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Chapter 7

THE young lady in the dining-room had a brave face, black hair,
blue eyes, and in her lap a big volume. "I've come for his
autograph," she said when I had explained to her that I was under
bonds to see people for him when he was occupied. "I've been
waiting half an hour, but I'm prepared to wait all day." I don't
know whether it was this that told me she was American, for the
propensity to wait all day is not in general characteristic of her
race. I was enlightened probably not so much by the spirit of the
utterance as by some quality of its sound. At any rate I saw she
had an individual patience and a lovely frock, together with an
expression that played among her pretty features like a breeze
among flowers. Putting her book on the table she showed me a
massive album, showily bound and full of autographs of price. The
collection of faded notes, of still more faded "thoughts," of
quotations, platitudes, signatures, represented a formidable
purpose.

I could only disclose my dread of it. "Most people apply to Mr.
Paraday by letter, you know."

"Yes, but he doesn't answer. I've written three times."

"Very true," I reflected; "the sort of letter you mean goes
straight into the fire."

"How do you know the sort I mean?" My interlocutress had blushed
and smiled, and in a moment she added: "I don't believe he gets
many like them!"

"I'm sure they're beautiful, but he burns without reading." I
didn't add that I had convinced him he ought to.

"Isn't he then in danger of burning things of importance?"

"He would perhaps be so if distinguished men hadn't an infallible
nose for nonsense."

She looked at me a moment - her face was sweet and gay. "Do YOU
burn without reading too?" - in answer to which I assured her that
if she'd trust me with her repository I'd see that Mr. Paraday
should write his name in it.

She considered a little. "That's very well, but it wouldn't make
me see him."

"Do you want very much to see him?" It seemed ungracious to
catechise so charming a creature, but somehow I had never yet taken
my duty to the great author so seriously.

"Enough to have come from America for the purpose."

I stared. "All alone?"

"I don't see that that's exactly your business, but if it will make
me more seductive I'll confess that I'm quite by myself. I had to
come alone or not come at all."

She was interesting; I could imagine she had lost parents, natural
protectors - could conceive even she had inherited money. I was at
a pass of my own fortunes when keeping hansoms at doors seemed to
me pure swagger. As a trick of this bold and sensitive girl,
however, it became romantic - a part of the general romance of her
freedom, her errand, her innocence. The confidence of young
Americans was notorious, and I speedily arrived at a conviction
that no impulse could have been more generous than the impulse that
had operated here. I foresaw at that moment that it would make her
my peculiar charge, just as circumstances had made Neil Paraday.
She would be another person to look after, so that one's honour
would be concerned in guiding her straight. These things became
clearer to me later on; at the instant I had scepticism enough to
observe to her, as I turned the pages of her volume, that her net
had all the same caught many a big fish. She appeared to have had
fruitful access to the great ones of the earth; there were people
moreover whose signatures she had presumably secured without a
personal interview. She couldn't have worried George Washington
and Friedrich Schiller and Hannah More. She met this argument, to
my surprise, by throwing up the album without a pang. It wasn't
even her own; she was responsible for none of its treasures. It
belonged to a girl-friend in America, a young lady in a western
city. This young lady had insisted on her bringing it, to pick up
more autographs: she thought they might like to see, in Europe, in
what company they would be. The "girl-friend," the western city,
the immortal names, the curious errand, the idyllic faith, all made
a story as strange to me, and as beguiling, as some tale in the
Arabian Nights. Thus it was that my informant had encumbered
herself with the ponderous tome; but she hastened to assure me that
this was the first time she had brought it out. For her visit to
Mr. Paraday it had simply been a pretext. She didn't really care a
straw that he should write his name; what she did want was to look
straight into his face.

I demurred a little. "And why do you require to do that?"

"Because I just love him!" Before I could recover from the
agitating effect of this crystal ring my companion had continued:
"Hasn't there ever been any face that you've wanted to look into?"

How could I tell her so soon how much I appreciated the opportunity
of looking into hers? I could only assent in general to the
proposition that there were certainly for every one such yearnings,
and even such faces; and I felt the crisis demand all my lucidity,
all my wisdom. "Oh yes, I'm a student of physiognomy. Do you
mean," I pursued, "that you've a passion for Mr. Paraday's books?"

"They've been everything to me and a little more beside - I know
them by heart. They've completely taken hold of me. There's no
author about whom I'm in such a state as I'm in about Neil
Paraday."

"Permit me to remark then," I presently returned, "that you're one
of the right sort."

"One of the enthusiasts? Of course I am!"

"Oh there are enthusiasts who are quite of the wrong. I mean
you're one of those to whom an appeal can be made."

"An appeal?" Her face lighted as if with the chance of some great
sacrifice.

If she was ready for one it was only waiting for her, and in a
moment I mentioned it. "Give up this crude purpose of seeing him!
Go away without it. That will be far better."

She looked mystified, then turned visibly pale. "Why, hasn't he
any personal charm?" The girl was terrible and laughable in her
bright directness.

"Ah that dreadful word 'personally'!" I wailed; "we're dying of it,
for you women bring it out with murderous effect. When you meet
with a genius as fine as this idol of ours let him off the dreary
duty of being a personality as well. Know him only by what's best
in him and spare him for the same sweet sake."

My young lady continued to look at me in confusion and mistrust,
and the result of her reflexion on what I had just said was to make
her suddenly break out: "Look here, sir - what's the matter with
him?"

"The matter with him is that if he doesn't look out people will eat
a great hole in his life."

She turned it over. "He hasn't any disfigurement?"

"Nothing to speak of!"

"Do you mean that social engagements interfere with his
occupations?"

"That but feebly expresses it."

"So that he can't give himself up to his beautiful imagination?"

"He's beset, badgered, bothered - he's pulled to pieces on the
pretext of being applauded. People expect him to give them his
time, his golden time, who wouldn't themselves give five shillings
for one of his books."

"Five? I'd give five thousand!"

"Give your sympathy - give your forbearance. Two-thirds of those
who approach him only do it to advertise themselves."

"Why it's too bad!" the girl exclaimed with the face of an angel.
"It's the first time I was ever called crude!" she laughed.

I followed up my advantage. "There's a lady with him now who's a
terrible complication, and who yet hasn't read, I'm sure, ten pages
he ever wrote."

My visitor's wide eyes grew tenderer. "Then how does she talk - ?"

"Without ceasing. I only mention her as a single case. Do you
want to know how to show a superlative consideration? Simply avoid
him."

"Avoid him?" she despairingly breathed.

"Don't force him to have to take account of you; admire him in
silence, cultivate him at a distance and secretly appropriate his
message. Do you want to know," I continued, warming to my idea,
"how to perform an act of homage really sublime?" Then as she hung
on my words: "Succeed in never seeing him at all!"

"Never at all?" - she suppressed a shriek for it.

"The more you get into his writings the less you'll want to, and
you'll be immensely sustained by the thought of the good you're
doing him."

She looked at me without resentment or spite, and at the truth I
had put before her with candour, credulity, pity. I was afterwards
happy to remember that she must have gathered from my face the
liveliness of my interest in herself. "I think I see what you
mean."

"Oh I express it badly, but I should be delighted if you'd let me
come to see you - to explain it better."

She made no response to this, and her thoughtful eyes fell on the
big album, on which she presently laid her hands as if to take it
away. "I did use to say out West that they might write a little
less for autographs - to all the great poets, you know - and study
the thoughts and style a little more."

"What do they care for the thoughts and style? They didn't even
understand you. I'm not sure," I added, "that I do myself, and I
dare say that you by no means make me out."

She had got up to go, and though I wanted her to succeed in not
seeing Neil Paraday I wanted her also, inconsequently, to remain in
the house. I was at any rate far from desiring to hustle her off.
As Mrs. Weeks Wimbush, upstairs, was still saving our friend in her
own way, I asked my young lady to let me briefly relate, in
illustration of my point, the little incident of my having gone
down into the country for a profane purpose and been converted on
the spot to holiness. Sinking again into her chair to listen she
showed a deep interest in the anecdote. Then thinking it over
gravely she returned with her odd intonation: "Yes, but you do see
him!" I had to admit that this was the case; and I wasn't so
prepared with an effective attenuation as I could have wished. She
eased the situation off, however, by the charming quaintness with
which she finally said: "Well, I wouldn't want him to be lonely!"
This time she rose in earnest, but I persuaded her to let me keep
the album to show Mr. Paraday. I assured her I'd bring it back to
her myself. "Well, you'll find my address somewhere in it on a
paper!" she sighed all resignedly at the door.

Henry James

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