Chapter 7




It became the custom, both at Henley's and at Bedford Park, to say
that R. A. M. Stevenson, who frequented both circles, was the
better talker. Wilde had been trussed up like a turkey by
undergraduates, dragged up and down a hill, his champagne emptied
into the ice tub, hooted in the streets of various towns and I
think stoned, and no newspaper named him but in scorn; his manner
had hardened to meet opposition and at times he allowed one to see
an unpardonable insolence. His charm was acquired and systematised,
a mask which he wore only when it pleased him, while the charm
of Stevenson belonged to him like the colour of his hair. If
Stevenson's talk became monologue we did not know it, because
our one object was to show by our attention that he need never
leave off. If thought failed him we would not combat what he
had said, or start some new theme, but would encourage him with a
question; and one felt that it had been always so from childhood
up. His mind was full of phantasy for phantasy's sake and he gave
as good entertainment in monologue as his cousin Robert Louis in
poem or story. He was always 'supposing:' 'Suppose you had two
millions what would you do with it?' and 'Suppose you were in
Spain and in love how would you propose?' I recall him one
afternoon at our house at Bedford Park, surrounded by my brother
and sisters and a little group of my father's friends, describing
proposals in half a dozen countries. There your father did it,
dressed in such and such a way with such and such words, and there
a friend must wait for the lady outside the chapel door, sprinkle
her with holy water and say 'My friend Jones is dying for love of
you.' But when it was over, those quaint descriptions, so full of
laughter and sympathy, faded or remained in the memory as
something alien from one's own life like a dance I once saw in a
great house, where beautifully dressed children wound a long
ribbon in and out as they danced. I was not of Stevenson's party
and mainly I think because he had written a book in praise of
Velasquez, praise at that time universal wherever Pre-Raphaelitism
was accurst, and to my mind, that had to pick its symbols where
its ignorance permitted, Velasquez seemed the first bored
celebrant of boredom. I was convinced, from some obscure
meditation, that Stevenson's conversational method had joined him
to my elders and to the indifferent world, as though it were right
for old men, and unambitious men and all women, to be content with
charm and humour. It was the prerogative of youth to take sides
and when Wilde said: 'Mr. Bernard Shaw has no enemies but is
intensely disliked by all his friends,' I knew it to be a phrase I
should never forget, and felt revenged upon a notorious hater of
romance, whose generosity and courage I could not fathom.




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