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