Twilight (Frankau)/Chapter VIII
Here is the story I wrote under morphia and in that strange driving stress, set down as well as I can recall it, but seeming now so much less real and distinct. I have not tried to polish, only to remember. There was then no effort after composition, no correction, transposition nor alteration, and neither is there now; nor conscious psychology nor sentiment. The scenes were all set in the house where I lay, and there was no pause in the continuity of the drama. I saw every gesture and heard every word spoken. The letters were and are before me as confirmatory evidence. My own intrusive illness minimised the interest of the circumstances to my immediate surroundings. But to me it seems that the consecutive actuality of the morphia dream or dreams is unusual if not unique, and gives value to the narrative.
I refer to the MS. notes and diary for the beginning of the story, but have had to make several emendations and additions. There were too many epigrams, and the impression the writer wished to convey was only in the intention, and not in the execution. What she left out I have put in. It should be easy to separate my work from hers. And she carried her story very little way. From the beginning of the letters the autobiography stopped. It started abruptly, and ended in the same way.
There were trial titles in the MS. notes. "Between the Nisi and the Absolute" competed in favour with "The Love Story of a Woman of Genius."
Margaret Belinda Rysam was the daughter of a New Yorker on the up-grade. Her father began to make money when she was a baby and never left off, even to take breath, until she was between thirteen and fourteen. Then his wife died, not of a broken heart, but of her appetites fed to repletion, and an overwhelming desire for further provender. Her poor mouth, so much larger than her stomach, was always open. He piled a great house on Fifth Avenue into it and a bewilderment of furniture, modern old Masters and antiquities, also pearls and other jewellery. She never shut it, although later there were a country house to digest and some freak entertainments, a multiplicity of reporters and a few disappointments. The really "right people" were difficult to secure, the nearly "right people" were dust and ashes. A continental tour was to follow and a London season.... Before they started she died of a surfeit which the doctors called by some other name and operated upon, expensively.
In the pause of the hushed house and the funeral Edgar B. Rysam began to think that perhaps he had made sufficient money. He really grieved for that poor open mouth and those upturned grasping hands, realising that it was to overfill them that he had worked. He gave up his office and found the days empty, discovered his young daughter, and, nearly to her undoing, filled them with her. During her mother's life she had been left to the happy seclusion of nursery or schoolroom; subsidiary to the maelstrom of gold-dispensing. Now she had more governesses and tutors than could be fitted into the hurrying hours, and became easily aware of her importance, that she was the adored and only child of a widowed millionaire. Forced into concentrating her entire attention upon herself she discovered a remarkable personality. Bent at first on astonishing her surroundings she succeeded in astonishing herself. She found that she acquired knowledge with infinite ease and had a multiplicity of minor talents. She wrote verses and essays, sang, and played on various instruments. Highly paid governesses and tutors exclaimed and proclaimed. The words prodigy, and genius, pursued and illuminated her. At the age of sixteen no subject seemed to her so interesting as the consideration of her own psychology.
Nothing could have saved her at this juncture but what actually occurred. For she had no incentive to concentration, and every battle was won before it was fought. To be was almost sufficient. To do, superfluous, almost arrogant.
Edgar B. Rysam had, however, forgotten to safeguard his resources. That is to say, his fortune was invested in railroad bonds and stocks. In the great railway panic of 1893 prices came tumbling down and public confidence fell with them. Edgar B. in alarm, for he had forgotten the ways of railway magnates and financiers, sold out and lost half his capital. He reopened his office, and by dint of buying and selling at the wrong time, rid himself of another quarter. When he woke to his position, and retired for the second time, he had only sufficient means to be considered a rich man away from his native land. The sale of the mansion in Fifth Avenue, the country house, and the yacht damned him in the sight of his fellow-citizens. He found himself with a bare fifty thousand dollars a year, and no friends. Under the circumstances there was nothing for it but emigration, and he finally decided upon England as being the most hospitable as well as the most congenial of abiding-places. His linguistic attainments consisted of a fair fluency in "Americanese."
During the year he had spent in ruining himself, his young daughter became conscious of a pause in the astonished admiration she excited. She bore it better than might have been expected, because it synchronised with her first love affair. She had become passionately enamoured of the "cold white keys" and practised the piano innumerable hours in every day.
When Edgar B. remembered her existence again she had grown pale and remote, enwrapped in her gift and in her egotism, not doubting at all she would be the greatest pianist the world had ever seen, and that all those friends and acquaintances who had ignored or cold-shouldered her during the last year would wither with self-disdain at not having perceived it earlier. Not by her father's millions would she shine, but by reason of her unparalleled powers. The decision to visit Europe and settle in England, for a time was not unconnected with these visions. She insisted she required more and better lessons. Edgar B. was awed by her decision, by her playing, by her astonishingly perverse and burdened youth. He was grateful to her for not reproaching him for his failure to grapple with a new position, and contrasted her, favourably, notwithstanding an uneasy fear of disloyalty, with her mother.
"What do we want of wealth?" she asked in her young scorn. And spoke of the vulgarity of money and their scampered friends of the Four Hundred. In those early days, when she hoped to become a pianist, she had many of the faults of inferior novelists or writers. She used, for instance, other people's words instead of her own, and said she wished to "scorn delight and live laborious days." Edgar B., who knew no vision but money against a background of rapacious domestic affection, gaped at and tried to understand her. It was not until they were on board the "Minotaur" and he had come across an amiable English widow, that he learnt his daughter was indeed a genius, ethereal, a wonder-child. But one who needed mothering!
Even genius must eat, sleep for reasonable hours, wear warm clothes in cold weather. Margaret's absorbed self-consciousness left her no weapons to fight Mrs. Merrill-Cotton's kindness. She accepted it without surprise. It seemed quite natural to her; the only wonder was that the whole shipload had eyes or ears for any one else once they had heard her play the piano! Mrs. Merrill-Cotton brought her port wine and milk, shawls and rugs, volubly admiring her reticence, her unlikeness to other girls, her dawning delicate beauty. In truth Margaret at that period was girlishly angular and emaciated, from midnight and other labours, too much introspection and too little exercise, other than digital. She was desultorily interested in her appearance and a little uncertain as to whether the mass of her fair hair accorded with her pallid complexion. Her eyes were hazel and seemed to her lacking in expression. She did not think herself beautiful, but admitted she was "mystic" and of an unusual type.
Mrs. Merrill-Cotton found the more appropriate words. "Dawning delicate beauty." They led her to the looking-glass so often that she had no time nor thought for what was happening elsewhere. Meanwhile Mrs. Merrill-Cotton and Mr. Rysam foregathered on deck, and at mealtimes, at the bridge table and in the saloon. Margaret was assured of a stepmother long before she realised the possibility of her father having a thought for anybody but herself. And then she was told that it was only for her sake that the engagement had been entered into! Mrs. Merrill-Cotton, it appeared, was the centre of English society, had a large income and a larger heart. She, Margaret, would be the chief interest of the two of them.
Margaret's indifference to mundane things was sufficient to make her presently accept the position, if not enthusiastically, yet agreeably. And, strangely enough, Mrs. Merrill-Cotton proved to be as alleged. She had never had a daughter, and wished to mother Margaret: she had no other ulterior motive in marrying the American. Her income was at least as much as she had said, and she knew a great many people. That they were city people of greater wealth than distinction made no difference to her future husband. He wanted a domestic hearth and some one to share the embarrassment of his exceptional daughter.
The first thing they did after the wedding was to take Margaret to Dresden for those piano lessons she craved. She broke down quickly,—had not the health, so the doctors said, for her chosen profession. They said her heart was weak, and that she was anæmic. So father and stepmother brought her back to England, and installed her as the centre of interest in the big house in Queen Anne's Gate.
At eighteen she published her first novel, at her father's expense. It was new in method and tone. Word was sent round by the publisher that the authoress was a young and beautiful American heiress, and the result was quite an extraordinary little success.
The Lady Mayoress presented her to her Sovereign, after which the social atmosphere of the house quickly changed. Margaret began to understand, and act. Into the thick coagulated stream of city folk for whom the new Mrs. Rysam had an indefinable respect there meandered journalists, actors, painters, musicians. The whole tone of the house unconsciously but quickly altered. Culture was now the watchword. Money, no longer a topic of conversation, was nevertheless permitted to minister to the creature comfort of men and women of distinction in art and letters. The two elderly people accustomed themselves easily to the change, they were of the non-resistant type, and Margaret led them. When in her twentieth year her first play was produced at a West End theatre, and she came before the curtain to bow her acknowledgment of the applause, their pride was overwhelming. The next book was praised by all the critics who had been entertained and the journalists who hoped for further entertainment. Another and another followed. Open house was kept in Queen Anne's Gate, and there was an idea afloat in lower Bohemia that here was the counterpart of the Eighteenth-century salon.
This was the high-water tide of Margaret's good fortune. She had (as she told Gabriel Stanton in one of her letters) everything that a young woman could desire. The disposition of wealth, a measure of fame, the reputation of beauty, lovers and admirers galore. Why, out of the multiplicity of these, she should have selected James Capel, is one of those mysteries that always remain inexplicable. It is possible that he wooed her perfunctorily, and set her aflame by his comparative indifference! She imbued him with diffidence and a hundred chivalrous qualities to which he had no claim.
James Capel, at the piano, his head flung back, his dark and too long locks flowing, his dark eyes full of slumbrous passions, singing mid-Victorian love songs in a voluptuous manner and rich vibrating voice, was irresistible to many women, although his lips were thick and his nose not classic. A woman like Margaret should have been immune from his virus. Alas! she proved ultra-susceptible, and the resultant fever exacted from her nearly the extremest penalty. James Capel accepted all his tributes and seemed to dispense his favours equally, kissing this one's hands and casting languorous glances on the others. He made love to Margaret with the rest, knowing no other language nor approach. Probably he liked the Rysams' establishment, their big Steinway Grand and the fine dinners, the riot of wealth and the unlimited hospitality!
He said afterwards, and every one believed it, all the women at least, that the last thing in the world he contemplated was marriage, that the whole situation and final elopement were of Margaret's contriving. Be that as it may, one cannot but pity her. She was only twenty, ignorant of evil, with the defects of her qualities, emotional, highly strung. She contracted a secret marriage with the musician. What she suffered in her quick disillusionment can easily be realised. James Capel was ill-bred, and of a vanity at least as great as hers. But hers had justification and his none.
Margaret may have been inadequate as a wife, she had been used to every consideration and found herself without any. James Capel was beneath her in everything, in culture and education, refinement. He said openly that men like himself were not destined for one woman. Their short married life was tragedy, a crucifixion of her young womanhood. She had, with all her faults, delicacy, physical reserve, a subtlety of charm and brilliant intellect. She had given herself to a man who could appreciate none of these, who was coarse from his thick lips to his language, from his large spatulate hands to his lascivious small brain. He burned her with his taunts of how she had pursued him, torn him from other women, forced her love upon him. There was just enough truth in it to make her writhe in her desecrated soul and modesties. Of course she thought he had feared to aspire. Now he made it evident he considered it was she who had aspired!!! He told her of duchesses who had sought his songs and his caresses, and gloatingly of unimaginable incidents. He tortured her beyond endurance.
She left him for the shelter of her father's home within a few months of their marriage. There she was nursed back into moral and physical health, welcomed, comforted, pitied, and she slowly emerged from this mud bath of matrimony. Her press, theatrical and lettered friends rallied round her; wealth and foreign travel ameliorated the position. She wrote again and with greater success than before. Suffering had deepened her note, she was still without sentiment, but had acquired something of sympathy.
Years passed. She had almost forgotten the degradation and humiliation of her marriage, when an escapade of her husband's, brazenly public, forced her to take definite steps for legal freedom. She was now sufficiently famous for the papers to treat the news as a cause célèbre. James Capel unexpectedly defended himself, and fought her with every weapon malice and an unscrupulous solicitor could forge. Part of the evidence was heard in camera, the rest should have been relegated to the same obscurity. All the bitterness and misery of those terrible months were revived. Now it seemed there was nothing for her but obliteration. She thought it impossible she could ever again come before the public, for her story to be recalled. She was all unnerved and shaken, refusing to go out or to see people. She thought she desired nothing but obscurity.
Yet she had to write.
The book on pottery was a sudden inspiration. It would be something entirely new and unassociated with her in the public mind. There were dreadful months to be got through, the waiting months during which, in law at least, she was still James Capel's wife, a condition more intolerable now than it had ever been.
Whatever she may have thought about herself it is obvious that in essentials she was unaltered. Her egotism had re-established itself under her father and good stepmother's care, and her amazing self-consciousness. To her it seemed as if all the world were talking about her. There was some foundation for her belief, of course. In so much as she was a public character, she was a favourite of that small eclectic public. She may have overrated her position, taken as due to herself alone that which was equally if not more essentially owing to her father's wealth and habit of keeping open house. Her letters are eminently characteristic. Her self is more prominent in them than her lover. She seems to have bewildered Gabriel Stanton, who knew little or nothing of women, and carried him off his feet. He may have begun by pitying her, she appealed to his pity, to his chivalry. As she said herself, she "exposed herself entirely to him." Young, rich, beautiful, famous, she was, nevertheless, at the time she first met Gabriel Stanton as a bird in flight, shot on the wing and falling; blood-stained, shrinking, terrified, the stain spreading. Into Gabriel Stanton's pitiful powerless hands, set on healing, she fell almost without a struggle. This at least is her own phrasing, and the way she wished the matter to appear. As it did appear to him, and perhaps sometimes to herself. To others of course it might seem she was the fowler, he the bird!
Certainly after the first visit to Greyfriars', when she opened the matter of the ill-fated book on Staffordshire Pottery there were constant letters, interviews and meetings, conventional and unconventional. Perhaps it was only her dramatic brain, working for copy behind its enforced and vowed inactivity, that made her act as she did. Her letters all read as if they were intended for publication. In her disingenuous diary and short MS. notes, there were trial titles, without a date, and forced epigrammatic phrases. "Publisher and Sinner" occurred once. There is a note that "Between the Nisi and the Absolute" met the position more accurately.
She told Gabriel Stanton, she must have convinced Peter Kennedy and herself, that she never knew the danger she ran until it was too late. But the papers she left disproved the tale.