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Title: The Author Of Beltraffio
Author: James, Henry, 1843-1916
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO.

By Henry James

1885



PART I.

Much as I wished to see him, I had kept my letter of introduction for
three weeks in my pocket-book. I was nervous and timid about meeting
him,--conscious of youth and ignorance, convinced that he was tormented
by strangers, and especially by my country-people, and not exempt from
the suspicion that he had the irritability as well as the brilliancy of
genius. Moreover, the pleasure, if it should occur (for I could scarcely
believe it was near at hand), would be so great that I wished to think
of it in advance, to feel that it was in my pocket, not to mix it with
satisfactions more superficial and usual In the little game of new
sensations that I was playing with my ingenuous mind, I wished to keep
my visit to the author of _Beltraffio_ as a trump card. It was three
years after the publication of that fascinating work, which I had read
over five times, and which now, with my riper judgment, I admire on the
whole as much as ever. This will give you about the date of my first
visit (of any duration) to England; for you will not have forgotten
masterpiece. It was the most complete presentation that had yet been
made of the gospel of art; it was a kind of aesthetic war-cry. People
had endeavored to sail nearer to "truth" in the cut of their sleeves
and the shape of their sideboards; but there had not as yet been, among
English novels, such an example of beauty of execution and genuineness
of substance. Nothing had been done in that line from the point of view
of art for art This was my own point of view, I may mention, when I
was twenty-five; whether it is altered now I won't take upon myself
to say--especially as the discerning reader will be able to judge for
himself. I had been in England, briefly, a twelvemonth before the time
to which I began by alluding, and had learned then that Mr. Ambient was
in distant lands--was making a considerable tour in the East: so there
was nothing to do but to keep my letter till I should be in London
again. It was of little use to me to hear that his wife had not left
England, and, with her little boy, their only child, was spending the
period of her husband's absence--a good many months--at a small place
they had down in Surrey. They had a house in London which was let. All
this I learned, and also that Mrs. Ambient was charming (my friend the
American poet, from whom I had my introduction, had never seen her, his
relations with the great man being only epistolary); but she was
not, after all, though she had lived so near the rose, the author of
_Beltraffio_, and I did not go down into Surrey to call on her. I went
to the Continent, spent the following winter in Italy, and returned to
London in May. My visit to Italy opened my eyes to a good many things,
but to nothing more than the beauty of certain pages in the works of
Mark Ambient I had every one of his productions in my portmanteau,--they
are not, as you know, very numerous, but he had preluded to _Beltraffio_
by some exquisite things,--and I used to read them over in the evening
at the inn. I used to say to myself that the man who drew those
characters and wrote that style understood what he saw and knew what he
was doing. This is my only reason for mentioning my winter in Italy.
He had been there much in former years, and he was saturated with what
painters call the "feeling" of that classic land. He expressed the
charm of the old hill-cities of Tuscany, the look of certain lonely
grass-grown places which, in the past, had echoed with life; he
understood the great artists, he understood the spirit of the
Renaissance, he understood everything. The scene of one of his earlier
novels was laid in Borne, the scene of another in Florence, and I moved
through these cities in company with the figures whom Mark Ambient had
set so vividly upon their feet. This is why I was now so much happier
even than before in the prospect of making his acquaintance.

At last, when I had dallied with this privilege long enough, I
despatched to him the missive of the American poet He had already gone
out of town; he shrank from the rigor of the London "season" and it was
his habit to migrate on the first of June. Moreover, I had heard that
this year he was hard at work on a new book, into which some of his
impressions of the East were to be wrought, so that he desired nothing
so much as quiet days. This knowledge, however, did not prevent me--_cet
âge est sans pitié_--from sending with my friend's letter a note of my
own, in which I asked Mr. Ambient's leave to come down and see him for
an hour or two, on a day to be designated by himself. My proposal was
accompanied with a very frank expression of my sentiments, and the
effect of the whole projectile was to elicit from the great man the
kindest possible invitation. He would be delighted to see me, especially
if I should turn up on the following Saturday and would remain till
the Monday morning. We would take a walk over the Surrey commons, and
I could tell him all about the other great man, the one in America. He
indicated to me the best train, and it may be imagined whether on
the Saturday afternoon I was punctual at Waterloo. He carried his
benevolence to the point of coming to meet me at the little station at
which I was to alight, and my heart beat very fast as I saw his
handsome face, surmounted with a soft wide-awake, and which I knew by
a photograph long since enshrined upon my mantelshelf, scanning the
carriage windows as the train rolled up. He recognized me as infallibly
as I had recognized him; he appeared to know by instinct how a young
American of an æsthetic turn would look when much divided between
eagerness and modesty. He took me by the hand, and smiled at me, and
said: "You must be--a--_you_, I think!" and asked if I should mind going
on foot to his house, which would take but a few minutes. I remember
thinking it a piece of extraordinary affability that he should give
directions about the conveyance of my bag, and feeling altogether very
happy and rosy, in fact quite transported, when he laid his hand on my
shoulder as we came out of the station.

I surveyed him, askance, as we walked together; I had already--I had
indeed instantly--seen that he was a delightful creature. His face is
so well known that I need n't describe it; he looked to me at once
an English gentleman and a man of genius, and I thought that a happy
combination. There was just a little of the Bohemian in his appearance;
you would easily have guessed that he belonged to the guild of artists
and men of letters. He was addicted to velvet jackets, to cigarettes,
to loose shirt-collars, to looking a little dishevelled. His features,
which were fine, but not perfectly regular, are fairly enough
represented in his portraits; but no portrait that I have seen gives any
idea of his expression. There were so many things in it, and they chased
each other in and out of his face. I have seen people who were grave and
gay in quick alternation; but Mark Ambient was grave and gay at one and
the same moment. There were other strange oppositions and contradictions
in his slightly faded and fatigued countenance. He seemed both young and
old, both anxious and indifferent. He had evidently had an active past,
which inspired one with curiosity, and yet it was impossible not to be
more curious still about his future. He was just enough above middle
height to be spoken of as tall, and rather lean and long in the flank.
He had the friendliest, frankest manner possible, and yet I could see
that he was shy. He was thirty-eight years old at the time _Beltraffio_
was published. He asked me about his friend in America, about the length
of my stay in England, about the last news in London and the people I
had seen there; and I remember looking for the signs of genius in the
very form of his questions, and thinking I found it. I liked his voice.

There was genius in his house, too, I thought, when we got there; there
was imagination in the carpets and curtains, in the pictures and books,
in the garden behind it, where certain old brown walls were muffled in
creepers that appeared to me to have been copied from a masterpiece of
one of the pre-Raphaelites. That was the way many things struck me at
that time, in England; as if they were reproductions of something that
existed primarily in art or literature. It was not the picture, the
poem, the fictive page, that seemed to me a copy; these things were the
originals, and the life of happy and distinguished people was fashioned
in their image. Mark Ambient called his house a cottage, and I perceived
afterwards that he was right; for if it had not been a cottage it must
have been a villa, and a villa, in England at least, was not a place in
which one could fancy him at home. But it was, to my vision, a cottage
glorified and translated; it was a palace of art, on a slightly reduced
scale,--it was an old English demesne. It nestled under a cluster of
magnificent beeches, it had little creaking lattices that opened out of,
or into, pendent mats of ivy, and gables, and old red tiles, as well
as a general aspect of being painted in water-colors and inhabited by
people whose lives would go on in chapters and volumes. The lawn seemed
to me of extraordinary extent, the garden-walls of incalculable height,
the whole air of the place delightfully still, private, proper to
itself. "My wife must be somewhere about," Mark Ambient said, as we went
in. "We shall find her perhaps; we have got about an hour before dinner.
She may be in the garden. I will show you my little place."

We passed through the house, and into the grounds, as I should have
called them, which extended into the rear. They covered but three or
four acres, but, like the house, they were very old and crooked, and
full of traces of long habitation, with inequalities of level and little
steps--mossy and cracked were these--which connected the different parts
with each other. The limits of the place, cleverly dissimulated, were
muffled in the deepest verdure. They made, as I remember, a kind of
curtain at the further end, in one of the folds of which, as it were,
we presently perceived, from afar, a little group. "Ah, there she is!"
said Mark Ambient; "and she has got the boy." He made this last remark
in a slightly different tone from any in which he yet had spoken. I
was not fully aware of it at the time, but it lingered in my ear and I
afterwards understood it.

"Is it your son?" I inquired, feeling the question not to be brilliant.

"Yes, my only child. He's always in his mother's pocket She coddles him
too much." It came back to me afterwards, too--the manner in which
he spoke these words. They were not petulant; they expressed rather a
sudden coldness, a kind of mechanical submission. We went a few steps
further, and then he stopped short and called the boy, beckoning to him
repeatedly.

"Dolcino, come and see your daddy!" There was something in the way he
stood still and waited that made me think he did it for a purpose. Mrs.
Ambient had her arm round the child's waist, and he was leaning against
her knee; but though he looked up at the sound of his father's voice,
she gave no sign of releasing him. A lady, apparently a neighbor,
was seated near her, and before them was a garden-table, on which a
tea-service had been placed.

Mark Ambient called again, and Dolcino struggled in the maternal
embrace, but he was too tightly held, and after two or three fruitless
efforts he suddenly turned round and buried his head deep in his
mother's lap. There was a certain awkwardness in the scene; I thought
it rather odd that Mrs. Ambient should pay so little attention to her
husband. But I would not for the world have betrayed my thought, and, to
conceal it, I observed that it must be such a pleasant thing to have tea
in the garden. "Ah, she won't let him come!" said Mark Ambient, with a
sigh; and we went our way 'till we reached the two ladies. He mentioned
my name to his wife, and I noticed that he addressed her as "My dear,"
very genially, without any trace of resentment at her detention of
the child. The quickness of the transition made me vaguely ask myself
whether he were henpecked,--a shocking conjecture, which I instantly
dismissed. Mrs. Ambient was quite such a wife as I should have expected
him to have; slim and fair, with a long neck and pretty eyes and an air
of great refinement. She was a little cold, and a little shy; but she
was very sweet, and she had a certain look of race, justified by my
afterwards learning that she was "connected" with two or three great
families. I have seen poets married to women of whom it was difficult
to conceive that they should gratify the poetic fancy,--women with dull
faces and glutinous minds, who were none the less, however, excellent
wives. But there was no obvious incongruity in Mark Ambient's union.
Mrs. Ambient, delicate and quiet, in a white dress, with her beautiful
child at her side, was worthy of the author of a work so distinguished
as _Beltraffio_. Bound her neck she wore a black velvet ribbon, of which
the long ends, tied behind, hung down her back, and to which, in front,
was attached a miniature portrait of her little boy. Her smooth, shining
hair was confined in a net She gave me a very pleasant greeting, and
Dolcino--I thought this little name of endearment delightful--took
advantage of her getting up to slip away from her and go to his father,
who said nothing to him, but simply seized him and held him high in his
arms for a moment, kissing him several times.

I had lost no time in observing that the child, who was not more than
seven years old, was extraordinarily beautiful He had the face of an
angel,--the eyes, the hair, the more than mortal bloom, the smile of
innocence. There was something touching, almost alarming, in his beauty,
which seemed to be composed of elements too fine and pure for the breath
of this world. When I spoke to him, and he came and held out his hand
and smiled at me, I felt a sudden pity for him, as if he had been an
orphan, or a changeling, or stamped with some social stigma. It was
impossible to be, in fact, more exempt from these misfortunes, and
yet, as one kissed him, it was hard to keep from murmuring "Poor little
devil!" though why one should have applied this epithet to a living
cherub is more than I can say. Afterwards, indeed, I knew a little
better; I simply discovered that he was too charming to live, wondering
at the same time that his parents should not have perceived it, and
should not be in proportionate grief and despair. For myself, I had no
doubt of his evanescence, having already noticed that there is a kind of
charm which is like a death-warrant.

The lady who had been sitting with Mrs. Ambient was a jolly, ruddy
personage, dressed in velveteen and rather limp feathers, whom I guessed
to be the vicar's wife,--our hostess did not introduce me,--and who
immediately began to talk to Ambient about chrysanthemums. This was a
safe subject, and yet there was a certain surprise for me in seeing
the author of _Beltraffio_ even in such superficial communion with the
Church of England. His writings implied so much detachment from that
institution, expressed a view of life so profane, as it were, so
independent, and so little likely, in general, to be thought edifying,
that I should have expected to find him an object of horror to vicars
and their ladies--of horror repaid on his own part by good-natured but
brilliant mockery. This proves how little I knew as yet of the English
people and their extraordinary talent for keeping up their forms, as
well as of some of the mysteries of Mark Ambient's hearth and home.
I found afterwards that he had, in his study, between smiles and
cigar-smoke, some wonderful comparisons for his clerical neighbors; but
meanwhile the chrysanthemums were a source of harmony, for he and the
vicaress were equally fond of them, and I was surprised at the knowledge
they exhibited of this interesting plant. The lady's visit, however, had
presumably already been long, and she presently got up, saying she must
go, and kissed Mrs. Ambient Mark started to walk with her to the gate of
the grounds, holding Dolcino by the hand.

"Stay with me, my darling," Mrs. Ambient said to the boy, who was
wandering away with his father.

Mark Ambient paid no attention to the summons, but Dolcino turned round
and looked with eyes of shy entreaty at his mother. "Can't I go with
papa?"

"Not when I ask you to stay with me."

"But please don't ask me, mamma," said the child, in his little clear,
new voice.

"I must ask you when I want you. Come to me, my darling." And Mrs.
Ambient, who had seated herself again, held out her long, slender hands.

Her husband stopped, with his back turned to her, but without releasing
the child. He was still talking to the vicaress, but this good lady, I
think, had lost the thread of her attention. She looked at Mrs. Ambient
and at Dolcino, and then she looked at me, smiling very hard, in an
extremely fixed, cheerful manner.

"Papa," said the child, "mamma wants me not to go with you."

"He's very tired--he has run about all day. He ought to be quiet till
he goes to bed. Otherwise he won't sleep." These declarations fell
successively and gravely from Mrs. Ambient's lips.

Her husband, still without turning round, bent over the boy and looked
at him in silence. The vicaress gave a genial, irrelevant laugh, and
observed that he was a precious little pet "Let him choose," said Mark
Ambient. "My dear little boy, will you go with me or will you stay with
your mother?"

"Oh, it's a shame!" cried the vicar's lady, with increased hilarity.

"Papa, I don't think I can choose," the child answered, making his voice
very low and confidential. "But I have been a great deal with mamma
to-day," he added in a moment.

"And very little with papa! My dear fellow, I think you have chosen!"
And Mark Ambient walked off with his son, accompanied by re-echoing but
inarticulate comments from my fellow-visitor.

His wife had seated herself again, and her fixed eyes, bent upon the
ground, expressed for a few moments so much mute agitation that I felt
as if almost any remark from my own lips would be a false note. But Mrs.
Ambient quickly recovered herself, and said to me civilly enough
that she hoped I did n't mind having had to walk from the station. I
reassured her on this point, and she went on, "We have got a thing that
might have gone for you, but my husband wouldn't order it."

"That gave me the pleasure of a walk with him," I rejoined.

She was silent a minute, and then she said, "I believe the Americans
walk very little."

"Yes, we always run," I answered laughingly.

She looked at me seriously, and I began to perceive a certain coldness
in her pretty eyes. "I suppose your distances are so great?"

"Yes; but we break our marches I I can't tell you what a pleasure it is
for me to find myself here," I added. "I have the greatest admiration
for Mr. Ambient."

"He will like that. He likes being admired."

"He must have a very happy life, then. He has many worshippers."

"Oh, yes, I have seen some of them," said Mrs. Ambient, looking away,
very far from me, rather as if such a vision were before her at the
moment Something in her tone seemed to indicate that the vision was
scarcely edifying, and I guessed very quickly that she was not in
sympathy with the author of _Beltraffio_. I thought the fact strange,
but, somehow, in the glow of my own enthusiasm, I did n't think it
important; it only made me wish to be rather explicit about that
enthusiasm.

"For me, you know," I remarked, "he is quite the greatest of living
writers."

"Of course I can't judge. Of course he's very clever," said Mrs.
Ambient, smiling a little.

"He's magnificent, Mrs. Ambient! There are pages in each of his books
that have a perfection that classes them with the greatest things.
Therefore, for me to see him in this familiar way,--in his habit as he
lives,--and to find, apparently, the man as delightful as the artist,
I can't tell you how much too good to be true it seems, and how great a
privilege I think it." I knew that I was gushing, but I could n't help
it, and what I said was a good deal less than what I felt. I was by no
means sure that I should dare to say even so much as this to Ambient
himself, and there was a kind of rapture in speaking it out to his
wife which was not affected by the fact that, as a wife, she appeared
peculiar. She listened to me with her face grave again, and with her
lips a little compressed, as if there were no doubt, of course, that
her husband was remarkable, but at the same time she had heard all this
before and couldn't be expected to be particularly interested in it.
There was even in her manner an intimation that I was rather young, and
that people usually got over that sort of thing. "I assure you that for
me this is a red-letter day," I added.

She made no response, until after a pause, looking round her, she said
abruptly, though gently, "We are very much afraid about the fruit this
year."

My eyes wandered to the mossy, mottled, garden walls, where plum-trees
and pear-trees, flattened and fastened upon the rusty bricks, looked
like crucified figures with many arms. "Does n't it promise well?" I
inquired.

"No, the trees look very dull. We had such late frosts."

Then there was another pause. Mrs. Ambient kept her eyes fixed on the
opposite end of the grounds, as if she were watching for her husband's
return with the child. "Is Mr. Ambient fond of gardening?" it occurred
to me to inquire, irresistibly impelled as I felt myself, moreover, to
bring the conversation constantly back to him.

"He's very fond of plums," said his wife.

"Ah, well then, I hope your crop will be better than you fear. It's a
lovely old place," I continued. "The whole character of it is that
of certain places that he describes. Your house is like one of his
pictures."

"It's a pleasant little place. There are hundreds like it"

"Oh, it has got his tone," I said, laughing, and insisting on my point
the more that Mrs. Ambient appeared to see in my appreciation of her
simple establishment a sign of limited experience.

It was evident that I insisted too much. "His tone?" she repeated, with
a quick look at me, and a slightly heightened color.

"Surely he has a tone, Mrs. Ambient"

"Oh, yes, he has indeed! But I don't in the least consider that I am
living in one of his books; I should n't care for that, at all," she
went on, with a smile which had in some degree the effect of converting
her slightly sharp protest into a joke deficient in point "I am afraid I
am not very literary," said Mrs. Ambient. "And I am not artistic."

"I am very sure you are not ignorant, not stupid," I ventured to reply,
with the accompaniment of feeling immediately afterwards that I had been
both familiar and patronizing. My only consolation was in the reflection
that it was she, and not I, who had begun it She had brought her
idiosyncrasies into the discussion.

"Well, whatever I am, I am very different from my husband. If you like
him, you won't like me. You need n't say anything. Your liking me is n't
in the least necessary!"

"Don't defy me!" I exclaimed.

She looked as if she had not heard me, which was the best thing she
could do; and we sat some time without further speech. Mrs. Ambient
had evidently the enviable English quality of being able to be silent
without being restless. But at last she spoke; she asked me if there
seemed to be many people in town. I gave her what satisfaction I could
on this point, and we talked a little about London and of some pictures
it presented at that time of the year. At the end of this I came back,
irrepressibly, to Mark Ambient.

"Does n't he like to be there now? I suppose he does n't find the proper
quiet for his work. I should think his things had been written, for
the most part, in a very still place. They suggest a great stillness,
following on a kind of tumult. Don't you think so? I suppose London is a
tremendous place to collect impressions, but a refuge like this, in the
country, must be much better for working them up. Does he get many of
his impressions in London, do you think?" I proceeded from point to point
in this malign inquiry, simply because my hostess, who probably thought
me a very pushing and talkative young man, gave me time; for when I
paused--I have not represented my pauses--she simply continued to
let her eyes wander, and, with her long fair fingers, played with the
medallion on her neck. When I stopped altogether, however, she was
obliged to say something, and what she said was that she had not the
least idea where her husband got his impressions. This made me think
her, for a moment, positively disagreeable; delicate and proper and
rather aristocratically dry as she sat there. But I must either have
lost the impression a moment later, or been goaded by it to further
aggression, for I remember asking her whether Mr. Ambient were in a good
vein of work, and when we might look for the appearance of the book on
which he was engaged. I have every reason now to know that she thought
me an odious person.

She gave a strange, small laugh as she said, "I am afraid you think I
know a great deal more about my husband's work than I do. I haven't
the least idea what he is doing," she added presently, in a slightly
different, that is a more explanatory, tone, as if she recognized
in some degree the enormity of her confession. "I don't read what he
writes!"

She did not succeed (and would not, even had she tried much harder) in
making it seem to me anything less than monstrous. I stared at her,
and I think I blushed. "Don't you admire his genius? Don't you admire
_Beltraffio?_"

She hesitated a moment, and I wondered what she could possibly say. She
did not speak--I could see--the first words that rose to her lips; she
repeated what she had said a few minutes before. "Oh, of course he 's
very clever!" And with this she got up; her husband and little boy had
reappeared. Mrs. Ambient left me and went to meet them; she stopped and
had a few words with her husband, which I did not hear, and which ended
in her taking the child by the hand and returning to the house with him.
Her husband joined me in a moment, looking, I thought, the least bit
conscious and constrained, and said that if I would come in with him he
would show me my room. In looking back upon these first moments of my
visit to him, I find it important to avoid the error of appearing to
have understood his situation from the first, and to have seen in him
the signs of things which I learnt only afterwards. This later knowledge
throws a backward light, and makes me forget that at least on the
occasion of which I am speaking now (I mean that first afternoon), Mark
Ambient struck me as a fortunate man. Allowing for this, I think he was
rather silent and irresponsive as we walked back to the house, though I
remember well the answer he made to a remark of mine in relation to his
child.

"That's an extraordinary little boy of yours," I said. "I have never
seen such a child."

"Why do you call him extraordinary?"

"He's so beautiful, so fascinating. He's like a little work of art."

He turned quickly, grasping my arm an instant. "Oh, don't call him that,
or you 'll--you 'll--!"

And in his hesitation he broke off suddenly, laughing at my surprise.
But immediately afterwards he added, "You will make his little future
very difficult."

I declared that I wouldn't for the world take any liberties with his
little future--it seemed to me to hang by threads of such delicacy. I
should only be highly interested in watching it.

"You Americans are very sharp," said Ambient "You notice more things
than we do."

"Ah, if you want visitors who are not struck with you, you should n't
ask me down here!"

He showed me my room, a little bower of chintz, with open windows where
the light was green, and before he left me he said irrelevantly, "As for
my little boy, you know, we shall probably kill him between us, before
wo have done with him!" And he made this assertion as if he
really believed it, without any appearance of jest, with his fine,
near-sighted, expressive eyes looking straight into mine.

"Do you mean by spoiling him?"

"No; by fighting for him!"

"You had better give him to me to keep for you," I said. "Let me remove
the apple of discord."

I laughed, of course, but he had the air of being perfectly serious.
"It would be quite the best thing we could do. I should be quite ready
to do it."

"I am greatly obliged to you for your confidence."

Mark Ambient lingered there, with his hands in his pockets. I felt,
within a few moments, as if I had, morally speaking, taken several
steps nearer to him. He looked weary, just as he faced me then, looked
preoccupied, and as if there were something one might do for him. I was
terribly conscious of the limits of my own ability, but I wondered what
such a service might be, feeling at bottom, however, that the only thing
I could do for him was to like him. I suppose he guessed this, and was
grateful for what was in my mind; for he went on presently, "I have n't
the advantage of being an American. But I also notice a little, and I
have an idea that--a--" here he smiled and laid his hand on my shoulder,
"that even apart from your nationality, you are not destitute of
intelligence! I have only known you half an hour, but--a--" And here he
hesitated again. "You are very young, after all."

"But you may treat me as if I could understand you!" I said; and before
he left me to dress for dinner he had virtually given me a promise that
he would.

When I went down into the drawing-room--I was very punctual--I found
that neither my hostess nor my host had appeared. A lady rose from a
sofa, however, and inclined her head as I rather surprisedly gazed at
her. "I dare say you don't know me," she said, with the modern laugh.
"I am Mark Ambient's sister." Whereupon I shook hands with her, saluting
her very low. Her laugh was modern--by which I mean that it consisted
of the vocal agitation which, between people who meet in drawing-rooms,
serves as the solvent of social mysteries, the medium of transitions;
but her appearance was--what shall I call it?--mediaeval. She was pale
and angular, with a long, thin face, inhabited by sad, dark eyes, and
black hair intertwined with golden fillets and curious chains. She wore
a faded velvet robe, which clung to her when she moved, fashioned, as
to the neck and sleeves, like the garments of old Venetians and
Florentines. She looked pictorial and melancholy, and was so perfect an
image of a type which I, in my ignorance, supposed to be extinct, that
while she rose before me I was almost as much startled as if I had seen
a ghost. I afterwards perceived that Miss Ambient was not incapable
of deriving pleasure from the effect she produced, and I think this
sentiment had something to do with her sinking again into her seat, with
her long, lean, but not ungraceful arms locked together in an archaic
manner on her knees, and her mournful eyes addressing themselves to
me with an intentness which was a menace of what they were destined
subsequently to inflict upon me. She was a singular, self-conscious,
artificial creature, and I never, subsequently, more than half
penetrated her motives and, mysteries. Of one thing I am sure, however:
that they were considerably less extraordinary than her appearance
announced. Miss Ambient was a restless, disappointed, imaginative
spinster, consumed with the love of Michael-Angelesque attitudes and
mystical robes; but I am pretty sure she had not in her nature those
depths of unutterable thought which, when you first knew her, seemed
to look out from her eyes and to prompt her complicated gestures. Those
features, in especial, had a misleading eloquence; they rested upon
you with a far-off dimness, an air of obstructed sympathy, which was
certainly not always a key to the spirit of their owner; and I
suspect that a young lady could not really have been so dejected and
disillusioned as Miss Ambient looked, without having committed a crime
for which she was consumed with remorse, or parted with a hope which
she could not sanely have entertained. She had, I believe, the usual
allowance of vulgar impulses: she wished to be looked at, she wished to
be married, she wished to be thought original. It costs me something to
speak in this irreverent manner of Mark Ambient's sister, but I shall
have still more disagreeable things to say before I have finished my
little anecdote, and moreover,--I confess it,--I owe the young lady a
sort of grudge. Putting aside the curious cast of her face, she had
no natural aptitude for an artistic development,--she had little real
intelligence. But her affectations rubbed off on her brother's renown,
and as there were plenty of people who disapproved of him totally, they
could easily point to his sister as a person formed by his influence. It
was quite possible to regard her as a warning, and she had done him but
little good with the world at large. He was the original, and she
was the inevitable imitation. I think he was scarcely aware of the
impression she produced, beyond having a general idea that she made
up very well as a Rossetti; he was used to her, and he was sorry for
her,--wishing she would marry and observing that she did n't Doubtless I
take her too seriously, for she did me no harm, though I am bound to add
that I feel I can only half account for her. She was not so mystical as
she looked, but she was a strange, indirect, uncomfortable, embarrassing
woman. My story will give the reader at best so very small a knot to
untie that I need not hope to excite his curiosity by delaying to
remark that Mrs. Ambient hated her sister-in-law. This I only found
out afterwards, when I found out some other things. But I mention it at
once, for I shall perhaps not seem to count too much on having enlisted
the imagination of the reader if I say that he will already have guessed
it Mrs. Ambient was a person of conscience, and she endeavored to behave
properly to her kinswoman, who spent a month with her twice a year; but
it required no great insight to discover that the two ladies were made
of a very different paste, and that the usual feminine hypocrisies must
have cost them, on either side, much more than the usual effort. Mrs.
Ambient, smooth-haired, thin-lipped, perpetually fresh, must have
regarded her crumpled and dishevelled visitor as a very stale joke; she
herself was not a Rossetti, but a Gainsborough or a Lawrence, and she
had in her appearance no elements more romantic than a cold, ladylike
candor, and a well-starched muslin dress.

It was in a garment, and with an expression, of this kind, that she made
her entrance, after I had exchanged a few words with Miss Ambient. Her
husband presently followed her, and there being no other company we went
to dinner. The impression I received from that repast is present to me
still. There were elements of oddity in my companions, but they were
vague and latent, and did n't interfere with my delight It came mainly,
of course, from Ambient's talk, which was the most brilliant and
interesting I had ever heard. I know not whether he laid himself out
to dazzle a rather juvenile pilgrim from over the sea; but it matters
little, for it was very easy for him to shine. He was almost better as
a talker than as a writer; that is, if the extraordinary finish of his
written prose be really, as some people have maintained, a fault. There
was such a kindness in him, however, that I have no doubt it gave him
ideas to see me sit open-mouthed, as I suppose I did. Not so the two
ladies, who not only were very nearly dumb from beginning to the end
of the meal, but who had not the air of being struck with such an
exhibition of wit and knowledge. Mrs. Ambient, placid and detached, met
neither my eye nor her husband's; she attended to her dinner, watched
the servants, arranged the puckers in her dress, exchanged at wide
intervals a remark with her sister-in-law, and while she slowly rubbed
her white hands between the courses, looked out of the window at the
first signs of twilight--the long June day allowing us to dine without
candles.. Miss Ambient appeared to give little direct heed to her
brother's discourse; but on the other hand she was much engaged in
watching its effect upon me. Her lustreless pupils continued to attach
themselves to my countenance, and it was only her air of belonging to
another century that kept them from being importunate. She seemed to
look at me across the ages, and the interval of time diminished the
vividness of the performance. It was as if she knew in a general way
that her brother must be talking very well, but she herself was so rich
in ideas that she had no need to pick them up, and was at liberty to see
what would become of a young American when subjected to a high aesthetic
temperature.

The temperature was æsthetic, certainly, but it was less so than I could
have desired, for I was unsuccessful in certain little attempts to make
Mark Ambient talk about himself I tried to put him on the ground of his
own writings, but he slipped through my fingers every time and shifted
the saddle to one of his contemporaries. He talked about Balzac and
Browning, and what was being done in foreign countries, and about his
recent tour in the East, and the extraordinary forms of life that one
saw in that part of the world. I perceived that he had reasons for not
wishing to descant upon literature, and suffered him without protest
to deliver himself on certain social topics, which he treated with
extraordinary humor and with constant revelations of that power of
ironical portraiture of which his books are full. He had a great deal
to say about London, as London appears to the observer who does n't fear
the accusation of cynicism, during the high-pressure time--from April
to July--of its peculiarities. He flashed his faculty of making the
fanciful real and the real fanciful over the perfunctory pleasures and
desperate exertions of so many of his compatriots, among whom there were
evidently not a few types for which he had little love. London bored him,
and he made capital sport of it; his only allusion, that I can remember,
to his own work was his saying that he meant some day to write an
immense grotesque epic of London society. Miss Ambient's perpetual gaze
seemed to say to me: "Do you perceive how artistic we are? Frankly now,
is it possible to be more artistic than this? You surely won't deny that
we are remarkable." I was irritated by her use of the plural pronoun,
for she had no right to pair herself with her brother; and moreover, of
course, I could not see my way to include Mrs. Ambient. But there was
no doubt that, for that matter, they were all remarkable, and, with
all allowances, I had never heard anything so artistic. Mark Ambient's
conversation seemed to play over the whole field of knowledge and taste,
and to flood it with light and color.

After the ladies had left us he took me into his study to smoke, and
here I led him on to talk freely enough about himself. I was bent upon
proving to him that I was worthy to listen to him, upon repaying him
for what he had said to me before dinner, by showing him how perfectly
I understood. He liked to talk; he liked to defend his ideas (not that
I attacked them); he liked a little perhaps--it was a pardonable
weakness--to astonish the youthful mind and to feel its admiration
and sympathy. I confess that my own youthful mind was considerably
astonished at some of his speeches; he startled me and he made me wince.
He could not help forgetting, or rather he could n't know, how little
personal contact I had had with the school in which he was master; and
he promoted me at a jump, as it were, to the study of its innermost
mysteries. My trepidations, however, were delightful; they were just
what I had hoped for, and their only fault was that they passed away too
quickly; for I found that, as regards most things, I very soon seized
Mark Ambient's point of view. It was the point of view of the artist to
whom every manifestation of human energy was a thrilling spectacle, and
who felt forever the desire to resolve his experience of life into a
literary form. On this matter of the passion for form,--the attempt at
perfection, the quest for which was to his mind the real search for the
holy grail,--he said the most interesting, the most inspiring things. He
mixed with them a thousand illustrations from his own life, from other
lives that he had known, from history and fiction, and above all from
the annals of the time that was dear to him beyond all periods,--the
Italian _cinque-cento_. I saw that in his books he had only said half
of his thought, and what he had kept back--from motives that I deplored
when I learnt them later--was the richer part It was his fortune to
shock a great many people, but there was not a grain of bravado in his
pages (I have always maintained it, though often contradicted), and at
bottom the poor fellow, an artist to his fingertips, and regarding a
failure of completeness as a crime, had an extreme dread of scandal.
There are people who regret that having gone so far he did not go
further; but I regret nothing (putting aside two or three of the motives
I just mentioned), for he arrived at perfection, and I don't see how you
can go beyond that The hours I spent in his study--this first one and
the few that followed it; they were not, after all, so numerous--seem
to glow, as I look back on them, with a tone which is partly that of
the brown old room, rich, under the shaded candlelight where we sat and
smoked, with the dusky, delicate bindings of valuable books; partly that
of his voice, of which I still catch the echo, charged with the images
that came at his command. When we went back to the drawing-room we found
Miss Ambient alone in possession of it; and she informed us that her
sister-in-law had a quarter of an hour before been called by the nurse
to see Dolcino, who appeared to be a little feverish.

"Feverish! how in the world does he come to be feverish?" Ambient asked.
"He was perfectly well this afternoon."

"Beatrice says you walked him about too much--you almost killed him."

"Beatrice must be very happy--she has an opportunity to triumph!" Mark
Ambient said, with a laugh of which the bitterness was just perceptible.

"Surely not if the child is ill," I ventured to remark, by way of
pleading for Mrs. Ambient.

"My dear fellow, you are not married--you don't know the nature of
wives!" my host exclaimed.

"Possibly not; but I know the nature of mothers."

"Beatrice is perfect as a mother," said Miss Ambient, with a tremendous
sigh and her fingers interlaced on her embroidered knees.

"I shall go up and see the child," her brother went on. "Do you suppose
he's asleep?"

"Beatrice won't let you see him, Mark," said the young lady, looking at
me, though she addressed, our companion.

"Do you call that being perfect as a mother?" Ambient inquired.

"Yes, from her point of view."

"Damn her point of view!" cried the author of _Beltraffio_. And he left
the room; after which we heard him ascend the stairs.

I sat there for some ten minutes with Miss Ambient, and we naturally had
some conversation, which was begun, I think, by my asking her what the
point of view of her sister-in-law could be.

"Oh, it's so very odd," she said. "But we are so very odd, altogether.
Don't you find us so? We have lived so much abroad. Have you people like
us in America?"

"You are not all alike, surely; so that I don't think I understand your
question. We have no one like your brother--I may go so far as that."

"You have probably more persons like his wife," said Miss Ambient,
smiling.

"I can tell you that better when you have told me about her point of
view."

"Oh, yes--oh, yes. Well, she does n't like his ideas. She doesn't like
them for the child. She thinks them undesirable."

Being quite fresh from the contemplation of some of Mark Ambient's
_arcana_, I was particularly in a position to appreciate this
announcement. But the effect of it was to make me, after staring a
moment, burst into laughter, which I instantly checked when I remembered
that there was a sick child above.

"What has that infant to do with ideas?" I asked "Surely, he can't tell
one from another. Has he read his father's novels?"

"He's very precocious and very sensitive, and his mother thinks she
can't begin to guard him too early." Miss Ambient's head drooped a
little to one side, and her eyes fixed themselves on futurity. Then
suddenly there was a strange alteration in her face; she gave a smile
that was more joyless than her gravity--a conscious, insincere smile,
and added, "When one has children, it's a great responsibility--what one
writes."

"Children are terrible critics," I answered. "I am rather glad I have
n't got any."

"Do you also write then? And in the same style as my brother? And do you
like that style? And do people appreciate it in America? I don't write,
but I think I feel." To these and various other inquiries and remarks
the young lady treated me, till we heard her brother's step in the hall
again, and Mark Ambient reappeared. He looked flushed and serious, and I
supposed that he had seen something to alarm him in the condition of his
child. His sister apparently had another idea; she gazed at him a moment
as if he were a burning ship on the horizon, and simply murmured, "Poor
old Mark!"

"I hope you are not anxious," I said.

"No, but I 'm disappointed. She won't let me in. She has locked the
door, and I 'm afraid to make a noise." I suppose there might have been
something ridiculous in a confession of this kind, but I liked my new
friend so much that for me it did n't detract from his dignity. "She
tells me--from behind the door--that she will let me know if he is
worse."

"It's very good of her," said Miss Ambient

I had exchanged a glance with Mark in which it is possible that he read
that my pity for him was untinged with contempt, though I know not why
he should have cared; and as, presently, his sister got up and took her
bedroom candlestick, he proposed that we should go back to his study. We
sat there till after midnight; he put himself into his slippers, into an
old velvet jacket, lighted an ancient pipe, and talked considerably less
than he had done before.

There were longish pauses in our communion, but they only made me feel
that we had advanced in intimacy. They helped me, too, to understand my
friend's personal situation, and to perceive that it was by no means the
happiest possible. When his face was quiet, it was vaguely troubled; it
seemed to me to show that for him, too, life was a struggle, as it has
been for many another man of genius. At last I prepared to leave him,
and then, to my ineffable joy, he gave me some of the sheets of his
forthcoming book,--it was not finished, but he had indulged in the
luxury, so dear to writers of deliberation, of having it "set up," from
chapter to chapter, as he advanced,--he gave me, I say, the early
pages, the _prémices_, as the French have it, of this new fruit of his
imagination, to take to my room and look over at my leisure. I was just
quitting him when the door of his study was noiselessly pushed open, and
Mrs. Ambient stood before us. She looked at us a moment, with her candle
in her hand, and then she said to her husband that as she supposed he
had not gone to bed, she had come down to tell him that Dolcino was more
quiet and would probably be better in the morning. Mark Ambient made no
reply; he simply slipped past her in the doorway, as if he were afraid
she would seize him in his passage, and bounded upstairs, to judge
for himself of his child's condition. Mrs. Ambient looked slightly
discomfited, and for a moment I thought she was going to give chase
to her husband. But she resigned herself, with a sigh, while her eyes
wandered over the lamp-lit room, where various books, at which I had
been looking, were pulled out of their places on the shelves, and the
fumes of tobacco seemed to hang in mid-air. I bade her good-night, and
then, without intention, by a kind of fatality, the perversity which had
already made me insist unduly on talking with her about her husband's
achievements, I alluded to the precious proof-sheets with which Ambient
had intrusted me and which I was nursing there under my arm. "It is the
opening chapters of his new book," I said. "Fancy my satisfaction at
being allowed to carry them to my room!"

She turned away, leaving me to take my candlestick from the table in the
hall; but before we separated, thinking it apparently a good occasion
to let me know once for all--since I was beginning, it would seem, to be
quite "thick" with my host--that there was no fitness in my appealing
to her for sympathy in such a case; before we separated, I say, she
remarked to me with her quick, round, well-bred utterance, "I dare say
you attribute to me ideas that I have n't got I don't take that sort
of interest in my husband's proof-sheets. I consider his writings most
objectionable!"



PART II.

I had some curious conversation the next morning with Miss Ambient, whom
I found strolling in the garden before breakfast The whole place looked
as fresh and trim, amid the twitter of the birds, as if, an hour
before, the housemaids had been turned into it with their dustpans and
feather-brushes, I almost hesitated to light a cigarette, and was doubly
startled when, in the act of doing so, I suddenly perceived the
sister of my host, who had, in any case, something of the oddity of
an apparition, standing before me. She might have been posing for her
photograph. Her sad-colored robe arranged itself in serpentine folds at
her feet; her hands locked themselves listlessly together in front; and
her chin rested upon a cinque-cento ruff. The first thing I did,
after bidding her good-morning, was to ask her for news of her little
nephew,--to express the hope that she had heard he was better. She was
able to gratify this hope, and spoke as if we might expect to see him
during the day. We walked through the shrubberies together, and she gave
me a great deal of information about her brother's ménage, which offered
me an opportunity to mention to her that his wife had told me, the night
before, that she thought his productions objectionable.

"She does n't usually come out with that so soon!" Miss Ambient
exclaimed, in answer to this piece of gossip. "Poor lady, she saw that
I am a fanatic." "Yes, she won't like you for that. But you must n't
mind, if the rest of us like you! Beatrice thinks a work of art ought
to have a 'purpose.' But she's a charming woman--don't you think her
charming?--she's such a type of the lady."

"She's very beautiful," I answered; while I reflected that though it
was true, apparently, that Mark Ambient was mismated, it was also
perceptible that his sister was perfidious. She told me that her
brother and his wife had no other difference but this one, that she
thought his writings immoral and his influence pernicious. It was a
fixed idea; she was afraid of these things for the child. I answered
that it was not a trifle--a woman's regarding her husband's mind as a
well of corruption, and she looked quite struck with the novelty of my
remark. "But there has n't been any of the sort of trouble that there so
often is among married people," she said. "I suppose you can judge for
yourself that Beatrice isn't at all--well, whatever they call it when a
woman misbehaves herself. And Mark does n't make love to other people,
either. I assure you he does n't! All the same, of course, from her
point of view, you know, she has a dread of my brother's influence on
the child--on the formation of his character, of his principles. It is
as if it were a subtle poison, or a contagion, or something that would
rub off on Dolcino when his father kisses him or holds him on his knee.
If she could, she would prevent Mark from ever touching him. Every one
knows it; visitors see it for themselves; so there is no harm in my
telling you. Isn't it excessively odd? It comes from Beatrice's being so
religious, and so tremendously moral, and all that and then, of course,
we must n't forget," my companion added, unexpectedly, "that some of
Mark's ideas are--well, really--rather queer!"

I reflected, as we went into the house, where we found Ambient unfolding
the _Observer_ at the breakfast-table, that none of them were probably
quite so queer as his sister. Mrs. Ambient did not appear at breakfast,
being rather tired with her ministrations, during the night, to Dolcino.
Her husband mentioned, however, that she was hoping to go to church. I
afterwards learned that she did go, but I may as well announce without
delay that he and I did not accompany her. It was while the church-bell
was murmuring in the distance that the author of _Beltraffio_ led me
forth for the ramble he had spoken of in his note. I will not attempt to
say where we went, or to describe what we saw. We kept to the fields
and copses and commons, and breathed the same sweet air as the nibbling
donkeys and the browsing sheep, whose woolliness seemed to me, in those
early days of my acquaintance with English objects, but a part of the
general texture of the small, dense landscape, which looked as if the
harvest were gathered by the shears. Everything was full of expression
for Mark Ambient's visitor,--from the big, bandy-legged geese, whose
whiteness was a "note," amid all the tones of green, as they wandered
beside a neat little oval pool, the foreground of a thatched and
whitewashed inn, with a grassy approach and a pictorial sign,--from
these humble wayside animals to the crests of high woods which let a
gable or a pinnacle peep here and there, and looked, even at a distance,
like trees of good company, conscious of an individual profile. I
admired the hedgerows, I plucked the faint-hued heather, and I was
forever stopping to say how charming I thought the thread-like footpaths
across the fields, which wandered, in a diagonal of finer grain, from
one smooth stile to another. Mark Ambient was abundantly good-natured,
and was as much entertained with my observations as I was with the
literary allusions of the landscape. We sat and smoked upon stiles,
broaching paradoxes in the decent English air; we took short cuts across
a park or two, where the bracken was deep and my companion nodded to the
old woman at the gate; we skirted rank covers, which rustled here and
there as wo passed, and we stretched ourselves at last on a heathery
hillside, where, if the sun was not too hot, neither was the earth
too cold, and where the country lay beneath us in a rich blue mist.
Of course I had already told Ambient what I thought of his new novel,
having the previous night read every word of the opening chapters before
I went to bed.

"I am not without hope of being able to make it my best," he said, as I
went back to the subject, while we turned up our heels to the sky. "At
least the people who dislike my prose--and there are a great many of
them, I believe--will dislike this work most" This was the first time I
had heard him allude to the people who couldn't read him,--a class which
is supposed always to sit heavy upon the consciousness of the man of
letters. A man organized for literature, as Mark Ambient was,
must certainly have had the normal proportion of sensitiveness,
of irritability; the artistic _ego_, capable in some cases of such
monstrous development, must have been, in his composition, sufficiently
erect and definite. I will not therefore go so far as to say that he
never thought of his detractors, or that he had any illusions with
regard to the number of his admirers (he could never so far have
deceived himself as to believe he was popular); but I may at least
affirm that adverse criticism, as I had occasion to perceive later,
ruffled him visibly but little, that he had an air of thinking it quite
natural he should be offensive to many minds, and that he very seldom
talked about the newspapers, which, by the way, were always very stupid
in regard to the author of _Beltraffio_. Of course he may have thought
about them--the newspapers--night and day; the only point I wish to make
is that he did n't show it; while, at the same time, he did n't strike
one as a man who was on his guard. I may add that, as regards his hope
of making the work on which he was then engaged the best of his books,
it was only partly carried out. That place belongs, incontestably, to
_Beltraffio_, in spite of the beauty of certain parts of its successor.
I am pretty sure, however, that he had, at the moment of which I speak,
no sense of failure; he was in love with his idea, which was indeed
magnificent, and though for him, as, I suppose, for every artist, the
act of execution had in it as much torment as joy, he saw his work
growing a little every day and filling-out the largest plan he had yet
conceived. "I want to be truer than I have ever been," he said, settling
himself on his back, with his hands clasped behind his head; "I want to
give an impression of life itself. No, you may say what you will, I have
always arranged things too much, always smoothed them down and rounded
them off and tucked them in,--done everything to them that life does n't
do. I have been a slave to the old superstitions."

"You a slave, my dear Mark Ambient? You have the freest imagination of
our day!"

"All the more shame to me to have done some of the things I have! The
reconciliation of the two women in _Ginistrella_, for instance, which
could never really have taken place. That sort of thing is ignoble;
I blush when I think of it! This new affair must be a golden vessel,
filled with the purest distillation of the actual; and oh, how it
bothers me, the shaping of the vase--the hammering of the metal! I have
to hammer it so fine, so smooth; I don't do more than an inch or two a
day. And all the while I have to be so careful not to let a drop of the
liquor escape! When I see the kind of things that Life does, I despair
of ever catching her peculiar trick. She has an impudence, life! If one
risked a fiftieth part of the effects she risks! It takes ever so long
to believe it. You don't know yet, my dear fellow. It is n't till one
has been watching life for forty years that one finds out half of what
she's up to! Therefore one's earlier things must inevitably contain a
mass of rot. And with what one sees, on one side, with its tongue in its
cheek, defying one to be real enough, and on the other the _bonnes gens_
rolling up their eyes at one's cynicism, the situation has elements of
the ludicrous which the artist himself is doubtless in a position to
appreciate better than any one else. Of course one mustn't bother about
the _bonnes gens_." Mark Ambient went on, while my thoughts reverted to
his ladylike wife, as interpreted by his remarkable sister.

"To sink your shaft deep, and polish the plate through which people look
into it--that's what your work consists of," I remember remarking.

"Ah, polishing one's plate--that is the torment of execution!" he
exclaimed, jerking himself up and sitting forward. "The effort to arrive
at a surface--if you think a surface necessary--some people don't,
happily for them! My dear fellow, if you could see the surface I dream
of, as compared with the one with which I have to content myself. Life
is really too short for art--one hasn't time to make one's shell ideally
hard. Firm and bright--firm and bright!--the devilish thing has a way,
sometimes, of being bright without being firm. When I rap it with my
knuckles it doesn't give the right sound. There are horrible little
flabby spots where I have taken the second-best word, because I could
n't for the life of me think of the best. If you knew how stupid I am
sometimes! They look to me now like pimples and ulcers on the brow of
beauty!"

"That's very bad--very bad," I said, as gravely as I could.

"Very bad? It's the highest social offence I know; it ought--it
absolutely ought--I'm quite serious--to be capital If I knew I should be
hanged else, I should manage to find the best word. The people who
could n't--some of them don't know it when they see it--would shut their
inkstands, and we should n't be deluged by this flood of rubbish!"

I will not attempt to repeat everything that passed between us, or to
explain just how it was that, every moment I spent in his company, Mark
Ambient revealed to me more and more that he looked at all things from
the standpoint of the artist, felt all life as literary material There
are people who will tell me that this is a poor way of feeling it, and
I am not concerned to defend my statement, having space merely to remark
that there is something to be said for any interest which makes a man
feel so much. If Mark Ambient did really, as I suggested above, have
imaginative contact with "all life," I, for my part, envy him his
_arriere-pensée_. At any rate it was through the receipt of this
impression of him that by the time we returned I had acquired the
feeling of intimacy I have noted. Before we got up for the homeward
stretch, he alluded to his wife's having once--or perhaps more than
once--asked him whether he should like Dolcino to read _Beltraffio_.
I think he was unconscious at the moment of all that this conveyed to
me--as well, doubtless, of my extreme curiosity to hear what he had
replied. He had said that he hoped very much Dolcino would read all his
works--when he was twenty; he should like him to know what his father
had done. Before twenty it would be useless; he would n't understand
them.

"And meanwhile do you propose to hide them,--to lock them up in a
drawer?" Mrs. Ambient had inquired.

"Oh, no; we must simply tell him that they are not intended for small
boys. If you bring him up properly, after that he won t touch them."

To this Mrs. Ambient had made answer that it would be very awkward when
he was about fifteen; and I asked her husband if it was his opinion in
general, then, that young people should not read novels.

"Good ones--certainly not!" said my companion. I suppose I had had other
views, for I remember saying that, for myself, I was not sure it was bad
for them, if the novels were "good" enough. "Bad for _them_, I don't say
so much!" Ambient exclaimed. "But very bad, I am afraid, for the novel!"
That oblique, accidental allusion to his wife's attitude was followed by
a franker style of reference as we walked home. "The difference between
us is simply the opposition between two distinct ways of looking at the
world, which have never succeeded in getting on together, or making any
kind of common ménage, since the beginning of time. They have borne all
sorts of names, and my wife would tell you it's the difference between
Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan, but I don't like the name; it
sounds sectarian. She thinks me, at any rate, no better than an ancient
Greek. It's the difference between making the most of life and making
the least, so that you 'll get another better one in some other time and
place. Will it be a sin to make the most of that one too, I wonder; and
shall we have to be bribed off in the future state, as well as in the
present? Perhaps I care too much for beauty--I don't know; I delight
in it, I adore it, I think of it continually, I try to produce it, to
reproduce it. My wife holds that we shouldn't think too much about it
She's always afraid of that, always on her guard. I don't know what she
has got on her back! And she's so pretty, too, herself! Don't you think
she's lovely? She was, at any rate, when I married her. At that time I
was n't aware of that difference I speak of--I thought it all came to
the same thing: in the end, as they say. Well, perhaps it will, in the
end. I don't know what the end will be. Moreover, I care for seeing
things as they are; that's the way I try to show them in my novels. But
you must n't talk to Mrs. Ambient about things as they are. She has a
mortal dread of things as they are."

"She's afraid of them for Dolcino," I said: surprised a moment
afterwards at being in a position--thanks to Miss Ambient--to be so
explanatory; and surprised even now that Mark should n't have shown
visibly that he wondered what the deuce I knew about it But he did n't;
he simply exclaimed, with a tenderness that touched me,--

"Ah, nothing shall ever hurt _him!_" He told me more about his wife
before we arrived at the gate of his house, and if it be thought that he
was querulous, I am afraid I must admit that he had some of the foibles
as well as the gifts of the artistic temperament; adding, however,
instantly, that hitherto, to the best of my belief, he had very rarely
complained. "She thinks me immoral--that's the long and short of it," he
said, as we paused outside a moment, and his hand rested on one of
the bars of his gate; while his conscious, demonstrative, expressive,
perceptive eyes,--the eyes of a foreigner, I had begun to account them,
much more than of the usual Englishman,--viewing me now evidently
as quite a familiar friend, took part in the declaration. "It's very
strange, when one thinks it all over, and there's a grand comicality
in it which I should like to bring out. She is a very nice woman,
extraordinarily well behaved, upright and clever, and with a tremendous
lot of good sense about a good many matters. Yet her conception of a
novel--she has explained it to me once or twice, and she does n't do it
badly, as exposition--is a thing so false that it makes me blush. It is
a thing so hollow, so dishonest, so lying, in which life is so blinked
and blinded, so dodged and disfigured, that it makes my ears burn. It's
two different ways of looking at the whole affair," he repeated, pushing
open the gate. "And they are irreconcilable!" he added, with a sigh.
We went forward to the house, but on the walk, half way to the door,
he stopped, and said to me, "If you are going into this kind of
thing, there's a fact you should know beforehand; it may save you
some disappointment. There's a hatred of art, there's a hatred of
literature!" I looked up at the charming house, with its genial color
and crookedness, and I answered, with a smile, that those evil passions
might exist, but that I should never have expected to find them there.
"Oh, it doesn't matter, after all," he said, laughing; which I was glad
to hear, for I was reproaching myself with having excited him.

If I had, his excitement soon passed off, for at lunch he was
delightful; strangely delightful, considering that the difference
between himself and his wife was, as he had said, irreconcilable. He
had the art, by his manner, by his smile, by his natural kindliness, of
reducing the importance of it in the common concerns of life; and Mrs.
Ambient, I must add, lent herself to this transaction with a very good
grace. I watched her, at table, for further illustrations of that fixed
idea of which Miss Ambient had spoken to me; for, in the light of the
united revelations of her sister-in-law and her husband, she had come to
seem to me a very singular personage. I am obliged to say that the signs
of a fanatical temperament were not more striking in my hostess
than before; it was only after a while that her air of incorruptible
conformity, her tapering, monosyllabic correctness, began to appear to
be themselves a cold, thin flame. Certainly, at first, she looked like a
woman with as few passions as possible; but if she had a passion at all,
it would be that of Philistinism. She might have been--for there are
guardian-spirits, I suppose, of all great principles--the angel of
propriety. Mark Ambient, apparently, ten years before, had simply
perceived that she was an angel, without asking himself of what He had
been quite right in calling my attention to her beauty. In looking for
the reason why he should have married her, I saw, more than before, that
she was, physically speaking, a wonderfully cultivated human plant--that
she must have given him many ideas and images. It was impossible to be
more pencilled, more garden-like, more delicately tinted and petalled.

If I had had it in my heart to think Ambient a little of a hypocrite
for appearing to forget at table everything he had said to me during our
walk, I should instantly have cancelled such a judgment, on reflecting
that the good news his wife was able to give him about their little
boy was reason enough for his sudden air of happiness. It may have come
partly, too, from a certain remorse at having complained to me of the
fair lady who sat there,--a desire to show me that he was after all
not so miserable. Dolcino continued to be much better, and he had been
promised he should come downstairs after he had had his dinner. As soon
as we had risen from our own meal Ambient slipped away, evidently for
the purpose of going to his child; and no sooner had I observed this
than I became aware that his wife had simultaneously vanished. It
happened that Miss Ambient and I, both at the same moment, saw the tail
of her dress whisk out of a doorway, which led the young lady to smile
at me, as if I now knew all the secrets of the Ambients. I passed with
her into the garden, and we sat down on a dear old bench which rested
against the west wall of the house. It was a perfect spot for the middle
period of a Sunday in June, and its felicity seemed to come partly from
an antique sun-dial which, rising in front of us and forming the centre
of a small, intricate parterre, measured the moments ever so slowly, and
made them safe for leisure and talk. The garden bloomed in the suffused
afternoon, the tall beeches stood still for an example, and, behind and
above us, a rose-tree of many seasons, clinging to the faded grain of
the brick, expressed the whole character of the place in a familiar,
exquisite smell. It seemed to me a place for genius to have every
sanction, and not to encounter challenges and checks. Miss Ambient asked
me if I had enjoyed my walk with her brother, and whether we had talked
of many things.

"Well, of most things," I said, smiling, though I remembered that we had
not talked of Miss Ambient.

"And don't you think some of his theories are very peculiar?"

"Oh, I guess I agree with them all." I was very particular, for Miss
Ambient's entertainment, to guess.

"Do you think art is everything?" she inquired in, a moment.

"In art, of course I do!"

"And do you think beauty is everything?"

"I don't know about its being everything. But it's very delightful"

"Of course it is difficult for a woman to know how far to go," said
my companion. "I adore everything that gives a charm to life. I am
intensely sensitive to form. But sometimes I draw back--don't you see
what I mean?--I don't quite see where I shall be landed. I only want
to be quiet, after all," Miss Ambient continued, in a tone of stifled
yearning which seemed to indicate that she had not yet arrived at her
desire. "And one must be good, at any rate, must not one?" she inquired,
with a cadence apparently intended for an assurance that my answer would
settle this recondite question for her. It was difficult for me to
make it very original, and I am afraid I repaid her confidence with an
unblushing platitude. I remember, moreover, appending to it an inquiry,
equally destitute of freshness, and still more wanting perhaps in tact,
as to whether she did not mean to go to church, as that was an obvious
way of being good. She replied that she had performed this duty in the
morning, and that for her, on Sunday afternoon, supreme virtue consisted
in answering the week's letters. Then suddenly, without transition, she
said to me, "It's quite a mistake about Dolcino being better. I have seen
him, and he's not at all right."

"Surely his mother would know, would n't she?" I suggested.

She appeared for a moment to be counting the leaves on one of the great
beeches. "As regards most matters, one can easily say what, in a given
situation, my sister-in-law would do. But as regards this one, there are
strange elements at work."

"Strange elements? Do you mean in the constitution of the child?"

"No, I mean in my sister-in-law's feelings."

"Elements of affection, of course; elements of anxiety. Why do you call
them strange?"

She repeated my words. "Elements of affection, elements of anxiety. She
is very anxious."

Miss Ambient made me vaguely uneasy; she almost frightened me, and I
wished she would go and write her letters. "His father will have seen
him now," I said, "and if he is not satisfied he will send for the
doctor."

"The doctor ought to have been here this morning. He lives only two
miles away."

I reflected that all this was very possibly only a part of the general
tragedy of Miss Ambient's view of things; but I asked her why she had
n't urged such a necessity upon her sister-in-law. She answered me with
a smile of extraordinary significance, and told me that I must have very
little idea of what her relations with Beatrice were; but I must do
her the justice to add that she went on to make herself a little more
comprehensible by saying that it was quite reason enough for her sister
not to be alarmed that Mark would be sure to be. He was always nervous
about the child, and as they were predestined by nature to take opposite
views, the only thing for Beatrice was to cultivate a false optimism. If
Mark were not there, she would not be at all easy. I remembered what
he had said to me about their dealings with Dolcino,--that between them
they would put an end to him; but I did not repeat this to Miss Ambient:
the less so that just then her brother emerged from the house, carrying
his child in his arms. Close behind him moved his wife, grave and pale;
the boy's face was turned over Ambient's shoulder, towards his mother.
We got up to receive the group, and as they came near us Dolcino turned
round. I caught, on his enchanting little countenance, a smile of
recognition, and for the moment would have been quite content with it.
Miss Ambient, however, received another impression, and I make haste to
say that her quick sensibility, in which there was something maternal,
argues that, in spite of her affectations, there was a strain of
kindness in her. "It won't do at all--it won't do at all," she said to
me under her breath. "I shall speak to Mark about the doctor."

The child was rather white, but the main difference I saw in him was
that he was even more beautiful than the day before. He had been dressed
in his festal garments,--a velvet suit and a crimson sash,--and he
looked like a little invalid prince, too young to know condescension,
and smiling familiarly on his subjects.

"Put him down, Mark, he's not comfortable," Mrs. Ambient said.

"Should you like to stand on your feet, my boy?" his father asked.

"Oh, yes; I 'm remarkably well," said the child.

Mark placed him on the ground; he had shining, pointed slippers, with
enormous bows. "Are you happy now, Mr. Ambient?"

"Oh, yes, I am particularly happy," Dolcino replied. The words were
scarcely out of his mouth when his mother caught him up, and in a
moment, holding him on her knees, she took her place on the bench where
Miss Ambient and I had been sitting. This young lady said something
to her brother, in consequence of which the two wandered away into the
garden together. I remained with Mrs. Ambient; but as a servant had
brought out a couple of chairs I was not obliged to seat myself beside
her. Our conversation was not animated, and I, for my part, felt there
would be a kind of hypocrisy in my trying to make myself agreeable to
Mrs. Ambient I didn't dislike her--I rather admired her; but I was
aware that I differed from her inexpressibly. Then I suspected, what
I afterwards definitely knew and have already intimated, that the poor
lady had taken a dislike to me; and this of course was not encouraging.
She thought me an obtrusive and even depraved young man, whom a perverse
Providence had dropped upon their quiet lawn to flatter her husband's
worst tendencies. She did me the honor to say to Miss Ambient, who
repeated the speech, that she didn't know when she had seen her husband
take such a fancy to a visitor; and she measured, apparently, my evil
influence by Mark's appreciation of my society. I had a consciousness,
not yet acute, but quite sufficient, of all this; but I must say that
if it chilled my flow of small-talk, it did n't prevent me from thinking
that the beautiful mother and beautiful child, interlaced there against
their background of roses, made a picture such as I perhaps should not
soon see again. I was free, I supposed, to go into the house and write
letters, to sit in the drawing-room, to repair to my own apartment and
take a nap; but the only use I made of my freedom was to linger still in
my chair and say to myself that the light hand of Sir Joshua might have
painted Mark Ambient's wife and son. I found myself looking perpetually
at Dolcino, and Dolcino looked back at me, and that was enough to
detain me. When he looked at me he smiled, and I felt it was an absolute
impossibility to abandon a child who was smiling at one like that. His
eyes never wandered; they attached themselves to mine, as if among
all the small incipient things of his nature there was a desire to say
something to me. If I could have taken him upon my own knee, he perhaps
would have managed to say it; but it would have been far too delicate a
matter to ask his mother to give him up, and it has remained a constant
regret for me that on that Sunday afternoon I did not, even for a
moment, hold Dolcino in my arms. He had said that he felt remarkably
well, and that he was especially happy; but though he may have been
happy, with his charming head pillowed on his mother's breast, and his
little crimson silk legs depending from her lap, I did not think he
looked well. He made no attempt to walk about; he was content to swing
his legs softly and strike one as languid and angelic.

Mark came back to us with his sister; and Miss Ambient, making some
remark about having to attend to her correspondence, passed into the
house. Mark came and stood in front of his wife, looking down at the
child, who immediately took hold of his hand, keeping it while he
remained. "I think Ailingham ought to see him," Ambient said; "I think
I will walk over and fetch him."

"That 's Gwendolen's idea, I suppose," Mrs. Ambient replied, very
sweetly.

"It's not such an out-of-the-way idea, when one's child is ill."

"I 'm not ill, papa; I 'm much better now," Dolcino remarked.

"Is that the truth, or are you only saying it to be agreeable? You have
a great idea of being agreeable, you know."

The boy seemed to meditate on this distinction this imputation, for a
moment; then his exaggerated eyes, which had wandered, caught my own
as I watched him. "Do _you_ think me agreeable?" he inquired, with the
candor of his age, and with a smile that made his father turn round to
me, laughing, and ask, mutely, with a glance, "Is n't he adorable?"

"Then why don't you hop about, if you feel so lusty?" Ambient went on,
while the boy swung his hand.

"Because mamma is holding me close!"

"Oh, yes; I know how mamma holds you when I come near!" Ambient
exclaimed, looking at his wife.

She turned her charming eyes up to him, without deprecation or
concession, and after a moment she said, "You can go for Allingham if
you like, I think myself it would be better. You ought to drive."

"She says that to get me away," Ambient remarked to me, laughing; after
which he started for the doctor's.

I remained there with Mrs. Ambient, though our conversation had more
pauses than speeches. The boy's little fixed white face seemed, as
before, to plead with me to stay, and after a while it produced still
another effect, a very curious one, which I shall find it difficult to
express. Of course I expose myself to the charge of attempting to give
fantastic reasons for an act which may have been simply the fruit of a
native want of discretion; and indeed the traceable consequences of that
perversity were too lamentable to leave me any desire to trifle with the
question. All I can say is that I acted in perfect good faith, and
that Dolcino's friendly little gaze gradually kindled the spark of my
inspiration. What helped it to glow were the other influences,--the
silent, suggestive garden-nook, the perfect opportunity (if it was not
an opportunity for that, it was an opportunity for nothing), and the
plea that I speak of, which issued from the child's eyes, and seemed to
make him say, "The mother that bore me and that presses me here to her
bosom--sympathetic little organism that I am--has really the kind of
sensibility which she has been represented to you as lacking; if you
only look for it patiently and respectfully. How is it possible that she
should n't have it? How is it possible that I should have so much of
it (for I am quite full of it, dear, strange gentleman), if it were not
also in some degree in her? I am my father's child, but I am also my
mother's, and I am sorry for the difference between them!" So it shaped
itself before me, the vision of reconciling Mrs. Ambient with her
husband, of putting an end to their great disagreement The project was
absurd, of course, for had I not had his word for it--spoken with
all the bitterness of experience--that the gulf that divided them was
wellnigh bottomless? Nevertheless, a quarter of an hour after Mark had
left us, I said to his wife that I could n't get over what she told
me the night before about her thinking her husband's writings
"objectionable." I had been so very sorry to hear it, had thought of it
constantly, and wondered whether it were not possible to make her change
her mind. Mrs. Ambient gave me rather a cold stare; she seemed to be
recommending me to mind my own business. I wish I had taken this mute
counsel, but I did not. I went on to remark that it seemed an immense
pity so much that was beautiful should be lost upon her.

"Nothing is lost upon me," said Mrs. Ambient "I know they are very
beautiful."

"Don't you like papa's books?" Dolcino asked, addressing his mother, but
still looking at me. Then he added to me, "Won't you read them to me,
American gentleman?"

"I would rather tell you some stories of my own," I said. "I know
some that are very interesting." "When will you tell them? To-morrow?"
"To-morrow, with pleasure, if that suits you." Mrs. Ambient was silent
at this. Her husband, during our walk, had asked me to remain another
day; my promise to her son was an implication that I had consented, and
it is not probable that the prospect was agreeable to her. This ought,
doubtless, to have made me more careful as to what I said next; but all
I can say is that it did n't. I presently observed that just after
leaving her the evening before, and after hearing her apply to her
husband's writings the epithet I had already quoted, I had, on going up
to my room, sat down to the perusal of those sheets of his new book
which he had been so good as to lend me. I had sat entranced till nearly
three in the morning. I had read them twice over. "You say you have n't
looked at them. I think it 's such a pity you should n't Do let me beg
you to take them up. They are so very remarkable. I 'm sure they will
convert you. They place him in--really--such a dazzling light. All that
is best in him is there. I have no doubt it's a great liberty, my saying
all this; but excuse me, and _do_ read them!"

"Do read them, mamma!" Dolcino repeated; "do read them!"

She bent her head and closed his lips with a kiss. "Of course I know he
has worked immensely over them," she said; and after this she made no
remark, but sat there looking thoughtful, with her eyes on the ground.
The tone of these last words was such as to leave me no spirit for
further pressure, and after expressing a fear that her husband had not
found the doctor at home, I got up and took a turn about the grounds.
When I came back, ten minutes later, she was still in her place watching
her boy, who had fallen asleep in her lap. As I drew near she put her
finger to her lips, and a moment afterwards she rose, holding the
child, and murmured something about its being better that he should go
upstairs. I offered to carry him, and held out my hands to take him;
but she thanked me and turned away with the child seated on her arm, his
head on her shoulder. "I am very strong," she said, as she passed into
the house, and her slim, flexible figure bent backwards with the filial
weight So I never touched Dolcino.

I betook myself to Ambient's study, delighted to have a quiet hour to
look over his books by myself. The windows were open into the garden;
the sunny stillness, the mild light of the English summer, filled the
room, without quite chasing away the rich dusky tone which was a part
of its charm, and which abode in the serried shelves where old
morocco exhaled the fragrance of curious learning, and in the brighter
intervals, where medals and prints and miniatures were suspended upon a
surface of faded stuff. The place had both color and quiet; I thought it
a perfect room for work, and went so far as to say to myself that, if it
were mine to sit and scribble in, there was no knowing but that I might
learn to write as well as the author of _Beltraffio_. This distinguished
man did not turn up, and I rummaged freely among his treasures. At last
I took down a book that detained me awhile, and seated myself in a fine
old leather chair by the window to turn it over. I had been occupied
in this way for half-an-hour,--a good part of the afternoon had
waned,--when I became conscious of another presence in the room, and,
looking up from my quarto, saw that Mrs. Ambient, having pushed open the
door in the same noiseless way that marked, or disguised, her entrance
the night before, had advanced across the threshold. On seeing me she
stopped; she had not, I think, expected to find me. But her hesitation
was only of a moment; she came straight to her husband's writing-table
as if she were looking for something. I got up and asked her if I could
help her. She glanced about an instant, and then put her hand upon a
roll of papers which I recognized, as I had placed it in that spot in
the morning on coming down from my room.

"Is this the new book?" she asked, holding it up. "The very sheets, with
precious annotations." "I mean to take your advice;" and she tucked the
little bundle under her arm. I congratulated her cordially, and
ventured to make of my triumph, as I presumed to call it, a subject of
pleasantry. But she was perfectly grave, and turned away from me, as she
had presented herself, without a smile; after which I settled down to my
quarto again, with the reflection that Mrs. Ambient was a queer woman.
My triumph, too, suddenly seemed to me rather vain. A woman who could
n't smile in the right place would never understand Mark Ambient. He
came in at last in person, having brought the doctor back with him. "He
was away from home," Mark said, "and I went after him, to where he was
supposed to be. He had left the place, and I followed him to two or
three others, which accounts for my delay." He was now with Mrs. Ambient
looking at the child, and was to see Mark again before leaving the
house. My host noticed, at the end of ten minutes, that the proof-sheets
of his new book had been removed from the table; and when I told him,
in reply to his question as to what I knew about them, that Mrs. Ambient
had carried them off to read, he turned almost pale for an instant with
surprise. "What has suddenly made her so curious?" he exclaimed; and I
was obliged to tell him that I was at the bottom of the mystery. I had
had it on my conscience to assure her that she really ought to know
of what her husband was capable. "Of what I am capable? _Elle ne s'en
dottie que trop!_" said Ambient, with a laugh; but he took my meddling
very good-naturedly, and contented himself with adding that he was very
much afraid she would burn up the sheets, with his emendations, of which
he had no duplicate. The doctor paid a long visit in the nursery, and
before he came down I retired to my own quarters, where I remained till
dinner-time. On entering the drawing-room at this hour, I found Miss
Ambient in possession, as she had been the evening before.

"I was right about Dolcino," she said, as soon as she saw me, with a
strange little air of triumph. "He is really very ill."

"Very ill! Why, when I last saw him, at four o'clock, he was in fairly
good form."

"There has been a change for the worse, very sudden and rapid, and when
the doctor got here he found diphtheritic symptoms. He ought to have
been called, as I knew, in the morning, and the child ought n't to have
been brought into the garden."

"My dear lady, he was very happy there," I answered, much appalled.

"He would be happy anywhere. I have no doubt he is happy now, with his
poor little throat in a state--" she dropped her voice as her brother
came in, and Mark let us know that, as a matter of course, Mrs. Ambient
would not appear. It was true that Dolcino had developed diphtheritic
symptoms, but he was quiet for the present, and his mother was earnestly
watching him. She was a perfect nurse, Mark said, and the doctor was
coming back at ten o'clock. Our dinner was not very gay; Ambient was
anxious and alarmed, and his sister irritated me by her constant tacit
assumption, conveyed in the very way she nibbled her bread and sipped
her wine, of having "told me so." I had had no disposition to deny
anything she told me, and I could not see that her satisfaction in being
justified by the event made poor Dolcino's throat any better. The truth
is that, as the sequel proved, Miss Ambient had some of the qualities
of the sibyl, and had therefore, perhaps, a right to the sibylline
contortions. Her brother was so preoccupied that I felt my presence
to be an indiscretion, and was sorry I had promised to remain over the
morrow. I said to Mark that, evidently, I had better leave them in the
morning; to which he replied that, on the contrary, if he was to pass
the next days in the fidgets, my company would be an extreme relief to
him. The fidgets had already begun for him, poor fellow; and as we
sat in his study with our cigars after dinner, he wandered to the door
whenever he heard the sound of the doctor's wheels. Miss Ambient, who
shared this apartment with us, gave me at such moments significant
glances; she had gone upstairs before rejoining us to ask after the
child His mother and his nurse gave a tolerable account of him; but Miss
Ambient found his fever high and his symptoms very grave. The doctor
came at ten o'clock, and I went to bed after hearing from Mark that
he saw no present cause for alarm. He had made every provision for the
night, and was to return early in the morning.

I quitted my room at eight o'clock the next day, and, as I came
downstairs, saw, through the open door of the house, Mrs. Ambient
standing at the front gate of the grounds, in colloquy with the
physician. She wore a white dressing-gown, but her shining hair was
carefully tucked away in its net, and in the freshness of the morning,
after a night of watching, she looked as much "the type of the lady" as
her sister-in-law had described her. Her appearance, I suppose, ought to
have reassured me; but I was still nervous and uneasy, so that I shrank
from meeting her with the necessary question about Dolcino. None the
less, however, was I impatient to learn how the morning found him;
and, as Mrs. Ambient had not seen me, I passed into the grounds by a
roundabout way, and, stopping at a further gate, hailed the doctor just
as he was driving away. Mrs. Ambient had returned to the house before he
got into his gig.

"Excuse me, but as a friend of the family, I should like very much to
hear about the little boy."

The doctor, who was a stout, sharp man, looked at me from head to foot,
and then he said, "I'm sorry to say I have n't seen him."

"Have n't seen him?"

"Mrs. Ambient came down to meet me as I alighted, and told me that he
was sleeping so soundly, after a restless night, that she did n't wish
him disturbed. I assured her I would n't disturb him, but she said he
was quite safe now and she could look after him herself."

"Thank you very much. Are you coming back?"

"No, sir; I 'll be hanged if I come back!" exclaimed Dr. Allingham, who
was evidently very angry. And he started his horse again with the whip.

I wandered back into the garden, and five minutes later Miss Ambient
came forth from the house to greet me. She explained that breakfast
would not be served for some time, and that she wished to catch the
doctor before he went away. I informed her that this functionary had
come and departed, and I repeated to her what he had told me about his
dismissal. This made Miss Ambient very serious, very serious indeed,
and she sank into a bench, with dilated eyes, hugging her elbows with
crossed arms. She indulged in many ejaculations, she confessed that she
was infinitely perplexed, and she finally told me what her own last
news of her nephew had been. She had sat up very late,--after me, after
Mark,--and before going to bed had knocked at the door of the child's
room, which was opened to her by the nurse. This good woman had admitted
her, and she had found Dolcino quiet, but flushed and "unnatural," with
his mother sitting beside his bed. "She held his hand in one of
hers," said Miss Ambient, "and in the other--what do you think?--the
proof-sheets of Mark's new book! She was reading them there, intently:
did you ever hear of anything so extraordinary? Such a very odd time to
be reading an author whom she never could abide!" In her agitation Miss
Ambient was guilty of this vulgarism of speech, and I was so impressed
by her narrative that it was only in recalling her words later that I
noticed the lapse. Mrs. Ambient had looked up from her reading with her
finger on her lips--I recognized the gesture she had addressed to me in
the afternoon--and, though the nurse was about to go to rest, had not
encouraged her sister-in-law to relieve her of any part of her vigil.
But certainly, then, Dolcino's condition was far from reassuring,--his
poor little breathing was most painful; and what change could have taken
place in him in those few hours that would justify Beatrice in denying
the physician access to him? This was the moral of Miss Ambient's
anecdote, the moral for herself at least. The moral for me, rather, was
that it _was_ a very singular time for Mrs. Ambient to be going into a
novelist she had never appreciated, and who had simply happened to be
recommended to her by a young American she disliked. I thought of her
sitting there in the sick-chamber in the still hours of the night, after
the nurse had left her, turning over those pages of genius and wrestling
with their magical influence.

I must relate very briefly the circumstances of the rest of my visit to
Mark Ambient,--it lasted but a few hours longer,--and devote but three
words to my later acquaintance with him. That lasted five years,--till
his death,--and was full of interest, of satisfaction, and, I may add,
of sadness. The main thing to be said with regard to it, is that I had
a secret from him. I believe he never suspected it, though of this I
am not absolutely sure. If he did, the line he had taken, the line of
absolute negation of the matter to himself, shows an immense effort of
the will. I may tell my secret now, giving it for what it is worth, now
that Mark Ambient has gone, that he has begun to be alluded to as one of
the famous early dead, and that his wife does not survive him; now, too,
that Miss Ambient, whom I also saw at intervals during the years that
followed, has, with her embroideries and her attitudes, her necromantic
glances and strange intuitions, retired to a Sisterhood, where, as I am
told, she is deeply immured and quite lost to the world.

Mark came in to breakfast after his sister and I had for some time been
seated there. He shook hands with me in silence, kissed his sister,
opened his letters and newspapers, and pretended to drink his coffee.
But I could see that these movements were mechanical, and I was little
surprised when, suddenly, he pushed away everything that was before him,
and, with his head in his hands and his elbows on the table, sat staring
strangely at the cloth.

"What is the matter, _fratello mio?_" Miss Ambient inquired, peeping from
behind the urn.

He answered nothing, but got up with a certain violence and strode to
the window. We rose to our feet, his sister and I, by a common impulse,
exchanging a glance of some alarm, while he stared for a moment into the
garden. "In Heaven's name what has got possession of Beatrice?" he cried
at last, turning round with an almost haggard face. And he looked from
one of us to the other; the appeal was addressed to me as well as to his
sister.

Miss Ambient gave a shrug. "My poor Mark, Beatrice is always--Beatrice!"

"She has locked herself up with the boy--bolted and barred the door; she
refuses to let me come near him!" Ambient went on.

"She refused to let the doctor see him an hour ago!" Miss Ambient
remarked, with intention, as they say on the stage.

"Refused to let the doctor see him? By heaven, I 'll smash in the
door!" And Mark brought his fist down upon the table, so that all the
breakfast-service rang.

I begged Miss Ambient to go up and try to have speech of her
sister-in-law, and I drew Mark out into the garden. "You 're exceedingly
nervous, and Mrs. Ambient is probably right," I said to him. "Women
know; women should be supreme in such a situation. Trust a mother--a
devoted mother, my dear friend!" With such words as these I tried to
soothe and comfort him, and, marvellous to relate, I succeeded, with the
help of many cigarettes, in making him walk about the garden and talk,
or listen at least to my own ingenious chatter, for nearly an hour.
At the end of this time Miss Ambient returned to us, with a very rapid
step, holding her hand to her heart.

"Go for the doctor, Mark, go for the doctor this moment!"

"Is he dying? Has she killed him?" poor Ambient cried, flinging away his
cigarette.

"I don't know what she has done! But she's frightened, and now she wants
the doctor."

"He told me he would be hanged if he came back!" I felt myself obliged
to announce.

"Precisely--therefore Mark himself must go for him, and not a messenger.
You must see him, and tell him it 's to save your child. The trap has
been ordered--it's ready."

"To save him? I 'll save him, please God!" Ambient cried, bounding with
his great strides across the lawn.

As soon as he had gone I felt that I ought to have volunteered in
his place, and I said as much to Miss Ambient; but she checked me by
grasping my arm quickly, while we heard the wheels of the dog-cart
rattle away from the gate. "He's off--he's off--and now I can think! To
get him away--while I think--while I think!"

"While you think of what, Miss Ambient?"

"Of the unspeakable thing that has happened under this roof!"

Her manner was habitually that of such a prophetess of ill that my first
impulse was to believe I must allow here for a great exaggeration.
But in a moment I saw that her emotion was real. "Dolcino _is_ dying
then,--he is dead?"

"It's too late to save him. His mother has let him die! I tell you that
because you are sympathetic, because you have imagination," Miss Ambient
was good enough to add, interrupting my expression of horror. "That's
why you had the idea of making her read Mark's new book!"

"What has that to do with it? I don't understand you; your accusation is
monstrous."

"I see it all; I'm not stupid," Miss Ambient went on, heedless of the
harshness of my tone. "It was the book that finished her; it was that
decided her!"

"Decided her? Do you mean she has murdered her child?" I demanded,
trembling at my own words.

"She sacrificed him; she determined to do nothing to make him live. Why
else did she lock herself up, why else did she turn away the doctor? The
book gave her a horror; she determined to rescue him,--to prevent him
from ever being touched. He had a crisis at two o'clock in the morning.
I know that from the nurse, who had left her then, but whom, for a short
time, she called back. Dolcino got much worse, but she insisted on the
nurse's going back to bed, and after that she was alone with him for
hours."

"Do you pretend that she has no pity, that she's insane?"

"She held him in her arms, she pressed him to her breast, not to see
him; but she gave him no remedies; she did nothing the doctor ordered.
Everything is there, untouched. She has had the honesty not even to
throw the drugs away!"

I dropped upon the nearest bench, overcome with wonder and agitation,
quite as much at Miss Armbient's terrible lucidity as at the charge she
made against her sister-in-law. There was an amazing coherency in her
story, and it was dreadful to me to see myself figuring in it as so
proximate a cause.

"You are a very strange woman, and you say strange things."

"You think it necessary to protest, but you are quite ready to believe
me. You have received an impression of my sister-in-law, you have
guessed of what she is capable."

I do not feel bound to say what concession, on this point, I made to
Miss Ambient, who went on to relate to me that within the last half-hour
Beatrice had had a revulsion; that she was tremendously frightened at
what she had done; that her fright itself betrayed her; and that she
would now give heaven and earth to save the child. "Let us hope she
will!" I said, looking at my watch and trying to time poor Ambient;
whereupon my companion repeated, in a singular tone, "Let us hope so!"
When I asked her if she herself could do nothing, and whether she ought
not to be with her sister-in-law, she replied, "You had better go and
judge; she is like a wounded tigress!"

I never saw Mrs. Ambient till six months after this, and therefore
cannot pretend to have verified the comparison. At the latter period she
was again the type of the lady. "She'll treat him better after this," I
remember Miss Ambient saying, in response to some quick outburst (on my
part) of compassion for her brother. Although I had been in the house
but thirty-six hours, this young lady had treated me with extraordinary
confidence, and there was therefore a certain demand which, as an
intimate, I might make of her. I extracted from her a pledge that she
would never say to her brother what she had just said to me; she would
leave him to form his own theory of his wife's conduct. She agreed with
me that there was misery enough in the house, without her contributing a
new anguish, and that Mrs. Ambient's proceedings might be explained, to
her husband's mind, by the extravagance of a jealous devotion. Poor Mark
came back with the doctor much sooner than we could have hoped, but we
knew, five minutes afterwards, that they arrived too late. Poor little
Dolcino was more exquisitely beautiful in death than he had been in
life. Mrs. Ambient's grief was frantic; she lost her head and said
strange things. As for Mark's--but I will not speak of that. _Basta_,
as he used to say. Miss Ambient kept her secret,--I have already had
occasion to say that she had her good points,--but it rankled in her
conscience like a guilty participation, and, I imagine, had something
to do with her retiring ultimately to a Sisterhood. And, _à propos_ of
consciences, the reader is now in a position to judge of my compunction
for my effort to convert Mrs. Ambient. I ought to mention that the
death of her child in some degree converted her. When the new book came
out--it was long delayed--she read it over as a whole, and her husband
told me that a few months before her death,--she failed rapidly
after losing her son, sank into a consumption, and faded away
at Mentone,--during those few supreme weeks she even dipped into
_Beltraffio_.





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