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The London Venture, Page 2

Michael Arlen


  Once (in those far-off peaceful days when men still had enoughgrammatical sense to know that the word "pacifist" does not exist, butthat the less convenient "pacificist" does) I had been very depressedfor a week, and had scarcely spoken to any one, but had just walkedabout in my rooms and on the Embankment, for I suddenly found myselfwithout any money at all; and it is thus with me that when I am withoutmoney I am also without ideas, but when I have the first I do notnecessarily have the last. I wondered if I had not done a very sillything in being independent, and in not doing as my brothers had done,reading "The Times" in an office every morning from ten to twelve, andplaying dominoes in the afternoon, and auction bridge in the evening,and having several thousands a year when I was forty, and a Wolseley carto take my wife for a holiday to Windermere, because she looked pale, orbecause we were bored with each other. I smiled to think of the look onmy brothers' faces if I suddenly appeared at their office one morning,and said that it was no good, and that I couldn't write, and was veryhungry. I could not make up my mind whether they would laugh at me andturn me out, or whether they would teach me how to play auction and setme to answer letters about what had happened on such and such a dayinst., and why the firm of ---- thought it unnecessary that it shouldhappen again, while they would sit in the next room, marked "Private,"signing cheques and talking to visitors about the weather and the cottonmarkets. Perhaps I will do that some day, for, from what I have heard,it seems to me the easiest thing in the world to talk about rises andfalls and margins without knowing anything about them at all.

  The same thing happens with regard to books, for one often meets peoplewho seem to have read every modern novel, and can discuss quite prettilywhether Mr. Wells is a man or a machine, or whether Mr. Arnold Bennett,ever since he wrote the last lines to "The Old Wives' Tales," has notdecided that it is better to be a merchant than a writer, or whether Mr.E. V. Lucas thinks he is the second Charles Lamb, and what other groundsthan his splendid edition has he for thinking so, or whether Mr. GeorgeMoore does or does not think that indiscretion is the better part ofliterature, or whether Mr. Chesterton or vegetarianism has had thegreatest effect on Mr. Shaw's religion; but then, after all this talk,it turns out that they read "The Times Literary Supplement" every week,and think Epictetus nothing to Mr. Clutton-Brock, or they are steeped inMr. Clement Shorter's weekly criticism _en deshabille_ in the"Illustrated London News."

  At last I could stand my depression no longer, and late one night, aftera day in which I had spoken to no one but a little old woman who saidthat she wasn't a beggar but that God blessed the charitable, I sat downand wrote a long, conceited letter to Shelmerdene; for to her I canwrite whether I am gay or depressed, and be sure that she will not beimpatient with me. I told her how I had a great fund of ambition, buthad it not in me to satisfy a tenth part of it; for that is in thecharacter of all my people, they promise much greater things in theiryouth than they can fulfil in their mature age. From twenty onwards theyare continually growing stale, and bitter with their staleness; thelittle enthusiasm of their youth will not stretch through their wholelife, but will flicker out shamefully with the conceit of their ownprecocity, and in trying to fly when other people are just learning towalk; and as the years pass on and youth becomes regret, the son ofHaik, the faded offspring of a faded nation whose only call to exist isbecause it has lived so long and has memories of the sacking of Ninevehand Carchemish, is left without the impetus of development, with anambition which is articulate only in bitterness; while the hardyNortherner, descendant of barbarian Druid worshippers whose nakednesswas rumoured with horror in the courts and pleasure gardens of Hayastanand Persia, slowly grows in mind as in body, and soon outstrips thepetty outbursts of the other's stationary genius. I told Shelmerdenethat I, who had thought that England had given me at least some of hercontinually growing enthusiasm, that _I_ who had thought I would not,like so many of my countrymen, be too soon stranded on "the ultimateislands" of Oriental decay, was even now in the stage between the dyingof enthusiasm and its realisation; for the first impetus of my youthfulconceits was vanishing, and there looked to be nothing left to them butan "experience" and a "lesson of life" without which I would have beenmuch happier. In moods such as these one can hear in the far distancethe wailing of a dirge, a knell, indefinitely yet distinctly, and theforeboding it brings is of an end to something which should have no end;a falling away, a premature decay which is like a growing cloud soon tocover the whole mind.... Shelmerdene, do you know the story of theDan-nan-Ron, which Fiona Macleod tells? How there lived three brotherson the isle of Eilanmore: Marcus, who was "the Eilanmore," and Gloom,whose voice "was low and clear, but cold as pale green water runningunder ice," and Sheumais, on whose brow lay "the dusk of the shadow."Gloom was the wisest of the brothers, and played upon an oaten flute,which is called a _feadan_; and men were afraid of the cold, white notesof his barbaric runes, as he played his _feadan_ from rock to rock andon the seashore, but most of all they feared the playing of theDan-nan-Ron, which is the Song of the Seal and calls men to their deathin the sea. And when the eldest brother Marcus was killed with thethrowing of a knife, the murderer heard the woods of Gloom, which saidthat he would hear the Dan-nan-Ron the night before he died, and lest heshould doubt those words, he would hear it again in the very hour of hisdeath. It happened as Gloom said: for one night the playing of the_feadan_ drove the slayer, Manus MacCodrum, down into the sea, and as hebattled madly in the water, and the blood gushed out of his body as theteeth of seals tore the life out of him, he heard from far away thecold, white notes of the Dan-nan-Ron.

  This tale always brings to me that many men, in some sudden moment whicheven M. Maeterlinck would hesitate to define as "a treasure of thehumble," hear the playing of a tune such as that, which tells them ofsome ending, unknown and indefinite, just as, in the moments of greatestlove, a man will feel for a terrible second the shivering white ice ofsanity, which tells him a different tale to that which he is murmuringto the woman in his arms. Men who have heard it must have become morosewith the fear this distant dirge brought upon them; but of thatforeboding nothing certain can be known, and it is only in such a moodas this, and to a Shelmerdene of women, that a fool will loosen hisfoolishness to inquire into such things. Clarence Mangan must have heardthe tune as he lay drunk and wretched in his Dublin garret, for there ismore than Celtic gloom in the dirge of his lines. John Davidson, whosepoetry you so love, and who wrote in a moment of madness "that Death hasloaded dice," must have heard it, perhaps when first he came to venturehis genius in London, a young man with a strange, bad-tempered look inhis eyes; and he must have heard the exulting notes, as clearly as didManus MacCodrum, when he walked into the sea from Cornwall. CharlesMeryon must have heard it as he walked hungrily about the streets ofParis, and wondered why those gargoyles--strange things to beautify!--onNotre Dame, into which he had put so much life, could not scream aloudto the people of Paris that a genius was dying among them for lack offood and praise. Do you remember, Shelmerdene, how you and I, when firstI began to know you, stood before a little imp of wonderfully carvedonyx stone which leered at us from the centre of your mantelpiece, and Isaid that it was like one of those gargoyles of Meryon's; and thatafternoon I told you about his life and death, and when I had finishedyou said that I told the tale as though I enjoyed it, instead of beingfrightened by the tragedy of it. But I admired your imp of onyx stonevery much, telling you that I loved its ravenous mouth and reptileclaws, because they looked so helplessly lustful after somethingunattainable; and that same night I found a little black-and-gold boxawaiting me in my rooms, in which was the imp of onyx stone, and a notesaying that I must put it on my table because it would bring me luck.For a second I did not believe your words, but thought that you hadgiven it to me to be a symbol for my helplessness, for I had said thatit lusted after something utterly unattainable. But the second passed,and I found later that you had forgotten those words, and had sent it tome becau
se I liked it.... I would like to spend these glorious springdays away from London with you, in quietness, perhaps in Galwaysomewhere; but if you cannot come away with me to-morrow, I will takeyou out to dinner instead, and we will talk about yourself and the_ci-devants_ who have loved you; and though I have no money at all now,I am quite sure that to-morrow will bring some.

  Sure enough a few hours later I awoke to a bright spring morning, whichbrought happiness in itself, even without the help of a cheque which arecreant editor had at last thought fit to send me. As I walked out intothe blaze of sunshine on the King's Road, I felt that I must surely be amiserable fellow to let my ill-nature so often oppress me that only veryseldom I was allowed to enjoy such mornings as this; mornings which seemto spring suddenly out at you from a night of ordinary sleep, when, asyou walk through streets which perhaps only the day before you hatedbitterly, the spring sun wholly envelops your mind and comes betweenyourself and your pretty dislikes, and the faces of men and women lookbrown, and red, and happy as the light and shadow play on them; such aday was this, a pearl dropped at my feet from the tiara of some Olympiangoddess.

  Later I telephoned to Shelmerdene to ask her to lunch with me instead ofdine, as the day was so beautiful; but she said that she had alreadypromised to lunch with some one, a man who had loved her faithfully formore than ten years, and as all he wanted from her was her company overlunch on this particular day of the week, she could not play him false,even though the day was so beautiful. But I told her that I would not beloving her faithfully for ten years, and that she must take the best ofme while she could, and that on such a day as this it would be a shameto lunch with an inarticulate lover; for a man who had loved herfaithfully for more than ten years, and wanted only her company overlunch once a week, must be inarticulate, or perhaps a knave whose subtlecunning her innocence had failed to unveil. So in the end we lunchedtogether in Knightsbridge, and then walked slowly through the Park.

  The first covering of spring lay on every thing. The trees, soashamed--or was it coyness?--were they of their bareness in face of allthe greenness around them, were doing their best to hurry out thatclothing of leaves which, in a few weeks' time, would baffle the rays ofthe sun which had helped their birth; and there was such a greenness andclearness in the air and on the grass, and about the flowers whichseemed surprised at the new warmth of the world, hesitating as yet toshow their full beauty for they were afraid that the dark winter wasplaying them a trick and would suddenly lurch clumsily upon them again,that the Park has never seemed to me so beautiful as on that springafternoon when a careless happiness lay about everything.

  So far I have not said a word about Shelmerdene, except that she hadfound a man--or, rather, he had tiresomely found her--to love herfaithfully for ten years, and she had so affected him that he thought aweekly lunch or dinner was the limit of his destiny with her. And yet,had he searched himself and raked out the least bit of gumption, hewould have found he was tremendously wrong about her--for there werepinnacles to be reached with Shelmerdene unattainable within thematerial limits of a mere lunch or dinner. She was just such adelightful adventuress as only a well-bred mixture of American andEnglish can sometimes make; such a subtle negation of the morals ofBoston or Kensington that she would, in the searching light of the oneor the other, have been acclaimed the shining light of their WilliamMorris drawing-rooms. She drew men with a tentative, all-powerful littlefinger, and mocked them a little, but never so cruelly that theyweren't, from the inarticulate beginning to the inevitable end,deliriously happy to be miserable about her. She was a PrincessCasassimma without anarchical affectations; and like her she was almosttoo good to be true.

  So much then, for Shelmerdene; for if to cap it all, I should go on tosay that she was beautiful I would be held to have been an infatuatedfool. Which, perhaps, I carelessly was, since I can't even now exactlyfix upon the colour of her hair, doubting now in memory as I must havedone actually in those past days with her, whether it was brown or blackor, as sometimes on a sofa under a Liberty-shaded lamp, a silver-tintedblue, so wonderfully deep.... Perhaps destined, in that future whenShelmerdene is at last tired of playing at life, to be the "blue silver"of the besotted madman to whom she, at the weary end, with but a lookback at the long-passed procession of _ci-devants_, will thankfully giveherself. _Dies irae, dies illa...._

  _The London Venture_: III