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Chapter 9

"I SUPPOSE I ought to enjoy the joke of what's going on here," I
wrote, "but somehow it doesn't amuse me. Pessimism on the contrary
possesses me and cynicism deeply engages. I positively feel my own
flesh sore from the brass nails in Neil Paraday's social harness.
The house is full of people who like him, as they mention, awfully,
and with whom his talent for talking nonsense has prodigious
success. I delight in his nonsense myself; why is it therefore
that I grudge these happy folk their artless satisfaction? Mystery
of the human heart - abyss of the critical spirit! Mrs. Wimbush
thinks she can answer that question, and as my want of gaiety has
at last worn out her patience she has given me a glimpse of her
shrewd guess. I'm made restless by the selfishness of the
insincere friend - I want to monopolise Paraday in order that he
may push me on. To be intimate with him is a feather in my cap; it
gives me an importance that I couldn't naturally pretend to, and I
seek to deprive him of social refreshment because I fear that
meeting more disinterested people may enlighten him as to my real
motive. All the disinterested people here are his particular
admirers and have been carefully selected as such. There's
supposed to be a copy of his last book in the house, and in the
hall I come upon ladies, in attitudes, bending gracefully over the
first volume. I discreetly avert my eyes, and when I next look
round the precarious joy has been superseded by the book of life.
There's a sociable circle or a confidential couple, and the
relinquished volume lies open on its face and as dropped under
extreme coercion. Somebody else presently finds it and transfers
it, with its air of momentary desolation, to another piece of
furniture. Every one's asking every one about it all day, and
every one's telling every one where they put it last. I'm sure
it's rather smudgy about the twentieth page. I've a strong
impression, too, that the second volume is lost - has been packed
in the bag of some departing guest; and yet everybody has the
impression that somebody else has read to the end. You see
therefore that the beautiful book plays a great part in our
existence. Why should I take the occasion of such distinguished
honours to say that I begin to see deeper into Gustave Flaubert's
doleful refrain about the hatred of literature? I refer you again
to the perverse constitution of man.

"The Princess is a massive lady with the organisation of an athlete
and the confusion of tongues of a valet de place. She contrives to
commit herself extraordinarily little in a great many languages,
and is entertained and conversed with in detachments and relays,
like an institution which goes on from generation to generation or
a big building contracted for under a forfeit. She can't have a
personal taste any more than, when her husband succeeds, she can
have a personal crown, and her opinion on any matter is rusty and
heavy and plain - made, in the night of ages, to last and be
transmitted. I feel as if I ought to 'tip' some custode for my
glimpse of it. She has been told everything in the world and has
never perceived anything, and the echoes of her education respond
awfully to the rash footfall - I mean the casual remark - in the
cold Valhalla of her memory. Mrs. Wimbush delights in her wit and
says there's nothing so charming as to hear Mr. Paraday draw it
out. He's perpetually detailed for this job, and he tells me it
has a peculiarly exhausting effect. Every one's beginning - at the
end of two days - to sidle obsequiously away from her, and Mrs.
Wimbush pushes him again and again into the breach. None of the
uses I have yet seen him put to infuriate me quite so much. He
looks very fagged and has at last confessed to me that his
condition makes him uneasy - has even promised me he'll go straight
home instead of returning to his final engagements in town. Last
night I had some talk with him about going to-day, cutting his
visit short; so sure am I that he'll be better as soon as he's shut
up in his lighthouse. He told me that this is what he would like
to do; reminding me, however, that the first lesson of his
greatness has been precisely that he can't do what he likes. Mrs.
Wimbush would never forgive him if he should leave her before the
Princess has received the last hand. When I hint that a violent
rupture with our hostess would be the best thing in the world for
him he gives me to understand that if his reason assents to the
proposition his courage hangs woefully back. He makes no secret of
being mortally afraid of her, and when I ask what harm she can do
him that she hasn't already done he simply repeats: 'I'm afraid,
I'm afraid! Don't enquire too closely,' he said last night; 'only
believe that I feel a sort of terror. It's strange, when she's so
kind! At any rate, I'd as soon overturn that piece of priceless
Sevres as tell her I must go before my date.' It sounds dreadfully
weak, but he has some reason, and he pays for his imagination,
which puts him (I should hate it) in the place of others and makes
him feel, even against himself, their feelings, their appetites,
their motives. It's indeed inveterately against himself that he
makes his imagination act. What a pity he has such a lot of it!
He's too beastly intelligent. Besides, the famous reading's still
to come off, and it has been postponed a day to allow Guy
Walsingham to arrive. It appears this eminent lady's staying at a
house a few miles off, which means of course that Mrs. Wimbush has
forcibly annexed her. She's to come over in a day or two - Mrs.
Wimbush wants her to hear Mr. Paraday.

"To-day's wet and cold, and several of the company, at the
invitation of the Duke, have driven over to luncheon at Bigwood. I
saw poor Paraday wedge himself, by command, into the little
supplementary seat of a brougham in which the Princess and our
hostess were already ensconced. If the front glass isn't open on
his dear old back perhaps he'll survive. Bigwood, I believe, is
very grand and frigid, all marble and precedence, and I wish him
well out of the adventure. I can't tell you how much more and more
your attitude to him, in the midst of all this, shines out by
contrast. I never willingly talk to these people about him, but
see what a comfort I find it to scribble to you! I appreciate it -
it keeps me warm; there are no fires in the house. Mrs. Wimbush
goes by the calendar, the temperature goes by the weather, the
weather goes by God knows what, and the Princess is easily heated.
I've nothing but my acrimony to warm me, and have been out under an
umbrella to restore my circulation. Coming in an hour ago I found
Lady Augusta Minch rummaging about the hall. When I asked her what
she was looking for she said she had mislaid something that Mr.
Paraday had lent her. I ascertained in a moment that the article
in question is a manuscript, and I've a foreboding that it's the
noble morsel he read me six weeks ago. When I expressed my
surprise that he should have bandied about anything so precious (I
happen to know it's his only copy - in the most beautiful hand in
all the world) Lady Augusta confessed to me that she hadn't had it
from himself, but from Mrs. Wimbush, who had wished to give her a
glimpse of it as a salve for her not being able to stay and hear it
read.

"'Is that the piece he's to read,' I asked, 'when Guy Walsingham
arrives?'

"'It's not for Guy Walsingham they're waiting now, it's for Dora
Forbes,' Lady Augusta said. 'She's coming, I believe, early to-
morrow. Meanwhile Mrs. Wimbush has found out about him, and is
actively wiring to him. She says he also must hear him.'

"'You bewilder me a little,' I replied; 'in the age we live in one
gets lost among the genders and the pronouns. The clear thing is
that Mrs. Wimbush doesn't guard such a treasure so jealously as she
might.'

"'Poor dear, she has the Princess to guard! Mr. Paraday lent her
the manuscript to look over.'

"'She spoke, you mean, as if it were the morning paper?'

"Lady Augusta stared - my irony was lost on her. 'She didn't have
time, so she gave me a chance first; because unfortunately I go to-
morrow to Bigwood.'

"'And your chance has only proved a chance to lose it?'

"'I haven't lost it. I remember now - it was very stupid of me to
have forgotten. I told my maid to give it to Lord Dorimont - or at
least to his man.'

"'And Lord Dorimont went away directly after luncheon.'

"'Of course he gave it back to my maid - or else his man did,' said
Lady Augusta. 'I dare say it's all right.'

"The conscience of these people is like a summer sea. They haven't
time to look over a priceless composition; they've only time to
kick it about the house. I suggested that the 'man,' fired with a
noble emulation, had perhaps kept the work for his own perusal; and
her ladyship wanted to know whether, if the thing shouldn't
reappear for the grand occasion appointed by our hostess, the
author wouldn't have something else to read that would do just as
well. Their questions are too delightful! I declared to Lady
Augusta briefly that nothing in the world can ever do so well as
the thing that does best; and at this she looked a little
disconcerted. But I added that if the manuscript had gone astray
our little circle would have the less of an effort of attention to
make. The piece in question was very long - it would keep them
three hours.

"'Three hours! Oh the Princess will get up!' said Lady Augusta.

"'I thought she was Mr. Paraday's greatest admirer.'

"'I dare say she is - she's so awfully clever. But what's the use
of being a Princess - '

"'If you can't dissemble your love?' I asked as Lady Augusta was
vague. She said at any rate she'd question her maid; and I'm
hoping that when I go down to dinner I shall find the manuscript
has been recovered."

Henry James

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