darling got munch
worse, but she insisted on the nurse's going back to bed, and after
that she was alone with him for hours."
I listened with a dread that stayed my credence, while she stood
there with her tearless glare. "Do you pretend then she has no pity,
that she's cruel and insane?"
"She held him in her arms, she pressed him to her breast, not to see
him; but she gave him no remedies; she did nothing the Doctor
ordered. Everything's there untouched. She has had the honesty not
even to throw the drugs away!"
I dropped upon the nearest bench, overcome with my dismay--quite as
much at Miss Ambient's horrible insistence and distinctness as at the
monstrous meaning of her words. Yet they came amazingly straight,
and if they did have a sense I saw myself too woefully figure in it.
Had I been then a proximate cause-- ? "You're a very strange woman
and you say incredible things," I could only reply.
She had one of her tragic headshakes. "You think it necessary to
protest, but you're really quite ready to believe me. You've
received an impression of my sister-in-law--you've guessed of what
I don't feel bound to say what concession on this score I made to
Miss Ambient, who went on to relate to me that within the last half-
hour Beatrice had had a revulsion, that she was tremendously
frightened at what she had done; that her fright itself betrayed her;
and that she would now give heaven and earth to save the child. "Let
us hope she will!" I said, looking at my watch and trying to time
poor Ambient; whereupon my companion repeated all portentously
"Let us hope so!" When I asked her if she herself could do nothing,
and whether she oughtn't to be with her sister-in-law, she replied:
"You had better go and judge! She's like a wounded tigress!"
I never saw Mrs. Ambient till six months after this, and therefore
can't pretend to have verified the comparison. At the latter period
she was again the type of the perfect lady. "She'll treat him better
after this," I remember her sister-in-law's saying in response to
some quick outburst, on my part, of compassion for her brother.
Though I had been in the house but thirty-six hours this young lady
had treated me with extraordinary confidence, and there was therefore
a certain demand I might, as such an intimate, make of her. I
extracted from her a pledge that she'd never say to her brother what
she had just said to me, that she'd let him form his own theory of
his wife's conduct. She agreed with me that there was misery enough
in the house without her contributing a new anguish, and that Mrs.
Ambient's proceedings might be explained, to her husband's mind, by
the extravagance of a jealous devotion. Poor Mark came back with the
Doctor much sooner than we could have hoped, but we knew five minutes
afterwards that it was all too late. His sole, his adored little son
was more exquisitely beautiful in death than he had been in life.
Mrs. Ambient's grief was frantic; she lost her head and said strange
things. As for Mark's--but I won't speak of that. Basta, basta, as
he used to say. Miss Ambient kept her secret--I've already had
occasion to say that she had her good points--but it rankled in her
conscience like a guilty participation and, I imagine, had something
to do with her ultimately retiring from the world. And, apropos of
consciences, the reader is now in a position to judge of my
compunction for my effort to convert my cold hostess. I ought to
mention that the death of her child in some degree converted her.
When the new book came out (it was long delayed) she read it over as
a whole, and her husband told me that during the few supreme weeks
before her death--she failed rapidly after losing her son, sank into
a consumption and faded away at Mentone--she even dipped into the
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