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Chapter 1


CHAPTER I

"They've got him for life!" I said to myself that evening on my way
back to the station; but later on, alone in the compartment (from
Wimbledon to Waterloo, before the glory of the District Railway) I
amended this declaration in the light of the sense that my friends
would probably after all not enjoy a monopoly of Mr. Saltram. I
won't pretend to have taken his vast measure on that first
occasion, but I think I had achieved a glimpse of what the
privilege of his acquaintance might mean for many persons in the
way of charges accepted. He had been a great experience, and it
was this perhaps that had put me into the frame of foreseeing how
we should all, sooner or later, have the honour of dealing with him
as a whole. Whatever impression I then received of the, amount of
this total, I had a full enough vision of the patience of the
Mulvilles. He was to stay all the winter: Adelaide dropped it in
a tone that drew the sting from the inevitable emphasis. These
excellent people might indeed have been content to give the circle
of hospitality a diameter of six months; but if they didn't say he
was to stay all summer as well it was only because this was more
than they ventured to hope. I remember that at dinner that evening
he wore slippers, new and predominantly purple, of some queer
carpet-stuff; but the Mulvilles were still in the stage of
supposing that he might be snatched from them by higher bidders.
At a later time they grew, poor dears, to fear no snatching; but
theirs was a fidelity which needed no help from competition to make
them proud. Wonderful indeed as, when all was said, you inevitably
pronounced Frank Saltram, it was not to be overlooked that the Kent
Mulvilles were in their way still more extraordinary: as striking
an instance as could easily be encountered of the familiar truth
that remarkable men find remarkable conveniences.

They had sent for me from Wimbledon to come out and dine, and there
had been an implication in Adelaide's note--judged by her notes
alone she might have been thought silly--that it was a case in
which something momentous was to be determined or done. I had
never known them not be in a "state" about somebody, and I dare say
I tried to be droll on this point in accepting their invitation.
On finding myself in the presence of their latest discovery I had
not at first felt irreverence droop--and, thank heaven, I have
never been absolutely deprived of that alternative in Mr. Saltram's
company. I saw, however--I hasten to declare it--that compared to
this specimen their other phoenixes had been birds of
inconsiderable feather, and I afterwards took credit to myself for
not having even in primal bewilderments made a mistake about the
essence of the man. He had an incomparable gift; I never was blind
to it--it dazzles me still. It dazzles me perhaps even more in
remembrance than in fact, for I'm not unaware that for so rare a
subject the imagination goes to some expense, inserting a jewel
here and there or giving a twist to a plume. How the art of
portraiture would rejoice in this figure if the art of portraiture
had only the canvas! Nature, in truth, had largely rounded it, and
if memory, hovering about it, sometimes holds her breath, this is
because the voice that comes back was really golden.

Though the great man was an inmate and didn't dress, he kept dinner
on this occasion waiting, and the first words he uttered on coming
into the room were an elated announcement to Mulville that he had
found out something. Not catching the allusion and gaping
doubtless a little at his face, I privately asked Adelaide what he
had found out. I shall never forget the look she gave me as she
replied: "Everything!" She really believed it. At that moment,
at any rate, he had found out that the mercy of the Mulvilles was
infinite. He had previously of course discovered, as I had myself
for that matter, that their dinners were soignes. Let me not
indeed, in saying this, neglect to declare that I shall falsify my
counterfeit if I seem to hint that there was in his nature any
ounce of calculation. He took whatever came, but he never plotted
for it, and no man who was so much of an absorbent can ever have
been so little of a parasite. He had a system of the universe, but
he had no system of sponging--that was quite hand-to-mouth. He had
fine gross easy senses, but it was not his good-natured appetite
that wrought confusion. If he had loved us for our dinners we
could have paid with our dinners, and it would have been a great
economy of finer matter. I make free in these connexions with the
plural possessive because if I was never able to do what the
Mulvilles did, and people with still bigger houses and simpler
charities, I met, first and last, every demand of reflexion, of
emotion--particularly perhaps those of gratitude and of resentment.
No one, I think, paid the tribute of giving him up so often, and if
it's rendering honour to borrow wisdom I've a right to talk of my
sacrifices. He yielded lessons as the sea yields fish--I lived for
a while on this diet. Sometimes it almost appeared to me that his
massive monstrous failure--if failure after all it was--had been
designed for my private recreation. He fairly pampered my
curiosity; but the history of that experience would take me too
far. This is not the large canvas I just now spoke of, and I
wouldn't have approached him with my present hand had it been a
question of all the features. Frank Saltram's features, for
artistic purposes, are verily the anecdotes that are to be
gathered. Their name is legion, and this is only one, of which the
interest is that it concerns even more closely several other
persons. Such episodes, as one looks back, are the little dramas
that made up the innumerable facets of the big drama--which is yet
to be reported.

Henry James

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