The Figure in the Carpet
Transcribed from the 1916 Martin Secker edition by David Price,
THE FIGURE IN THE CARPET
I had done a few things and earned a few pence--I had perhaps even
had time to begin to think I was finer than was perceived by the
patronising; but when I take the little measure of my course (a
fidgety habit, for it's none of the longest yet) I count my real
start from the evening George Corvick, breathless and worried, came
in to ask me a service. He had done more things than I, and earned
more pence, though there were chances for cleverness I thought he
sometimes missed. I could only however that evening declare to him
that he never missed one for kindness. There was almost rapture in
hearing it proposed to me to prepare for The Middle, the organ of
our lucubrations, so called from the position in the week of its
day of appearance, an article for which he had made himself
responsible and of which, tied up with a stout string, he laid on
my table the subject. I pounced upon my opportunity--that is on
the first volume of it--and paid scant attention to my friend's
explanation of his appeal. What explanation could be more to the
point than my obvious fitness for the task? I had written on Hugh
Vereker, but never a word in The Middle, where my dealings were
mainly with the ladies and the minor poets. This was his new
novel, an advance copy, and whatever much or little it should do
for his reputation I was clear on the spot as to what it should do
for mine. Moreover if I always read him as soon as I could get
hold of him I had a particular reason for wishing to read him now:
I had accepted an invitation to Bridges for the following Sunday,
and it had been mentioned in Lady Jane's note that Mr. Vereker was
to be there. I was young enough for a flutter at meeting a man of
his renown, and innocent enough to believe the occasion would
demand the display of an acquaintance with his "last."
Corvick, who had promised a review of it, had not even had time to
read it; he had gone to pieces in consequence of news requiring--as
on precipitate reflexion he judged--that he should catch the night-
mail to Paris. He had had a telegram from Gwendolen Erme in answer
to his letter offering to fly to her aid. I knew already about
Gwendolen Erme; I had never seen her, but I had my ideas, which
were mainly to the effect that Corvick would marry her if her
mother would only die. That lady seemed now in a fair way to
oblige him; after some dreadful mistake about a climate or a "cure"
she had suddenly collapsed on the return from abroad. Her
daughter, unsupported and alarmed, desiring to make a rush for home
but hesitating at the risk, had accepted our friend's assistance,
and it was my secret belief that at sight of him Mrs. Erme would
pull round. His own belief was scarcely to be called secret; it
discernibly at any rate differed from mine. He had showed me
Gwendolen's photograph with the remark that she wasn't pretty but
was awfully interesting; she had published at the age of nineteen a
novel in three volumes, "Deep Down," about which, in The Middle, he
had been really splendid. He appreciated my present eagerness and
undertook that the periodical in question should do no less; then
at the last, with his hand on the door, he said to me: "Of course
you'll be all right, you know." Seeing I was a trifle vague he
added: "I mean you won't be silly."
"Silly--about Vereker! Why what do I ever find him but awfully
"Well, what's that but silly? What on earth does 'awfully clever'
mean? For God's sake try to get AT him. Don't let him suffer by
our arrangement. Speak of him, you know, if you can, as _I_ should
have spoken of him."
I wondered an instant. "You mean as far and away the biggest of
the lot--that sort of thing?"
Corvick almost groaned. "Oh you know, I don't put them back to
back that way; it's the infancy of art! But he gives me a pleasure
so rare; the sense of"--he mused a little--"something or other."
I wondered again. "The sense, pray, of want?"
"My dear man, that's just what I want YOU to say!"
Even before he had banged the door I had begun, book in hand, to
prepare myself to say it. I sat up with Vereker half the night;
Corvick couldn't have done more than that. He was awfully clever--
I stuck to that, but he wasn't a bit the biggest of the lot. I
didn't allude to the lot, however; I flattered myself that I
emerged on this occasion from the infancy of art. "It's all
right," they declared vividly at the office; and when the number
appeared I felt there was a basis on which I could meet the great
man. It gave me confidence for a day or two--then that confidence
dropped. I had fancied him reading it with relish, but if Corvick
wasn't satisfied how could Vereker himself be? I reflected indeed
that the heat of the admirer was sometimes grosser even than the
appetite of the scribe. Corvick at all events wrote me from Paris
a little ill-humouredly. Mrs. Erme was pulling round, and I hadn't
at all said what Vereker gave him the sense of.
The effect of my visit to Bridges was to turn me out for more
profundity. Hugh Vereker, as I saw him there, was of a contact so
void of angles that I blushed for the poverty of imagination
involved in my small precautions. If he was in spirits it wasn't
because he had read my review; in fact on the Sunday morning I felt
sure he hadn't read it, though The Middle had been out three days
and bloomed, I assured myself, in the stiff garden of periodicals
which gave one of the ormolu tables the air of a stand at a
station. The impression he made on me personally was such that I
wished him to read it, and I corrected to this end with a
surreptitious hand what might be wanting in the careless
conspicuity of the sheet. I'm afraid I even watched the result of
my manoeuvre, but up to luncheon I watched in vain.
When afterwards, in the course of our gregarious walk, I found
myself for half an hour, not perhaps without another manoeuvre, at
the great man's side, the result of his affability was a still
livelier desire that he shouldn't remain in ignorance of the
peculiar justice I had done him. It wasn't that he seemed to
thirst for justice; on the contrary I hadn't yet caught in his talk
the faintest grunt of a grudge--a note for which my young
experience had already given me an ear. Of late he had had more
recognition, and it was pleasant, as we used to say in The Middle,
to see how it drew him out. He wasn't of course popular, but I
judged one of the sources of his good humour to be precisely that
his success was independent of that. He had none the less become
in a manner the fashion; the critics at least had put on a spurt
and caught up with him. We had found out at last how clever he
was, and he had had to make the best of the loss of his mystery. I
was strongly tempted, as I walked beside him, to let him know how
much of that unveiling was my act; and there was a moment when I
probably should have done so had not one of the ladies of our
party, snatching a place at his other elbow, just then appealed to
him in a spirit comparatively selfish. It was very discouraging:
I almost felt the liberty had been taken with myself.
I had had on my tongue's end, for my own part, a phrase or two
about the right word at the right time; but later on I was glad not
to have spoken, for when on our return we clustered at tea I
perceived Lady Jane, who had not been out with us, brandishing The
Middle with her longest arm. She had taken it up at her leisure;
she was delighted with what she had found, and I saw that, as a
mistake in a man may often be a felicity in a woman, she would
practically do for me what I hadn't been able to do for myself.
"Some sweet little truths that needed to be spoken," I heard her
declare, thrusting the paper at rather a bewildered couple by the
fireplace. She grabbed it away from them again on the reappearance
of Hugh Vereker, who after our walk had been upstairs to change
something. "I know you don't in general look at this kind of
thing, but it's an occasion really for doing so. You HAVEN'T seen
it? Then you must. The man has actually got AT you, at what _I_
always feel, you know." Lady Jane threw into her eyes a look
evidently intended to give an idea of what she always felt; but she
added that she couldn't have expressed it. The man in the paper
expressed it in a striking manner. "Just see there, and there,
where I've dashed it, how he brings it out." She had literally
marked for him the brightest patches of my prose, and if I was a
little amused Vereker himself may well have been. He showed how
much he was when before us all Lady Jane wanted to read something
aloud. I liked at any rate the way he defeated her purpose by
jerking the paper affectionately out of her clutch. He'd take it
upstairs with him and look at it on going to dress. He did this
half an hour later--I saw it in his hand when he repaired to his
room. That was the moment at which, thinking to give her pleasure,
I mentioned to Lady Jane that I was the author of the review. I
did give her pleasure, I judged, but perhaps not quite so much as I
had expected. If the author was "only me" the thing didn't seem
quite so remarkable. Hadn't I had the effect rather of diminishing
the lustre of the article than of adding to my own? Her ladyship
was subject to the most extraordinary drops. It didn't matter; the
only effect I cared about was the one it would have on Vereker up
there by his bedroom fire.
At dinner I watched for the signs of this impression, tried to
fancy some happier light in his eyes; but to my disappointment Lady
Jane gave me no chance to make sure. I had hoped she'd call
triumphantly down the table, publicly demand if she hadn't been
right. The party was large--there were people from outside as
well, but I had never seen a table long enough to deprive Lady Jane
of a triumph. I was just reflecting in truth that this
interminable board would deprive ME of one when the guest next me,
dear woman--she was Miss Poyle, the vicar's sister, a robust
unmodulated person--had the happy inspiration and the unusual
courage to address herself across it to Vereker, who was opposite,
but not directly, so that when he replied they were both leaning
forward. She enquired, artless body, what he thought of Lady
Jane's "panegyric," which she had read--not connecting it however
with her right-hand neighbour; and while I strained my ear for his
reply I heard him, to my stupefaction, call back gaily, his mouth
full of bread: "Oh, it's all right--the usual twaddle!"
I had caught Vereker's glance as he spoke, but Miss Poyle's
surprise was a fortunate cover for my own. "You mean he doesn't do
you justice?" said the excellent woman.
Vereker laughed out, and I was happy to be able to do the same.
"It's a charming article," he tossed us.
Miss Poyle thrust her chin half across the cloth. "Oh, you're so
deep!" she drove home.
"As deep as the ocean! All I pretend is that the author doesn't
see--" But a dish was at this point passed over his shoulder, and
we had to wait while he helped himself.
"Doesn't see what?" my neighbour continued.
"Doesn't see anything."
"Dear me--how very stupid!"
"Not a bit," Vereker laughed main. "Nobody does."
The lady on his further side appealed to him, and Miss Poyle sank
back to myself. "Nobody sees anything!" she cheerfully announced;
to which I replied that I had often thought so too, but had somehow
taken the thought for a proof on my own part of a tremendous eye.
I didn't tell her the article was mine; and I observed that Lady
Jane, occupied at the end of the table, had not caught Vereker's
I rather avoided him after dinner, for I confess he struck me as
cruelly conceited, and the revelation was a pain. "The usual
twaddle"--my acute little study! That one's admiration should have
had a reserve or two could gall him to that point! I had thought
him placid, and he was placid enough; such a surface was the hard
polished glass that encased the bauble of his vanity. I was really
ruffled, and the only comfort was that if nobody saw anything
George Corvick was quite as much out of it as I. This comfort
however was not sufficient, after the ladies had dispersed, to
carry me in the proper manner--I mean in a spotted jacket and
humming an air--into the smoking-room. I took my way in some
dejection to bed; but in the passage I encountered Mr. Vereker, who
had been up once more to change, coming out of his room. HE was
humming an air and had on a spotted jacket, and as soon as he saw
me his gaiety gave a start.
"My dear young man," he exclaimed, "I'm so glad to lay hands on
you! I'm afraid I most unwittingly wounded you by those words of
mine at dinner to Miss Poyle. I learned but half an hour ago from
Lady Jane that you're the author of the little notice in The
I protested that no bones were broken; but he moved with me to my
own door, his hand, on my shoulder, kindly feeling for a fracture;
and on hearing that I had come up to bed he asked leave to cross my
threshold and just tell me in three words what his qualification of
my remarks had represented. It was plain he really feared I was
hurt, and the sense of his solicitude suddenly made all the
difference to me. My cheap review fluttered off into space, and
the best things I had said in it became flat enough beside the
brilliancy of his being there. I can see him there still, on my
rug, in the firelight and his spotted jacket, his fine clear face
all bright with the desire to be tender to my youth. I don't know
what he had at first meant to say, but I think the sight of my
relief touched him, excited him, brought up words to his lips from
far within. It was so these words presently conveyed to me
something that, as I afterwards knew, he had never uttered to any
one. I've always done justice to the generous impulse that made
him speak; it was simply compunction for a snub unconsciously
administered to a man of letters in a position inferior to his own,
a man of letters moreover in the very act of praising him. To make
the thing right he talked to me exactly as an equal and on the
ground of what we both loved best. The hour, the place, the
unexpectedness deepened the impression: he couldn't have done
anything more intensely effective.
"I don't quite know how to explain it to you," he said, "but it was
the very fact that your notice of my book had a spice of
intelligence, it was just your exceptional sharpness, that produced
the feeling--a very old story with me, I beg you to believe--under
the momentary influence of which I used in speaking to that good
lady the words you so naturally resent. I don't read the things in
the newspapers unless they're thrust upon me as that one was--it's
always one's best friend who does it! But I used to read them
sometimes--ten years ago. I dare say they were in general rather
stupider then; at any rate it always struck me they missed my
little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they
patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins.
Whenever since I've happened to have a glimpse of them they were
still blazing away--still missing it, I mean, deliciously. YOU
miss it, my dear fellow, with inimitable assurance; the fact of
your being awfully clever and your article's being awfully nice
doesn't make a hair's breadth of difference. It's quite with you
rising young men," Vereker laughed, "that I feel most what a
failure I am!"
I listened with keen interest; it grew keener as he talked. "YOU a
failure--heavens! What then may your 'little point' happen to be?"
"Have I got to TELL you, after all these years and labours?" There
was something in the friendly reproach of this--jocosely
exaggerated--that made me, as an ardent young seeker for truth,
blush to the roots of my hair. I'm as much in the dark as ever,
though I've grown used in a sense to my obtuseness; at that moment,
however, Vereker's happy accent made me appear to myself, and
probably to him, a rare dunce. I was on the point of exclaiming
"Ah yes, don't tell me: for my honour, for that of the craft,
don't!" when he went on in a manner that showed he had read my
thought and had his own idea of the probability of our some day
redeeming ourselves. "By my little point I mean--what shall I call
it?--the particular thing I've written my books most FOR. Isn't
there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing
that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to
achieve which he wouldn't write at all, the very passion of his
passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of
art burns most intensely? Well, it's THAT!"
I considered a moment--that is I followed at a respectful distance,
rather gasping. I was fascinated--easily, you'll say; but I wasn't
going after all to be put off my guard. "Your description's
certainly beautiful, but it doesn't make what you describe very
"I promise you it would be distinct if it should dawn on you at
all." I saw that the charm of our topic overflowed for my
companion into an emotion as lively as my own. "At any rate," he
went on, "I can speak for myself: there's an idea in my work
without which I wouldn't have given a straw for the whole job.
It's the finest fullest intention of the lot, and the application
of it has been, I think, a triumph of patience, of ingenuity. I
ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does
say it is precisely what we're talking about. It stretches, this
little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else,
comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form,
the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the
initiated a complete representation of it. So it's naturally the
thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me," my visitor
added, smiling, "even as the thing for the critic to find."
This seemed a responsibility indeed. "You call it a little trick?"
"That's only my little modesty. It's really an exquisite scheme."
"And you hold that you've carried the scheme out?"
"The way I've carried it out is the thing in life I think a bit
well of myself for."
I had a pause. "Don't you think you ought--just a trifle--to
assist the critic?"
"Assist him? What else have I done with every stroke of my pen?
I've shouted my intention in his great blank face!" At this,
laughing out again, Vereker laid his hand on my shoulder to show
the allusion wasn't to my personal appearance.
"But you talk about the initiated. There must therefore, you see,
"What else in heaven's name is criticism supposed to be?" I'm
afraid I coloured at this too; but I took refuge in repeating that
his account of his silver lining was poor in something or other
that a plain man knows things by. "That's only because you've
never had a glimpse of it," he returned. "If you had had one the
element in question would soon have become practically all you'd
see. To me it's exactly as palpable as the marble of this chimney.
Besides, the critic just ISN'T a plain man: if he were, pray, what
would he be doing in his neighbour's garden? You're anything but a
plain man yourself, and the very raison d'etre of you all is that
you're little demons of subtlety. If my great affair's a secret,
that's only because it's a secret in spite of itself--the amazing
event has made it one. I not only never took the smallest
precaution to keep it so, but never dreamed of any such accident.
If I had I shouldn't in advance have had the heart to go on. As it
was, I only became aware little by little, and meanwhile I had done
"And now you quite like it?" I risked.
"Your secret. It's the same thing."
"Your guessing that," Vereker replied, "is a proof that you're as
clever as I say!" I was encouraged by this to remark that he would
clearly be pained to part with it, and he confessed that it was
indeed with him now the great amusement of life. "I live almost to
see if it will ever be detected." He looked at me for a jesting
challenge; something far within his eyes seemed to peep out. "But
I needn't worry--it won't!"
"You fire me as I've never been fired," I declared; "you make me
determined to do or die." Then I asked: "Is it a kind of esoteric
His countenance fell at this--he put out his hand as if to bid me
good-night. "Ah my dear fellow, it can't be described in cheap
I knew of course he'd be awfully fastidious, but our talk had made
me feel how much his nerves were exposed. I was unsatisfied--I
kept hold of his hand. "I won't make use of the expression then,"
I said, "in the article in which I shall eventually announce my
discovery, though I dare say I shall have hard work to do without
it. But meanwhile, just to hasten that difficult birth, can't you
give a fellow a clue?" I felt much more at my ease.
"My whole lucid effort gives him the clue--every page and line and
letter. The thing's as concrete there as a bird in a cage, a bait
on a hook, a piece of cheese in a mouse-trap. It's stuck into
every volume as your foot is stuck into your shoe. It governs
every line, it chooses every word, it dots every i, it places every
I scratched my head. "Is it something in the style or something in
the thought? An element of form or an element of feeling?"
He indulgently shook my hand again, and I felt my questions to be
crude and my distinctions pitiful. "Good-night, my dear boy--don't
bother about it. After all, you do like a fellow."
"And a little intelligence might spoil it?" I still detained him.
He hesitated. "Well, you've got a heart in your body. Is that an
element of form or an element of feeling? What I contend that
nobody has ever mentioned in my work is the organ of life."
"I see--it's some idea ABOUT life, some sort of philosophy. Unless
it be," I added with the eagerness of a thought perhaps still
happier, "some kind of game you're up to with your style, something
you're after in the language. Perhaps it's a preference for the
letter P!" I ventured profanely to break out. "Papa, potatoes,
prunes--that sort of thing?" He was suitably indulgent: he only
said I hadn't got the right letter. But his amusement was over; I
could see he was bored. There was nevertheless something else I
had absolutely to learn. "Should you be able, pen in hand, to
state it clearly yourself--to name it, phrase it, formulate it?"
"Oh," he almost passionately sighed, "if I were only, pen in hand,
one of YOU chaps!"
"That would be a great chance for you of course. But why should
you despise us chaps for not doing what you can't do yourself?"
"Can't do?" He opened his eyes. "Haven't I done it in twenty
volumes? I do it in my way," he continued. "Go YOU and don't do
it in yours."
"Ours is so devilish difficult," I weakly observed.
"So's mine. We each choose our own. There's no compulsion. You
won't come down and smoke?"
"No. I want to think this thing out."
"You'll tell me then in the morning that you've laid me bare?"
"I'll see what I can do; I'll sleep on it. But just one word
more," I added. We had left the room--I walked again with him a
few steps along the passage. "This extraordinary 'general
intention,' as you call it--for that's the most vivid description I
can induce you to make of it--is then, generally, a sort of buried
His face lighted. "Yes, call it that, though it's perhaps not for
me to do so."
"Nonsense!" I laughed. "You know you're hugely proud of it."
"Well, I didn't propose to tell you so; but it IS the joy of my
"You mean it's a beauty so rare, so great?"
He waited a little again. "The loveliest thing in the world!" We
had stopped, and on these words he left me; but at the end of the
corridor, while I looked after him rather yearningly, he turned and
caught sight of my puzzled face. It made him earnestly, indeed I
thought quite anxiously, shake his head and wave his finger "Give
it up--give it up!"
This wasn't a challenge--it was fatherly advice. If I had had one
of his books at hand I'd have repeated my recent act of faith--I'd
have spent half the night with him. At three o'clock in the
morning, not sleeping, remembering moreover how indispensable he
was to Lady Jane, I stole down to the library with a candle. There
wasn't, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the
Returning to town I feverishly collected them all; I picked out
each in its order and held it up to the light. This gave me a
maddening month, in the course of which several things took place.
One of these, the last, I may as well immediately mention, was that
I acted on Vereker's advice: I renounced my ridiculous attempt. I
could really make nothing of the business; it proved a dead loss.
After all I had always, as he had himself noted, liked him; and
what now occurred was simply that my new intelligence and vain
preoccupation damaged my liking. I not only failed to run a
general intention to earth, I found myself missing the subordinate
intentions I had formerly enjoyed. His books didn't even remain
the charming things they had been for me; the exasperation of my
search put me out of conceit of them. Instead of being a pleasure
the more they became a resource the less; for from the moment I was
unable to follow up the author's hint I of course felt it a point
of honour not to make use professionally of my knowledge of them.
I HAD no knowledge--nobody had any. It was humiliating, but I
could bear it--they only annoyed me now. At last they even bored
me, and I accounted for my confusion--perversely, I allow--by the
idea that Vereker had made a fool of me. The buried treasure was a
bad joke, the general intention a monstrous pose.
The great point of it all is, however, that I told George Corvick
what had befallen me and that my information had an immense effect
upon him. He had at last come back, but so, unfortunately, had
Mrs. Erme, and there was as yet, I could see, no question of his
nuptials. He was immensely stirred up by the anecdote I had
brought from Bridges; it fell in so completely with the sense he
had had from the first that there was more in Vereker than met the
eye. When I remarked that the eye seemed what the printed page had
been expressly invented to meet he immediately accused me of being
spiteful because I had been foiled. Our commerce had always that
pleasant latitude. The thing Vereker had mentioned to me was
exactly the thing he, Corvick, had wanted me to speak of in my
review. On my suggesting at last that with the assistance I had
now given him he would doubtless be prepared to speak of it himself
he admitted freely that before doing this there was more he must
understand. What he would have said, had he reviewed the new book,
was that there was evidently in the writer's inmost art something
to BE understood. I hadn't so much as hinted at that: no wonder
the writer hadn't been flattered! I asked Corvick what he really
considered he meant by his own supersubtlety, and, unmistakeably
kindled, he replied: "It isn't for the vulgar--it isn't for the
vulgar!" He had hold of the tail of something; he would pull hard,
pull it right out. He pumped me dry on Vereker's strange
confidence and, pronouncing me the luckiest of mortals, mentioned
half a dozen questions he wished to goodness I had had the gumption
to put. Yet on the other hand he didn't want to be told too much--
it would spoil the fun of seeing what would come. The failure of
MY fun was at the moment of our meeting not complete, but I saw it
ahead, and Corvick saw that I saw it. I, on my side, saw likewise
that one of the first things he would do would be to rush off with
my story to Gwendolen.
On the very day after my talk with him I was surprised by the
receipt of a note from Hugh Vereker, to whom our encounter at
Bridges had been recalled, as he mentioned, by his falling, in a
magazine, on some article to which my signature was attached. "I
read it with great pleasure," he wrote, "and remembered under its
influence our lively conversation by your bedroom fire. The
consequence of this has been that I begin to measure the temerity
of my having saddled you with a knowledge that you may find
something of a burden. Now that the fit's over I can't imagine how
I came to be moved so much beyond my wont. I had never before
mentioned, no matter in what state of expansion, the fact of my
little secret, and I shall never speak of that mystery again. I
was accidentally so much more explicit with you than it had ever
entered into my game to be, that I find this game--I mean the
pleasure of playing it--suffers considerably. In short, if you can
understand it, I've rather spoiled my sport. I really don't want
to give anybody what I believe you clever young men call the tip.
That's of course a selfish solicitude, and I name it to you for
what it may be worth to you. If you're disposed to humour me don't
repeat my revelation. Think me demented--it's your right; but
don't tell anybody why."
The sequel to this communication was that as early on the morrow as
I dared I drove straight to Mr. Vereker's door. He occupied in
those years one of the honest old houses in Kensington Square. He
received me immediately, and as soon as I came in I saw I hadn't
lost my power to minister to his mirth. He laughed out at sight of
my face, which doubtless expressed my perturbation. I had been
indiscreet--my compunction was great. "I HAVE told somebody," I
panted, "and I'm sure that person will by this time have told
somebody else! It's a woman, into the bargain."
"The person you've told?"
"No, the other person. I'm quite sure he must have told her."
"For all the good it will do her--or do ME! A woman will never
"No, but she'll talk all over the place: she'll do just what you
Vereker thought a moment, but wasn't so disconcerted as I had
feared: he felt that if the harm was done it only served him
right. "It doesn't matter--don't worry."
"I'll do my best, I promise you, that your talk with me shall go no
"Very good; do what you can."
"In the meantime," I pursued, "George Corvick's possession of the
tip may, on his part, really lead to something."
"That will be a brave day."
I told him about Corvick's cleverness, his admiration, the
intensity of his interest in my anecdote; and without making too
much of the divergence of our respective estimates mentioned that
my friend was already of opinion that he saw much further into a
certain affair than most people. He was quite as fired as I had
been at Bridges. He was moreover in love with the young lady:
perhaps the two together would puzzle something out.
Vereker seemed struck with this. "Do you mean they're to be
"I dare say that's what it will come to."
"That may help them," he conceded, "but we must give them time!"
I spoke of my own renewed assault and confessed my difficulties;
whereupon he repeated his former advice: "Give it up, give it up!"
He evidently didn't think me intellectually equipped for the
adventure. I stayed half an hour, and he was most good-natured,
but I couldn't help pronouncing him a man of unstable moods. He
had been free with me in a mood, he had repented in a mood, and now
in a mood he had turned indifferent. This general levity helped me
to believe that, so far as the subject of the tip went, there
wasn't much in it. I contrived however to make him answer a few
more questions about it, though he did so with visible impatience.
For himself, beyond doubt, the thing we were all so blank about was
vividly there. It was something, I guessed, in the primal plan,
something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet. He highly
approved of this image when I used it, and he used another himself.
"It's the very string," he said, "that my pearls are strung on!"
The reason of his note to me had been that he really didn't want to
give us a grain of succour--our density was a thing too perfect in
its way to touch. He had formed the habit of depending on it, and
if the spell was to break it must break by some force of its own.
He comes back to me from that last occasion--for I was never to
speak to him again--as a man with some safe preserve for sport. I
wondered as I walked away where he had got HIS tip.
When I spoke to George Corvick of the caution I had received he
made me feel that any doubt of his delicacy would be almost an
insult. He had instantly told Gwendolen, but Gwendolen's ardent
response was in itself a pledge of discretion. The question would
now absorb them and would offer them a pastime too precious to be
shared with the crowd. They appeared to have caught instinctively
at Vereker's high idea of enjoyment. Their intellectual pride,
however, was not such as to make them indifferent to any further
light I might throw on the affair they had in hand. They were
indeed of the "artistic temperament," and I was freshly struck with
my colleague's power to excite himself over a question of art.
He'd call it letters, he'd call it life, but it was all one thing.
In what he said I now seemed to understand that he spoke equally
for Gwendolen, to whom, as soon as Mrs. Erme was sufficiently
better to allow her a little leisure, he made a point of
introducing me. I remember our going together one Sunday in August
to a huddled house in Chelsea, and my renewed envy of Corvick's
possession of a friend who had some light to mingle with his own.
He could say things to her that I could never say to him. She had
indeed no sense of humour and, with her pretty way of holding her
head on one side, was one of those persons whom you want, as the
phrase is, to shake, but who have learnt Hungarian by themselves.
She conversed perhaps in Hungarian with Corvick; she had remarkably
little English for his friend. Corvick afterwards told me that I
had chilled her by my apparent indisposition to oblige them with
the detail of what Vereker had said to me. I allowed that I felt I
had given thought enough to that indication: hadn't I even made up
my mind that it was vain and would lead nowhere? The importance
they attached to it was irritating and quite envenomed my doubts.
That statement looks unamiable, and what probably happened was that
I felt humiliated at seeing other persons deeply beguiled by an
experiment that had brought me only chagrin. I was out in the cold
while, by the evening fire, under the lamp, they followed the chase
for which I myself had sounded the horn. They did as I had done,
only more deliberately and sociably--they went over their author
from the beginning. There was no hurry, Corvick said the future
was before them and the fascination could only grow; they would
take him page by page, as they would take one of the classics,
inhale him in slow draughts and let him sink all the way in. They
would scarce have got so wound up, I think, if they hadn't been in
love: poor Vereker's inner meaning gave them endless occasion to
put and to keep their young heads together. None the less it
represented the kind of problem for which Corvick had a special
aptitude, drew out the particular pointed patience of which, had he
lived, he would have given more striking and, it is to be hoped,
more fruitful examples. He at least was, in Vereker's words, a
little demon of subtlety. We had begun by disputing, but I soon
saw that without my stirring a finger his infatuation would have
its bad hours. He would bound off on false scents as I had done--
he would clap his hands over new lights and see them blown out by
the wind of the turned page. He was like nothing, I told him, but
the maniacs who embrace some bedlamitical theory of the cryptic
character of Shakespeare. To this he replied that if we had had
Shakespeare's own word for his being cryptic he would at once have
accepted it. The case there was altogether different--we had
nothing but the word of Mr. Snooks. I returned that I was
stupefied to see him attach such importance even to the word of Mr.
Vereker. He wanted thereupon to know if I treated Mr. Vereker's
word as a lie. I wasn't perhaps prepared, in my unhappy rebound,
to go so far as that, but I insisted that till the contrary was
proved I should view it as too fond an imagination. I didn't, I
confess, say--I didn't at that time quite know--all I felt. Deep
down, as Miss Erme would have said, I was uneasy, I was expectant.
At the core of my disconcerted state--for my wonted curiosity lived
in its ashes--was the sharpness of a sense that Corvick would at
last probably come out somewhere. He made, in defence of his
credulity, a great point of the fact that from of old, in his study
of this genius, he had caught whiffs and hints of he didn't know
what, faint wandering notes of a hidden music. That was just the
rarity, that was the charm: it fitted so perfectly into what I
If I returned on several occasions to the little house in Chelsea I
dare say it was as much for news of Vereker as for news of Miss
Erme's ailing parent. The hours spent there by Corvick were
present to my fancy as those of a chessplayer bent with a silent
scowl, all the lamplit winter, over his board and his moves. As my
imagination filled it out the picture held me fast. On the other
side of the table was a ghostlier form, the faint figure of an
antagonist good-humouredly but a little wearily secure--an
antagonist who leaned back in his chair with his hands in his
pockets and a smile on his fine clear face. Close to Corvick,
behind him, was a girl who had begun to strike me as pale and
wasted and even, on more familiar view, as rather handsome, and who
rested on his shoulder and hung on his moves. He would take up a
chessman and hold it poised a while over one of the little squares,
and then would put it back in its place with a long sigh of
disappointment. The young lady, at this, would slightly but
uneasily shift her position and look across, very hard, very long,
very strangely, at their dim participant. I had asked them at an
early stage of the business if it mightn't contribute to their
success to have some closer communication with him. The special
circumstances would surely be held to have given me a right to
introduce them. Corvick immediately replied that he had no wish to
approach the altar before he had prepared the sacrifice. He quite
agreed with our friend both as to the delight and as to the honour
of the chase--he would bring down the animal with his own rifle.
When I asked him if Miss Erme were as keen a shot he said after
thinking: "No, I'm ashamed to say she wants to set a trap. She'd
give anything to see him; she says she requires another tip. She's
really quite morbid about it. But she must play fair--she SHAN'T
see him!" he emphatically added. I wondered if they hadn't even
quarrelled a little on the subject--a suspicion not corrected by
the way he more than once exclaimed to me: "She's quite incredibly
literary, you know--quite fantastically!" I remember his saying of
her that she felt in italics and thought in capitals. "Oh when
I've run him to earth," he also said, "then, you know, I shall
knock at his door. Rather--I beg you to believe. I'll have it
from his own lips: 'Right you are, my boy; you've done it this
time!' He shall crown me victor--with the critical laurel."
Meanwhile he really avoided the chances London life might have
given him of meeting the distinguished novelist; a danger, however,
that disappeared with Vereker's leaving England for an indefinite
absence, as the newspapers announced--going to the south for
motives connected with the health of his wife, which had long kept
her in retirement. A year--more than a year--had elapsed since the
incident at Bridges, but I had had no further sight of him. I
think I was at bottom rather ashamed--I hated to remind him that,
though I had irremediably missed his point, a reputation for
acuteness was rapidly overtaking me. This scruple led me a dance;
kept me out of Lady Jane's house, made me even decline, when in
spite of my bad manners she was a second time so good as to make me
a sign, an invitation to her beautiful seat. I once became aware
of her under Vereker's escort at a concert, and was sure I was seen
by them, but I slipped out without being caught. I felt, as on
that occasion I splashed along in the rain, that I couldn't have
done anything else; and yet I remember saying to myself that it was
hard, was even cruel. Not only had I lost the books, but I had
lost the man himself: they and their author had been alike spoiled
for me. I knew too which was the loss I most regretted. I had
taken to the man still more than I had ever taken to the books.
Six months after our friend had left England George Corvick, who
made his living by his pen, contracted for a piece of work which
imposed on him an absence of some length and a journey of some
difficulty, and his undertaking of which was much of a surprise to
me. His brother-in-law had become editor of a great provincial
paper, and the great provincial paper, in a fine flight of fancy,
had conceived the idea of sending a "special commissioner" to
India. Special commissioners had begun, in the "metropolitan
press," to be the fashion, and the journal in question must have
felt it had passed too long for a mere country cousin. Corvick had
no hand, I knew, for the big brush of the correspondent, but that
was his brother-in-law's affair, and the fact that a particular
task was not in his line was apt to be with himself exactly a
reason for accepting it. He was prepared to out-Herod the
metropolitan press; he took solemn precautions against
priggishness, he exquisitely outraged taste. Nobody ever knew it--
that offended principle was all his own. In addition to his
expenses he was to be conveniently paid, and I found myself able to
help him, for the usual fat book, to a plausible arrangement with
the usual fat publisher. I naturally inferred that his obvious
desire to make a little money was not unconnected with the prospect
of a union with Gwendolen Erme. I was aware that her mother's
opposition was largely addressed to his want of means and of
lucrative abilities, but it so happened that, on my saying the last
time I saw him something that bore on the question of his
separation from our young lady, he brought out with an emphasis
that startled me: "Ah I'm not a bit engaged to her, you know!"
"Not overtly," I answered, "because her mother doesn't like you.
But I've always taken for granted a private understanding."
"Well, there WAS one. But there isn't now." That was all he said
save something about Mrs. Erme's having got on her feet again in
the most extraordinary way--a remark pointing, as I supposed, the
moral that private understandings were of little use when the
doctor didn't share them. What I took the liberty of more closely
inferring was that the girl might in some way have estranged him.
Well, if he had taken the turn of jealousy for instance it could
scarcely be jealousy of me. In that case--over and above the
absurdity of it--he wouldn't have gone away just to leave us
together. For some time before his going we had indulged in no
allusion to the buried treasure, and from his silence, which my
reserve simply emulated, I had drawn a sharp conclusion. His
courage had dropped, his ardour had gone the way of mine--this
appearance at least he left me to scan. More than that he couldn't
do; he couldn't face the triumph with which I might have greeted an
explicit admission. He needn't have been afraid, poor dear, for I
had by this time lost all need to triumph. In fact I considered I
showed magnanimity in not reproaching him with his collapse, for
the sense of his having thrown up the game made me feel more than
ever how much I at last depended on him. If Corvick had broken
down I should never know; no one would be of any use if HE wasn't.
It wasn't a bit true I had ceased to care for knowledge; little by
little my curiosity not only had begun to ache again, but had
become the familiar torment of my days and my nights. There are
doubtless people to whom torments of such an order appear hardly
more natural than the contortions of disease; but I don't after all
know why I should in this connexion so much as mention them. For
the few persons, at any rate, abnormal or not, with whom my
anecdote is concerned, literature was a game of skill, and skill
meant courage, and courage meant honour, and honour meant passion,
meant life. The stake on the table was of a special substance and
our roulette the revolving mind, but we sat round the green board
as intently as the grim gamblers at Monte Carlo. Gwendolen Erme,
for that matter, with her white face and her fixed eyes, was of the
very type of the lean ladies one had met in the temples of chance.
I recognised in Corvick's absence that she made this analogy vivid.
It was extravagant, I admit, the way she lived for the art of the
pen. Her passion visibly preyed on her, and in her presence I felt
almost tepid. I got hold of "Deep Down" again: it was a desert in
which she had lost herself, but in which too she had dug a
wonderful hole in the sand--a cavity out of which Corvick had still
more remarkably pulled her.
Early in March I had a telegram from her, in consequence of which I
repaired immediately to Chelsea, where the first thing she said to
me was: "He has got it, he has got it!"
She was moved, as I could see, to such depths that she must mean
the great thing. "Vereker's idea?"
"His general intention. George has cabled from Bombay."
She had the missive open there; it was emphatic though concise.
"Eureka. Immense." That was all--he had saved the cost of the
signature. I shared her emotion, but I was disappointed. "He
doesn't say what it is."
"How could he--in a telegram? He'll write it."
"But how does he know?"
"Know it's the real thing? Oh I'm sure that when you see it you do
know. Vera incessu patuit dea!"
"It's you, Miss Erme, who are a 'dear' for bringing me such news!"-
-I went all lengths in my high spirits. "But fancy finding our
goddess in the temple of Vishnu! How strange of George to have
been able to go into the thing again in the midst of such different
and such powerful solicitations!"
"He hasn't gone into it, I know; it's the thing itself, let
severely alone for six months, that has simply sprung out at him
like a tigress out of the jungle. He didn't take a book with him--
on purpose; indeed he wouldn't have needed to--he knows every page,
as I do, by heart. They all worked in him together, and some day
somewhere, when he wasn't thinking, they fell, in all their superb
intricacy, into the one right combination. The figure in the
carpet came out. That's the way he knew it would come and the real
reason--you didn't in the least understand, but I suppose I may
tell you now--why he went and why I consented to his going. We
knew the change would do it--that the difference of thought, of
scene, would give the needed touch, the magic shake. We had
perfectly, we had admirably calculated. The elements were all in
his mind, and in the secousse of a new and intense experience they
just struck light." She positively struck light herself--she was
literally, facially luminous. I stammered something about
unconscious cerebration, and she continued: "He'll come right
home--this will bring him."
"To see Vereker, you mean?"
"To see Vereker--and to see ME. Think what he'll have to tell me!"
I hesitated. "About India?"
"About fiddlesticks! About Vereker--about the figure in the
"But, as you say, we shall surely have that in a letter."
She thought like one inspired, and I remembered how Corvick had
told me long before that her face was interesting. "Perhaps it
can't be got into a letter if it's 'immense.'"
"Perhaps not if it's immense bosh. If he has hold of something
that can't be got into a letter he hasn't hold of THE thing.
Vereker's own statement to me was exactly that the 'figure' WOULD
fit into a letter."
"Well, I cabled to George an hour ago--two words," said Gwendolen.
"Is it indiscreet of me to ask what they were?"
She hung fire, but at last brought them out. "'Angel, write.'"
"Good!" I exclaimed. "I'll make it sure--I'll send him the same."
My words however were not absolutely the same--I put something
instead of "angel"; and in the sequel my epithet seemed the more
apt, for when eventually we heard from our traveller it was merely,
it was thoroughly to be tantalised. He was magnificent in his
triumph, he described his discovery as stupendous; but his ecstasy
only obscured it--there were to be no particulars till he should
have submitted his conception to the supreme authority. He had
thrown up his commission, he had thrown up his book, he had thrown
up everything but the instant need to hurry to Rapallo, on the
Genoese shore, where Vereker was making a stay. I wrote him a
letter which was to await him at Aden--I besought him to relieve my
suspense. That he had found my letter was indicated by a telegram
which, reaching me after weary days and in the absence of any
answer to my laconic dispatch to him at Bombay, was evidently
intended as a reply to both communications. Those few words were
in familiar French, the French of the day, which Covick often made
use of to show he wasn't a prig. It had for some persons the
opposite effect, but his message may fairly be paraphrased. "Have
patience; I want to see, as it breaks on you, the face you'll
make!" "Tellement envie de voir ta tete!"--that was what I had to
sit down with. I can certainly not be said to have sat down, for I
seem to remember myself at this time as rattling constantly between
the little house in Chelsea and my own. Our impatience,
Gwendolen's and mine, was equal, but I kept hoping her light would
be greater. We all spent during this episode, for people of our
means, a great deal of money in telegrams and cabs, and I counted
on the receipt of news from Rapallo immediately after the junction
of the discoverer with the discovered. The interval seemed an age,
but late one day I heard a hansom precipitated to my door with the
crash engendered by a hint of liberality. I lived with my heart in
my mouth and accordingly bounded to the window--a movement which
gave me a view of a young lady erect on the footboard of the
vehicle and eagerly looking up at my house. At sight of me she
flourished a paper with a movement that brought me straight down,
the movement with which, in melodramas, handkerchiefs and reprieves
are flourished at the foot of the scaffold.
"Just seen Vereker--not a note wrong. Pressed me to bosom--keeps
me a month." So much I read on her paper while the cabby dropped a
grin from his perch. In my excitement I paid him profusely and in
hers she suffered it; then as he drove away we started to walk
about and talk. We had talked, heaven knows, enough before, but
this was a wondrous lift. We pictured the whole scene at Rapallo,
where he would have written, mentioning my name, for permission to
call; that is _I_ pictured it, having more material than my
companion, whom I felt hang on my lips as we stopped on purpose
before shop-windows we didn't look into. About one thing we were
clear: if he was staying on for fuller communication we should at
least have a letter from him that would help us through the dregs
of delay. We understood his staying on, and yet each of us saw, I
think, that the other hated it. The letter we were clear about
arrived; it was for Gwendolen, and I called on her in time to save
her the trouble of bringing it to me. She didn't read it out, as
was natural enough; but she repeated to me what it chiefly
embodied. This consisted of the remarkable statement that he'd
tell her after they were married exactly what she wanted to know.
"Only THEN, when I'm his wife--not before," she explained. "It's
tantamount to saying--isn't it?--that I must marry him straight
off!" She smiled at me while I flushed with disappointment, a
vision of fresh delay that made me at first unconscious of my
surprise. It seemed more than a hint that on me as well he would
impose some tiresome condition. Suddenly, while she reported
several more things from his letter, I remembered what he had told
me before going away. He had found Mr. Vereker deliriously
interesting and his own possession of the secret a real
intoxication. The buried treasure was all gold and gems. Now that
it was there it seemed to grow and grow before him; it would have
been, through all time and taking all tongues, one of the most
wonderful flowers of literary art. Nothing, in especial, once you
were face to face with it, could show for more consummately DONE.
When once it came out it came out, was there with a splendour that
made you ashamed; and there hadn't been, save in the bottomless
vulgarity of the age, with every one tasteless and tainted, every
sense stopped, the smallest reason why it should have been
overlooked. It was great, yet so simple, was simple, yet so great,
and the final knowledge of it was an experience quite apart. He
intimated that the charm of such an experience, the desire to drain
it, in its freshness, to the last drop, was what kept him there
close to the source. Gwendolen, frankly radiant as she tossed me
these fragments, showed the elation of a prospect more assured than
my own. That brought me back to the question of her marriage,
prompted me to ask if what she meant by what she had just surprised
me with was that she was under an engagement.
"Of course I am!" she answered. "Didn't you know it?" She seemed
astonished, but I was still more so, for Corvick had told me the
exact contrary. I didn't mention this, however; I only reminded
her how little I had been on that score in her confidence, or even
in Corvick's, and that, moreover I wasn't in ignorance of her
mother's interdict. At bottom I was troubled by the disparity of
the two accounts; but after a little I felt Corvick's to be the one
I least doubted. This simply reduced me to asking myself if the
girl had on the spot improvised an engagement--vamped up an old one
or dashed off a new--in order to arrive at the satisfaction she
desired. She must have had resources of which I was destitute, but
she made her case slightly more intelligible by returning
presently: "What the state of things has been is that we felt of
course bound to do nothing in mamma's lifetime."
"But now you think you'll just dispense with mamma's consent?"
"Ah it mayn't come to that!" I wondered what it might come to, and
she went on: "Poor dear, she may swallow the dose. In fact, you
know," she added with a laugh, "she really MUST!"--a proposition of
which, on behalf of every one concerned, I fully acknowledged the
Nothing more vexatious had ever happened to me than to become aware
before Corvick's arrival in England that I shouldn't be there to
put him through. I found myself abruptly called to Germany by the
alarming illness of my younger brother, who, against my advice, had
gone to Munich to study, at the feet indeed of a great master, the
art of portraiture in oils. The near relative who made him an
allowance had threatened to withdraw it if he should, under
specious pretexts, turn for superior truth to Paris--Paris being
somehow, for a Cheltenham aunt, the school of evil, the abyss. I
deplored this prejudice at the time, and the deep injury of it was
now visible--first in the fact that it hadn't saved the poor boy,
who was clever, frail and foolish, from congestion of the lungs,
and second in the greater break with London to which the event
condemned me. I'm afraid that what was uppermost in my mind during
several anxious weeks was the sense that if we had only been in
Paris I might have run over to see Corvick. This was actually out
of the question from every point of view: my brother, whose
recovery gave us both plenty to do, was ill for three months,
during which I never left him and at the end of which we had to
face the absolute prohibition of a return to England. The
consideration of climate imposed itself, and he was in no state to
meet it alone. I took him to Meran and there spent the summer with
him, trying to show him by example how to get back to work and
nursing a rage of another sort that I tried NOT to show him.
The whole business proved the first of a series of phenomena so
strangely interlaced that, taken together--which was how I had to
take them--they form as good an illustration as I can recall of the
manner in which, for the good of his soul doubtless, fate sometimes
deals with a man's avidity. These incidents certainly had larger
bearings than the comparatively meagre consequence we are here
concerned with--though I feel that consequence also a thing to
speak of with some respect. It's mainly in such a light, I
confess, at any rate, that the ugly fruit of my exile is at this
hour present to me. Even at first indeed the spirit in which my
avidity, as I have called it, made me regard that term owed no
element of ease to the fact that before coming back from Rapallo
George Corvick addressed me in a way I objected to. His letter had
none of the sedative action I must to-day profess myself sure he
had wished to give it, and the march of occurrences was not so
ordered as to make up for what it lacked. He had begun on the
spot, for one of the quarterlies, a great last word on Vereker's
writings, and this exhaustive study, the only one that would have
counted, have existed, was to turn on the new light, to utter--oh,
so quietly!--the unimagined truth. It was in other words to trace
the figure in the carpet through every convolution, to reproduce it
in every tint. The result, according to my friend, would be the
greatest literary portrait ever painted, and what he asked of me
was just to be so good as not to trouble him with questions till he
should hang up his masterpiece before me. He did me the honour to
declare that, putting aside the great sitter himself, all aloft in
his indifference, I was individually the connoisseur he was most
working for. I was therefore to be a good boy and not try to peep
under the curtain before the show was ready: I should enjoy it all
the more if I sat very still.
I did my best to sit very still, but I couldn't help giving a jump
on seeing in The Times, after I had been a week or two in Munich
and before, as I knew, Corvick had reached London, the announcement
of the sudden death of poor Mrs. Erme. I instantly, by letter,
appealed to Gwendolen for particulars, and she wrote me that her
mother had yielded to long-threatened failure of the heart. She
didn't say, but I took the liberty of reading into her words, that
from the point of view of her marriage and also of her eagerness,
which was quite a match for mine, this was a solution more prompt
than could have been expected and more radical than waiting for the
old lady to swallow the dose. I candidly admit indeed that at the
time--for I heard from her repeatedly--I read some singular things
into Gwendolen's words and some still more extraordinary ones into
her silences. Pen in hand, this way, I live the time over, and it
brings back the oddest sense of my having been, both for months and
in spite of myself, a kind of coerced spectator. All my life had
taken refuge in my eyes, which the procession of events appeared to
have committed itself to keep astare. There were days when I
thought of writing to Hugh Vereker and simply throwing myself on
his charity. But I felt more deeply that I hadn't fallen quite so
low--besides which, quite properly, he would send me about my
business. Mrs. Erme's death brought Corvick straight home, and
within the month he was united "very quietly"--as quietly, I seemed
to make out, as he meant in his article to bring out his
trouvaille--to the young lady he had loved and quitted. I use this
last term, I may parenthetically say, because I subsequently grew
sure that at the time he went to India, at the time of his great
news from Bombay, there had been no positive pledge between them
whatever. There had been none at the moment she was affirming to
me the very opposite. On the other hand he had certainly become
engaged the day he returned. The happy pair went down to Torquay
for their honeymoon, and there, in a reckless hour, it occurred to
poor Corvick to take his young bride a drive. He had no command of
that business: this had been brought home to me of old in a little
tour we had once made together in a dogcart. In a dogcart he
perched his companion for a rattle over Devonshire hills, on one of
the likeliest of which he brought his horse, who, it was true, had
bolted, down with such violence that the occupants of the cart were
hurled forward and that he fell horribly on his head. He was
killed on the spot; Gwendolen escaped unhurt.
I pass rapidly over the question of this unmitigated tragedy, of
what the loss of my best friend meant for me, and I complete my
little history of my patience and my pain by the frank statement of
my having, in a postscript to my very first letter to her after the
receipt of the hideous news, asked Mrs. Corvick whether her husband
mightn't at least have finished the great article on Vereker. Her
answer was as prompt as my question: the article, which had been
barely begun, was a mere heartbreaking scrap. She explained that
our friend, abroad, had just settled down to it when interrupted by
her mother's death, and that then, on his return, he had been kept
from work by the engrossments into which that calamity was to
plunge them. The opening pages were all that existed; they were
striking, they were promising, but they didn't unveil the idol.
That great intellectual feat was obviously to have formed his
climax. She said nothing more, nothing to enlighten me as to the
state of her own knowledge--the knowledge for the acquisition of
which I had fancied her prodigiously acting. This was above all
what I wanted to know: had SHE seen the idol unveiled? Had there
been a private ceremony for a palpitating audience of one? For
what else but that ceremony had the nuptials taken place? I didn't
like as yet to press her, though when I thought of what had passed
between us on the subject in Corvick's absence her reticence
surprised me. It was therefore not till much later, from Meran,
that I risked another appeal, risked it in some trepidation, for
she continued to tell me nothing. "Did you hear in those few days
of your blighted bliss," I wrote, "what we desired so to hear?" I
said, "we," as a little hint and she showed me she could take a
little hint; "I heard everything," she replied, "and I mean to keep
it to myself!"
It was impossible not to be moved with the strongest sympathy for
her, and on my return to England I showed her every kindness in my
power. Her mother's death had made her means sufficient, and she
had gone to live in a more convenient quarter. But her loss had
been great and her visitation cruel; it never would have occurred
to me moreover to suppose she could come to feel the possession of
a technical tip, of a piece of literary experience, a counterpoise
to her grief. Strange to say, none the less, I couldn't help
believing after I had seen her a few times that I caught a glimpse
of some such oddity. I hasten to add that there had been other
things I couldn't help believing, or at least imagining; and as I
never felt I was really clear about these, so, as to the point I
here touch on, I give her memory the benefit of the doubt.
Stricken and solitary, highly accomplished and now, in her deep
mourning, her maturer grace and her uncomplaining sorrow,
incontestably handsome, she presented herself as leading a life of
singular dignity and beauty. I had at first found a way to
persuade myself that I should soon get the better of the reserve
formulated, the week after the catastrophe in her reply to an
appeal as to which I was not unconscious that it might strike her
as mistimed. Certainly that reserve was something of a shock to
me--certainly it puzzled me the more I thought of it and even
though I tried to explain it (with moments of success) by an
imputation of exalted sentiments, of superstitious scruples, of a
refinement of loyalty. Certainly it added at the same time hugely
to the price of Vereker's secret, precious as this mystery already
appeared. I may as well confess abjectly that Mrs. Corvick's
unexpected attitude was the final tap on the nail that was to fix
fast my luckless idea, convert it into the obsession of which I'm
for ever conscious.
But this only helped me the more to be artful, to be adroit, to
allow time to elapse before renewing my suit. There were plenty of
speculations for the interval, and one of them was deeply
absorbing. Corvick had kept his information from his young friend
till after the removal of the last barrier to their intimacy--then
only had he let the cat out of the bag. Was it Gwendolen's idea,
taking a hint from him, to liberate this animal only on the basis
of the renewal of such a relation? Was the figure in the carpet
traceable or describable only for husbands and wives--for lovers
supremely united? It came back to me in a mystifying manner that
in Kensington Square, when I mentioned that Corvick would have told
the girl he loved, some word had dropped from Vereker that gave
colour to this possibility. There might be little in it, but there
was enough to make me wonder if I should have to marry Mrs. Corvick
to get what I wanted. Was I prepared to offer her this price for
the blessing of her knowledge? Ah that way madness lay!--so I at
least said to myself in bewildered hours. I could see meanwhile
the torch she refused to pass on flame away in her chamber of
memory--pour through her eyes a light that shone in her lonely
house. At the end of six months I was fully sure of what this warm
presence made up to her for. We had talked again and again of the
man who had brought us together--of his talent, his character, his
personal charm, his certain career, his dreadful doom, and even of
his clear purpose in that great study which was to have been a
supreme literary portrait, a kind of critical Vandyke or Velasquez.
She had conveyed to me in abundance that she was tongue-tied by her
perversity, by her piety, that she would never break the silence it
had not been given to the "right person," as she said, to break.
The hour however finally arrived. One evening when I had been
sitting with her longer than usual I laid my hand firmly on her
arm. "Now at last what IS it?"
She had been expecting me and was ready. She gave a long slow
soundless headshake, merciful only in being inarticulate. This
mercy didn't prevent its hurling at me the largest finest coldest
"Never!" I had yet, in the course of a life that had known denials,
had to take full in the face. I took it and was aware that with
the hard blow the tears had come into my eyes. So for a while we
sat and looked at each other; after which I slowly rose, I was
wondering if some day she would accept me; but this was not what I
brought out. I said as I smoothed down my hat: "I know what to
think then. It's nothing!"
A remote disdainful pity for me gathered in her dim smile; then she
spoke in a voice that I hear at this hour: "It's my LIFE!" As I
stood at the door she added: "You've insulted him!"
"Do you mean Vereker?"
"I mean the Dead!"
I recognised when I reached the street the justice of her charge.
Yes, it was her life--I recognised that too; but her life none the
less made room with the lapse of time for another interest. A year
and a half after Corvick's death she published in a single volume
her second novel, "Overmastered," which I pounced on in the hope of
finding in it some tell-tale echo or some peeping face. All I
found was a much better book than her younger performance, showing
I thought the better company she had kept. As a tissue tolerably
intricate it was a carpet with a figure of its own; but the figure
was not the figure I was looking for. On sending a review of it to
The Middle I was surprised to learn from the office that a notice
was already in type. When the paper came out I had no hesitation
in attributing this article, which I thought rather vulgarly
overdone, to Drayton Deane, who in the old days had been something
of a friend of Corvick's, yet had only within a few weeks made the
acquaintance of his widow. I had had an early copy of the book,
but Deane had evidently had an earlier. He lacked all the same the
light hand with which Corvick had gilded the gingerbread--he laid
on the tinsel in splotches.
Six months later appeared "The Right of Way," the last chance,
though we didn't know it, that we were to have to redeem ourselves.
Written wholly during Vereker's sojourn abroad, the book had been
heralded, in a hundred paragraphs, by the usual ineptitudes. I
carried it, as early a copy as any, I this time flattered myself,
straightway to Mrs. Corvick. This was the only use I had for it; I
left the inevitable tribute of The Middle to some more ingenious
mind and some less irritated temper. "But I already have it,"
Gwendolen said. "Drayton Deane was so good as to bring it to me
yesterday, and I've just finished it."
"Yesterday? How did he get it so soon?"
"He gets everything so soon! He's to review it in The Middle."
"He--Drayton Deane--review Vereker?" I couldn't believe my ears.
"'Why not? One fine ignorance is as good as another."
I winced but I presently said: "You ought to review him yourself!"
"I don't 'review,'" she laughed. "I'm reviewed!"
Just then the door was thrown open. "Ah yes, here's your
reviewer!" Drayton Deane was there with his long legs and his tall
forehead: he had come to see what she thought of "The Right of
Way," and to bring news that was singularly relevant. The evening
papers were just out with a telegram on the author of that work,
who, in Rome, had been ill for some days with an attack of malarial
fever. It had at first not been thought grave, but had taken, in
consequence of complications, a turn that might give rise to
anxiety. Anxiety had indeed at the latest hour begun to be felt.
I was struck in the presence of these tidings with the fundamental
detachment that Mrs. Corvick's overt concern quite failed to hide:
it gave me the measure of her consummate independence. That
independence rested on her knowledge, the knowledge which nothing
now could destroy and which nothing could make different. The
figure in the carpet might take on another twist or two, but the
sentence had virtually been written. The writer might go down to
his grave: she was the person in the world to whom--as if she had
been his favoured heir--his continued existence was least of a
need. This reminded me how I had observed at a particular moment--
after Corvick's death--the drop of her desire to see him face to
face. She had got what she wanted without that. I had been sure
that if she hadn't got it she wouldn't have been restrained from
the endeavour to sound him personally by those superior reflexions,
more conceivable on a man's part than on a woman's, which in my
case had served an a deterrent. It wasn't however, I hasten to
add, that my case, in spite of this invidious comparison, wasn't
ambiguous enough. At the thought that Vereker was perhaps at that
moment dying there rolled over me a wave of anguish--a poignant
sense of how inconsistently I still depended on him. A delicacy
that it was my one compensation to suffer to rule me had left the
Alps and the Apennines between us, but the sense of the waning
occasion suggested that I might in my despair at last have gone to
him. Of course I should really have done nothing of the sort. I
remained five minutes, while my companions talked of the new book,
and when Drayton Deane appealed to me for my opinion of it I made
answer, getting up, that I detested Hugh Vereker and simply
couldn't read him. I departed with the moral certainty that as the
door closed behind me Deane would brand me for awfully superficial.
His hostess wouldn't contradict THAT at least.
I continue to trace with a briefer touch our intensely odd
successions. Three weeks after this came Vereker's death, and
before the year was out the death of his wife. That poor lady I
had never seen, but I had had a futile theory that, should she
survive him long enough to be decorously accessible, I might
approach her with the feeble flicker of my plea. Did she know and
if she knew would she speak? It was much to be presumed that for
more reasons than one she would have nothing to say; but when she
passed out of all reach I felt renannouncement indeed my appointed
lot. I was shut up in my obsession for ever--my gaolers had gone
off with the key. I find myself quite as vague as a captive in a
dungeon about the tinge that further elapsed before Mrs. Corvick
became the wife of Drayton Deane. I had foreseen, through my bars,
this end of the business, though there was no indecent haste and
our friendship had fallen rather off. They were both so "awfully
intellectual" that it struck people as a suitable match, but I had
measured better than any one the wealth of understanding the bride
would contribute to the union. Never, for a marriage in literary
circles--so the newspapers described the alliance--had a lady been
so bravely dowered. I began with due promptness to look for the
fruit of the affair--that fruit, I mean, of which the premonitory
symptoms would be peculiarly visible in the husband. Taking for
granted the splendour of the other party's nuptial gift, I expected
to see him make a show commensurate with his increase of means. I
knew what his means had been--his article on "The Right of Way" had
distinctly given one the figure. As he was now exactly in the
position in which still more exactly I was not I watched from month
to month, in the likely periodicals, for the heavy message poor
Corvick had been unable to deliver and the responsibility of which
would have fallen on his successor. The widow and wife would have
broken by the rekindled hearth the silence that only a widow and
wife might break, and Deane would be as aflame with the knowledge
as Corvick in his own hour, as Gwendolen in hers, had been. Well,
he was aflame doubtless, but the fire was apparently not to become
a public blaze. I scanned the periodicals in vain: Drayton Deane
filled them with exuberant pages, but he withheld the page I most
feverishly sought. He wrote on a thousand subjects, but never on
the subject of Vereker. His special line was to tell truths that
other people either "funked," as he said, or overlooked, but he
never told the only truth that seemed to me in these days to
signify. I met the couple in those literary circles referred to in
the papers: I have sufficiently intimated that it was only in such
circles we were all constructed to revolve. Gwendolen was more
than ever committed to them by the publication of her third novel,
and I myself definitely classed by holding the opinion that this
work was inferior to its immediate predecessor. Was it worse
because she had been keeping worse company? If her secret was, as
she had told me, her life--a fact discernible in her increasing
bloom, an air of conscious privilege that, cleverly corrected by
pretty charities, gave distinction to her appearance--it had yet
not a direct influence on her work. That only made one--everything
only made one--yearn the more for it; only rounded it off with a
mystery finer and subtler.
It was therefore from her husband I could never remove my eyes: I
beset him in a manner that might have made him uneasy. I went even
so far as to engage him in conversation. Didn't he know, hadn't he
come into it as a matter of course?--that question hummed in my
brain. Of course he knew; otherwise he wouldn't return my stare so
queerly. His wife had told him what I wanted and he was amiably
amused at my impotence. He didn't laugh--he wasn't a laugher: his
system was to present to my irritation, so that I should crudely
expose myself, a conversational blank as vast as his big bare brow.
It always happened that I turned away with a settled conviction
from these unpeopled expanses, which seemed to complete each other
geographically and to symbolise together Drayton Deane's want of
voice, want of form. He simply hadn't the art to use what he knew;
he literally was incompetent to take up the duty where Corvick had
left it. I went still further--it was the only glimpse of
happiness I had. I made up my mind that the duty didn't appeal to
him. He wasn't interested, he didn't care. Yes, it quite
comforted me to believe him too stupid to have joy of the thing I
lacked. He was as stupid after as he had been before, and that
deepened for me the golden glory in which the mystery was wrapped.
I had of course none the less to recollect that his wife might have
imposed her conditions and exactions. I had above all to remind
myself that with Vereker's death the major incentive dropped. He
was still there to be honoured by what might be done--he was no
longer there to give it his sanction. Who alas but he had the
Two children were born to the pair, but the second cost the mother
her life. After this stroke I seemed to see another ghost of a
chance. I jumped at it in thought, but I waited a certain time for
manners, and at last my opportunity arrived in a remunerative way.
His wife had been dead a year when I met Drayton Deane in the
smoking-room of a small club of which we both were members, but
where for months--perhaps because I rarely entered it--I hadn't
seen him. The room was empty and the occasion propitious. I
deliberately offered him, to have done with the matter for ever,
that advantage for which I felt he had long been looking.
"As an older acquaintance of your late wife's than even you were,"
I began, "you must let me say to you something I have on my mind.
I shall be glad to make any terms with you that you see fit to name
for the information she must have had from George Corvick--the
information you know, that had come to him, poor chap, in one of
the happiest hours of his life, straight from Hugh Vereker."
He looked at me like a dim phrenological bust. "The information--
"Vereker's secret, my dear man--the general intention of his books:
the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the
figure in the carpet."
He began to flush--the numbers on his bumps to come out.
"Vereker's books had a general intention?"
I stared in my turn. "You don't mean to say you don't know it?" I
thought for a moment he was playing with me. "Mrs. Deane knew it;
she had it, as I say, straight from Corvick, who had, after
infinite search and to Vereker's own delight, found the very mouth
of the cave. Where IS the mouth? He told after their marriage--
and told alone--the person who, when the circumstances were
reproduced, must have told you. Have I been wrong in taking for
granted that she admitted you, as one of the highest privileges of
the relation in which you stood to her, to the knowledge of which
she was after Corvick's death the sole depositary? All I know is
that that knowledge is infinitely precious, and what I want you to
understand is that if you'll in your turn admit me to it you'll do
me a kindness for which I shall be lastingly grateful."
He had turned at last very red; I dare say he had begun by thinking
I had lost my wits. Little by little he followed me; on my own
side I stared with a livelier surprise. Then he spoke. "I don't
know what you're talking about."
He wasn't acting--it was the absurd truth.
"She DIDN'T tell you--?"
"Nothing about Hugh Vereker."
I was stupefied; the room went round. It had been too good even
for that! "Upon your honour?"
"Upon my honour. What the devil's the matter with you?" he
"I'm astounded--I'm disappointed. I wanted to get it out of you."
"It isn't in me!" he awkwardly laughed. "And even if it were--"
"If it were you'd let me have it--oh yes, in common humanity. But
I believe you. I see--I see!" I went on, conscious, with the full
turn of the wheel, of my great delusion, my false view of the poor
man's attitude. What I saw, though I couldn't say it, was that his
wife hadn't thought him worth enlightening. This struck me as
strange for a woman who had thought him worth marrying. At last I
explained it by the reflexion that she couldn't possibly have
married him for his understanding. She had married him for
He was to some extent enlightened now, but he was even more
astonished, more disconcerted: he took a moment to compare my
story with his quickened memories. The result of his meditation
was his presently saying with a good deal of rather feeble form:
"This is the first I hear of what you allude to. I think you must
be mistaken as to Mrs. Drayton Deane's having had any unmentioned,
and still less any unmentionable, knowledge of Hugh Vereker. She'd
certainly have wished it--should it have borne on his literary
character--to be used."
"It was used. She used it herself. She told me with her own lips
that she 'lived' on it."
I had no sooner spoken than I repented of my words; he grew so pale
that I felt as if I had struck him. "Ah, 'lived'-- !" he murmured,
turning short away from me.
My compunction was real; I laid my hand on his shoulder. "I beg
you to forgive me--I've made a mistake. You don't know what I
thought you knew. You could, if I had been right, have rendered me
a service; and I had my reasons for assuming that you'd be in a
position to meet me."
"Your reasons?" he asked. "What were your reasons?"
I looked at him well; I hesitated; I considered. "Come and sit
down with me here, and I'll tell you." I drew him to a sofa, I
lighted another cigar and, beginning with the anecdote of Vereker's
one descent from the clouds, I recited to him the extraordinary
chain of accidents that had, in spite of the original gleam, kept
me till that hour in the dark. I told him in a word just what I've
written out here. He listened with deepening attention, and I
became aware, to my surprise, by his ejaculations, by his
questions, that he would have been after all not unworthy to be
trusted by his wife. So abrupt an experience of her want of trust
had now a disturbing effect on him; but I saw the immediate shock
throb away little by little and then gather again into waves of
wonder and curiosity--waves that promised, I could perfectly judge,
to break in the end with the fury of my own highest tides. I may
say that to-day as victims of unappeased desire there isn't a pin
to choose between us. The poor man's state is almost my
consolation; there are really moments when I feel it to be quite my
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