Read CHAPTER IV of The Book-Bills of Narcissus, free online book, by Le Gallienne‚ Richard, on ReadCentral.com.

ACCOUNTS RENDERED

Nothing strikes one more in looking back, either on our own lives or on those of others, than how little we assimilate from the greatest experiences; in nothing is Nature’s apparent wastefulness of means more ironically impressive. A great love comes and sets one’s whole being singing like a harp, fills high heaven with rainbows, and makes our dingy alleys for awhile bright as the streets of the New Jerusalem; and yet, if five years after we seek for what its incandescence has left us, we find, maybe, a newly helpful epithet, maybe a fancy, at most a sonnet. Nothing strikes one more, unless, perhaps, the obverse, when we see some trifling pebble-cast ripple into eternity, some fateful second prolific as the fly aphis. And so I find it all again exampled in these old accounts. The books that mean most for Narcissus to-day could be carried in the hand without a strap, and could probably be bought for a sovereign. The rest have survived as a quaint cadence in his style, have left clinging about his thought a delicate incense of mysticism, or are bound up in the retrospective tenderness of boyish loves long since gone to dream.

Another observation in the same line of reflection also must often strike one: for what very different qualities than those for which we were first passionate do we come afterwards to value our old enthusiasms. In the day of their bloom it was the thing itself, the craze, the study, for its own sake; now it is the discipline, or any broad human culture, in which they may have been influential. The boy chases the butterfly, and thinks not of the wood and the blue heaven; but those only does the man remember, for the mark of their beauty upon him, so unconsciously impressed, for the health of their power and sweetness still living in his blood for these does that chase seem alone of worth, when the dusty entomological relic thereof is in limbo. And so that long and costly shelf, groaning beneath the weight of Grose and Dugdale, and many a mighty slab of topographical prose; those pilgrimages to remote parish churches, with all their attendant ardours of careful ‘rubbings’; those notebooks, filled with patient data; those long letters to brother antiquaries of sixteen; even that famous Exshire Tour itself, which was to have rivalled Pennant’s own what remains to show where this old passion stood, with all the clustering foliage of a dream; what but that quaint cadence I spoke of, and an anecdote or two which seemed but of little import then, with such breathless business afoot as an old font or a Roman road?

One particular Roman road, I know, is but remembered now, because, in the rich twilight of an old June evening, it led up the gorsy stretches of Lancashire ‘Heights’ to a solemn plateau, wide and solitary as Salisbury Plain, from the dark border of which, a warm human note against the lonely infinite of heath and sky, beamed the little whitewashed ‘Traveller’s Rest,’ its yellow light, growing stronger as the dusk deepened, meeting the eye with a sense of companionship becoming a vague need just then.

The seeming spiritual significance of such forlorn wastes of no-man’s land had, I know, a specially strong appeal for Narcissus, and, in some moods, the challenge which they seem to call from some ‘dark tower’ of spiritual adventure would have led him wandering there till star-light; but a day of rambling alone, in a strange country, among unknown faces, brings a social hunger by evening, and a craving for some one to speak to and a voice in return becomes almost a fear. A bright kitchen-parlour, warm with the health of six workmen, grouped round a game of dominoes, and one huge quart pot of ale, used among them as woman in the early world, was a grateful inglenook, indeed, wherein to close the day. Of course, friend N. joined them, and took his pull and paid his round, like a Walt Whitman. I like to think of his slight figure amongst them; his delicate, almost girl-like, profile against theirs; his dreamy eyes and pale brow, surmounted by one of those dark clusters of hair in which the fingers of women love to creep an incongruity, though of surfaces only, which certain who knew him but ’by sight,’ as the phrase is, might be at a loss to understand. That was one of the surprises of his constitution. Nature had given him the dainty and dreamy form of the artist, to which habit had added a bookish touch, ending in a tout ensemble of gentleness and distinction with little apparent affinity to a scene like that in the ‘Traveller’s Rest.’ But there are many whom a suspicion of the dilettante in such an exterior belies, and Narcissus was one of them. He had very strongly developed that instinct of manner to which sympathy is a daily courtesy, and he thus readily, when it suited him, could take the complexion of his company, and his capacity of ‘bend’ was well-nigh genius. Of course, all this is but to say that he was a gentleman; yet is not that in itself a fine kind of originality? Besides, he had a genuine appetite for the things of earth, such as many another delicate thing a damask rose-bush, for example must be convicted of too; and often, when some one has asked him ‘what he could have in common with so-and-so,’ I have heard him answer: ‘Tobacco and beer.’ Samuel Dale once described him as Shelley with a chin; and perhaps the chin accounted for the absence of any of those sentimental scruples with regard to beefsteaks and certain varieties of jokes, for which the saint-like deserter of Harriet Westbrook was distinguished.

A supremely quaint instance of this gift of accommodation befell during that same holiday, which should not pass unrecorded, but which I offer to the Reader with an emphatic Honi soit qui mal y pense. Despairing of reaching a certain large manufacturing town on foot in time to put up there, one evening, he was doing the last mile or two by rail, and, as the train slackened speed he turned to his companions in the carriage to enquire if they could tell him of a good hotel. He had but carelessly noticed them before: an old man, a slight young woman of perhaps thirty, and a girl about fifteen; working people, evidently, but marked by that air of cleanly poverty which in some seems but a touch of ascetic refinement. The young woman at once mentioned The Bull, and thereupon a little embarrassed consultation in undertone seemed to pass between her and the old man, resulting in a timid question as to whether Narcissus would mind putting up with them, as they were poor folk, and could well do with any little he cared to offer for his accommodation. There was something of a sad winningness in the woman which had predisposed him to the group, and without hesitation he at once accepted, and soon was walking with them to their home, through streets echoing with Lancashire ‘clogs.’ On the way he learnt the circumstances of his companions. The young woman was a widow, and the girl her daughter. Both worked through the day at one of the great cotton mills, while the old man, father and grandfather, stayed at home and ‘fended’ for them. Thus they managed to live in a comfort which, though straitened, did not deny them such an occasional holiday as to-day had been, or the old man the comfort of tobacco. The home was very small, but clean and sweet; and it was not long before they were all sat down together over a tea of wholesome bread and butter and eggs, in the preparation of which it seemed odd to see the old man taking his share. That over, he and Narcissus sat to smoke and talk of the neighbouring countryside; N. on the look-out for folk-lore, and especially for any signs in his companion of a lingering loyalty of belief in the traditions thereabout, a loyalty which had something in it of a sacred duty to him in those days. Those were the days when he still turned to the east a-Sundays, and went out in the early morning, with Herrick under his arm, to gather May-dew, with a great uplifting of the spirit, in what indeed was a very real act of worship.

But to my story! As bedtime approached Narcissus could not but be aware of a growing uneasiness in the manner of the young woman. At last it was explained. With blushing effort she stammered out the question: Would he object to share his bed with the old man? ‘Of course not,’ answered N. at once, as though he had all the time intended doing that very thing, and indeed, thought it the most delightful arrangement in the world.

So up to bed go the oddly consorted pair. But the delicious climax was yet to come. On entering the room, Narcissus found that there were two beds there! Why should we leave that other bed empty? he had almost asked; but a laughing wonder shot through him, and he stopped in time.

The old man was soon among the blankets, but Narcissus dallied over undressing, looking at this and that country quaintness on the wall; and then, while he was in a state of half man and half trousers, the voice of the woman called from the foot of the stairs: Were they in bed yet? ‘Surely, it cannot be! it is too irresistibly simple,’ was his thought; but he had immediately answered, ‘In a moment,’ as if such a question was quite a matter of course.

In that space he had blown the candle out, and was by the old man’s side: and then, in the darkness, he heard the two women ascending the stairs. Just outside his door, which he had left ajar, they seemed to turn off into a small adjoining room, from whence came immediately the soft delicious sounds of female disrobing. They were but factory women, yet Narcissus thought of Saint Agnes and Madeline, we may be sure. And then, at last indeed, there was to be no mistake about it the door was softly pushed open, and two dim forms whispered across to the adjoining bed, and, after a little preliminary rustle, settled down to a rather fluttered breathing.

No one had spoken: not even a Goodnight; but Narcissus could hardly refrain from ringing out a great mirthful cry, while his heart beat strangely, and the darkness seemed to ripple, like sunlight in a cup, with suppressed laughter. The thought of the little innocent deception as to their sleeping-room, which poverty had caused them to practise, probably held the breath of the women, while the shyness of sex was a common bond of silence at least, on the part of the three younger. It was long before Narcissus was able to fall asleep, for he kept picturing the elder woman with burning cheek and open eyes in a kind of ’listening fear’ beneath the coverlet; and the oddity of the thing was so original, so like some conte of a Decameron or Heptameron, with the wickedness left out. But at last wonder gave place to weariness, and sleep began to make a still odder magic of the situation. The difficulty of meeting at breakfast next morning, which had at once suggested itself to N.’s mind, proved a vain fear; for, when he arose, that other bed was as smooth as though it had lain untouched through the night, and the daughters of labour had been gone two hours. But it was not quite without sign that they had gone, for Narcissus had a dreamlike impression of opening his eyes in the early light to find a sweet woman’s face leaning over him; and I am sure he wanted to believe that it had bent down still further, till it had kissed his lips ’ for his mother’s sake,’ she had said in her heart, as she slipped away and was seen no more.

‘If this were fiction, instead of a veracious study from life,’ to make use of a phrase which one rarely finds out of a novel, it would be unfitting to let such an incident as that just related fall to the ground, except as the seed of future development; but, this being as I have stated, there is nothing more to say of that winning ouvrière. Narcissus saw her no more.

But surely, of all men, he could best afford that one such pleasant chance should put forth no other blossom save that half-dreamed kiss; and how can one ever foresee but that our so cherishable spray of bloom may in time add but another branch to that orchard of Dead Sea fruit which grows inevitably about all men’s dwellings?

I do not suppose that Narcissus was really as exceptional in the number and character of his numerous boyish loves as we always regarded him as being. It is no uncommon matter, of course and alas! for a youth between the ages of seventeen and nineteen to play the juggler at keeping three, or even half-a-dozen, female correspondents going at once, each of whom sleeps nightly with copious documentary evidence of her sole and incontrovertible possession of the sacred heart. Nor has Narcissus been the only lover, I suspect, who, in the season of the waning of the moon, has sent such excuses for scrappy epistolary make-shifts as ’the strident din of an office, an air so cruelly unsympathetic, as frost to buds, to the blossoming of all those words of love that press for birth,’ when, as a matter of fact, he has been unblushingly eating the lotus, in the laziest chair at home, in the quietest night of summer. Such insincerity is a common besetting sin of the young male; invariably, I almost think, if he has the artistic temperament. Yet I do not think it presents itself to his mind in its nudity, but comes clothed with that sophistry in which youth, the most thoroughgoing of philosophes, is so ingenious. Consideration for the beloved object, it is called yes! beloved indeed, though, such is the paradox in the order of things, but one of the several vestals of the sacred fire. One cannot help occasional disinclination on a lazy evening, confound it! but it makes one twinge to think of paining her with such a confession; and a story of that sort well, it’s a lie, of course; but it’s one without any harm, any seed of potential ill, in it. So the letter goes, maybe to take its place as the 150th of the sacred writings, and make poor Daffodilia, who has loved to count the growing score, happy with the completion of the half-century.

But the disinclination goes not, though the poor passion has, of course, its occasional leapings in the socket, and the pain has to come at last, for all that dainty consideration, which, moreover, has been all the time feeding larger capacities for suffering. For, of course, no man thinks of marrying his twelfth love, though in the thirteenth there is usually danger; and he who has jilted, so to say, an earl’s daughter as his sixth, may come to see

’The God of Love, ah! benedicite,
How mighty and how great a lord is he’

in the thirteenth Miss Simpkins.

But this is to write as an outsider: for that thirteenth, by a mystical process which has given to each of its series in its day the same primal quality, is, of course, not only the last, but the first. And, indeed, with little casuistry, that thirteenth may be truly held to be the first, for it is a fact determined not so much by the chosen maid as by him who chooses, though he himself is persuaded quite otherwise. To him his amorous career has been hitherto an unsuccessful pursuit, because each followed fair in turn, when at length he has caught her flying skirts, and looked into her face, has proved not that ’ideal’

’That not impossible she
That shall command my heart and me’

but another, to be shaken free again in disappointment. In truth, however, the lack has been in himself all this time. He had yet to learn what loving indeed meant: and he loves the thirteenth, not because she is pre-eminent beyond the rest, but because she has come to him at the moment when that ‘lore of loving’ has been revealed. Had any of those earlier maidens fallen on the happy conjunction, they would, doubtless, have proved no less loveworthy, and seemed no less that ‘ideal’ which they have since become, one may be sure, for some other illuminated soul.

Of course, some find that love early the baby-love, whom one never marries, and then the faithful service. Probably it happens so with the majority of men; for it is, I think, especially to the artist nature that it comes thus late. Living so vividly within the circle of its own experience, by its very constitution so necessarily egoistic, the latter, more particularly in its early years, is always a Narcissus, caring for nought or none except in so much as they reflect back its own beauty or its own dreams. The face such a youth looks for, as he turns the coy captured head to meet his glance, is, quite unconsciously, his own, and the ‘ideal’ he seeks is but the perfect mirror. Yet it is not that mirror he marries after all: for when at last he has come to know what that word one so distasteful, so ‘soiled’ to his ear ’with all ignoble’ domesticity what that word ‘wife’ really expresses, he has learnt, too, to discredit those cynical guides of his youth who love so well to write Ego as the last word of human nature.

But the particular Narcissus of whom I write was a long way off that thirteenth maid in the days of his antiquarian rambles and his Pagan-Catholic ardours, and the above digression is at least out of date.

A copy of Keats which I have by me as I write is a memorial of one of the pretty loves typical of that period. It is marked all through in black lead not so gracefully as one would have expected from the ’taper fingers’ which held the pencil, but rather, it would appear, more with regard to emphasis than grace. Narcissus had lent it to the queen of the hour with special instructions to that end, so that when it came to him again he might ravish his soul with the hugging assurance given by the thick lead to certain ecstatic lines of Endymion, such as

’My soul doth melt
For the unhappy youth;’
’He surely cannot now
Thirst for another love;’

and luxuriate in a genial sense of godship where the tremulous pencil had left the record of a sigh against

‘Each tender maiden whom he once thought fair.’

But it was a magnanimous godship; and, after a moment’s leaning back with closed eyes, to draw in all the sweet incense, how nobly would he act, in imaginative vignette, the King Cophetua to this poor suppliant of love; with what a generous waiving of his power and with what a grace! did he see himself raising her from her knees, and seating her at his right hand. Yet those pencil-marks, alas! mark but a secondary interest in that volume. A little sketch on the fly-leaf, ’by another hand,’ witness the prettier memory. A sacred valley, guarded by smooth, green hills; in the midst a little lake, fed at one end by a singing stream, swallowed at the other by the roaring darkness of a mill; green rushes prosperous in the shallows, and along the other bank an old hedgerow; a little island in the midst, circled by silver lilies; and in the distance, rising from out a cloud of tangled green, above the little river, an old church tower. Below, though not ‘in the picture,’ a quaint country house, surrounded by a garden of fair fruit-trees and wonderful bowers, through which ran the stream, free once again, and singing for joy of the light. In the great lone house a solitary old man, cherished and ruled by ’The Miller’s Daughter.’ Was scene ever more in need of a fairy prince? Narcissus sighed, as he broke upon it one rosy evening, to think what little meaning all its beauty had, suffering that lack; but as he had come thither with the purpose, at once firm and vague, of giving it a memory, he could afford to sigh till morning’s light brought, maybe, the opportunity of that transfiguring action. He was to spend an Easter fortnight there, as the guest of some farmer-relatives with whom he had stayed years before, in a period to which, being nineteen, he already alluded as his ‘boyhood.’

And it is not quite accurate to say that it had no memory for him, for he brought with him one of that very miller’s daughter, though, indeed, it was of the shadowiest silver. It had chanced at that early time that an influx of visitors to the farm had exceeded the sleeping room, and he and another little fellow had been provided with a bed in the miller’s house. He had never quite forgotten that bedroom its huge old-fashioned four-poster, slumbrous with great dark hangings, such as Queen Elizabeth seems always to have slept in; its walls dim with tapestry, and its screen of antique bead-work. But it was round the toilet table that memory grew brightest, for thereon was a crystal phial of a most marvellous perfume, and two great mother-of-pearl shells, shedding a mystical radiance the most commonplace Rimmel’s, without doubt, and the shells ‘dreadful,’ one may be sure. But to him, as he took a reverent breath of that phial, it seemed the very sweetbriar fragrance of her gown that caught his sense; and, surely, he never in all the world found scent like that again. Thus, long after, she would come to him in day-dreams, wafted on its strange sweetness, and clothed about with that mystical lustre of pearl.

There were five years between him and that memory as he stepped into that enchanted land for the second time. The sweet figure of young womanhood to which he had turned his boyish soul in hopeless worship, when it should have been busied rather with birds’ nests and rabbit-snares, had, it is true, come to him in dimmer outline each Spring, but with magic the deeper for that. As the form faded from the silver halo, and passed more and more into mythology, it seemed, indeed, as if she had never lived for him at all, save in dreams, or on another star. Still, his memory held by those great shells, and he had come at last to the fabled country on the perilous quest who of us dare venture such a one to-day? of a ‘lost saint.’ Enquiry of his friends that evening, cautious as of one on some half-suspected diplomacy, told him that one with the name of his remembrance did live at the mill-house with an old father, too. But how all the beauty of the singing morning became a scentless flower when, on making the earliest possible call, he was met at the door with that hollow word, ’Away’ a word that seemed to echo through long rooms of infinite emptiness and turn the daylight shabby till the addendum, ‘for the day,’ set the birds singing again, and called the sunshine back.

A few nights after he was sitting at her side, by a half-opened window, with his arm about her waist, and her head thrillingly near his. With his pretty gift of recitation he was pouring into her ear that sugared passage in Endymion, appropriately beginning, ‘O known unknown,’ previously ‘got up’ for the purpose; but alas! not too perfectly to prevent a break-down, though, fortunately, at a point that admitted a ready turn to the dilemma:

’Still
Let me entwine thee surer, surer ...’

Here exigency compelled N. to make surety doubly, yea, trebly, sure; but memory still forsaking him, the rascal, having put deeper and deeper significance into his voice with each repetition, dropped it altogether as he drew her close to him, and seemed to fail from the very excess of love. An hour after, he was bounding into the moonlight in an intoxication of triumph. She was won. The beckoning wonder had come down to him. And yet it was real moonlight was not that his own grace in silhouette, making a mirror even of the hard road? real grass over which he had softly stept from her window, real trees, all real, except yes! was it real love?

In the lives of all passionate lovers of women there are two broadly-marked periods, and in some a third: slavery, lordship, and service. The first is the briefest, and the third, perhaps, seldom comes; the second is the most familiar.

Awakening, like our forefather, from the deep sleep of childish things, the boy finds a being by his side of a strange hushing fairness, as though in the night he had opened his eyes and found an angel by his bed. Speech he has not at all, and his glance dare not rise beyond her bosom; till, the presence seeming gracious, he dares at length stretch out his hand and touch her gown; whereon an inexplicable new joy trembles through him, as though he stood naked in a May meadow through the golden rain of a summer shower. Should her fingers touch his arm by chance, it is as though they swept a harp, and a music of piercing sweetness runs with a sudden cry along his blood. But by and by he comes to learn that he has made a comical mistake about this wonder. With his head bent low in worship, he had not seen the wistfulness of her gaze on him; and one day, lo! it is she who presses close to him with the timid appeal of a fawn. Indeed, she has all this time been to him as some beautiful woodland creature might have seemed, breaking for the first time upon the sight of primitive man. Fear, wonder inexpressible, worship, till a sudden laughing thought of comprehension, then a lordly protectiveness, and, after that the hunt! At once the masculine self-respect returns, and the wonder, though no less sweet in itself, becomes but another form of tribute.

With Narcissus this evolution had taken place early: it was very long ago he felt old even then to think of it since Hesperus had sung like a nightingale above his first kiss, and his memory counted many trophies of lordship. But, surely, this last was of all the starriest; perhaps, indeed, so wonderful was it, it might prove the very love which would bring back again the dream that had seemed lost for ever with the passing of that mythical first maid so long ago, a love in which worship should be all once more, and godship none at all. But is not such a question all too certainly its own answer? Nay, Narcissus, if indeed you find that wonder-maid again, you will not question so; you will forget to watch that graceful shadow in the moonlight; you will but ask to sit by her silent, as of old, to follow her to the end of the world. Ah me!

’How many queens have ruled and passed
Since first we met;
How thick and fast
The letters used to come at first,
How thin at last;
Then ceased, and winter for a space!
Until another hand
Brought spring into the land,
And went the seasons’ pace.’

That Miller’s Daughter, although ‘so dear, so dear,’ why, of course, she was not that maid: but again the silver halo has grown about her; again Narcissus asks himself, ‘Did she live, or did I dream?’; again she comes to him at whiles, wafted on that strange incense, and clothed about in that mystical lustre of pearl.

Doubtless, she lives in that fabled country still: but Narcissus has grown sadly wise since then, and he goes on pilgrimage no more.