The Decorative Imagination

In the course of a few weeks Dyson became accustomed, to the constant incursions of the ingenious Mr. Burton, who showed himself ready to drop in at all hours, not averse to refreshment, and a profound guide in the complicated questions of life. His visits at once terrified and delighted Dyson, who could no longer seat himself at his bureau secure from interruption while he embarked on literary undertakings, each one of which was to be a masterpiece. On the other hand, it was a vivid pleasure to be confronted with views so highly original; and if here and there Mr. Burton’s reasonings seemed tinged with fallacy, yet Dyson freely yielded to the joy of strangeness, and never failed to give his visitor a frank and hearty welcome. Mr. Burton’s first inquiry was always after the unprincipled Robbins, and he seemed to feel the stings of disappointment when Dyson told him that he had failed to meet this outrage on all morality, as Burton styled him, vowing that sooner or later he would take vengeance on such a shameless betrayal of trust.

One evening they had sat together for some time discussing the possibility of laying down for this present generation and our modern and intensely complicated order of society, some rules of social diplomacy, such as Lord Bacon gave to the courtiers of King James I. “It is a book to make,” said Mr. Burton, “but who is there capable of making it? I tell you people are longing for such a book; it would bring fortune to its publisher. Bacon’s Essays are exquisite, but they have now no practical application; the modern strategist can find but little use in a treatise ‘De Re Militari,’ written by a Florentine in the fifteenth century. Scarcely more dissimilar are the social conditions of Bacon’s time and our own; the rules that he lays down so exquisitely for the courtier and diplomatist of James the First’s age will avail us little in the rough-and-tumble struggle of to-day. Life, I am afraid, has deteriorated; it gives little play for fine strokes such as formerly advanced men in the state. Except in such businesses as mine, where a chance does occur now and then, it has all become, as I said, an affair of rough and tumble; men still desire to attain, it is true, but what is their moyen de parvenir? A mere imitation, and not a gracious one, of the arts of the soap-vender and the proprietor of baking powder. When I think of these things, my dear Dyson, I confess that I am tempted to despair of my century.”

“You are too pessimistic, my dear fellow; you set up too high a standard. Certainly, I agree with you that the times are decadent in many ways. I admit a general appearance of squalor; it needs much philosophy to extract the wonderful and the beautiful from the Cromwell Road or the Nonconformist conscience. Australian wines of fine Burgundy character, the novels alike of the old women and the new women, popular journalism,–these things indeed make for depression. Yet we have our advantages. Before us is unfolded the greatest spectacle the world has ever seen,–the mystery of the innumerable unending streets, the strange adventures that must infallibly arise from so complicated a press of interests. Nay, I will say that he who has stood in the ways of a suburb and has seen them stretch before him all shining, void, and desolate at noonday, has not lived in vain. Such a sight is in reality more wonderful than any perspective of Bagdad or Grand Cairo. And, to set on one side the entertaining history of the gem which you told me, surely you must have had many singular adventures in your own career?”

“Perhaps not so many as you would think; a good deal–the larger part–of my business has been as commonplace as linen-drapery. But of course things happen now and then. It is ten years since I have established my agency, and I suppose that a house and estate agent who had been in trade for an equal time could tell you some queer stories. But I must give you a sample of my experiences some night.

“Why not to-night?” said Dyson. “This evening seems to me admirably adapted for an odd chapter. Look out into the street; you can catch a view of it, if you crane your neck from that chair of yours. Is it not charming? The double row of lamps growing closer in the distance, the hazy outline of the plane-tree in the square, and the lights of the hansoms swimming to and fro, gliding and vanishing; and above, the sky all clear and blue and shining. Come, let us have one of your cent nouvelles nouvelles.”

“My dear Dyson, I am delighted to amuse you.” With these words Mr. Burton prefaced the Novel of the Iron Maid.

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