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   Chapter 3 No.3

Overlooked By Maurice Baring Characters: 10187

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


This afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the most secluded part of the park when I heard someone approach, and Miss Brandon asked if she might sit down near me and talk a little. Mrs. Lennox had gone for a motor drive with Mr. Rudd.

"He is our new friend," she explained. "That is to say, more Aunt Netty's friend than mine."

I asked her whether she liked him.

"Yes, but he doesn't take much notice of me. He asks me questions, but never waits for the answer. I feel he has made up his mind about me, that I am labelled and pigeon-holed. He loves Aunt Netty."

I asked what they talked about.

"Books," she said.

"His books, I suppose," I said.

I wondered whether Mrs. Lennox had read them. I could feel Miss Brandon guessing my inward question.

"Aunt Netty is very clever," she said. "She makes people enjoy themselves, especially those kind of people.... Last night he dined at our table, and so did Mabel Summer. You don't know her? You must know her, you would like her. She is going away to-morrow, for a fortnight to the Lakes, but she is coming back then. We nearly laughed at one moment. It was awful. They were discussing Balzac, and Aunt Netty said that Balzac was a snob like all-and she was just going to say like all novelists, when she caught herself up and said: 'like Thackeray.' Mr. Rudd said that Balzac and Thackeray had nothing in common, and Mabel, who had caught my eye, and I, were speechless. Just for a moment I was shaking, and Mr. Rudd looked at us. It was awful, but Mabel recovered and said she didn't think we could realize now the kind of atmosphere that Thackeray lived in."

I said I didn't suppose that Rudd had noticed anything. He didn't seem to me to notice that kind of thing.

She agreed, but said he had moments of lucidity which were unexpected and disconcerting. "For one second," she said, "he suspected we were laughing at him. Aunt Netty manages him perfectly. He loves her. She knows exactly what to say to him. He knows she is not critical. I think he is rather suspicious. How funny clever men are!" she said, after a pause.

I said she really meant to say, "How stupid clever men are!" I reminded her of the profound saying of one of Kipling's women, that the stupidest woman could manage a clever man, but it took a very clever woman to manage a fool.

She said she had always found the most disconcerting element in stupid people-or people who were thought to be stupid-was their sudden flashes of lucidity, when they saw things quite plainly. Clever men didn't have these flashes, but the curious thing was that Rudd did.

I said I thought this was because, apart from his literary talent, which was an accomplishment like conjuring or acting, quite separate from the rest of his personality, Rudd was not a clever man. All his cleverness went into his books. I said I thought there were two kinds of writers: those who were better than their books, and of whom the books were only the overflow, and those who put every drop of their being into the books and were left with a dry and uninteresting shell.

She said she thought she had only met that kind.

"Aunt Netty," she said, "loves all authors and it's odd considering--"

She stopped, but I ended her sentence: "She has never read a book in her life."

Miss Brandon laughed and said I was unfair.

"Reading tires her. I don't think anyone has time to read a book after they are eighteen. I haven't. But I feel I am a terrible wet blanket to all Aunt Netty's friends. I can't even pretend to be enthusiastic. You see I like the other sort of people so much better."

I said I was afraid the other sort of people were poorly represented here just now.

"We have another friend," she said, "at least, I have."

"Also a new friend?" I asked.

"I have known him in a way a long time," she said. "He is a Russian called Kranitski. We met him first two years ago at Florence. He was looking after his mother, who was ill and who lived at Florence. We used to meet him often, but I never got to know him. We never spoke to each other. We saw him, too, in the distance once on the Riviera."

I asked what he was like.

"He is all lucid intervals," she said, "it is frightening. But he is very easy to get on with. Of course I don't know him at all really. I have only seen him twice. But one didn't have to plough through the usual commonplaces. He began at once as if we had known each other for years, and I felt myself doing the same thing."

I asked what he was.

She didn't quite know.

I said I thought I knew the name. It reminded me of something, but I certainly did not know him. Miss Brandon said she would introduce me to him. I asked what he looked like.

"Oh, an untidy, comfortable face," she said. "He is always smiling. He is not at all international. He is like a dog. The kind of dog that understands you in a minute. The extraordinary thing is that after the first time we had a talk I felt as if I knew him intimately, as if I had met him on some other planet, as if we were going on, not as if we were beginnin

g. I suddenly found myself telling him things I had never told anyone. Of course, this does happen to one sometimes with perfect strangers, at least it does to me. Don't you think it easy sometimes to pour out confidences to a perfect stranger? But I don't expect people give you the opportunity. They tell you things."

I said this did happen sometimes, probably because people thought I didn't count, and that as I couldn't see their faces they needn't tell the truth.

"I would find it as difficult to tell you a lie," she said, "as to tell a lie on the telephone. You know how difficult that is. I should think people tell you the truth as they do in the Confessional. The priest shuts his eyes, doesn't he?"

I said I believed this was the case.

"This Russian is a Catholic," she said. "Isn't that rare for a Russian?"

I said he was, perhaps, a Pole. The name sounded Polish.

No, he had told her he was not a Pole. He was not a man who explained. Explanations evidently bored him. He was not a soldier, but he had been to the Manchurian War. He had lived in the Far East a great deal, and in Italy. Very little in Russia apparently. He had come to Haréville for a rest cure.

"I asked him," she said, "if he had been ill, and he said something had been cut out of his life. He had been pruned. The rest of him went on sprouting just the same."

I said I supposed he spoke English.

Yes, he had had an English nurse and an English governess. He had once been to England as a child for a few weeks to the Isle of Wight. He knew no English people. He liked English books.

"Byron, and Jerome K. Jerome?" I suggested.

"No," she said, "Miss Austen."

I asked whether he had made Mrs. Lennox's acquaintance. Yes, they had talked a little.

"Aunt Netty talked to him about Tolstoi. Tolstoi is one of Mr. Rudd's stock topics."

I said I supposed she had retailed Rudd's views on the Russian. Was he astonished?

"Not a bit. I could see he had heard it all before," she said. "He was angelic. He shook his ears now and then like an Airedale terrier. Aunt Netty doesn't want him. Mr. Rudd is enough for her and she is enjoying herself. She always finds someone here. Last year it was a composer."

"Does Princess Kouragine know him?" I asked.

No, she didn't. She had never met him, but she knew of him.

I asked what Mr. Rudd thought about Princess Kouragine.

"Mr. Rudd and Aunt Netty discuss her for hours. He has theories about her. He began by saying she had the Slav indifference. Then Aunt Netty said she was French. But Mr. Rudd said it was catching. People who lived in Ireland became Irish, and people who lived in Russia became Russian. Then Aunt Netty said Princess Kouragine had lived in France and Italy. Mr. Rudd said she had caught the microbe, and that she was a woman who lived only by half-hours. He meant she was only alive for half-an-hour at a time."

At that moment someone walked up the path.

"Here is Monsieur Kranitski," she said. She introduced us.

"I have been walking to the end of the park," he said. "It is curious, but that side of the park with the dry lawn-tennis court, those birch trees and some straggling fir trees on the hill and the long grass, reminds me of a Russian garden which I used to know very well."

I said that when people had described that same spot to me I had imagined it like the descriptions of places in Tourgenev's books.

He said I was quite right.

I said it was a wonderful tribute to an author's powers that he could make the character of a landscape plain, not only to a person who had never been in his country, but even to a blind man.

Kranitski said that Tourgenev described gardens very well, and a particular kind of Russian landscape. "What I call the orthodox kind. I hear James Rudd, the writer, is staying here. He has a gift for describing places: Italian villages, journeys in France, little canals at Venice, the Campagna."

"You like his books?" I asked.

"Some of them; when they are fantastic, yes. When he is psychological I find them annoying, but one says I am wrong."

"He is too complicated," Miss Brandon said. "He spoils things by seeing too much, by explaining too much."

I asked Kranitski if he was a great novel reader. He said he liked novels if they were very good, like Miss Austen and Henry James, or else very, very bad ones. He could not read any novel because it was a novel. On the other hand he could read any detective story, good, bad or middling.

Miss Brandon asked him if he would like to know Rudd.

"Is he very frightful?" he asked.

I said I did not think he was at all alarming.

Yes, he said, he would like to make his acquaintance. He had never met an English author.

"You won't mind his explaining the Russian character to you?" I said.

Kranitski said he would not mind that, and that as his mother was Italian, and as he had lived very little in Russia and spoke Russian badly, perhaps Mr. Rudd would not count him as a Russian.

Miss Brandon said that would make the explanation more complicated still.

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