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   Chapter 8 No.8

Jaffery By William John Locke Characters: 25965

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


In the course of time Adrian and Doria returned from Venice, their heads full of pictures and lagoons and palaces, and took proud possession of their spacious flat in St. John's Wood. They were radiantly happy, very much in love with each other. Having brought a common vision to bear upon the glories of nature and art which they had beheld, they were spared the little squabbles over matters of ?sthetic taste which often are so disastrous to the serenity of a honeymoon. Touchingly they expounded their views in the first person plural. Even Adrian, whom I must confess to have regarded as an unblushing egotist, seldom delivered himself of an egotistical opinion. "We don't despise the Eclectics," said he. And-"We prefer the Lombardic architecture to the purely Venetian," said Doria. And "we" found good in Italian wines and "we" found nothing but hideousness in Murano glass. They were, therefore, in perfect accord over decoration and furnishing. The only difference I could see between them was that Adrian loved to wallow in the comfort of a club or another person's house, but insisted on elegant austerity in his own home, whereas Doria loved elegant austerity everywhere. So they had a pure Jacobean entrance hall, a Louis XV drawing-room, an Empire bedroom, and as far as I could judge by the barrenness of the apartment, a Spartan study for Adrian.

On our first visit, they triumphantly showed us round the establishment. We came last to the study.

"No really fine imaginative work," said Adrian, with a wave of the hand indicating the ascetic table and chair, the iron safe, the bookcase and the bare walls-"no really fine imaginative work can be done among luxurious surroundings. Pictures distract one's attention, arm-chairs and sofas invite to sloth. This is my ideal of a novelist's workshop."

"It's more like a workhouse," said Barbara, with a shiver. "Or a condemned cell. But even a condemned cell would have a plank bed in it."

"You don't understand a bit," said Doria, with a touch of resentment at adverse criticism of her paragon's idiosyncrasies, "although Adrian has tried to explain it to you. It's specially arranged for concentration of mind. If it weren't for the necessity of having something to sit upon and something to write at and a few necessary reference books and a lock-up place, we should have had nothing in the room at all. When Adrian wants to relax and live his ordinary human life, he only has to walk out of the door and there he is in the midst of beautiful things."

"Oh, I quite see, dear," said Barbara, with a familiar little flash in her blue eyes. "But do you think a leather seat for that hard wooden chair-what the French call a rond-de-cuir-would very greatly impair the poor fellow's imagination?"

"It might be economical, too," said I, "in the way of saving shininess!-"

Adrian laughed. "It does look a bit hard, darling," said he.

"We'll get a leather seat to-day," replied Doria.

But she did not smile. Evidently to her the spot on which Adrian sat was sacrosanct. The room was the Holy of Holies where mortal man put on immortality. Flippant comment sounded like blasphemy in her ears. She even grew somewhat impatient at our lingering in the august precincts, although they had not yet been consecrated by inspired labour. Their unblessed condition was obvious. On the large library table were a couple of brass candlesticks with fresh candles (Adrian could not work by electric light), a couple of reams of scribbling paper, an inkpot, an immaculate blotting pad, three virgin quill pens (it was one of Adrian's whimsies to write always with quills), lying in a brass dish, and an office stationery case closed and aggressively new. The sight of this last monstrosity, I thought, would play the deuce with my imagination and send it on a devastating tour round the Tottenham Court Road, but not having the artistic temperament and catching a glance of challenge from Doria, I forebore to make ignorant criticism.

In the bedroom while Barbara was putting on her veil and powdering her nose (this may be what grammarians call a hysteron proteron-but with women one never can tell)-Doria broke into confidences not meet for masculine ears.

* * *

"Oh, darling," she cried, looking at Barbara with great awe-stricken eyes, "you can't tell what it means to be married to a genius like Adrian. I feel like one of the Daughters of Men that has been looked upon by one of the Sons of God. It's so strange. In ordinary life he's so dear and human-responsive, you know, to everything I feel and think-and sometimes I quite forget he's different from me. But at others, I'm overwhelmed by the thought of the life going on inside his soul that I can never, never share-I can only see the spirit that conceived 'The Diamond Gate'-don't you understand, darling?-and that is even now creating some new thing of wonder and beauty. I feel so little beside him. What more can I give him beyond what I have given?"

Barbara took the girl's tense face between her two hands and smiled and kissed her.

"Give him," said she, "ammoniated quinine whenever he sneezes."

Then she laughed and embraced the Heavenly One's wife, who, for the moment, had not quite decided whether to feel outraged or not, and discoursed sweet reasonableness.

"I should treat your genius, dear, just as I treat my stupid old Hilary."

She proceeded to describe the treatment. What it was, I do not know, because Barbara refused to tell me. But I can make a shrewd guess. It's a subtle scheme which she thinks is hidden from me; but really it is so transparent that a babe could see through it. I, like any wise husband, make, however, a fine assumption of blindness, and consequently lead a life of unruffled comfort.

Whether Doria followed the advice I am not certain. I have my doubts. Barbara has never knelt by the side of her stupid old Hilary's chair and worshipped him as a god. She is an excellent wife and I've no fault to find with her; but she has never done that, and she is the last woman in the world to counsel any wife to do it. Personally, I should hate to be worshipped. In worship hours I should be smoking a cigar, and who with a sense of congruity can imagine a god smoking a cigar? Besides, worship would bore me to paralysis. But Adrian loved it. He lived on it, just as the new hand in a chocolate factory lives on chocolate creams. The more he was worshipped the happier he became. And while consuming adoration he had a young Dionysian way of inhaling a cigarette-a way which Dionysus, poor god, might have exhibited, had tobacco grown with the grape on Mount Cithaeron-and a way of exhaling a cloud of smoke, holier than the fumes of incense in the nostrils of the adorer, which moved me at once to envy and exasperation.

Yes, there he would sprawl, whenever I saw them together, either in their own flat or at our house (more luxuriously at Northlands than in St. John's Wood, owing to the greater prevalence of upholstered furniture), cigarette between delicate fingers, paradox on his tongue and a Christopher Sly beatitude on his face, while Doria, chin on palm, and her great eyes set on him, drank in all the wonder of this miraculous being.

I said to Barbara: "She's making a besotted idiot of the man."

Barbara professed rare agreement. But . . . the woman's point of view. . . .

"I don't worry about him," she said. "It's of her I'm thinking. When she has turned him into the idiot-"

"She'll adore him all the more," I interrupted.

"But when she finds out the idiot she has made?"

"No woman has ever done that since the world began," said I. "The unwavering love of woman for her home-made idiot is her sole consistency."

Barbara with much puckering of brow sought for argument, but found none, the proposition being incontrovertible. She mused for a while and then, quickly, a smile replaced the frown.

"I suppose that is why I go on loving you, Hilary dear," she said sweetly.

I turned upon her, with my hand, as it were, on the floodgates of a torrent of eloquence; but with her silvery mocking laugh she vanished from the apartment. She did. The old-fashioned high-falutin' phrase is the best description I can give of the elusive uncapturable nature of this wife of mine. It is a pity that she has so little to do with the story of Jaffery which I am trying to relate, for I should like to make her the heroine. You see, I know her so well, or imagine I do, which comes to the same thing, and I should love to present you with a solution, of this perplexing, exasperating, adorable, high-souled conundrum that is Barbara Freeth. But she, like myself, is but a raisonneur in the drama, and so, reluctantly, I must keep her in the background. Paullo majora canamus. Let us come to the horses.

All this, time we had not lost sight of Liosha. As deputies for the absent trustee we received periodical reports from the admirable Mrs. Considine, and entertained both ladies for an occasional week-end. On the whole, her demeanour in the Queen's Gate boarding-house was satisfactory. At first trouble arose over a young curly haired Swiss waiter who had won her sympathy in the matter of a broken heart. She had entered the dining-room when he was laying the table and discovered him watering the knives and forks with tears. Unaccustomed to see men weep, she enquired the cause. He dried his eyes with a napkin and told a woeful tale of a faithless love in Neuchatel, a widow plump and well-to-do. He had looked forward to marry her at the end of the year, and to pass an unruffled life in the snugness of the delicatessen shop which she conducted with such skill; but now alas, she had announced her engagement to another, and his dream of bliss among the chitterlings and liver-sausages was shattered. Herr Gott! what was he to do? Liosha counselled immediate return to Neuchatel and assassination of his rival. To kill another man for her was the surest way to a woman's heart. The waiter approved the scheme, but lacked the courage-also the money to go to Neuchatel. Liosha, espousing his cause warmly, gave him the latter at once. The former she set to work to instil into him. She waylaid him at odd corners in odd moments, much to the scandal of the guests, and sought to inspire him with the true Balkan spirit. She even supplied him with an Albanian knife, dangerously sharp. At last, the poor craven, finding himself unwillingly driven into crime, sought from the mistress of the boarding-house protection against his champion. Mrs. Considine, called into consultation, was informed that Mrs. Prescott must either cease from instigating the waiters to commit murder or find other quarters. Liosha curled a contemptuous lip.

"If you think I'm going to have anything more to do with the little skunk, you're mistaken."

And that evening when Josef, serving coffee in the drawing-room, approached her with the tray, she waved him off.

"See here," she said calmly, "just you keep out of my way or I might tread on you."

Whereupon the terrified Josef, amid the tittering hush of the genteel assembly, bolted from the room, and then solved the whole difficulty by bolting from the house, never to return.

When taken to task by Barbara over the ethics of this matter, Liosha shrugged her shoulders and laughed.

"I guess," she said, "if a man loves a woman strongly enough to cry for her, he ought to know what to do with the guy that butted in, without being told."

"But you don't seem to understand what a terrible thing it is to take the life of a human being," said Barbara.

"I can understand how you feel," Liosha admitted. "But I don't feel about it the same as you. I've been brought up different."

"You see, my dear Barbara," I interposed judicially, "her father made his living by slaughter before she was born. When he finished with the pigs he took on humans who displeased him."

"And they were worse than the pigs," said Liosha.

Barbara sighed, for Liosha remained unconvinced; but she extracted a promise from our fair barbarian never to shoot or jab a knife into anyone before consulting her as to the propriety of so doing.

But for this and for one or two other trivial lapses from grace, Liosha led a pretty equable existence at the boarding-house. If she now and then scandalised the inmates by her unconventional habits and free expressions of opinion, she compensated by affording them a chronic topic of conversation. A large though somewhat scornful generosity also established her in their esteem. She would lend or give anything she possessed. When one of the forlorn and woollen-shawled old maids fell ill, she sat up of nights with her, and in spite of her ignorance of nursing, which was as vast as that of a rhinoceros, magnetised the fragile lady into well-being. I think she was fairly happy. If London had been situated amid gorges and crags and ravines and granite cliffs she

would have been completely so. She yearned for mountains. Mrs. Considine to satisfy this nostalgia took her for a week's trip to the English Lakes. She returned railing at Scawfell and Skiddaw for unimportant undulations, and declaring her preference for London. So in London she remained.

In these early stages of our acquaintance with Liosha, she counted in our lives for little more than a freakish interest. Even in the crises of her naughtiness anxiety as to her welfare did not rob us of our night's sleep. She existed for us rather as a toy personality whose quaint vagaries afforded us constant amusement than as an intense human soul. The working out of her destiny did not come within the sphere of our emotional sympathies like that of Adrian and Doria. The latter were of our own kind and class, bound to us not only by the common traditions of centuries, but by ties of many years' affection. It is only natural that we should have watched them more closely and involved ourselves more intimately in their scheme of things.

The first fine rapture of house-pride having grown calm, the Bolderos settled down to the serene beatitude of the Higher Life tempered by the amenities of commonplace existence. When Adrian worked, Doria read Dante and attended performances of the Intellectual Drama; when Adrian relaxed, she cooked dainties in a chafing dish and accompanied him to Musical Comedy. They entertained in a gracious modest way, and went out into cultivated society. The Art of Life, they declared, was to catch atmosphere, whatever that might mean. Adrian explained, with the gentle pity of one addressing himself to the childish intelligence.

"It's merely the perfect freedom of mental adaptation. To discuss pragmatism while eating oysters would be destructive to the enjoyment afforded by the delicate sense of taste, whereas, to let one's mind wander from the plane of philosophic thought when preparing for a Hauptmann or a Strindberg play would lead to nothing less than the disaster of disequilibrium."

Saying this he caught my cold, unsympathetic gaze, but I think I noticed the flicker of an eyelid. Doria, however, nodded, in wide-eyed approval. So I suppose they really did practise between themselves these modal gymnastics. They were all of a piece with the "atmospheres" evoked in the various rooms of the flat. To Barbara and myself, comfortable Philistines, all this appeared exceeding lunatic. But every married couple has a right to lay out its plan of happiness in its own way. If we had made taboo of irrelevant gossip between the acts of a serious play our evening would have been a failure. Theirs would have been, and, in fact, was a success. Connubial felicity they certainly achieved: and what else but an impertinence is a criticism of the means?

Easter came. They had been married six months. "The Diamond Gate" had been published for nearly a year and was still selling in England and America. Adrian flourishing his first half-yearly cheque in January had vowed he had no idea there was so much money in the world. He basked in Fortune's sunshine. But for all the basking and all the syllabus of the perfect existence, and all his unquestionable love for Doria, and all her worship for him together with its manifestation in her admirable care for his material well-being, Adrian, just at this Eastertide, began to strike me as a man lacking some essential of happiness. They spent a week or so with us at Northlands. Adrian confessed dog-weariness. His looks confirmed his words. A vertical furrow between the brows and a little dragging line at each corner of the mouth below the fair moustache forbade the familiar mockery in his pleasant face. In moments of repose the cross of strain, almost suggestive of a squint, appeared in his blue eyes. He was no longer debonair, no longer the lightly laughing philosopher, the preacher of paradox seeing flippancy in the Money Article and sorrowful wisdom in Little Tich. He was morose and irritable. He had acquired a nervous habit of secretly rubbing his thumbs swiftly over his finger-tips when Doria, in her pride, spoke of his work, which amounted almost to ill-breeding. It was only late at night during our last smoke that he assumed a semblance of the old Adrian; and by that time he had consumed as much champagne and brandy as would have rendered jocose the prophet Jeremiah.

He was suffering, poor fellow, from a nervous breakdown. From Doria we learned the cause. For the last three months he had been working at insane pressure. At seven he rose; at a quarter to eight he breakfasted; at half past he betook himself to his ascetic workroom and remained there till half-past one. At four o'clock he began a three-hour spell of work. At night a four hours' spell-from nine to one, if they had no evening engagement, from midnight to four o'clock in the morning if they had been out.

"But, my darling child!" cried Barbara, aghast when she heard of this maniacal time-table, "you must put your foot down. You mustn't let him do it. He is killing himself."

"No man," said I, in warm support of my wife, "can go on putting out creative work for more than four hours a day. Quite famous novelists whom I meet at the Athen?um have told me so themselves. Even prodigious people like Sir Walter Scott and Zola-"

"Yes, yes," said Doria. "But they were not Adrian. Every artist must be a law to himself. Adrian's different. Why-those two that you've mentioned-they slung out stuff by the bucketful. It didn't matter to them what they wrote. But Adrian has to get the rhythm and the balance and the beauty of every sentence he writes-to say nothing of the subtlety of his analysis and the perfect drawing of his pictures. My dear, good people"-she threw out her hands in an impatient gesture-"you don't know what you're talking about. How can you? It's impossible for you to conceive-it's almost impossible even for me to conceive-the creative workings of the mind of a man of genius. Four hours a day! Your mechanical fiction-monger, yes. Four hours a day is stamped all over the slack drivel they publish. But you can't imagine that work like Adrian's is to be done in this dead mechanical way."

"It is you that don't quite understand," I protested. "My admiration for Adrian's genius is second to none but yours. But I repeat that no human brain since the beginning of time has been capable of spinning cobwebs of fancy for twelve hours a day, day in and day out for months at a time. Look at your husband. He has tried it. Does he sleep well?"

"No."

"Has he a hearty appetite?"

"No."

"Is he a light-hearted, cheery sort of chap to have about the place?"

"He's naturally tired, after his winter's work," said Doria.

"He's played out," said I, "and if you are a wise woman, you'll take him away for a couple of months' rest, and when he gets back, see that he works at lower pressure."

Doria promised to do her best; but she sighed.

"You don't realise Adrian's iron will."

Once more I recognised with a shock that I did not know my Adrian. I used to think one could blow the thistledown fellow about whithersoever one pleased. Of the two, Doria seemed to have unquestionably the stronger will-power.

"Surely," said I, "you can twist him round your little finger."

Doria sighed again-and a wanly indulgent smile played about her lips.

"You two dear people are so sensible, that it makes me almost angry to see how you can't begin to understand Adrian. As a man, of course I have a certain influence over him. But as an artist-how can I? He's a thing apart from me altogether. I know perfectly well that thousands of artists' wives wreck their happiness through sheer, stupid jealousy of their husbands' art. I'm not such a narrow-minded, contemptible woman." She threw her little head up proudly. "I should loathe myself if I grudged one hour that Adrian gave to his work instead of to me."

This time Barbara and I sighed, for we realised how vain had been our arguments. Our considerably greater knowledge of life, our stark common-sense, our deep affection for Adrian counted as naught beside the fact that we had no experience whatever in the rearing of a genius.

That word "genius" came too often from Doria's lips. At first it irritated me; then I heard it with morbid detestation. In the course of a more or less intimate conversation with Adrian, I let slip a mild expression of my feelings. He groaned sympathetically.

"I wish to heaven she wouldn't do it," said he. "It puts a man into such a horrible false position towards himself. It's beautiful of her, of course-it's her love for me. But it gets on my nerves. Instead of sitting down at my desk with nothing in my mind but my day's work to slog through, I hear her voice and I have to say to myself, 'Go to. I am a genius. I mustn't write like any common fellow. I must produce the work of a genius.' It really plays the devil with me."

He walked excitedly about the library, flourishing a cigar and scattering the ash about the carpet. I am pernicketty in a few ways and hate tobacco ash on my carpet; every room in the house is an arsenal of ash trays. In normal mood Adrian punctiliously observed the little laws of the establishment. This scattering of cigar ash was a sign of spiritual convulsion.

"Have you explained the matter to Doria?" I asked.

He halted before me performing his new uncomfortable trick of slithering thumb over finger tips.

"No," he snapped. "How can I?"

I replied, mildly, that it seemed to be the simplest thing in the world. He broke away impatiently, saying that I couldn't understand.

"All right," said I, though what there was to understand in so elementary a proposition goodness only knows. I was beginning to resent this perpetual charge of non-intelligence.

"I think we had better clear out," he said. "I'm only a damned nuisance. I've got this book of mine on the brain"-he held up his head with both hands-"and I'm not a fit companion for anybody."

I adjured him in familiar terms not to talk rubbish. He was here for the repose of country things and freedom from day-infesting cares. Already he was looking better for the change. But I could not refrain from adding:

"You wrote 'The Diamond Gate' without turning a hair. Why should you worry yourself to death about this new book?"

When he answered I had the shivering impression of a wizened old man speaking to me. The slight cast I had noticed in his blue eyes became oddly accentuated.

"'The Diamond Gate,'" he said, peering at me uncannily, "was just a pretty amateur story. The new book is going to stagger the soul of humanity."

"I wish you weren't such a secretive devil," said I. "What's the book about? Tell an old friend. Get it off your mind. It will do you good."

I put my arm round his shoulders and my hand gave him an affectionate grip. My heart ached for the dear fellow, and I longed, in the plain man's way, to break down the walls of reserve, which like those of the Inquisition Chamber, I felt were closing tragically upon him.

"Come, come," I continued. "Get it out. It's obvious that the thing is suffocating you. I'll tell nobody-not even that you've told me-neither Doria nor Barbara-it will be the confidence of the confessional. You'll be all the better for it. Believe me."

He shrugged himself free from my grasp and turned away; his nervous fingers plucked unconsciously at his evening tie until it was loosened and the ends hung dissolutely over his shirt front.

"You're very good, Hilary," said he, looking at every spot in the room except my eyes. "If I could tell you, I would. But it's an enormous canvas. I could give you no idea-" The furrow deepened between his brows-"If I told you the scheme you would get about the same dramatic impression as if you read, say, the letter R, in a dictionary. I'm putting into this novel," he flickered his fingers in front of me-"everything that ever happened in human life."

I regarded him in some wonder.

"My dear fellow," said I, "you can't compress a Liebig's Extract of Existence between the covers of a six-shilling novel."

"I can," said he, "I can!" He thumped my writing table, so that all the loose brass and glass on it rattled. "And by God! I'm going to do it."

"But, my dearest friend," I expostulated, "this is absurd. It's megalomania-la folie des grandeurs."

"It's the divinest folly in the world," said he.

He threw a cigar stump into the fireplace and poured himself out and drank a stiff whisky and soda. Then he laughed in imitation of his familiar self.

"You dear prim old prig of a Hilary, don't worry. It's all going to come straight. When the novel of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries is published I guess you'll be proud of me. And now, good-night."

He laughed, waved his arm in a cavalier gesture and went from the room, slamming the door masterfully behind him.

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