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 to have an emotion about 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 reflection 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 some climate or some waters, 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 the 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 clever?”
“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 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 what?”
“My dear man, that’s just what I want you to say!”
Even before Corvick 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, and then that confidence dropped. I had fancied him reading it with relish, but if Corvick was not 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 was not 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 am afraid I even watched the result of my manouvre, 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 should not remain in ignorance of the peculiar justice I had done him. It was not that he seemed to thirst for justice; on the contrary I had not 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 that 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 would take it upstairs with him, would 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 there was some happier light in his eyes; but to my disappointment Lady Jane gave me no chance to make sure. I had hoped she would 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 inquired, 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, with his mouth full of bread: “Oh, it’s all right—it’s 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, the author doesn’t see—”
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 again. “Nobody does.”
The lady on his further side appealed to him, and Miss Poyle sank back to me. “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 words.
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, 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 wrote the little notice in The Middle.”
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 have 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 exquisitely successful.
“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 that does it! But I used to read them sometimes—ten years ago. I daresay they were in general rather stupider then; at any rate it always seemed to me that 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 intense interest; it grew in-tenser 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 donkey. 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. 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 distinct.”
“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 was silent a moment. “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 that the allusion was not to my personal appearance.
“But you talk about the initiated. There must therefore, you see, be initiation.”
“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 replied. “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’être 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 do 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 my work.”
“And now you quite like it?” I risked.
“Your secret. It’s the same thing.”