Often have I looked at this brûle-parfum and thought: there must be odd fish in that bowl; half a century of strangely assorted names which may recall in a flash some incident of former times. What a host of personalities must be there—a few of them still fresh in mind, others half forgotten, or quite forgotten! It would be a pleasant amusement for the winter of one’s days to pick out a card here and there and see what memories it can evoke; to delve into these varied strata of one’s own existence and disinter, maybe, some fragment, either dim or still clear-cut, of that life which has gone before.
The winter of my days has come. I have attained the Grand Climacteric. Now, if ever, is the time to take that promenade into the past and into regions which I shall never see again. . . .
Mr. James Heywood
Mr. James Heywood, of 26 Kensington Palace Gardens, was a sort of cousin; he had a noble paunch and a rosy, clean-shaven countenance, softly beaming. His house, and the lawn at the back of it on which I used to disport myself, were my earliest impression of London, dating from 1876 or 1877. It was Heywood who gave me the first English book I read by myself: “Erling the Bold.” He was a kindly old fellow; one never went there from school without receiving half a sov. or a sov. as tip (“boys need money more than we do,” he used to say); he took you up to the Lyceum to see “Romeo and Juliet” with Irving and Ellen Terry, or to the Westminster Aquarium where you could admire Pongo, the first gorilla, and a lady called Zaza who was shot out of a cannon; he built a public drinking fountain in the wall just outside the North entrance of Kensington Palace Gardens; and, among other things of that kind, he had also brought out an English version of Heer’s important work on “Die Urwelt der Schweiz.” I think he was a Fellow of the Royal Society.
So far, good; but meanwhile he was growing madder from day to day—a bundle of innocent eccentricities. He wore wigs of different colors, white, brown, grey, and black, as the fancy moved him; he carried a supply of ginger-breads in his pocket because “you never know when you may be hungry”; worse still, he took to mixing up one person with another, which was awkward, especially at dinner-parties; for he was obstinate about it, and stuck to his mistake.
Albeit he had become decidedly peculiar, I kept up my friendship with him, partly because I liked him (he was one of those who were kind to me as a boy—spontaneously kind, I mean, and not out of a Victorian sense of duty), and partly, I confess, because I liked also his succulent, long-drawn-out luncheons, and the exquisite bottle of port which followed. Those were luncheons of the old school, when men were neither afraid of paying for good things, nor yet of eating them. Now we have calories and vitamins — sheer funk — and, even among the rich, a cheese-paring spirit which is a disgrace to civilization. The things they expect you to eat!
I called on old Heywood for the last time one afternoon in 1890. The butler, as usual, showed me into his study, which was on the right-hand side of the hall. He was alone in there. He greeted me with urbanity but without affection. We discussed the prevailing epidemic of influenza; then, after a pause in which neither of us seemed to have anything to say, he observed: “You’re not asking me much about my symptoms, are you? Shall I keep up the treatment?”
My God, I thought, he is taking me for Sir Francis Lak-ing. And he’ll be furious if I try to undeceive him. What’s to be done? Clear out. . …
“I must see you later, Mr. Heywood, about that. I only thought I would drop in for a moment . . . it was on my way . . . to an important consultation (pulling out my watch) . . . good gracious! nearly four o’clock. . . . Let me just feel your pulse . . . good; very good. Steadier than last time. Yes, do keep up the treatment. And now please forgive me for running away” . . . and with some excuse I made to depart. He caught me by the sleeve and said:
“Ah, but you’re not going away without this,” and took a weighty little envelope out of a drawer and gave it to me.
When opened in the street it yielded five sovereigns and five shillings—my fee for professional attendance.
It occurred to me afterwards that an appointment may have been made for the real Laking to call on that same afternoon; if so, what about his fee?
Lt. General and Lady Isabella Keane
Lady Isabella was a relation of some kind, and I was eight years old when I first saw her on Deeside; she and her first husband had taken Park House. She was an awe-inspiring person in the matter of dress and demeanor; she could freeze people up with a glance. That aquiline nose was terrific. But I was fond of her.
In those days she wore a golden wig. It became white, with a sudden jerk, towards the close of her life, which must have occurred while I was out of England, about the beginning of the present century. The sudden jerk, so legend tells, took place while she was travelling from London to Brighton with one of her daughters. For fifty years, so long as men could remember, her wig had been of a golden hue; now, on issuing from a tunnel, it was seen to be white. The daughter, unprepared for this metamorphosis, was dumb with amazement; she could only gasp. Lady Isabella glanced at her sternly and said: “Not another word, my dear.”
A school-fellow, and one of my best friends from 1883 to 1895, when he died in an asylum. I have written about him in the Author’s Note to “Nerinda,” a story which was inspired by his case. . . .
His parents were alive, and he had two younger sisters, lovely girls, whom Lenbach and others have painted. Often I stayed with this delightful family at their house in the Via Venti Settembre in Rome, or at their country place in Lom-bardy; once, too, the mother brought the girls over for a London season. On another occasion we spent the summer together in the Dolomites; on yet another I went for a little excursion with the girls and their two parents—Luigi was not with us that time, he was studying at Pisa University— to the Sorrento district. I have cause to remember that trip, on account of a curious, unexpected, and vexatious contretemps which occurred to me. I am suffering from the consequences at this moment.
On that fateful 22 May, 1892, we five had driven from Sorrento to Positano, and thence gone by boat to Amalfi, where we arrived late, after dinner. We left next morning for Ravello and Cava. If only we had stayed another day! Then everything, no doubt, would have been cleared up. As it was, we had a kind of supper, and after that the parents retired; it had been a long and jolting day for them. We three young ones were not tired, not in the least tired; we were not going to bed just yet! I took the girls into the garden, and there, on the vine-wreathed terrace of the Cap-puccini Hotel, with one of them on each arm, we walked up and down, chatting and laughing; chatting and laughing, and blissfully unaware of the fact that, from somewhere in the bosky recesses nearby, two pairs of eyes were fixed on our innocent diversions.
This is a tragic tale and a complicated one.
As boys, while still at school in England, my brother and myself used to spend the Christmas holidays at the Weaste, near Manchester; I have spoken of this place in “Alone,” p. 222. The Weaste, at that festive season, was a melting-pot of grand-aunts and grand-uncles, sisters and brothers of my grandmother, who was also always there: wealthy and frowsy folk, every single one of them. All the old women had children and grandchildren of their own except the youngest, Aunt Mary. I was Aunt Mary’s pet. She alone, of all the family, played the piano and sang “Robin Adair” and “My love is like a red, red rose”; it was on account of Aunt Mary that Charles Halle — he was “Mr.” in those days, and lived in Mansfield street, Greenheys—sometimes came and played at the house, while I strummed Feigerl’s Hungarian dances and Bach’s Inventions; this music was one of several links of sympathy between us two. There was no doubt about it: I was her pet. Although the youngest and unmarried, she was well off; she had no dependents in the world and had all her life been saving money, every penny of which was coming to me. This was so open a secret that my grandmother, on that understanding, had arranged to leave nearly everything to my brother.
Now Aunt Mary, the only virgin in the family, was afflicted, for all her sixty years, with a maidenly coyness that would be considered pathological nowadays. Yet it was nothing out of the common, and from the literature of that period one can see to what lengths this modesty was carried. On such points she had remained like a little girl, nicely brought up, and scared to death of any hint of impropriety. That generation is extinct. Uphill work, trying to shock an old lady today!
It stands to reason that at the Weaste we were obliged to go to church on Sundays. The services there are among the few which I did not, and still do not, regret as a loss of time. In the first place, they had an organist who handled his instrument in masterly fashion; he used to delight me so much that I remember his name to this day. It was Pritchard. Secondly, Canon B.’s sermons and his r’s—now Bawabbas was a wobber; so funny that we had to stuff handkerchiefs into our mouths to prevent ourselves from splitting. Unfortunately, this Canon had a white-haired she-dragon of a sister called Miss Annie B. I never got on well with her, but Aunt Mary was her dearest friend. They were fond of each other, both old, both spinsters, and both of a painfully prudish way of thinking.
Every one has strokes of bad luck now and then. Not all of them are so unmerited as this of mine was. Why, just on that evening of May, when I was walking so blithely arm in arm with the girls on the Cappuccini terrace—why must this poisonous cat, together with another of her species whose name I forget—why must she be sitting there in the dark, and peering at us without saying a word? And why, on recognizing me, did she not make herself known? She could have then learnt the true state of affairs, and made the acquaintance next morning of the girls’ mother and father— a distinguished public man, landed proprietor with a historic name, friend and helper of Garibaldi, a Marquis, a Senator, and one or two more things of that kind. If we had stayed another day, all would have been cleared up. As it was, she mistook the girls for something utterly different, something worse than ambiguous, and wrote a long account of the incident to my dear Aunt Mary at the Weaste. I can imagine Aunt Mary’s face on reading this missive. She may well have fainted, for I had successfully trained her into the belief that I was the only chaste member of the family.
All this, alas, I discovered when it was too late: after her death. It was then reported to me that on learning about the Amain” episode she had demurely remarked: “It seems that Norman has the tastes of his Uncle Archie.” (My father’s younger brother, whom I never saw. He was a Captain in the army, served through the Maori war, and died of typhoid in Kinsale barracks.) My uncle may have been fond of girls—why not? But he probably contented himself with one at a time; and here was his chaste nephew sporting two of them, and shamelessly taking them to high-class, respectable hotels like the Cappuccini. If Aunt Mary had spoken or written to me about this affair, I could have allayed her terrors. She preferred to accept, unquestioned, Annie B.’s diagnosis of the girls; she was too pure, too horrified, too saddened, to approach me directly about such scandalous matters.
The intensity of her grief became manifest when they opened her will, in which I, the pet, was not even mentioned. Thus I lost an income, thanks to that pestilential old frump at Amalfi.
Mr. Nathaniel Filson
Ever since 1888, when I went there for the first time, I had felt an affectionate longing for the Bay of Naples. Everybody admires the Bay of Naples. Not everybody buys a house and grounds there without having looked at them. Such was my case. In 1896, having some little money, I wrote from Petersburg to a German friend on the spot, Linden of the Zoological Station, and asked him to discover a villa on the Posilipo for me to buy. He found this place, which then belonged to Filson, who wanted to sell it. I sent the money. The thing was done.
Of course, like Shelley and a thousand other tourists, I had gone by boat long ago to a site near at hand, the Scoglio di Virgilio — a rocky point where the great Enchanter of mediaeval days loved to linger. This is what Shelley writes about it: “Here are lofty rocks and craggy islets, with arches and portals of precipice standing in the sea, and enormous caverns, which echoed faintly with the murmur of the languid tide. This is called La Scuola di Virgilio.” The “enormous caverns” have given the locality its name, Gaiola-cave-ola. They are artificial. The sea-level being then lower, the Romans excavated here the tufa-blocks required for the building of the vast Villa Pausilypon which covered all this district and has bestowed its name on the promontory. It had been erected by Vedius Pollio — the same who is supposed to have fed his lampreys on the flesh of slaves (lucky lampreys!); he left it in his will to the Emperor Augustus.
Several of the rooms in my villa, and all the capacious cellars, are of Roman construction. It can therefore boast of a long ancestry and has been much written about; it figures also in a modern novel called “The Lost Stradivarius,” of which I remember nothing save the mention of a creaking arm-chair. Its then objectionable name I changed to Villa Maya—Illusion; as the letter “Y” is uncommon in Italian it became known as Villa Maia: well, the mother of Hermes was quite a respectable dame. The place, surrounded by sea on three sides and with a little beach for bathing in summer, would have been an idyllic home but for two drawbacks— some horrible low-class neighbors, and the discomfort of the track (it has now been improved) which leads up to the main Posilipo road. I built a terrace all round the house; you could dine facing the Bay and enjoying the view towards Vesuvius, the Sorrentine Peninsula, Capri, Ischia and Procida; lunch in more intimate environment on the East side under a trellis of vines; and breakfast round the next corner, looking into that small garden which I had contrived by means of a sturdy sustaining wall on one side, and a second wall on the other to protect it from the gales. The place used to be a kind of chasm: I filled it up. I regret this garden more than anything else about the Gaiola. I regret all my gardens. I have none left. My present one consists of three flower-pots. . . .
Mr. Marion Crawford
A newcomer had arrived one morning, a Sorrentine felucca, and on her deck stood a sailorly man who hailed me in English. “I’m Marion Crawford,” he said. . . .
One sometimes wonders why northern Catholics, and especially converts—was Crawford a convert? I think his father was—one wonders why these people are so obtrusive in their professions of faith. The religion of Chaucer’s England was unobtrusive, unconstrained. It must have been the Reformation which gave a note of self-consciousness to the older faith, whose adherents now found themselves in the minority and surrounded by an alien creed; and it is natural that converts from Protestantism should resent this state of affairs more acutely than Catholics by birth. Hence their exacerbation. No southerners I ever met have talked about religion in the style of Crawford; they might be the devout-est believers, and yet they could not help smiling at what he said, and how he said it. He was fatuously concerned about what, to them, are commonplaces.
Some trouble would have been avoided if Catholicism had never strayed beyond the Mediterranean basin. There, rooted in that old paganism—there is its home. Transalpine Catholicism lacks the historical roots of the other; it is no indigenous growth but a graft, for those particular pre-Christian cults are not our heritage. That is one difference between the two. Another is that Papal Rome takes the mysteries and dogmas of its creed with an easy grace and lightheartedness which, even before the Reformation, was not to be found in the dour countries of the North. And that creed was at its most mellow and urbane stage of development when officious hyperborean boors like Luther began to meddle with it, and to invent a modified brand which was bound to end in reaction and the appearance of types like Crawford, who was more Catholic than the Pope. Always meddling! Somebody, one of these days, must be good enough to write a short sketch of the chief meddlers who have afflicted mankind, meddlers spiritual and also temporal —Julius Caesar, Napoleon. . . .
Mrs. Agnes Whitbread
Mrs. Whitbread would be up to any fun, if she were not so terribly deaf. She is quite, quite deaf, and even when you shout your loudest, she contrives to mistake your meaning. I met her once in the street and, for want of something better to say, bawled into her ear: “What wonderful weather we’re having for November!” She said: “Oh, you naughty man. . . .”
Baron Franz von Veltheim. P. P. C
I can only recall one saying of Veltheim’s to me, to the effect that if Anthony Hope had not had the misfortune to be born an Englishman, he would have developed into a second Maupassant. There it is: an authentic utterance — whatever may be its worth—from the mouth of Baron von Veltheim—whatever may be his real name.
For I doubt whether he was a German baron. It was not a question of appearance or character, but of manner. German barons may have offensively imposing features like his; they may be capable of shooting not one but half a dozen Jews or Christians for the fun of the thing; Veltheim’s peculiar note of flashiness and arrogance is alien to the species. His trick of displaying gold coins on every occasion and boasting about ladies he had known suggested a fellow of low caste, an adventurer living on women. It was Veltheim whom I had in mind when, some years later, I invented the character of Muhlen alias Retlow in “South Wind.” Those who have met Veltheim in the flesh will find it, I think, a fairly good likeness, except that in my book he gets his deserts a little sooner and even more thoroughly than in real life.
She finally returned to America. A vision of her helped me to portray the “Duchess” in a certain story; other ladies contributed their share of suggestion; imagination also played its part. I have never tried to draw a figure from life, as they say. My creed is that a human character, however engrossing, however convincing and true to itself, must be modelled anew before it can become material for fiction. It must be licked into shape, otherwise its reactions, in a world of fictitious characters, would be out of focus. No authentic child of man will fit into a novel.
History is the place for such people; history or oblivion.
A deformed young Swiss, with pushful and almost offensive manners, unhealthy complexion, and a horrible, rasping voice. His vulgarity was mitigated, but not redeemed, by a considerable love of natural history, common to many of his nation. There is a caricature of him, if such an object can be caricatured, as the “ebullient Belgian hunchback called Martel” in Compton Mackenzie’s “Vestal Fire.”
He came to see me once, and, under the pretext of being wildly enthusiastic about such things, borrowed five or six precious books of mine, zoological monographs, all on the same subject, and almost impossible to replace. Do what I would, by word of mouth or note of hand, I was unable to get them back; each time he discovered a fresh excuse for keeping them a little longer. The months passed; he had plainly made up his mind not to disgorge my property again. And now I was due to leave for England! The thought of surrendering those monographs for ever made me sick; collectors will understand. Luckily I knew his daily habits sufficiently well to be able to run into him just before my departure.
“Hallo, Clavel!” “Hallo! where are you going?”
“Off to England tomorrow. Shan’t be back for ages. So goodbye. I should have left yesterday, but I simply must see some Japanese mice before I go.”
“They’re white, and they dance. Dancing mice, a Japanese speciality. You can read about them in Brehm, I daresay, or in Siebold. They have stuffed ones in museums. But they are very rare, and very delicate. This is the first pair that has reached Europe alive. I wouldn’t miss seeing them for worlds.”
“Orientals are wonderful. You know they have fishes with two tails, and dogs without hair, and hens that cannot stand on their feet, and fir-trees no bigger than this cigarette, and grasshoppers that fight as if they were gladiators. Now these mice. Who has them?”
“A sea-captain. Friend of mine. He is taking them to Hamburg, if they survive. It’s a great; secret. They sleep all day long, wrapped in cotton wool. That’s why I couldn’t see them dance, when I called yesterday morning. Then at sunset they wake up, eat some doves’ liver and rice out of a small cloisonne trough, and begin to kick their legs about like Pavlova gone crazy. I wouldn’t miss. . . .”
“Gott, how curious 1 How I should love to see them too.”
“Would you really? Well, I don’t mind taking you, if you care to meet me at the cafe at half past six. But do be punctual, and keep this between ourselves.”
Doubtless he went to the cafe; doubtless he waited for me there. I was in his house, meanwhile, where I collected all my books together with one or two of his own more valuable ones, which I possess to this day. I never saw him again. He migrated afterwards to Positano, and died there.
R. I. P.