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   Chapter 1 No.1

Overlooked By Maurice Baring Characters: 11324

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

When my old friend and trusted adviser, Doctor Kennaway, told me that I must go to Haréville and stay there a month or, still better, two months, I asked him what I could possibly do there. The only possible pastime at a watering-place is to watch. A blind man is debarred from that pastime.

He said to me: "Why don't you write a novel?"

I said that I had never written anything in my life. He then said that a famous editor, of the Figaro, I think, had once said that every man had one newspaper article in him. Novel could be substituted for newspaper article. I objected that, although I found writing on my typewriter a soothing occupation, I had always been given to understand by authors that correcting proofs was the only real fun in writing a book. I was debarred from that. We talked of other things and I thought no more about this till after I had been at Haréville a week.

When I arrived there, although the season had scarcely begun, I made acquaintances more rapidly than I had expected, and most of my time was taken up in idle conversation.

After I had been drinking the waters for a week, I made the acquaintance of James Rudd, the novelist. I had never met him before. I have, indeed, rarely met a novelist. When I have done so they have either been elderly ladies who specialized in the life of the Quartier-Latin, or country gentlemen who kept out all romance from their general conversation, which they confined to the crops and the misdeeds of the Government.

James Rudd did not certainly belong to either of these categories. He was passionately interested in his own business. He did not seem in the least inclined to talk about anything else. He took for granted I had read all his works. I think he supposed that even the blind could hardly have failed to do that. Some of his works have been read to me. I did not like to put it in this way, lest he should think I was calling attention to the absence of his books in the series which have been transcribed in the Braille language. But he was evidently satisfied that I knew his work. I enjoyed the books of his which were read to me, but then, I enjoy any novel. I did not tell him that. I let him take for granted that I had taken for granted all there was to be taken for granted. I imagine him to wear a faded Venetian-red tie, a low collar, and loose blue clothes (I shall find out whether this is true later), to be a non-smoker-I am, in fact, sure of that-a practical teetotaler, not without a nice discrimination based on the imagination rather than on experience, of French vintage wines, and a fine appreciation of all the arts. He is certainly not young, and I think rather weary, but still passionately interested in the only thing which he thinks worthy of any interest. I found him an entertaining companion, easy and stimulating. He had been sent to Haréville by Kennaway, which gave us a link. Kennaway had told him to leave off writing novels for five weeks if he possibly could. He was finding it difficult. He told me he was longing to write, but could think of no subject.

I suggested to him that he should write a novel about the people at Haréville. I said I could introduce him to three ladies and that they could form the nucleus of the story. He was delighted with the idea, and that same evening I introduced him to Princess Kouragine, who is not, as her name sounds, a Russian, but a French lady, née Robert, who married a Prince Serge Kouragine. He died some years ago. She is a lady of so much sense, and so ripe in wisdom and experience, that I felt her acquaintance must do any novelist good. I also introduced him to Mrs. Lennox, who is here with her niece, Miss Jean Brandon. Mrs. Lennox, I knew, would enjoy meeting a celebrity; she sacrificed an evening's gambling for the sake of his society, and the next day, she asked him to luncheon. In the evening he told me that Miss Brandon would be a suitable heroine for his novel.

I asked him if he had begun it. He said he was planning it, but as it was a holiday novel, and as he had been forbidden to work, he was not going to make it a real book. He was going to write this novel for his own enjoyment, and not for the public. He would never publish it. He would be very grateful, all the same, if I allowed him to discuss it with me, as he could not write a story without discussing it with someone.

I said I would willingly discuss the story with him, and I have determined to keep a record of our conversations, and indeed of everything that affects this matter, in case he one day publishes the novel, or publishes what the novel may turn into; for I feel that it will not remain unpublished, even though it turns into something quite different. I shall thus have all the fun of seeing a novel planned without the trouble of writing one myself.

"Of course you have the advantage of knowing these people quite well," he said. I told him that he was mistaken. I had never met any of them, except Princess Kouragine, before. And it was years since I had seen her.

"The first problem is," he said, "Why is Miss Brandon not married? She must be getting on for thirty, if she is not thirty yet, and it is strange that a person with her looks--"

"I have often wondered what she looks like," I said, "and I have made my picture of her. Shall I tell it you, and you can tell me whether it is at all like the reality?"

He was most anxious to hear my description. I said that I imagined Miss Brandon to be as changeable in appearance as the sky. I explained to him that I had not always been blind, that my blindness had come comparatively late in life from a shooting ac

cident, in which I lost one eye-the sight of the other I lost gradually afterwards. I had imagined her as the lady who walked in the garden in Shelley's Sensitive Plant (I could not remember all the quotation):

"A sea-flower unfolded beneath the ocean."

Still, and rather mysterious, elusive and rare. He said I was right about the variability, but that he saw her differently. It was true she was pale, delicate, and extremely refined, but her eyes were the interesting thing about her. She was like a sapphire. She looked better in the daytime than in the evening. By candle-light she seemed to fade. She did not remind him of Shelley at all. She was not ethereal nor diaphanous. She was a sapphire, not a moonstone. She belonged to the world of romance, not to the world of lyric poetry. Something had been left out when she had been created. She was unfinished. What had been left out? Was it her soul? Was it her heart? Was she Undine? No. Was she Lilith? No. All the same she belonged to the fairy-tale world; to the Hans Andersen world, or to Perrault. The Princess without ... without what? She was the Sleeping Beauty in the wood, who had woken up and remembered nothing, and could never recover from the long trance. She would never be the same again. Never really awake in the world. And yet she had brought nothing back from fairyland except her looks.

"She reminds me," he said, "of a line of Robert Lytton's: 'All her looks are poetry and all her thoughts are prose.' It is not that she is prosaic, but she is muffled. You see, during that long slumber which lasted a hundred years--" Rudd had now quite forgotten my presence and was talking or, rather, murmuring to himself. He was composing aloud. "During that long exile which lasted a hundred years, and passed in a flash, she had no dreams."

"You mean she has no heart," I said.

"No, not that," he answered, "heart as much as you like. She is kind. She is affectionate. But no passion, no dreams. Above all, no dreams. That is what she is. The Princess without any dreams. Do you think that would do as a title? No, it is not quite right. The Sleeping Beauty in the World? No. Why did Rostand use the title, La Princesse Lointaine? That would have done. No, that is not quite right either. She is not far away. She is here. She looks far away and isn't. I must think about it. It will come."

Then, quite abruptly, he asked me what I imagined the garden of the hotel looked like. I said that I had never been here before and that I had only heard descriptions of the place from my acquaintances and from my servant, but I imagined the end of the garden, where I had often walked, to be rather like a Russian landscape. I had never been to Russia, but I had read Russian books, and what I imagined to be a rather untidy piece of long grass, fringed with a few birch trees and some firs, the whole rather baked and dry, reminded me of the descriptions in Tourgenev's books.

Rudd said it was not like Russia. Russia had so much more space. So much more atmosphere. This little garden might be a piece of Scotland, might be a piece of Denmark, but it was not Russian.

I asked him whether he had been to Russia. Not in the flesh, he said, but in the spirit he had lived there for years.

Perhaps he wanted to see how much the second-hand impressions of a blind man were worth.

He soon reverted to the original subject of our talk.

"Why is Miss Brandon not married?" he said.

I said I knew nothing about her, nothing about her life. I presumed her parents were dead. She was travelling with her aunt. They came here every year for her aunt's rheumatism. Mrs. Lennox had a house in London. She was a widow, not very well off, I thought. I told him I knew nothing of London life. I have lived in Italy for the last twenty years. I very seldom went to London, only, in fact, to see Kennaway. I told him he must find out about Miss Brandon's early history himself.

"She is very silent," he said.

"Mrs. Lennox is very talkative," I told him.

"What can I call it?" he asked, in an agony of impatience. "She has every beauty, every grace, except that of expression."

"The Dumb Belle?" The words escaped me and I immediately regretted them.

"No," he said, quite seriously, "she is not dumb, that is just the point. She talks, but she cannot express herself. Or rather, she has nothing to express. At least, I think she has nothing to express: or what she has got to express is not what we think it is. I imagine a story like Pygmalion and Galatea. Somebody waking her to life and then finding her quite different from what the stone image seemed to promise, from what it did promise. At any rate I have got my subject and I am extremely grateful. It is a wonderful subject."

"Henry James," I ventured.

"Ah, James," said Rudd, "yes, James, a wonderful intellect, but a critic, not a novelist. The French could do it. What would they have called it? La Princesse désenchantée, or La Belle revenue du Bois? You can't say that in English."

"Nor in French either," I thought to myself, but I said aloud, "Out of the Wood would suggest quite a different kind of book."

"A very different kind of book," said Rudd, quite gravely. "The kind of book that sells by the million."

Rudd then left me. He was enchanted with the idea of having something to write about. I felt that a good title for his novel would be Eurydice Half-regained, but I was diffident about suggesting a title to him, besides which I felt he would not like it. Miss Brandon, he would explain, was not like Eurydice, and if she was, she had forgotten her experiences beyond the Styx.

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