Coming in to dress for dinner, I found a telegram: "Mrs. Stormer dying; can you give us half a column for to-morrow evening? Let her off easy, but not too easy." I was late; I was in a hurry; I had very little time to think, but at a venture I dispatched a reply: "Will do what I can." It was not till I had dressed and was rolling away to dinner that, in the hansom, I bethought myself of the difficulty of the condition attached. The difficulty was not of course in letting her off easy but in qualifying that indulgence. "I simply won't qualify it," I said to myself. I didn't admire her, but I liked her, and I had known her so long that I almost felt heartless in sitting down at such an hour to a feast of indifference. I must have seemed abstracted, for the early years of my acquaintance with her came back to me. I spoke of her to the lady I had taken down, hut the lady I had taken down had never heard of Greville Fane. I tried my other neighbour, who pronounced her books "too vile." I had never thought them very good, but I should let her off easier than that.
I came away early, for the express purpose of driving to ask about her. The journey took time, for she lived in the north-west district, in the neighbourhood of Primrose Hill. My apprehension that I should be too late was justified in a fuller sense than I had attached to it--I had only feared that the house would be shut up. There were lights in the windows, and the temperate tinkle of my bell brought a servant immediately to the door, but poor Mrs. Stormer had passed into a state in which the resonance of no earthly knocker was to be feared. A lady, in the hall, hovering behind the servant, came forward when she heard my voice. I recognised Lady Luard, but she had mistaken me for the doctor.
"Excuse my appearing at such an hour," I said; "it was the first possible moment after I heard."
"It's all over," Lady Luard replied. "Dearest mamma!"
She stood there under the lamp with her eyes on me; she was very tall, very stiff, very cold, and always looked as if these things, and some others beside, in her dress, her manner and even her name, were an implication that she was very admirable. I had never been able to follow the argument, but that is a detail. I expressed briefly and frankly what I felt, while the little mottled maidservant flattened herself against the wall of the narrow passage and tried to look detached without looking indifferent. It was not a moment to make a visit, and I was on the point of retreating when Lady Luard arrested me with a queer, casual, drawling "Would you--a--would you, perhaps, be WRITING something?" I felt for the instant like an interviewer, which I was not. But I pleaded guilty to this intention, on which she rejoined: "I'm so very glad--but I think my brother would like to see you." I detested her brother, but it wasn't an occasion to act this out; so I suffered myself to be inducted, to my surprise, into a small back room which I immediately recognised as the scene, during the later years, of Mrs. Stormer's imperturbable industry. Her table was there, the battered and blotted accessory to innumerable literary lapses, with its contracted space for the arms (she wrote only from the elbow down) and the confusion of scrappy, scribbled sheets which had already become literary remains. Leolin was also there, smoking a cigarette before the fire and looking impudent even in his grief, sincere as it well might have been.
To meet him, to greet him, I had to make a sharp effort; for the air that he wore to me as he stood before me was quite that of his mother's murderer. She lay silent for ever upstairs--as dead as an unsuccessful book, and his swaggering erectness was a kind of symbol of his having killed her. I wondered if he had already, with his sister, been calculating what they could get for the poor papers on the table; but I had not long to wait to learn, for in reply to the scanty words of sympathy I addressed him he puffed out: "It's miserable, miserable, yes; but she has left three books complete." His words had the oddest effect; they converted the cramped little room into a seat of trade and made the "book" wonderfully feasible. He would certainly get all that could be got for the three. Lady Luard explained to me that her husband had been with them but had had to go down to the House. To her brother she explained that I was going to write something, and to me again she made it clear that she hoped I would "do mamma justice." She added that she didn't think this had ever been done. She said to her brother: "Don't you think there are some things he ought thoroughly to understand?" and on his instantly exclaiming "Oh, thoroughly--thoroughly!" she went on, rather austerely: "I mean about mamma's birth."
"Yes, and her connections," Leolin added.
I professed every willingness, and
for five minutes I listened, but it would be too much to say that I
understood. I don't even now, but it is
not important. My vision was of other
matters than those they put before me, and while they desired there should be
no mistake about their ancestors I became more and more lucid about themselves. I got away as soon as possible, and walked home
through the great dusky, empty
When first I knew her she had published half-a-dozen
fictions, and I believe I had also perpetrated a novel. She was more than a dozen years older than I,
but she was a person who always acknowledged her relativity. It was not so very long ago, but in
An industrious widow, devoted to her daily stint, to meeting
the butcher and baker and making a home for her son and daughter, from the
moment she took her pen in her hand she became a creature of passion. She thought the English novel deplorably
wanting in that element, and the task she had cut out for herself was to supply
the deficiency. Passion in high life was
the general formula of this work, for her imagination was at home only in the
most exalted circles. She adored, in
truth, the aristocracy, and they constituted for her the romance of the world
or, what is more to the point, the prime material of fiction. Their beauty and luxury, their loves and
revenges, their temptations and surrenders, their immoralities and diamonds
were as familiar to her as the blots on her writing-table. She was not a
belated producer of the old fashionable novel, she had a
cleverness and a modernness of her own, she
had freshened up the fly-blown tinsel.
She turned off plots by the hundred and--so far as her flying quill
could convey her--was perpetually going abroad.
Her types, her illustrations, her tone were nothing if not cosmopolitan.
She recognised nothing less provincial than European
society, and her fine folk knew each other and made love to each other from Doncaster to
This combination of qualities had brought her early success, and I remember having heard with wonder and envy of what she "got," in those days, for a novel. The revelation gave me a pang: it was such a proof that, practising a totally different style, I should never make my fortune. And yet when, as I knew her better she told me her real tariff and I saw how rumour had quadrupled it, I liked her enough to be sorry. After a while I discovered too that if she got less it was not that I was to get any more. My failure never had what Mrs. Stormer would have called the banality of being relative--it was always admirably absolute. She lived at ease however in those days--ease is exactly the word, though she produced three novels a year. She scorned me when I spoke of difficulty--it was the only thing that made her angry. If I hinted that a work of art required a tremendous licking into shape she thought it a pretension and a pose. She never recognised the "torment of form"; the furthest she went was to introduce into one of her books (in satire her hand was heavy) a young poet who was always talking about it. I couldn't quite understand her irritation on this score, for she had nothing at stake in the matter. She had a shrewd perception that form, in prose at least, never recommended any one to the public we were condemned to address, and therefore she lost nothing (putting her private humiliation aside) by not having any. She made no pretence of producing works of art, but had comfortable tea-drinking hours in which she freely confessed herself a common pastrycook, dealing in such tarts and puddings as would bring customers to the shop. She put in plenty of sugar and of cochineal, or whatever it is that gives these articles a rich and attractive colour. She had a serene superiority to observation and opportunity which constituted an inexpugnable strength and would enable her to go on indefinitely. It is only real success that wanes, it is only solid things that melt. Greville Fane's ignorance of life was a resource still more unfailing than the most approved receipt. On her saying once that the day would come when she should have written herself out I answered: "Ah, you look into fairyland, and the fairies love you, and THEY never change. Fairyland is always there; it always was from the beginning of time, and it always will be to the end. They've given you the key and you can always open the door. With me it's different; I try, in my clumsy way, to be in some direct relation to life." "Oh, bother your direct relation to life!" she used to reply, for she was always annoyed by the phrase--which would not in the least prevent her from using it when she wished to try for style. With no more prejudices than an old sausage-mill, she would give forth again with patient punctuality any poor verbal scrap that had been dropped into her. I cheered her with saying that the dark day, at the end, would be for the like of ME; inasmuch as, going in our small way by experience and observation, we depended not on a revelation, but on a little tiresome process. Observation depended on opportunity, and where should we be when opportunity failed?
One day she told me that as the novelist's life was so delightful and during the good years at least such a comfortable support (she had these staggering optimisms) she meant to train up her boy to follow it. She took the ingenious view that it was a profession like another and that therefore everything was to be gained by beginning young and serving an apprenticeship. Moreover the education would be less expensive than any other special course, inasmuch as she could administer it herself. She didn't profess to keep a school, but she could at least teach her own child. It was not that she was so very clever, but (she confessed to me as if she were afraid I would laugh at her) that HE was. I didn't laugh at her for that, for I thought the boy sharp--I had seen him at sundry times. He was well grown and good-looking and unabashed, and both he and his sister made me wonder about their defunct papa, concerning whom the little I knew was that he had been a clergyman. I explained them to myself by suppositions and imputations possibly unjust to the departed; so little were they--superficially at least--the children of their mother. There used to be, on an easel in her drawing-room, an enlarged photograph of her husband, done by some horrible posthumous "process" and draped, as to its florid frame, with a silken scarf, which testified to the candour of Greville Fane's bad taste. It made him look like an unsuccessful tragedian; but it was not a thing to trust. He may have been a successful comedian. Of the two children the girl was the elder, and struck me in all her younger years as singularly colourless. She was only very long, like an undecipherable letter. It was not till Mrs. Stormer came back from a protracted residence abroad that Ethel (which was this young lady's name) began to produce the effect, which was afterwards remarkable in her, of a certain kind of high resolution. She made one apprehend that she meant to do something for herself. She was long-necked and near-sighted and striking, and I thought I had never seen sweet seventeen in a form so hard and high and dry. She was cold and affected and ambitious, and she carried an eyeglass with a long handle, which she put up whenever she wanted not to see. She had come out, as the phrase is, immensely; and yet I felt as if she were surrounded with a spiked iron railing. What she meant to do for herself was to marry, and it was the only thing, I think, that she meant to do for any one else; yet who would be inspired to clamber over that bristling barrier? What flower of tenderness or of intimacy would such an adventurer conceive as his reward?
This was for Sir Baldwin Luard to
say; but he naturally never confided to me the secret. He was a joyless, jokeless young man, with
the air of having other secrets as well, and a determination to get on politically
that was indicated by his never having been known to commit himself--as regards
any proposition whatever--beyond an exclamatory "Oh!" His wife and he must have conversed mainly in
prim ejaculations, but they understood sufficiently that they were kindred
spirits. I remember being angry with Greville Fane when she announced these nuptials to me as
magnificent; I remember asking her what splendour
there was in the union of the daughter of a woman of genius with an
irredeemable mediocrity. "Oh! he's awfully clever," she said; but she blushed for the
maternal fib. What she meant was that
though Sir Baldwin's estates were not vast (he had a dreary house in South
Kensington and a still drearier "Hall" somewhere in
I could see that this necessity grew upon her during the
years she spent abroad, when I had glimpses of her in the shifting sojourns
that lay in the path of my annual ramble.
She betook herself from
It would have been droll if it had not been so exemplary to
see her tracing the loves of the duchesses beside the innocent cribs of her
children. The immoral and the maternal
lived together in her diligent days on the most comfortable terms, and she
stopped curling the mustaches of her Guardsmen to pat the heads of her
babes. She was haunted by solemn
spinsters who came to tea from continental pensions, and by unsophisticated
Americans who told her she was just loved in THEIR country. "I had rather be just paid there,"
she usually replied; for this tribute of transatlantic opinion was the only
thing that galled her. The Americans
went away thinking her coarse; though as the author of
so many beautiful love-stories she was disappointing to most of these pilgrims,
who had not expected to find a shy, stout, ruddy lady in a cap like a crumbled
pyramid. She wrote about the affections
and the impossibility of controlling them, but she talked of the price of
pension and the convenience of an English chemist. She devoted much thought and many thousands
of francs to the education of her daughter, who spent three years at a very
superior school at Dresden, receiving wonderful instruction in sciences, arts
and tongues, and who, taking a different line from Leolin,
was to be brought up wholly as a femme du monde. The girl was musical and philological; she
made a specialty of languages and learned enough about them to be inspired with
a great contempt for her mother's artless accents. Greville Fane's
French and Italian were droll; the imitative faculty had been denied her, and
she had an unequalled gift, especially pen in hand, of squeezing big mistakes
into small opportunities. She knew it,
but she didn't care; correctness was the virtue in the world that, like her
heroes and heroines, she valued least.
Ethel, who had perceived in her pages some remarkable lapses, undertook
at one time to revise her proofs; but I remember her telling me a year after
the girl had left school that this function had been very briefly
exercised. "She can't read
me," said Mrs. Stormer; "I offend her
taste. She tells me that at
She didn't make her son ashamed of the profession to which
he was destined, however; she only made him ashamed of the way she herself
exercised it. But he bore his
humiliation much better than his sister, for he was ready to take for granted
that he should one day restore the balance.
He was a canny and far-seeing youth, with appetites and aspirations, and
he had not a scruple in his composition.
His mother's theory of the happy knack he could pick up deprived him of
the wholesome discipline required to prevent young idlers from becoming
cads. He had, abroad, a casual tutor and
a snatch or two of a Swiss school, but no consecutive study, no prospect of a
university or a degree. It may be
imagined with what zeal, as the years went on, he entered into the pleasantry
of there being no manual so important to him as the
massive book of life. It was an
expensive volume to peruse, but Mrs. Stormer was
willing to lay out a sum in what she would have called her premiers frais. Ethel disapproved--she thought this education far
too unconventional for an English gentleman.
Her voice was for Eton and
When she came back to
She was tired at last, but she mentioned to me that she couldn't afford to pause. She continued to speak of Leolin's work as the great hope of their future (she had saved no money) though the young man wore to my sense an aspect more and more professional if you like, but less and less literary. At the end of a couple of years there was something monstrous in the impudence with which he played his part in the comedy. When I wondered how she could play HER part I had to perceive that her good faith was complete and that what kept it so was simply her extravagant fondness. She loved the young impostor with a simple, blind, benighted love, and of all the heroes of romance who had passed before her eyes he was by far the most brilliant.
He was at any rate the most real--she could touch him, pay for him, suffer for him, worship him. He made her think of her princes and dukes, and when she wished to fix these figures in her mind's eye she thought of her boy. She had often told me she was carried away by her own creations, and she was certainly carried away by Leolin. He vivified, by potentialities at least, the whole question of youth and passion. She held, not unjustly, that the sincere novelist should feel the whole flood of life; she acknowledged with regret that she had not had time to feel it herself, and it was a joy to her that the deficiency might be supplied by the sight of the way it was rushing through this magnificent young man. She exhorted him, I suppose, to let it rush; she wrung her own flaccid little sponge into the torrent. I knew not what passed between them in her hours of tuition, but I gathered that she mainly impressed on him that the great thing was to live, because that gave you material. He asked nothing better; he collected material, and the formula served as a universal pretext. You had only to look at him to see that, with his rings and breastpins, his cross-barred jackets, his early embonpoint, his eyes that looked like imitation jewels, his various indications of a dense, full-blown temperament, his idea of life was singularly vulgar; but he was not so far wrong as that his response to his mother's expectations was not in a high degree practical. If she had imposed a profession on him from his tenderest years it was exactly a profession that he followed. The two were not quite the same, inasmuch as HIS was simply to live at her expense; but at least she couldn't say that he hadn't taken a line. If she insisted on believing in him he offered himself to the sacrifice. My impression is that her secret dream was that he should have a liaison with a countess, and he persuaded her without difficulty that he had one. I don't know what countesses are capable of, but I have a clear notion of what Leolin was.
He didn't persuade his sister, who despised him--she wished to work her mother in her own way, and I asked myself why the girl's judgment of him didn't make me like her better. It was because it didn't save her after all from a mute agreement with him to go halves. There were moments when I couldn't help looking hard into his atrocious young eyes, challenging him to confess his fantastic fraud and give it up. Not a little tacit conversation passed between us in this way, but he had always the best of it. If I said: "Oh, come now, with ME you needn't keep it up; plead guilty, and I'll let you off," he wore the most ingenuous, the most candid expression, in the depths of which I could read: "Oh, yes, I know it exasperates you--that's just why I do it." He took the line of earnest inquiry, talked about Balzac and Flaubert, asked me if I thought Dickens DID exaggerate and Thackeray OUGHT to be called a pessimist. Once he came to see me, at his mother's suggestion he declared, on purpose to ask me how far, in my opinion, in the English novel, one really might venture to "go." He was not resigned to the usual pruderies--he suffered under them already. He struck out the brilliant idea that nobody knew how far we might go, for nobody had ever tried. Did I think HE might safely try--would it injure his mother if he did? He would rather disgrace himself by his timidities than injure his mother, but certainly some one ought to try. Wouldn't I try--couldn't I be prevailed upon to look at it as a duty? Surely the ultimate point ought to be fixed--he was worried, haunted by the question. He patronised me unblushingly, made me feel like a foolish amateur, a helpless novice, inquired into my habits of work and conveyed to me that I was utterly vieux jeu and had not had the advantage of an early training. I had not been brought up from the germ, I knew nothing of life--didn't go at it on HIS system. He had dipped into French feuilletons and picked up plenty of phrases, and he made a much better show in talk than his poor mother, who never had time to read anything and could only be vivid with her pen. If I didn't kick him downstairs it was because he would have alighted on her at the bottom.
When she went to live at Primrose Hill I called upon her and found her weary and wasted. It had waned a good deal, the elation caused the year before by Ethel's marriage; the foam on the cup had subsided and there was a bitterness in the draught.
She had had to take a cheaper house and she had to work still harder to pay even for that. Sir Baldwin was obliged to be close; his charges were fearful, and the dream of her living with her daughter (a vision she had never mentioned to me) must be renounced. "I would have helped with things, and I could have lived perfectly in one room," she said; "I would have paid for everything, and--after all--I'm some one, ain't I? But I don't fit in, and Ethel tells me there are tiresome people she MUST receive. I can help them from here, no doubt, better than from there. She told me once, you know, what she thinks of my picture of life. 'Mamma, your picture of life is preposterous!' No doubt it is, but she's vexed with me for letting my prices go down; and I had to write three novels to pay for all her marriage cost me. I did it very well--I mean the outfit and the wedding; but that's why I'm here. At any rate she doesn't want a dingy old woman in her house. I should give it an atmosphere of literary glory, but literary glory is only the eminence of nobodies. Besides, she doubts my glory--she knows I'm glorious only at Peckham and Hackney. She doesn't want her friends to ask if I've never known nice people. She can't tell them I've never been in society. She tried to teach me better once, but I couldn't learn. It would seem too as if Peckham and Hackney had had enough of me; for (don't tell any one!) I've had to take less for my last than I ever took for anything." I asked her how little this had been, not from curiosity, but in order to upbraid her, more disinterestedly than Lady Luard had done, for such concessions. She answered "I'm ashamed to tell you," and then she began to cry.
I had never seen her break down, and I was proportionately
moved; she sobbed, like a frightened child, over the extinction of her vogue
and the exhaustion of her vein. Her
little workroom seemed indeed a barren place to grow flowers, and I wondered,
in the after years (for she continued to produce and publish) by what desperate
and heroic process she dragged them out of the soil. I remember asking her on that occasion what
had become of Leolin, and how much longer she
intended to allow him to amuse himself at her cost. She rejoined with spirit, wiping her eyes,
that he was down at
"He HAS invented one," I said, "and he's paid every day of his life."
"What is it?" she asked, looking hard at the picture of the year; "Baby's Tub," near which we happened to be standing.
I hesitated a moment. "I myself will write a little story about it, and then you'll see."
But she never saw; she had never seen anything, and she passed away with her fine blindness unimpaired. Her son published every scrap of scribbled paper that could be extracted from her table-drawers, and his sister quarrelled with him mortally about the proceeds, which showed that she only wanted a pretext, for they cannot have been great. I don't know what Leolin lives upon, unless it be on a queer lady many years older than himself, whom he lately married. The last time I met him he said to me with his infuriating smile: "Don't you think we can go a little further still--just a little?" HE really goes too far.