The Recluse of Bayswater

Amongst the many friends who were favored with the occasional pleasure of Mr. Dyson’s society was Mr. Edgar Russell, realist and obscure struggler, who occupied a small back room on the second floor of a house in Abingdon Grove, Notting Hill. Turning off from the main street and walking a few paces onward, one was conscious of a certain calm, a drowsy peace, which made the feet inclined to loiter; and this was ever the atmosphere of Abingdon Grove. The houses stood a little back, with gardens where the lilac and laburnum and blood-red may blossomed gayly in their seasons, and there was a corner where an older house in another street had managed to keep a back garden of real extent; a walled-in garden whence there came a pleasant scent of greenness after the rains of early summer, where old elms held memories of the open fields, where there was yet sweet grass to walk on. The houses in Abingdon Grove belonged chiefly to the nondescript stucco period of thirty-five years ago, tolerably built with passable accommodation for moderate incomes; they had largely passed into the state of lodgings, and cards bearing the inscription “Furnished Apartments” were not infrequent over the doors. Here, then, in a house of sufficiently good appearance, Mr. Russell had established himself; for he looked upon the traditional dirt and squalor of Grub Street as a false and obsolete convention, and preferred, as he said, to live within sight of green leaves. Indeed, from his room one had a magnificent view of a long line of gardens, and a screen of poplars shut out the melancholy back premises of Wilton Street during the summer months. Mr. Russell lived chiefly on bread and tea, for his means were of the smallest; but when Dyson came to see him, he would send out the slavey for six-ale, and Dyson was always at liberty to smoke as much of his own tobacco as he pleased. The landlady had been so unfortunate as to have her drawing-room floor vacant for many months; a card had long proclaimed the void within; and Dyson, when he walked up the steps one evening in early autumn, had a sense that something was missing, and, looking at the fanlight, saw the appealing card had disappeared.

“You have let your first floor, have you?” he said, as he greeted Mr. Russell.

“Yes; it was taken about a fortnight ago by a lady.”

“Indeed,” said Dyson, always curious; “a young lady?”

“Yes, I believe so. She is a widow, and wears a thick crape veil. I have met her once or twice on the stairs and in the street, but I should not know her face.”

“Well,” said Dyson, when the beer had arrived, and the pipes were in full blast, “and what have you been doing? Do you find the work getting any easier?”

“Alas!” said the young man, with an expression of great gloom, “the life is a purgatory, and all but a hell. I write, picking out my words, weighing and balancing the force of every syllable, calculating the minutest effects that language can produce, erasing and rewriting, and spending a whole evening over a page of manuscript. And then in the morning when I read what I have written–Well, there is nothing to be done but to throw it in the waste-paper basket if the verso has been already written on, or to put it in the drawer if the other side happens to be clean. When I have written a phrase which undoubtedly embodies a happy turn of thought, I find it dressed up in feeble commonplace; and when the style is good, it serves only to conceal the baldness of superannuated fancies. I sweat over my work, Dyson,–every finished line means so much agony. I envy the lot of the carpenter in the side street who has a craft which he understands. When he gets an order for a table, he does not writhe with anguish; but if I were so unlucky as to get an order for a book, I think I should go mad.”

“My dear fellow, you take it all too seriously. You should let the ink flow more readily. Above all, firmly believe, when you sit down to write, that you are an artist, and that whatever you are about is a masterpiece. Suppose ideas fail you, say; as I heard one of our most exquisite artists say, “It’s of no consequence; the ideas are all there, at the bottom of that box of cigarettes.” You, indeed, smoke tobacco, but the application is the same. Besides, you must have some happy moments, and these should be ample consolation.”

“Perhaps you are right. But such moments are so few; and then there is the torture of a glorious conception matched, with execution beneath the standard of the Family Story Paper. For instance, I was happy for two hours a night or two ago; I lay awake and saw visions. But then the morning!”

“What was your idea?”

“It seemed to me a splendid one; I thought of Balzac and the ‘Comédie Humaine,’ of Zola and the Rougon-Macquart family. It dawned upon me that I would write the history of a street. Every house should form a volume. I fixed upon the street, I saw each house, and read, as clearly as in letters, the physiology and psychology of each. The little by-way stretched before me in its actual shape,–a street that I know and have passed down a hundred times; with some twenty houses, prosperous and mean, and lilac bushes in purple blossom; and yet it was at the same time a symbol, a via dolorosa of hopes cherished and disappointed, of years of monotonous existence without content or discontent, of tragedies and obscure sorrows; and on the door of one of those houses I saw the red stain of blood, and behind a window two shadows, blackened and faded, on the blind, as they swayed on tightened cords,–the shadows of a man and a woman hanging in a vulgar, gas-lit parlor. These were my fancies; but when pen touched paper, they shrivelled and vanished away,”

“Yes,” said. Dyson, “there is a lot in that. I envy you the pains of transmuting vision into reality, and still more I envy you the day when you will look at your bookshelf and see twenty goodly books upon the shelves,–the series complete and done forever. Let me entreat you to have them bound in solid parchment, with gold lettering. It is the only real cover for a valiant book. When I look in at the windows of some choice shop, and see the bindings of Levant morocco, with pretty tools and panellings, and your sweet contrasts of red and green, I say to myself, ‘These are not books, but bibelots.’ A book bound so–a true book, mind you–is like a Gothic statue draped in brocade of Lyons.”

“Alas!” said Russell, “we need not discuss the binding,–the books are not begun.”

The talk went on as usual till eleven o’clock, when Dyson bade his friend good-night. He knew the way downstairs, and walked down by himself; but greatly to his surprise, as he crossed the first-floor landing, the door opened slightly, and a hand was stretched out, beckoning.

Dyson was not the man to hesitate under such circumstances. In a moment he saw himself involved in adventure; and, as he told himself, the Dysons had never disobeyed a lady’s summons. Softly, then, with due regard for the lady’s honor, he would have entered the room, when a low but clear voice spoke to him,–

“Go downstairs and open the door, and shut it again rather loudly. Then come up to me; and for heaven’s sake, walk softly.”

Dyson obeyed her commands,–not without some hesitation, for he was afraid of meeting the landlady or the maid on his return journey. But walking like a cat, and making each step he trod on crack loudly, he flattered himself that he had escaped observation; and as he gained the top of the stairs, the door opened wide before him, and he found himself in the lady’s drawing-room, bowing awkwardly.

“Pray be seated, sir. Perhaps this chair will be the best; it was the favored chair of my landlady’s deceased husband. I would ask you to smoke, but the odor would betray me. I know my proceedings must seem to you unconventional; but I saw you arrive this evening, and I do not think you would refuse to help a woman who is so unfortunate as I am.”

Mr. Dyson looked shyly at the young lady before him. She was dressed in deep mourning; but the piquant smiling face and charming hazel eyes ill accorded with the heavy garments, and the mouldering surface of the crape.

“Madam,” he said gallantly, “your instinct has served you well. We will not trouble, if you please, about the question of social conventions; the chivalrous gentleman knows nothing of such matters. I hope I may be privileged to serve you.”

“You are very kind to me, but I knew it would be so. Alas, sir, I have had experience of life, and I am rarely mistaken. Yet man is too often so vile and so misjudging that I trembled even as I resolved to take this step, which, for all I knew, might prove to be both desperate and ruinous.”

“With me you have nothing to fear,” said Dyson. “I was nurtured in the faith of chivalry, and I have always endeavored to remember the proud traditions of my race. Confide in me then, and count upon my secrecy, and, if it prove possible, you may rely on my help.”

“Sir, I will not waste your time, which I am sure is valuable, by idle parleyings. Learn, then, that I am a fugitive, and in hiding here. I place myself in your power; you have but to describe my features, and I fall into the hands of my relentless enemy.”

Mr. Dyson wondered for a passing instant how this could be; but he only renewed his promise of silence, repeating that he would be the embodied spirit of dark concealment.

“Good,” said the lady; “the Oriental fervor of your style is delightful. In the first place, I must disabuse your mind of the conviction that I am a widow. These gloomy vestments have been forced on me by strange circumstance; in plain language, I have deemed it expedient to go disguised. You have a friend, I think, in the house,–Mr. Russell? He seems of a coy and retiring nature.”

“Excuse me, madam,” said Dyson, “he is not coy, but he is a realist; and perhaps you are aware that no Carthusian monk can emulate the cloistral seclusion in which a realistic novelist loves to shroud himself. It is his way of observing human, nature.”

“Well, well,” said the lady; “all this, though deeply interesting is not germane to our affair. I must tell you my history.”

With these words the young lady proceeded to relate the Novel of the White Powder.

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