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Chapter 3

If that first night was one of the liveliest, or at any rate was
the freshest, of my exaltations, there was another, four years
later, that was one of my great discomposures. Repetition, I well
knew by this time, was the secret of Saltram's power to alienate,
and of course one would never have seen him at his finest if one
hadn't seen him in his remorses. They set in mainly at this season
and were magnificent, elemental, orchestral. I was quite aware
that one of these atmospheric disturbances was now due; but none
the less, in our arduous attempt to set him on his feet as a
lecturer, it was impossible not to feel that two failures were a
large order, as we said, for a short course of five. This was the
second time, and it was past nine o'clock; the audience, a muster
unprecedented and really encouraging, had fortunately the attitude
of blandness that might have been looked for in persons whom the
promise of (if I'm not mistaken) An Analysis of Primary Ideas had
drawn to the neighbourhood of Upper Baker Street. There was in
those days in that region a petty lecture-hall to be secured on
terms as moderate as the funds left at our disposal by the
irrepressible question of the maintenance of five small Saltrams--I
include the mother--and one large one. By the time the Saltrams,
of different sizes, were all maintained we had pretty well poured
out the oil that might have lubricated the machinery for enabling
the most original of men to appear to maintain them.

It was I, the other time, who had been forced into the breach,
standing up there for an odious lamplit moment to explain to half a
dozen thin benches, where earnest brows were virtuously void of
anything so cynical as a suspicion, that we couldn't so much as put
a finger on Mr. Saltram. There was nothing to plead but that our
scouts had been out from the early hours and that we were afraid
that on one of his walks abroad--he took one, for meditation,
whenever he was to address such a company--some accident had
disabled or delayed him. The meditative walks were a fiction, for
he never, that any one could discover, prepared anything but a
magnificent prospectus; hence his circulars and programmes, of
which I possess an almost complete collection, are the solemn
ghosts of generations never born. I put the case, as it seemed to
me, at the best; but I admit I had been angry, and Kent Mulville
was shocked at my want of public optimism. This time therefore I
left the excuses to his more practised patience, only relieving
myself in response to a direct appeal from a young lady next whom,
in the hall, I found myself sitting. My position was an accident,
but if it had been calculated the reason would scarce have eluded
an observer of the fact that no one else in the room had an
approach to an appearance. Our philosopher's "tail" was deplorably
limp. This visitor was the only person who looked at her ease, who
had come a little in the spirit of adventure. She seemed to carry
amusement in her handsome young head, and her presence spoke, a
little mystifyingly, of a sudden extension of Saltram's sphere of
influence. He was doing better than we hoped, and he had chosen
such an occasion, of all occasions, to succumb to heaven knew which
of his fond infirmities. The young lady produced an impression of
auburn hair and black velvet, and had on her other hand a companion
of obscurer type, presumably a waiting-maid. She herself might
perhaps have been a foreign countess, and before she addressed me I
had beguiled our sorry interval by finding in her a vague recall of
the opening of some novel of Madame Sand. It didn't make her more
fathomable to pass in a few minutes from this to the certitude that
she was American; it simply engendered depressing reflexions as to
the possible check to contributions from Boston. She asked me if,
as a person apparently more initiated, I would recommend further
waiting, and I answered that if she considered I was on my honour I
would privately deprecate it. Perhaps she didn't; at any rate our
talk took a turn that prolonged it till she became aware we were
left almost alone. I presently ascertained she knew Mrs. Saltram,
and this explained in a manner the miracle. The brotherhood of the
friends of the husband was as nothing to the brotherhood, or
perhaps I should say the sisterhood, of the friends of the wife.
Like the Kent Mulvilles I belonged to both fraternities, and even
better than they I think I had sounded the abyss of Mrs. Saltram's
wrongs. She bored me to extinction, and I knew but too well how
she had bored her husband; but there were those who stood by her,
the most efficient of whom were indeed the handful of poor
Saltram's backers. They did her liberal justice, whereas her mere
patrons and partisans had nothing but hatred for our philosopher.
I'm bound to say it was we, however--we of both camps, as it were--
who had always done most for her.

I thought my young lady looked rich--I scarcely knew why; and I
hoped she had put her hand in her pocket. I soon made her out,
however, not at all a fine fanatic--she was but a generous,
irresponsible enquirer. She had come to England to see her aunt,
and it was at her aunt's she had met the dreary lady we had all so
much on our mind. I saw she'd help to pass the time when she
observed that it was a pity this lady wasn't intrinsically more
interesting. That was refreshing, for it was an article of faith
in Mrs. Saltram's circle--at least among those who scorned to know
her horrid husband--that she was attractive on her merits. She was
in truth a most ordinary person, as Saltram himself would have been
if he hadn't been a prodigy. The question of vulgarity had no
application to him, but it was a measure his wife kept challenging
you to apply. I hasten to add that the consequences of your doing
so were no sufficient reason for his having left her to starve.
"He doesn't seem to have much force of character," said my young
lady; at which I laughed out so loud that my departing friends
looked back at me over their shoulders as if I were making a joke
of their discomfiture. My joke probably cost Saltram a
subscription or two, but it helped me on with my interlocutress.
"She says he drinks like a fish," she sociably continued, "and yet
she allows that his mind's wonderfully clear." It was amusing to
converse with a pretty girl who could talk of the clearness of
Saltram's mind. I expected next to hear she had been assured he
was awfully clever. I tried to tell her--I had it almost on my
conscience--what was the proper way to regard him; an effort
attended perhaps more than ever on this occasion with the usual
effect of my feeling that I wasn't after all very sure of it. She
had come to-night out of high curiosity--she had wanted to learn
this proper way for herself. She had read some of his papers and
hadn't understood them; but it was at home, at her aunt's, that her
curiosity had been kindled--kindled mainly by his wife's remarkable
stories of his want of virtue. "I suppose they ought to have kept
me away," my companion dropped, "and I suppose they'd have done so
if I hadn't somehow got an idea that he's fascinating. In fact
Mrs. Saltram herself says he is."

"So you came to see where the fascination resides? Well, you've
seen!"

My young lady raised fine eyebrows. "Do you mean in his bad
faith?"

"In the extraordinary effects of it; his possession, that is, of
some quality or other that condemns us in advance to forgive him
the humiliation, as I may call it, to which he has subjected us."

"The humiliation?"

"Why mine, for instance, as one of his guarantors, before you as
the purchaser of a ticket."

She let her charming gay eyes rest on me. "You don't look
humiliated a bit, and if you did I should let you off, disappointed
as I am; for the mysterious quality you speak of is just the
quality I came to see."

"Oh, you can't 'see' it!" I cried.

"How then do you get at it?"

"You don't! You mustn't suppose he's good-looking," I added.

"Why his wife says he's lovely!"

My hilarity may have struck her as excessive, but I confess it
broke out afresh. Had she acted only in obedience to this singular
plea, so characteristic, on Mrs. Saltram's part, of what was
irritating in the narrowness of that lady's point of view? "Mrs.
Saltram," I explained, "undervalues him where he's strongest, so
that, to make up for it perhaps, she overpraises him where he's
weak. He's not, assuredly, superficially attractive; he's middle-
aged, fat, featureless save for his great eyes."

"Yes, his great eyes," said my young lady attentively. She had
evidently heard all about his great eyes--the beaux yeux for which
alone we had really done it all.

"They're tragic and splendid--lights on a dangerous coast. But he
moves badly and dresses worse, and altogether he's anything but
smart."

My companion, who appeared to reflect on this, after a moment
appealed. "Do you call him a real gentleman?"

I started slightly at the question, for I had a sense of
recognising it: George Gravener, years before, that first flushed
night, had put me face to face with it. It had embarrassed me
then, but it didn't embarrass me now, for I had lived with it and
overcome it and disposed of it. "A real gentleman? Emphatically
not!"

My promptitude surprised her a little, but I quickly felt how
little it was to Gravener I was now talking. "Do you say that
because he's--what do you call it in England?--of humble
extraction?"

"Not a bit. His father was a country school-master and his mother
the widow of a sexton, but that has nothing to do with it. I say
it simply because I know him well."

"But isn't it an awful drawback?"

"Awful--quite awful."

"I mean isn't it positively fatal?"

"Fatal to what? Not to his magnificent vitality."

Again she had a meditative moment. "And is his magnificent
vitality the cause of his vices?"

"Your questions are formidable, but I'm glad you put them. I was
thinking of his noble intellect. His vices, as you say, have been
much exaggerated: they consist mainly after all in one
comprehensive defect."

"A want of will?"

"A want of dignity."

"He doesn't recognise his obligations?"

"On the contrary, he recognises them with effusion, especially in
public: he smiles and bows and beckons across the street to them.
But when they pass over he turns away, and he speedily loses them
in the crowd. The recognition's purely spiritual--it isn't in the
least social. So he leaves all his belongings to other people to
take care of. He accepts favours, loans, sacrifices--all with
nothing more deterrent than an agony of shame. Fortunately we're a
little faithful band, and we do what we can." I held my tongue
about the natural children, engendered, to the number of three, in
the wantonness of his youth. I only remarked that he did make
efforts--often tremendous ones. "But the efforts," I said, "never
come to much: the only things that come to much are the
abandonments, the surrenders."

"And how much do they come to?"

"You're right to put it as if we had a big bill to pay, but, as
I've told you before, your questions are rather terrible. They
come, these mere exercises of genius, to a great sum total of
poetry, of philosophy, a mighty mass of speculation, notation,
quotation. The genius is there, you see, to meet the surrender;
but there's no genius to support the defence."

"But what is there, after all, at his age, to show?"

"In the way of achievement recognised and reputation established?"
I asked. "To 'show' if you will, there isn't much, since his
writing, mostly, isn't as fine, isn't certainly as showy, as his
talk. Moreover two-thirds of his work are merely colossal projects
and announcements. 'Showing' Frank Saltram is often a poor
business," I went on: "we endeavoured, you'll have observed, to
show him to-night! However, if he HAD lectured he'd have lectured
divinely. It would just have been his talk."

"And what would his talk just have been?"

I was conscious of some ineffectiveness, as well perhaps as of a
little impatience, as I replied: "The exhibition of a splendid
intellect." My young lady looked not quite satisfied at this, but
as I wasn't prepared for another question I hastily pursued: "The
sight of a great suspended swinging crystal--huge lucid lustrous, a
block of light--flashing back every impression of life and every
possibility of thought!"

This gave her something to turn over till we had passed out to the
dusky porch of the hall, in front of which the lamps of a quiet
brougham were almost the only thing Saltram's treachery hadn't
extinguished. I went with her to the door of her carriage, out of
which she leaned a moment after she had thanked me and taken her
seat. Her smile even in the darkness was pretty. "I do want to
see that crystal!"

"You've only to come to the next lecture."

"I go abroad in a day or two with my aunt."

"Wait over till next week," I suggested. "It's quite worth it."

She became grave. "Not unless he really comes!" At which the
brougham started off, carrying her away too fast, fortunately for
my manners, to allow me to exclaim "Ingratitude!"

Henry James

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