Laughter in the Next Room

As a Captain in the Grenadier Guards, Osbert Sitwell came unscathed through the heavy fighting in Flanders, and with the final victory in 1918 he, his sister Edith, and his younger brother Sacheverell turned to the arts with that sense of release and opportunity which the war had so long suppressed.

by SIR OSBERT SITWELL

23

THOUGH the practice of his art may afford a writer his chief pleasure, no less than his principal and constant source of worry, though, too, a sudden inspiration may constitute his greatest luxury, yet a minute account of this, his real existence, would be — can only be — of but slight interest to the reader. How is it possible to picture for him the quotidian miseries and splendors of a life attached to the inkpot, the many months spent at a table, the hours when every disturbance is furiously resented, the other, more occasional moments when every interruption is welcome, the evenings when an author looks on his work and finds it good, or those frequent nights when it seems to him to have fallen unbelievably short of what he had intended, the inflations of self-conceit and the agonies of self-reproach, the days when everything grows to giant proportions because it has meaning, the afternoons when all dwindles to pygmy and shows none? Who would wish for a book composed of these?

Further, though authorship is, in a sense, a peripatetic profession, since the Muses commune with an author often on long walks, through woods, or on the top of mountains, and he is able after this fashion to conquer obdurate details, and albeit he can pack his fountain pen and write anywhere so long as the place pleases him for writing, yet also it is the most static of careers, entailing for the majority of its practitioners a nearly monastic seclusion and regularity of life during a greater part of the year. Because, even if the particular poem or story on which he is engaged, or proposes to start, does not in reality occupy many weeks, nevertheless to have the energy and leisure in which to give the process of creation and growth its chance of fullest development, the author must be allowed to dwell within a nobly proportioned edifice of days and hours, so that he does not have to hurry or cramp his productions.

The author cannot press out the final flicker of fire or obtain the last spark of energy, if he knows he must soon begin preparations to leave his work in a fortnight’s time, in order to deliver a lecture, or, it may be, see his mother. He must be granted, if he is to achieve his best, as many days as are necessary for him not to be obliged to count them, a period peaceful and unharassed. Adventures, troubles, joys, the irruption even, of a dearest friend into the quiet and regular rhythm of life that a writer has to establish, can break up a whole book. Moreover, if employed upon a poem or something which requires an equivalent trancelike intensity, the writer will remain for some days, or it may be weeks, in so nervous and supersensitive a state, or feel so dull and numb to the outer world, that any slight shock, a pointless altercation or a mere change in his mode of existence, may destroy the life in what he is at work creating.

Remember, too, when next you turn the pages of the book you have by your chair, that, if it be a serious attempt, it can scarcely have been completed in under eighteen months and may have taken much longer, and thus you touch the very essence of an author’s time, as well as a solid block of it. This does not mean, of course, that he has been slave to the penwiper and the blotting pad day and night for that whole period; but in the volume, notwithstanding, will be, I should hazard, twelve hundred hours of actual composing, writing, and revising; that is to say, if it were concentrated, fifty days of twenty-four hours, without time off to eat or sleep. And in addition, the book will have consumed countless weeks of indirect labor, and will have cost him the endless troubles provoked by forgetting to answer letters, and keep appointments; because he has had something better to do, gentle reader.

The room in which an author writes is of infinite importance to him, his whole world for those fifty periods of twenty-four hours. Light, heat, and absence of noise are the first and most essential requisites: but the feeling of the room, the view from it, the way the light falls in it, are also of great importance to him. To speak less generally and more of myself, I love large apartments, richly furnished, but to rest in, and not for work. A great deal of my writing has been done in the barest of hotel bedrooms.

My novel, Before the Bombardment, which I recognize as the cornerstone of the house I have tried to build, was begun and finished in two consecutive winters in South Italy, in the whitewashed cell of a hotel which had formerly been a monastery, with a fire of logs of orange-tree wood glowing on the hearth with its own peculiar green and yellow flame, or hissing and perfuming the dry air of the bitter mountain cold (which in winter descends to sea levels), and with a window placed so that from where I sat — often, as I thought, just looking out of it when I should have been concentrating (though that, too, had I known it, was an indirect part of the novel) — a view of sea, plumed like a peacock, and of distant ranges beyond, presented itself to me, and seemed to stretch forever into the innumerable and diverse beauties of air and sky at that season.

Escape with Me — at least, the second half of it — was written, in a disused kitchen, domed and shaped like a Moorish marabout, opening on a terrace, in the ancient ruined city of Antigua, Guatemala. There, in tropical heat, the great prospect girdled by volcanoes and the blue blossom of jacaranda trees, I sat, picturing Peking, the while a sentry vulture, posted at a small window, no doubt by the order of his organization in case I should die during writing, would, at intervals of about an hour, flutter a hideous blue-bottle-dark, serrated wing in at the aperture or, more perturbing still, poke his bald, carrion-colored neck through it, to see if I were yet ready for him and his band; when, with an accuracy of aim of which I should never have dreamed myself capable, I would hurl my copy of The Concise Oxford English Dictionary at him through the narrow opening, and he would give a squawk, which said all too plainly, “As you know, duty is duty, and it’s only a question of time if you stay here long enough,” and then flap hungrily away, to return a minute after I had gone out onto the terrace to retrieve my invaluable missile.

To take another instance, most of the poems in England Reclaimed were composed in the bedroom of a hotel outside Syracuse, as was, a few years later, Winters of Content, in spite of the many troubles, and the perpetual letters that in consequence would assail me and had to be answered, relating to a previous book, over which a libel action was threatened. (The injured lady, I recollect, gave an interview to a newspaper, in which she said, “Sitwell compares me to Madame Bovary. I do not know who she is, but my friends tell me she is a French classic.”) The volumes of my autobiography, so far as they have progressed, have been written at Renishaw, in my small study enclosed within the thick walls of the oldest part of the house. Here, among towers of books and accumulated papers, are to be found, too, many objects familiar to me since my earliest childhood, for the room formerly served my father as his chief writing place.

24

QUITE apart from attempts at forcible feeding, from requests to write prefaces or epilogues, or a few favorable words to be quoted on covers, read manuscripts and send criticisms gratis, open — or shut — exhibitions, give interviews on any subject, autograph books, attend conferences, join clubs, sign letters of protest and manifestoes, take part in symposiums, speak on the BBC for infant fees, support every sort of society for the prevention of one thing and encouragement of another — or sometimes the same — write articles, celebrate centenaries, deliver lectures, and all those perpetual and ingenious schemes to make you catch colds and agues in a thousand different ways, and so prevent you for a time from working — or better still — forever; quite apart, then, from all this (which is the lot of every well-known Englishspeaking writer), my parents by themselves would have been sufficient to render impossible any serious and consecutive effort. To their children, they constituted a profession in themselves, and one which wore out health and exhausted patience.

When, a few years later, I was at last successful in persuading my father that he would be happier if he resided abroad, the paths of his children became a little easier: but until that moment it was out of the question to work untroubled and with ease at home in England. The letters from my father which rained in by every post, on subjects ranging from the composition of the atom to the best empirical methods of cutting your toenails, but, so far as I was concerned, for the most part related to business and complained of my lack or misuse of ability, concluding often with a catalogue raisonné of my faults of character and conduct, were enough to oblige one to use up every scrap of energy in reply.

My sister faced the storms in her own flat — even though, by coincidence, she was curiously liable to be away when my family came to London. My father’s views on woman’s place in the world — which was that she should be out of it — allowed her a little more freedom from his letters (on the other hand, my mother demanded her presence the whole time), whereas it was his duty as father, ancestor, and descendant in one, to torment my brother, and still more myself in my character of eldest son, on every conceivable occasion. He liked to make plans, to inflate and deflate them at will, in the manner of a child playing with a toy balloon, and would plague an idea as a dog worries a bone. In addition, he must know exactly what we were doing or proposing to do. “It is dangerous for you,” he used to point out, “to lose touch with me for a single day. You never know when you may not need the benefit of my experience and advice.”

To combat this, first to obtain half of one’s own life, and subsequently a still greater proportion, I was obliged to invent a technique. In this direction, success crowned my efforts — to such an extent that at one moment I had thoughts of opening a Bureau for Advising Sons with Difficult Fathers. The position nevertheless held continual possibilities of further trouble, for nerves became exacerbated and if somehow we tricked our parents into allowing us the time in which to write a book, the reviewers of the period would be sure to fall on it in the particularly insolent and vituperative manner then reserved for us.

Thus — for the reader may doubt the truth of this, dismissing it as a symptom of that occupational disease of the artist, persecution mania — when Before the Bombardment appeared, one popular critic of a Sunday paper said that I spat on the whole of the Victorian Age and that the book should have been called Great Expectorations! “It is not,” this same sensitive being pronounced, “so much a matter of taste or good breeding, as a matter of sportsmanship ... I shudder at the vulgarities.” . . . The Outlook pronounced that I was “fussy” about the war, and through the general storm and roar of rage, the still small voices of the Mayor of Scarborough and of the then Rector were heard to say respectively, through the medium of an interview, “I have not read the book ... it is in thoroughly bad taste,” and “It is a vulgar caricature. The best thing is to treat it with silent contempt.” Alas, the critics did not adopt the last, singularly original remedy recommended to them.

Let me add in gratitude that almost the only understanding review I received of this novel, as a year or two earlier of Out of the Flame, was from the benevolent pen of Mary Webb. In a review in the Bookman she wrote: “His [the author’s] considered judgement is very terrible. We must remember when we shiver under this savage irony, that the author and others like him are recently come from Calvary, and that the vinegar they proffer there is surely this vision of life as a bleak irony — a cruel and obscene jest. . . . The book is packed with wit, humour, subtlety, and, though liking some of the author’s poems extremely, I had not realised his reserves of intensity until I read his prose.” But “Merely caddish,” said the Yorkshire Post, the paper chiefly read by my mother’s friends, who would, when they were in London, go round to see my parents, giggle in an embarrassed but jolly way about us, and confirm my father and mother in their view that as writers we possessed no talent and no future. (“You ought to stop it. It isn’t fair on you two dear things!”) It would be almost sure, as our old Nurse Davis used to say, to “set them off” again. By then, the writer of the book would also find himself often in quite a bad temper.

25

THEREFORE, to avoid altercations, and because the unhappiness my parents caused, and the contemplation of their own unhappiness, responsible for it, might have attained to the quality of tragedy, the technique to be applied was bound to be farcical, for farce lowers the temperature and reduces proportions. . . . First, I will take the most gross example of the kind of incident that resulted.

In January, 1922, my father was in London and asked me to come and see him. Wise from experience, I knew that the interview he proposed could only lead to further trouble between us, for he was in a most intransigent mood. But I could hardly refuse to meet him. In consequence, I made the excuse that I was ill. (This seemed serviceable, because it was most improbable that we should meet by chance, and if we did, it was, I knew, still more unlikely that he would recognize me.) He replied, on Monday of the week in question, that he would call on me at 5 P.M. on Saturday.

In the days which followed, I forgot both my alleged illness and my father’s proposed visit, and on the afternoon he had selected I had gone, quite unperturbed, to tea with Jean de Boschere, at the other end of London. He lived in Bayswater, and was entertaining various friends — among them, Aldous Huxley. Alas, before many minutes had passed, I remembered something. All at once, at 4.30, as though a bell had struck in my mind, I recollected the immediate menace of my father s visit. Dashing out into the growing January dusk that seeped from sky and ground, and squeezed between the pillars and the houses, I found the street empty of human life as an early canvas by Chirico, nothing but pillar after pillar, railing after railing, and a few distant, decapitated bodies walking under the wet circular extinguishers of their own umbrellas.

In those days, I walked very fast, and since it was obviously hopeless to wait for a passing vehicle, I set out. at once to cross London on foot, and reached Carlyle Square with only five minutes to spare, for my father was always punctual. I tore off my mackintosh and raced upstairs. . . . Alas, the doorbell rang before I had time to undress. Hastily removing my wet shoes, and ruffling my hair, I threw myself, still panting from the exertions of the past half hour, into my bed, arriving in it just as my father opened the door. No doubt I appeared to be very feverish. Fortunately, our housekeeper, Mrs. Powell, never lost her nerve. Showing my father upstairs, she had remarked:—

“Sir George, the doctors do not wish anyone to remain with the patient for more than five minutes. I will notify you when your time is up.”

My father entered, seated himself in a chair, and regarded me, as I lay there, clutching my bedclothes up to my chin, as in a French farce, and wearing on my face, no doubt, a wild expression.

“I’m afraid I hadn’t realized, dear boy, how ill you were,” he remarked, “but I hope it’s only nerves!” Here, he extended a finger towards my neck, to feel the heat of my skin; but I clutched the bedclothes all the tighter, and had an inspiration.

“The doctors can’t make out what is the matter with me,” I said. “They’ve had several cases like it. Apparently, it’s infectious!”

My father pushed his chair back and got up with a jump. He uttered hastily the words, “Well, I’m afraid I must be getting back now — so much to do!” and left the room, long before Mrs. Powell could return to tell him that his five minutes were up.

In order to prevent this kind of occurrence, and other constant interruptions and interferences, it appeared absolutely necessary for Sacheverell and myself to absent ourselves from London for fully half the year, and to leave no address behind us. With this object in view, we ordered a supply of special writing paper, of which for many years we made frequent use. Engraved on it, at the righthand corner, was the name of an imaginary yacht, S. Y. Rover, and opposite, it carried a burgee, showing a skull and crossbones in white, on a black ground. By this means we could always reach my father by post, if so we wished, for we could write to him from where we were staying for the autumn and winter months, explaining that our friend Jonah’s yacht had “just put in” at Ostend or Naples or Athens, or wherever it might be — and that we had “come on here for a few days’ rest, while the craft is being overhauled.” We would add, “In the meantime, dearest Father, do not trouble to answer until we can give you an address. Our next stopping place is uncertain, and the letter will only be lost.”

The singular contradiction about this particular adapting of items from the classical repertory of farce was that two young men had to employ subterfuge against their stern father, not in order to shirk daily toil or to spend money lavishly, or to disguise the fact that they were living with the most shrill and gilded of mistresses, but merely in order to exist more quietly and cheaply than they would have been able to do at home, and to work hard at their profession!

26

OCCASIONALLY, of course, plans misfired. Amalfi constituted our first-chosen and much loved refuge, and we would stay there for many months in the Cappuccini. This hotel, which, until a century before, had been a monastery, belonged to the same proprietor who owned at Cava dei Tirreni, some thirty miles away, the hotel in which all English travelers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries stopped a night, on their way from Pompeii to visit the then newly identified temples at Paestum, or on their return thence to Naples. Signor Alfredo Vozzi, the great-grandson of the first owner of the two hotels, was accustomed, therefore, by heredity to the ways of English travelers — he understood them. There was something about him of both the patriarch and the grand seigneur, and he thoroughly comprehended the character of his own hotel, and refused, until circumstances compelled him, to modernize it.

At that time, no lift had been installed, and since the hotel hung high up on the cliff side, a visitor could only reach it by climbing three hundred steps, or by allowing himself to be carried by two men in a chair. This remoteness from the world, and the absence of central heating, helped to keep it comparatively empty in the winter, when it became to my mind an ideal place for writers. The simple lines of the old white building fitted into this fantastic landscape of mountain and sea, of painted villages poised on crags, of broken towers and castles of stone, of huge limestone cliffs, with natural caves and grottoes, and here and there the likeness of a window in the rock, of flying buttresses and turrets and sheer walls, as neatly as a snail does into a crevice. The belvedere, on a long gently curving terrace high placed on glittering, impregnable rocks, was scattered over, from November till March, with jonquils; above all there was the view, the unrivaled view of sea and distant mountains, and over these at all hours in heat or cold, the light of Neapolitan skies, bursts of light from behind clouds, or torrents of lights from a crystal-clear dome, light reflected from rocks and sea, and never playing twice the same variations on its themes of vertical and horizontal, of mass and plane,

I was aware that my father also liked Amalfi, but now when he came to Italy, his plans for the restoration of the castle at Montegufoni, no less than his fears of putting a strain upon his heart by having to climb so many steps — for he resented having to pay five lire to be carried — rendered a visit to it unlikely from him. In time the phantom Rover had begun to wear a little thin, and in 1922 Sacheverell and I abandoned it temporarily, and for the sake of variety, in favor of a mythical invitation to explore Asia Minor with a party of excavators. Posts would be uncertain, we had explained: better to write no letters— We had then gone straight to Amalfi and begun work.

We were, respectively, progressing with it fairly well when, one evening, a feeling of suspense began to darken the air. What could it be? The composer William Walton was staying with us. He spent most of the time by himself in a room containing a typical South Italian piano — similar to those upon which, as you pass beneath in the street of a Southern Catholic city, you hear young girls practicing, high up, from iron-barred convent windows. Here he would sit composing and copying out at a large table facing a window on the cloister, the whiteness of which in the sun filled the smoky air with a redoubled and spectral light; he would hardly move except to go to the window ledge from time to time, where he would cut a Toscana cigar in two with a safety-razor blade he kept for that purpose. He smoked these half-cigars almost always as he wrote. Even William then, who had not seen us for many hours, admitted in the evening that he had felt some influence too. It soon explained itself. At dinner, the German manageress came up to us and said: —

“The herr director at La Cava, he has joos telephone to say a big English Barone arrive here tomorrow mil servant, and we are to kill first thing in the morgen fourteen chicken.”

To us the meaning of this esoteric message was clear. The news of the immolation — for so to a stranger it must have sounded, a sacrifice such as that ordained by Cetewayo or some other paramount Zulu chieftain — gave to those initiated the clue. In the French phrase, it signaled my father’s approach. Especially in Southern Italy, where meat is always of an incomparable hardness of flesh, the killing and eating of chickens had become part of the System. They had to be slain as early as possible; otherwise they, too, would be tough, in which case, my father, with a sigh, would push the plate away, saying, in a voice of tragedy, “ Troppo fresco per me.” . . . The stories on which I was engaged, Triple Fugue, and Sacheverell’s All Summer in a Day, had to be thrown aside and hidden, while we held a council. Fully interpreted or decoded, the words of the manageress had told us, then, that my father was sleeping the night at La Cava an hour away by motor, and was coming here some time the following day, with Robins, for a visit of at least a week; each chicken being the token of a luncheon or a dinner. . . .

It would be of no avail to try to escape: it was too late, he would be sure to find out, and it would only look discourteous. The sole line of action open to us was to pretend to be expecting him, to have come here on purpose, and give him an affectingly warm welcome. In support, that old phantom, the Rover, only just dismantled, would have to come out of dock again. The owner had changed his mind, we decided, and had persuaded us to board her at Naples, preparatory to a cruise in the Pacific. And hearing that my father might spend a week at Amalfi, we had come here on the chance of seeing him, and to rest for a few days beforehand. (He never objected to the idea of rest: but if you had mentioned that you were at work on a book, a look of intense concern would immediately be seen to fix itself on his face, and he would issue one of his customary and familiar warnings, in a tone suggesting that you were proposing something rash beyond hardihood, such as trying to swim the Atlantic for a wager; “Oh, I shouldn’t do that if I were you! You’d better drop the idea at once. My cousin Stephen Arthington had a friend who killed himself by writing a novel!”)

27

NO ONE knew at what time he was to be expected; but we were aware that he liked early hours, so it was better to be on the watch almost from sunrise. It proved a tiring day. All the morning we hung out of the loggias of our rooms, ready to wave enthusiastic greetings, our eyes straining at the immense and classic view; albeit on this occasion not for its beauty, though it was a perfect and typical October day of the South, strayed from the fold of summer, and far away, beyond the multicolored sea, mosaicked by the tides and little shiftings of the sand, by the clearness, too, of the water, that showed just the same degree of transparency in blue and green and purple and gold that is to be observed in the great mosaics of Cefalù and Monreale and other churches of the old kingdom of which this had been part, lay the thin girdle of gold and silver — of sand and foam — which divides the sea there from the land, culminating in the range of mountains, Mont’ Alburno towering over them, its rocky bulk, owing to its bareness, catching again all the colors of sea, sky, and air, and, as it were, presenting a kind of summary of them. No, our gaze was reserved for the road, which, here and there, could be seen ribboning its way precariously above precipices.

When luncheon came, one of us had to remain on duty — but, indeed, we had little appetite, a single tortuous strand of macaroni and an unripe tangerine sufficed us. Then, back again we went to our vigil for the entire afternoon. About five o’clock, at last, a motor — to be more precise visually, a high column of dust — could be seen whirling on the road in and out above the coast, towards the hotel. At the gate far below, it became stationary and began to subside, and out of it, stepped a well-known figure in a gray suit, crowned with a gray wide-awake hat , and carrying a gray umbrella lined with green against the sun’s rays, which made his red beard all the redder. Snatching from Robins, who followed him, the celebrated life-buoy air cushion, which was one of his properties, in case he should be tired during the climb and be in consequence obliged to sit awhile on the rock, he looked up at the hotel and saw us wildly waving our handkerchiefs. He pointed and said something to Robins. It was too far for us to distinguish clearly the conflicting emotions passing over his countenance, but Robins told us afterwards what his words had been. Feeling his pulse, he had said, “Do you see them, Robins? . . . They might have given me a heart attack!” . . . The visit, of a week’s duration as we had foreseen, passed off quite satisfactorily.

A later episode, connected with the same place and arising out of like circumstances, can be classified in a different, more frightening category: for a moment farce assumed a more imposing mantle.

. . . One autumn my brother and I were just again leaving England for a long secret session of work at Amalfi, when, the very evening before our departure, my father remarked casually: —

“Your mother and I thought of running over to Amalfi for the winter, and staying at the Hotel Cappuccini. She would be quite happy all day on the terrace.”

In this emergency the good ship Rover could be of little use. As so often before, I was obliged to improvise. Since the essence of our opposing systems of strategy was that my father planned every move for months, or even years, ahead, it was impossible to defeat him along those lines: instead I must depend on the element of surprise, hacked by inspiration, power of fantasy, élan, and the feeling of the moment. Now, therefore, I summoned a landslide to my aid — and it responded !

“Oh, haven’t you heard?” I asked. “There’s been a very bad landslide at Amalfi; and several parts of the terrace have been carried away. It was in the Daily Mail only a few days ago. ... I thought you would be sure to see it.”

This news checked my father’s plans. It rendered Amalfi, he said, quite impossible for a stay for him and my mother, as they must be able to take a walk on the level, without the necessity of always having to climb the steps to and from the town. But Sacheverell and I were not so sure they might not change their minds again, and decided it would be wiser to alter our own arrangements, and go elsewhere. And when, in a week’s time, we reached our new refuge, in Sicily, the first local newspaper we saw informed its readers, in terms of magniloquent sorrow, that a grave landslide had just occurred at Amalfi, and that two portions of the famous terrace of the Hotel Cappuccini had been destroyed. . . . Henceforth, I avoided making an excuse of that sort.

28

WHEN in London — and the periods we spent there were now not so long, for, in addition to being obliged to seek sanctuary abroad while working, I was still prospective Liberal Candidate for Scarborough, and had often to live there for a month or two — we liked to abandon ourselves entirely to its life. There were all kinds of amusements to be found or to be made, both large and small. One of them occurred in the return of Tetrazzini to Covent Garden. Sacheverell — already an ardent lover of Italian opera and singing — asked our friend Richmond Temple, who was a director of the Savoy, where she was staying, whether the famous prima donna would receive us, to present her with a wreath of bay and myrtle as a tribute from the young writers of England. Madame Tetrazzini indicated her willingness, and it was arranged. About seven of us took part in it, including Aldous Huxley and my sister and brother and me. The night before, Aldous and Maria Huxley very hospitably entertained us to dinner, and afterwards, while Aldous was composing the speech for us with Sacheverell — who, it had been decided, was to deliver it — at his side, Julian Huxley, I remember, walked up and down the room in a state of enchantment at the idea of the ceremony.

Eventually, the speech was finished, and the next day, after luncheon, we assembled at the Savoy, and were conducted to the Tetrazzini’s private suite. Her sitting room, into which we were shown, had been converted for the occasion into a bower of white lilac: a camera man, with a towering camera and a flashlight assistant, and several journalists, were in attendance. All was ready for her to make her appearance. The bedroom door was now flung open, and the famous prima donna entered. Short, fat, aging, wearing an overelaborate brown crepe dress, with much lace attached to it, she nevertheless had a captivating air of kindness and good nature, and walked as one used to receiving acclamation. She advanced slowly, making a conventional theatrical gesture of greeting and pleasure, with her right hand to the poets, drawn up in line, and with her left hand to the camera man, up his ladder ready to pull the trigger, and to the journalists, their pencils ready. The tall figure of Sacheverell, very young — just over twenty — stood heading our deputation, and Aldous, overtopping him, just behind. Slowly, very slowly, she continued to move toward us. The camera man was just giving the signal, when suddenly the great singer caught her foot in a rug, and fell flat!

There are those, I know, who hold that no fall, whatever the circumstances of it, can ever be funny. All I can say is that I disagree with them. . . . Fortunately, she had come to no hurt, and still more oddly seemed singularly undiscomfited by her misadventure. She was helped up, and straightened her dress; the poets straightened their faces; the camera man again got ready; Sacheverell was just going to read our message, when, this time, impelled I suppose by curiosity, Tetrazzini snatched the paper from him. Sacheverell, who dislikes speaking in public, was nevertheless determined to go through with it, so he snatched it back, saying at the same time in his deep voice, “ Prego, Divinissivia,” and began to read. The camera clicked — and so there a delightful occasion remains, enshrined in the dusty office files of newspapers.

29

OUR chief extramural activity in 1919 — for my part-editing of Art and Letters counts as a professional — was the organizing at the Mansard Gallery at Heal’s of the Exhibition of Modern French Art: of which Roger Fry, sponsor of the two great exhibitions of Post-Impressionist pictures in 1910 and 1912, wrote that it was “the most representative show of modern French art seen in London for many years.” Associated with my brother and me in collecting the pictures was a Parisian-Polish dealer, who subsequently became celebrated, Zborowski. With flat, Slavonic features, brown almondshaped eyes, and a beard which might have been shaped out of beaver’s fur, ostensibly he was a kind, soft businessman, and a poet as well. He had an air of melancholy, to which the fact that he spoke no English, and could not find his way about London (to which city this was his first visit), added.

The days before the opening of the exhibition are memorable to me because of the interest of seeing the pictures unpacked, and of hanging them. During the war it had been for so long out of the question to see modern French pictures at all, except for a single specimen at some gallery, that considerable excitement now evinced itself. The July evenings were very hot, and after dinner, about nine o’clock every evening, while my brother, Zborowski, and I supervised the hanging, friends would come in from the Eiffel Tower Restaurant and from Fitzroy Street near-by, to watch. Among those present at these unveilings would be our hierophant, Roger Fry, who walked round from his studio. The exhibition, though by no means enormous, included pictures by — among others — Othon Friesz, Vlaminck, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani, Survage, Soutine, Suzanne Valadon, Kisling, Halicka, Marcoussis, Léger, GabrielFournier, Ortiz, André Lhote, Utrillo, and Dufy, and sculptures by Archipenko and Zadkine.

Derain and Picasso had both made their personal appearance in London that summer, when Diaghilev had produced the two finest ballets of his second period, La Boutique Fantasque, and The Three-Cornered Hat. I had been present at the first night of both performances, and shall never forget the excitement of first seeing truly modern works of scenic art upon the stage. Derain’s drop-scene for La Boutique and Picasso’s for The Three-Cornered Hat were probably the most, inspired and original that had been painted for over a century. Picasso had long been the favorite of the cognoscenti of modern art, but Derain was a comparatively new star, and had much impressed them. And I remember one evening at the Mansard Gallery, as a glazed and framed canvas by this artist was being unpacked, and Roger Fry was admiring it, a friend drew attention to the fact that a currant had become wedged between the paint and the glass. A Philistine was just going to remove it, when Roger boomed out: “Better leave it alone. He probably placed it there intentionally. It makes rather a swagger contour!”

Sacheverell and I were very eager for the exhibition to be a success, as much for our own advantage as for the good name of the English public of art lovers. Sacheverell was most anxious to leave Oxford, but my father would not hear of his doing so, if lie intended to devote his life to writing. To be a dealer was different. However, in the end, the idea of our starting a gallery broke down, for an enterprise of that kind needed capital, and we could find none: so, as matters turned out, it proved our sole joint venture in this field — though one, I believe, of which we can be proud.

Rather than the great established names, and familiar masters, it was the newcomers, such artists as Modigliani and Utrillo, who made the sensation in this show. And my brother and I can claim the honor of having been the first to introduce Modigliani’s pictures to the English public. It had been possible before to understand the beauty of his drawings: but the paintings offered a new and a greater revolution. The nudes, especially the reclining figure derived from Giorgione and Titian, manifested an astonishing feeling for the quality of oil paint: a technical mastery and exploitation strange in itself, because the artist had always wanted to be a sculptor, and only the cost of the materials prevented it. I was not in a position to buy so many of these canvases as I should have wished, but at least my brother and I were able to acquire a magnificent example — for the Parisian dealers who owned the majority of Modigliani’s work in the exhibition suggested, knowing our great admiration of this artist, that, as a reward for our services, we might like to select a single picture and pay them what it had cost them. Accordingly, we chose his superb “Peasant Girl”; for which we paid four pounds, the average gallery price for a painting by him being then between thirty and a hundred pounds.

The opening day of the exhibition, the first of August, proved that crowds could be attracted to a gallery even during the holiday season, then still rigidly adhesive to a particular month. In order to prevent the public — who, it must be remembered, had seen no modern European painting for four years — from stampeding, we had persuaded Arnold Bennett, a friend of ours and a lover of pictures, to write the preface to the catalogue. We had hoped that his acknowledged common sense, his plain respect for competency and success in any branch of life, together with his high contemporary reputation as a novelist, would to a certain extent shield the pictures from the ugly display of abuse and bad temper which here greets every manifestation of art new to the country: but in vain!

We were fortunate enough to sell a good many pictures on the opening day. Arnold Bennett bought on my advice a splendid nude by Modigliani, and to someone else who consulted me, I recommended another fine picture by the same master, and a Utrillo. For these two, he paid a sum of about seventy pounds: within five years he could have sold them — I am unaware if he did — for at least two thousand six hundred pounds.

The catalogue, with its preface by Arnold, was widely bought; unfortunately the beginning of the list of pictures in it carried the notice, “This collection has been brought together by Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell”; which served to focus public rage on our two heads: though a considerable amount, on such occasions, was always reserved for my sister, even when, as in this instance, she was in no wise implicated. My brother and I acted in the gallery as shopmen in turn with our friend Herbert Head, selling catalogues, answering inquiries, and often quieting, or trying to quiet, protests — about the pictures. The table at which sat the one of us who had taken on the duty had been placed in the middle of the gallery, and below, by its side, stood an enormous wicker basket full of sheaves of Modigliani drawings, from which the visitor could choose a specimen for a shilling. ... I may add that my brief experience as salesman taught me much in a short time as to the manners adopted by people who ought to know better, towards shopmen. Several times I was treated with gross rudeness by men and women, unaware of my identity, and in after days, when I met and recognized them I found it difficult to be persuaded to like them.

Every day, the public tantrums, whether inside the Mansard Gallery or outside it, in the columns of the newspapers, increased. For the most part the critics showed themselves impressed, at the lowest were civil: it was in the news and correspondence columns that riots and mutinies broke out. A notably irate series of letters, arising out of a favorable account of the pictures by Clive Bell, appeared in the Nation, and continued for six weeks, a fortnight after the exhibition had closed! Throughout, the attackers maintained a strong moral note, and one of them declared that at one moment he had felt the whole collection of pictures to be “a glorying in prostitution”!

30

THE fury of the Philistine was reflected in unexpected quarters. London had been suffocatingly hot during the last part of July, and since Mrs. Ronald Greville had most kindly asked my brother and me to stay with her at Polesden Lacey, we went there for the first part of August. Always we greatly enjoyed our visits to her, and the house was near enough to London for us to be able to go up every day to our exhibition, and return in time for dinner. The immense party at Polesden in the early days of August, 1919, possessed its own very distinctive features. . . . My brother and I arrived about five o’clock on one of the last sweltering days of July, at Bookham Station. Bank Holiday, due before very long, had plainly produced in advance a sweaty yet listless and confused bustle. Nobody, one could see at a first glance, knew where anything was, and we found no motor waiting for us outside. As we waited there under a projecting glass roof, our feet burning on cinder-colored, incised tiles, and gazed before us into a vacancy of asphalt above which the heat danced a fandango barely visible, we turned to notice, standing by us, an old gentleman, plainly another prospective guest at Polesden. We did not know who he was, but presently a porter came lumbering along with his suitcase, and on the label, hanging limply from it, I read W. H. Mattock.

This author already belonged to a remote and romantic past. His book, The New Republic, which had made him famous, had appeared over forty years before, and the title of none of his numerous subsequent works had become so familiar in the ears of the public. I had never seen a copy of The New Republic, far less read one, but I had constantly heard it referred to, and with respect, by those members of the older generation whose judgment in reading I trusted. Moreover, I was prepared in my mind to like its author, since our friend Robert Ross had greatly admired him and had, indeed, been one of the advisers who had recommended and secured for him a Civil List Pension, when the former beloved star, young and brilliant, of literary drawing rooms now fallen to dust, had come on bad times.

My pity had been stirred by what I heard, so that on realizing the identity of the old chinoiserie tottering about in the heat in a state of despair, searching, not too energetically but fussily, for the missing Rolls, and ever and anon taking off his bowler hat to mop his forehead — as he did so disclosing a single damp strand of hair, long and undulating by nature as the Monster of Loch Ness but now wound and flattened round his crown like a turban — on realizing, as I say, his identity, I went up to him, introduced myself, offered to guide him the one and a half miles to Polesden, and, what was more, volunteered to carry his luggage for him, though nothing irks me so as having to convey my own. So, we started off on the long, long trek, he with a slight spinning motion from a giddiness of sorts that seized him, while Sacheverell and I staggered under our loads. We tried, though out of breath, to talk to him, to show we did not mind our burdens; but he was in some manner suspicious, perhaps especially of men younger than himself.

Very far from him, we comprehended, wore those days of amber when he had looked with the all too clear eyes of youth on the great of his time, on Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater and Jowett, and many famous men now forgotten and unlamented, had heard them talk, and had, in a novel, made their converse still better, so that he was their master, though so young, and they, his puppets. In the years that had passed since his triumph — for the reception of his first book cannot be called less — his rather cynical temper of mind had become accentuated, until he had grown to distrust all intelligence and artistic perception, and had been turned by the hardening of his arteries into a pillar of prejudice. Only a love of the classics remained to him out of all the gifts with which he had started — or so I thought.

When we arrived, the sight of ambassadors and ambassadresses, of statesmen and grandees, and the fleshy phantoms of former beauties, famous in his day, seemed to restore him. He almost unbent when our hostess greeted us. “I am so sorry you all three had to walk. And you carried Mullock’s luggage! It was most kind of you.” “Poor old Mallock!” she confided in me later, “I’ve hardly seen him since he used to come to Charles Street in my father’s time, when I was a girl. I met him the other day, and asked him here for the sake of old times— but I’m afraid he’s grown very old — too old for either work or pleasure — I only hope he’ll enjoy himself here! ” ... I think he did.

Every day, accounts of our exhibition, photographs of the pictures, and attacks on them caught his eye, and inflamed his spirit against us: for he had allowed the fact that I had dragged his luggage through the heat in a temperature of 90 degrees in the shade by no whit to mollify his feelings towards either my brother or me. And it soon became evident that in certain directions the passage of the years had by no means impaired his powers, but had merely changed the course of them. What had been an ability to create — or at any rate interpret — imaginatively had now become executant. He proved to be an ingenious and assiduous organizer. Each evening, when Sacheverell and I returned to Polesden, no less tired out by heat of the days than rendered uneasy by profitless argument in the gallery, and by the ferocious attacks delivered on us in the evening papers, we would find the bulk of the guests assembled to meet us, grouped either just outside the front door, or on the stone steps of the loggia. They were fresh as if they had just issued from a rest, cure, yet fiery in spirit as only bridge and golf can make people. It was plain that they had been marshaled here by an invisible intelligence for his own purposes, arranged in order of height and eminence, almost as if a photograph of the house party were to be taken. This chorus of ambassadors, political peers, retired speakers, ministers and their wives, was ready for us: the figureheads had been supplied, if not with arguments, at least with sentiments of an unimpeachable respectability, by one more wily, though generally speaking less well preserved, who had contrived by a little judicious muddling to make them associate in their minds a political regime they disliked with certain works of art.

“I think Bolshevism should be put down!”

“I have no sympathy with Bolsheviks in politics or art.”

“Cézanne wanted shooting.”

“I should think Sargent was good enough for anyone.” Such were the fade but locally unexceptionable sentiments chanted impersonally into the air, as if spoken to invisible spirits, at our approach.

It had to be admitted, then, that this nightly counterrevolution had been prepared with extreme skill and executed with audacity. Moreover it, must have required a deal of patient planning and lobbying, all the more remarkable when you consider that, owing to physical disabilities connected with his age, Mallock at that time could never find the answer to any question put to him until it had been repeated to him again twice, once by the interrogator, and once by himself. What was more, the whole of this work he carried out every day in secret, without a word of it. or of the nightly demonstration reaching our hostess or our several friends, among the guests, such as Mr. and Mrs. Maguire, or Lord Blanesburgh, who would have championed us.

I think it was the photographs of the Modigliani portraits, appearing now nearly every day in the press, which furnished Mallock with his chief weapons: just as the pictures themselves exacerbated the public. Especially the artist’s manner of rendering necks annoyed — but that is altogether too mild a word — those unused to it. In the gallery it was the same. “Why does he paint people with necks like swans?” I used to hear asked, with passionate, venomous derision. And out of this rage, I believe that it would have been possible at last to extract a mathematical formula, the heat of the anger seeming to be based on the number of times the neck of the given Modigliani could be multiplied to make the neck of the person protesting. The thicker the neck, the greater the transports of its owner, and the thicker still would it become, swelling from fury.

But it would seem that Thomas Carlyle had put Paid to our debt to Mallock in advance for us. In Talking of Dick Whittington by Hesketh Pearson and Hugh Kingsmill, the authors tell us that Joseph Chamberlain, at the height of his fame as a Radical politician, visited Carlyle one day with W. H. Mallock, who had just come down from Oxford with the reputation of a brilliant, youth with a great career before him. Mallock, apparently, had been too brilliant during the visit, for, as he and Chamberlain were putting their coats on, Carlyle, who had gone up the first flight of stairs, leaned over the balustrade, and called out, “Can ye hear me, Mr. Mallock?” Mallock having expectantly signified that he could, and no doubt thrown himself into a cordially receptive posture, Carlyle continued, “I didna enjoy your veesit, and I dinna want to see ye again.”

31

DURING the course of the following autumn, the terms on which we found ourselves with my father became less strained, and we determined to try to persuade him, either to advance us the money to buy, or himself to purchase as an investment, a hundred or more pictures by Modigliani for which we were in treaty. Some of them were already in England, and the whole collection could have been acquired for between seven hundred and a thousand pounds. Though I had almost refrained from making such a suggestion for fear of the reception it would most certainly incur, yet when at last I ventured to broach the subject, and even after he had seen some of the pictures, which surely did not match his taste, my father showed himself inclined to agree to some arrangement — it was but another of the fascinating contradictions in his character (“They may think I shall, but I shan’t!”). Still further to ease relations, and a little, perhaps, in order to pursue the point, my brother and I invited him to dine with us on the night of his sixtieth birthday, January 27, 1920, at our new London house, 2 Carlyle Square.

Sacheverell and I had migrated thither from Swan Walk in the previous November. Most of the possessions we took with us consisted of pictures, glass, and books — for the rooms at Swan Walk had contained little furniture. The little there was belonged to the owner. As often in my existence, I had just the bare luxuries of life and not the necessities. We owned neither beds, tables, nor chairs. This only made our glass and books more precious 1o us, and it was plainly safer to convey them to their new destination, personally, by taxi, than to trust them to carriers or furniture removers. In consequence, I had been forced to take a number of terrifying prismatic journeys in cabs, and I remember the winter sunshine suddenly streaming in as we turned a corner, and the dazing difficulty I experienced, like that a conjurer so often and so triumphantly poses to himself with billiard balls, of keeping the fragile bubblelike cases, full of crystal ships or flashing-winged hummingbirds, and the vases and bowls of coruscating colored glass, simultaneously in their place.

When all these objects had arrived, there existed, of course, no tables on which to stand them. In the height of the furniture boom of 1919, when small chests of drawers, made of deal, were selling for fifty pounds each, it proved no easy matter, with little money, many old debts, and the expense of a new residence, to find the necessary furniture, and we were compelled for a year or two to camp out, rather than live, in the house. I contrived, however, to buy from the former owner half a dozen beds, and some armchairs. The dining-room table, painted in every color, as if it were a palette, the surface then being ground down and polished to represent marble, had been a kitchen table, and was adapted for me to its new purpose by Roger Fry; who had also chosen the colors for the drawing room and himself helped to paint the ceiling.

A piece of furniture of rocklike strength, and with a real personality, this table has served me at Renishaw in the last eight years for the writing of the several volumes of this long autobiography. I sit at it at this moment, before my task, a large, adjustable, 1840 gout stool ready for swell-foot, straddling across one central bar supporting it. Its top is now covered with sheets of blotting paper of various colors, on which stand many fountain pens, clustered together like reed pipes, while round them surges a litter of notebooks, piles of papers, ink erasers, pots of ink, spectacles, spectacle cases, India rubbers, pencils, boxes of cigarettes, manuscripts, all in what must appear to strangers to be inextricable confusion. In a sense it exhales life, testifying to the daily struggles and long hours of an author’s day: but, as between the sheets of blotting paper I catch sight for a moment of a chink of the marbled surface underneath, it saddens me with other thoughts, by reminding me of many delightful hours that are past, and conjuring up many ghosts, not least among them the painter of the table himself: ghosts famous or obscure, who at one time or another sat round this table, and whose manner, whose voices, whose laughter, it now evokes, to reach me once more across the unfathomable gulf into which all must fall.

Certainly this table brings back more occasions pleasant, than the reverse; but that of which I speak turned out to be one of the least fortunate. The dinner party for my father’s sixtieth birthday was a risk which, perhaps, should not have been taken. To begin with, the decoration of the rooms, being neither Italian, nor William Morris, nor a conceit of Lutyens’s, was sure to annoy him. If he liked any of our possessions, he would remark — and how often has he not said it to me, in the grieved voice of altruism he reserved for such disguised strictures — “I notice that you and Sachie seem to have much more pocket money to spend than your mother and I. . . . We can spend nothing on ourselves!” While if he did not like them, he would equally repine. In the same fashion, if Mrs. Powell provided us with a remarkably good dinner, we were extravagant: and if, on the other hand, in order to please him, we could persuade her to send up a bad and skimpy meal, it showed how we mismanaged our affairs. To strike the happy mean was impossible.

32

THE worst mistake we made, on this occasion, and one we were bitterly to regret before the evening was over and for many years subsequently, was to ask my father’s only friend, Mr. MacTotter, the Silver Bore, to meet him. ... At first all went well; until the Silver Bore, who was as good-natured and, indeed, sentimentally friendly as obtuse (his continued friendship with my father must have been due solely to his never being conscious when he and his friendship were not wanted), brought out of his pocket a small package containing a birthday offering. After fifty years, the most elementary sense of psychology should have prevented him from falling into this error — for error it was, if he intended to please my father, to whom any present on an anniversary constituted an affront. When the paper was undone, the parcel proved to contain a gilded snuffbox, big enough to hold cigarettes, and though, of course, in the best of taste, unquestionably a pretty and elegant object.

When my father saw what it was — for he refused himself to touch it with his hands, as though he thought it might communicate some fever, and allowed the Silver Bore to rattle about among the tissue paper for him — he sank into a slow, sulky, smoldering passion, of ill omen to his sons’ plans. The entire mask of bonhomie which he had prepared for the evening crumbled. He drew me aside at once, and remarked, “A shocking waste of money, much better spent in other ways. Most selfish! I can’t afford that sort of thing!” (In reality, he feared he might later have to give a return birthday present to the Silver Bore, and though not ungenerous with gifts, he liked to choose his own time for them, and on these grounds disapproved of festivals such as a birthday or Christmas. At hotels abroad, he would always try to wish the headwaiter “A Happy Christmas!” first, before that smart and important recipient of presents could get it in, and if his butler, Robins, on Christmas morning, offered him his greetings, my father would snap out, in a tone of intense fretfulness, “Yes, yes, yes, I know!”) It took minutes that seemed like hours to restore any semblance of good humor to him, but eventually we succeeded in coaxing him into a state of icy geniality, if such a contradiction in terms may be permitted. The dining room itself aroused no particularly unpleasant comment, and he ate the meal with apparent enjoyment. Nor did he complain overmuch at having to climb stairs to the drawing room after dinner.

Arrived there, I took my father into the back part of the room, to show him our Modigliani, hanging over the fireplace. . . . Being at the lowest a man of imaginative and aesthetic perception and, in some branches, of a liking for new ideas, he treated the picture seriously, and listened to all I had to say, until it seemed clear that he would at last fall in with one of our plans. Alas! At this very moment the Silver Bore, who entertained a neurasthenic dread of being “out of things,” and whose eyes always roved fitfully — and when I write fitfully, I mean it — away from the person to whom he was talking, in search of suspected hidden diversions, broke loose from the other room, where he had been prating and gibbering to my brother of teaspoons and porringers, and stampeded up to my father and me. Noticing that we were looking at a picture, the newcomer turned his gaze in the same direction, and as he grimaced and quavered at it, a new tempo of indignation began to govern his trembling, which grew quicker and more convulsive.

As Modigliani’s peasant girl, monumental, posed forever in her misty blue world, peered steadily out of her frame, between her thin, gooselike eyes, at the quivering, agitated, but welltailored mass of the elderly gentleman opposite her, the struggle between them became — if only it had not been too poignant, because I already recognized that my brother and my fortunes were deeply implicated in it — an interesting duel to watch. Inspired as MacTotter was by Good Taste, which inevitably blindfolds its victims, since it arms them for their battle against art with a system, if not of aesthetic values, at any rate of academical respectability and decorum that can ostensibly be used on behalf of beauty, rather than as, in reality, against it, something in the painting before him clashed, I suggest, with the ideals upheld by the Queen Anne Coffeepot: wherefore this was not and could not be art.

Personal prejudice, moreover, no less than principle, entered in. The quality of her immense and static dignity not only outraged the burgessdom of England, of which he was an incarnation, but offended more particularly against his own involuntary vivacity, bestowed on him by Saint Vitus. The peasant girl, he considered, had no expression, no movement. So intense was his emotion that at first it seemed as if he could not, for very anger, use his voice. But in the end all this agitation and waste of energy found their equivalent in sound, a high, defensive whinnying, long maintained. The peasant girl, immobile, held her ground. Not so, alas, my father. He would not look at the picture again: he was frightened out of it, by conventional opinion as thus expressed.

A kind of sequel occurred some five or six years later. My brother and I returned to London after a prolonged absence abroad, spent in working at Amalfi. The evening after our arrival, a friend, an artist and collector of modern pictures, came to dine with us. When, later, we were sitting in the drawing room, he said, “I’ve been wondering, by the way, whether you’d like to sell me your Modigliani. I’ll give you a handsome price, eighty pounds!" He was aware that I had paid four pounds for it, and when I could not make up my mind what to do, for I both needed money and hated to part with the painting, he added, “You won’t be doing badly: you’ll have made a profit of nearly two thousand per cent!” After reflection, and in spite of Mrs. Powell’s protests, I accepted his offer — only to learn a week later that the purchaser had resold it for two thousand pounds, while two or three months subsequently it was to be seen in the window of a famous Parisian dealer for the equivalent in francs of four thousand pounds.

The great rise in the value of Modigliani’s pictures had taken place during the months we had been abroad, and out of touch with the world of galleries. It was evident now that when my father had permitted the Silver Bore to giggle and jiggle him out of his almost formulated intention to buy the collection of Modigliani’s paintings, he had been laughed out of a fortune. Since money values constituted a standard that the Silver Bore admitted and understood, I decided to write to him and point out what he had accomplished. This I gave myself the satisfaction of doing; for he was only a few years over sixty and, unless warned, might still perform a similar offense, should he by chance again see a beautiful modern work of art.

I do not know where “The Peasant Girl’ hangs now: but there, caught in the artist’s net, is the cautious, wry-necked peasant girl of Northern France, with her fair hair, sharp, slanting nose, and narrow eyes, who, for so long as paint lasts, will typify the thriftiness, shading down into avarice, the suspiciousness and obstinate endurance of the peasants of a flat and sandy country, where willows and animals, rather than hills, which scarcely exist, constitute the landmarks. Very near are these people of whom this young girl is a representative to the world of trees, animals, and birds — especially, perhaps, of birds. She is related by blood to Breughel’s peasants and to Teniers’s boors, has the same powerful grip on life, but is less jolly and jocose. Her smiles are rare, and there is about her a wooden melancholy that accompanies the quality of her strength.

You can see her driving home a flock of geese, wearing on her head a kind of flat, black hat, and guiding her charges sometimes with the aid of a long rod. A few early December flakes of snow begin to fall so that soon her cheerful-colored face shines feebly, and then is lost in a whirling universe of goose feathers. Her walk, as she waddles along, with a pertinacity which surely even death cannot subdue — it is her physique rather than her soul, which seems eternal — belongs less to the animals than to the web-footed families of birds. But her stubborn vigor is human, and in the light of it you can read her future. You can see her on a hot summer evening, kicking her foot listlessly against a stone, while the smallest birds jump and fly and sing in the branches of the willow or osier over her head. You can see her dutiful courtship, and the dowry, perhaps a necklace of pebbles, the linen and simple furniture she would bring her husband, and her life as a mother, a Frenchwoman of simple faith and belief in hard work, in scrubbed boards, polished brass, and copper that gleams. You can see her sitting in church, listening intently and understanding nothing, for the sounds of the farmyard mean more to her than the words of the good or learned. (To her thinking, it is the capacity for hard work, I believe, rather than the immortal soul which differentiates human beings from beasts.)

You can see her in the earliest morning, with perhaps the only flash of poetry that lifts the common sense of her spirit, resting for an instant against a wooden post in the yard, in the young light of a summer morning which has in it already all the buds of June’s tender perfection of leafiness, stillness, and expectation of a Golden Age never to come, while her car yet remains attentive to the sounds of the animal world: the grunting of pigs, those earth-bound and translated creatures from a fairy story; the voices of the cows, calm and logical, with their occasional complaints of the supply of adrenalin reduced, and nature tamed in consequence; and to the hissing of the geese, issuing now in formation from the door, across the roughly cobbled yard, littered with straw and dung. This flock is still her favorite, and through some process of unconscious approximation, her eyes and nose have grown still more to resemble those of the birds you saw her driving through the vanished flakes of fifty years or more ago. Now her voice, too, has a toothless hiss in it. But with all this, she still remains the wry-necked girl, with the lank hair of the forsaken, with hands clasped, resting stoutly on a wooden chair in a transparency of vaporous blue.

(To be concluded)