The House of the Vampire/IV
“I am so happy you came,” Reginald Clarke said, as he conducted Ernest into his studio. It was a large, luxuriously furnished room overlooking the Hudson and Riverside Drive.
Dazzled and bewildered, the boy's eyes wandered from object to object, from picture to statue. Despite seemingly incongruous details, the whole arrangement possessed style and distinction.
A satyr on the mantelpiece whispered obscene secrets into the ears of Saint Cecilia. The argent limbs of Antinous brushed against the garments of Mona Lisa. And from a corner a little rococo lady peered coquettishly at the gray image of an Egyptian sphinx. There was a picture of Napoleon facing the image of the Crucified. Above all, in the semidarkness, artificially produced by heavy draperies, towered two busts.
“Shakespeare and Balzac!” Ernest exclaimed with some surprise. “Yes,” explained Reginald, “they are my gods.”
His gods! Surely there was a key to Clarke's character. Our gods are ourselves raised to the highest power.
Clarke and Shakespeare!
Even to Ernest's admiring mind it seemed almost blasphemous to name a contemporary, however esteemed, in one breath with the mighty master of song, whose great gaunt shadow, thrown against the background of the years has assumed immense, unproportionate, monstrous dimensions.
Yet something might be said for the comparison. Clarke undoubtedly was universally broad, and undoubtedly concealed, with no less exquisite taste than the Elizabethan, his own personality under the splendid raiment of his art. They certainly were affinities. It would not have been surprising to him to see the clear calm head of Shakespeare rise from behind his host.
Perhaps—who knows?—the very presence of the bust in his room had, to some extent, subtly and secretly moulded Reginald Clarke's life. A man's soul, like the chameleon, takes colour from its environment. Even comparative trifles, the number of the house in which we live, or the colour of the wallpaper of a room, may determine a destiny.
The boy's eyes were again surveying the fantastic surroundings in which he found himself; while, from a corner, Clarke's eyes were watching his every movement, as if to follow his thoughts into the innermost labyrinth of the mind. It seemed to Ernest, under the spell of this passing fancy, as though each vase, each picture, each curio in the room, was reflected in Clarke's work. In a long-queued, porcelain Chinese mandarin he distinctly recognised a quaint quatrain in one of Clarke's most marvellous poems. And he could have sworn that the grin of the
Hindu monkey-god on the writing-table reappeared in the weird rhythm of two stanzas whose grotesque cadence had haunted him for years.
At last Clarke broke the silence. “You like my studio?” he asked. The simple question brought Ernest back to reality.
“Like it? Why, it's stunning. It set up in me the queerest train of thought.”
“I, too, have been in a whimsical mood tonight. Fancy, unlike genius, is an infectious disease.”
“What is the peculiar form it assumed in your case?”
“I have been wondering whether all the things that environ us day by day are, in a measure, fashioning our thought-life. I sometimes think that even my little mandarin and this monkey-idol which, by the way, I brought from India, are exerting a mysterious but none the Less real influence upon my work.”
“Great God!” Ernest replied, “I have had the identical thought!”
“How very strange!” Clarke exclaimed, with seeming surprise.
“It is said tritely but truly, that great minds travel the same roads,” Ernest observed, inwardly pleased.
“No,” the older man subtly remarked, “but they reach the same conclusion by a different route.”
“And you attach serious importance to our fancy?”
Clarke was gazing abstractedly at the bust of Balzac. “A man's genius is commensurate with his ability of absorbing from life the elements essential to his artistic completion. Balzac possessed this power in a remarkable degree. But, strange to say, it was evil that attracted him most. He absorbed it as a sponge absorbs water; perhaps because there was so little of it in his own make-up. He must have purified the atmosphere around him for miles, by bringing all the evil that was floating in the air or slumbering in men's souls to the point of his pen.
“And he”—his eyes were resting on Shakespeare's features as a man might look upon the face of a brother—“he, too, was such a nature. In fact, he was the most perfect type of the artist. Nothing escaped his mind. From life and from books he drew his material, each time reshaping it with a master-hand. Creation is a divine prerogative. Re-creation, infinitely more wonderful than mere calling into existence, is the prerogative of the poet. Shakespeare took his colours from many palettes. That is why he is so great, and why his work is incredibly greater than be. It alone explains his unique achievement. Who was he? What education did he have, what opportunities? None. And yet we find in his work the wisdom of Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh's fancies and discoveries, Marlowe's verbal thunders and the mysterious loveliness of Mr. W. H.”
Ernest listened, entranced by the sound of Clarke's melliflous voice. He was, indeed, a master of the spoken word, and possessed a miraculous power of giving to the wildest fancies an air of vraisemblance.