Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

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collector who has a good thing to show. He knew he had a good listener,
at any rate. I don't think much of Ringham's snuff-boxes, but his
anecdotes are usually worth while. He's a psychologist astray among
_bibelots_, and the best bits he brings back from his raids on
Christie's and the Hotel Drouot are the fragments of human nature he
picks up on those historic battle-fields. If his _flair_ in enamel had
been half as good we should have heard of the Finney collection by this

He really has - queer fatuous investigator! - an unusually sensitive touch
for the human texture, and the specimens he gathers into his museum
of heterogeneous memories have almost always some mark of the rare and
chosen. I felt, therefore, that I was really to be congratulated on
the fact that I didn't know what had become of the Daunt Diana, and on
having before me a long evening in which to learn. I had just led
my friend back, after an excellent dinner at Foyot's, to the shabby
pleasant sitting-room of my _rive-gauche_ hotel; and I knew that, once
I had settled him in a good arm-chair, and put a box of cigars at his
elbow, I could trust him not to budge till I had the story.


YOU remember old Neave, of course? Little Humphrey Neave, I mean. We
used to see him pottering about Rome years ago. He lived in two tiny
rooms over a wine shop, on polenta and lentils, and prowled among the
refuse of the Ripetta whenever he had a few _soldi_ to spend. But you've
been out of the collector's world for so long that you may not know what
happened to him afterward...

He was always a queer chap, Neave; years older than you and me, of
course - and even when I first knew him, in my raw Roman days, he gave
me an extraordinary sense of age and experience. I don't think I've ever
known any one who was at once so intelligent and so simple. It's the
precise combination that results in romance; and poor little Neave was

He told me once how he'd come to Rome. He was _originaire_ of Mystic,
Connecticut - and he wanted to get as far away from it as possible. Rome
seemed as far as anything on the same planet could be; and after he'd
worried his way through Harvard - with shifts and shavings that you and
I can't imagine - he contrived to get sent to Switzerland as tutor to a
chap who'd failed in his examinations. With only the Alps between, he
wasn't likely to turn back; and he got another fellow to take his pupil
home, and struck out on foot for the seven hills.

I'm telling you these early details merely to give you a notion of the
man's idealism. There was a cool persistency and a headlong courage in
his dash for Rome that one wouldn't have guessed in the little pottering
chap we used to know. Once on the spot, he got more tutoring, managed to
make himself a name for coaxing balky youths to take their fences, and
was finally able to take up the more congenial task of expounding "the
antiquities" to cultured travellers. I call it more congenial - but how
it must have seared his soul! Fancy unveiling the sacred scars of Time
to ladies who murmur: "Was this _actually_ the spot - ?" while they
absently feel for their hatpins! He used to say that nothing kept him
at it but the exquisite thought of accumulating the _lire_ for his
collection. For the Neave collection, my dear fellow, began early, began
almost with his Roman life, began in a series of little nameless odds
and ends, broken trinkets, torn embroideries, the amputated extremities
of maimed marbles: things that even the rag-picker had pitched away when
he sifted his haul. But they weren't nameless or meaningless to Neave;
his strength lay in his instinct for identifying, putting together,
seeing significant relations. He was a regular Cuvier of bric-a-brac.
And during those early years, when he had time to brood over trifles and
note imperceptible differences, he gradually sharpened his instinct, and
made it into the delicate and redoubtable instrument it is. Before he
had a thousand francs' worth of _anticaglie_ to his name he began to be
known as an expert, and the big dealers were glad to consult him. But
we're getting no nearer the Daunt Diana...

Well, some fifteen years ago, in London, I ran across Neave at
Christie's. He was the same little man we'd known, effaced, bleached,
indistinct, like a poor "impression" - as unnoticeable as one of his own
early finds, yet, like them, with a _quality_, if one had an eye for
it. He told me he still lived in Rome, and had contrived, by fierce
self-denial, to get a few decent bits together - "piecemeal, little by
little, with fasting and prayer; and I mean the fasting literally!" he

He had run over to London for his annual "look-round" - I fancy one or
another of the big collectors usually paid his journey - and when we met
he was on his way to see the Daunt collection. You know old Daunt was a
surly brute, and the things weren't easily seen; but he had heard Neave
was in London, and had sent - yes, actually sent! - for him to come and
give his opinion on a few bits, including the Diana. The little man bore
himself discreetly, but you can imagine his pride. In his exultation he
asked me to come with him - "Oh, I've the _grandes et petites entrees_,
my dear fellow: I've made my conditions - " and so it happened that I saw
the first meeting between Humphrey Neave and his fate.

For that collection _was_ his fate: or, one may say, it was embodied in
the Diana who was queen and goddess of the realm. Yes - I shall always be
glad I was with Neave when he had his first look at the Diana. I see him
now, blinking at her through his white lashes, and stroking his seedy
wisp of a moustache to hide a twitch of the muscles. It was all very
quiet, but it was the _coup de foudre_. I could see that by the way
his hands trembled when he turned away and began to examine the other
things. You remember Neave's hands - thin, sallow, dry, with long
inquisitive fingers thrown out like antennae? Whatever they hold - bronze
or lace, hard enamel or brittle glass - they have an air of conforming
themselves to the texture of the thing, and sucking out of it, by every
finger-tip, the mysterious essence it has secreted. Well, that day,
as he moved about among Daunt's treasures, the Diana followed him
everywhere. He didn't look back at her - he gave himself to the business
he was there for - but whatever he touched, he felt her. And on the
threshold he turned and gave her his first free look - the kind of look
that says: _"You're mine."_

It amused me at the time - the idea of little Neave making eyes at any of
Daunt's belongings. He might as well have coquetted with the Kohinoor.
And the same idea seemed to strike him; for as we turned away from the
big house in Belgravia he glanced up at it and said, with a bitterness
I'd never heard in him: "Good Lord! To think of that lumpy fool having
those things to handle! Did you notice his stupid stumps of fingers? I
suppose he blunted them gouging nuggets out of the gold fields. And in
exchange for the nuggets he gets all that in a year - only has to hold
out his callous palm to have that great ripe sphere of beauty drop into
it! That's my idea of heaven - to have a great collection drop into
one's hand, as success, or love, or any of the big shining things,
drop suddenly on some men. And I've had to worry along for nearly fifty
years, saving and paring, and haggling and intriguing, to get here a
bit and there a bit - and not one perfection in the lot! It's enough to
poison a man's life."

The outbreak was so unlike Neave that I remember every word of it:
remember, too, saying in answer: "But, look here, Neave, you wouldn't
take Daunt's hands for yours, I imagine?"

He stared a moment and smiled. "Have all that, and grope my way through
it like a blind cave fish? What a question! But the sense that it's
always the blind fish that live in that kind of aquarium is what makes
anarchists, sir!" He looked back from the corner of the square, where we
had paused while he delivered himself of this remarkable metaphor. "God,
I'd like to throw a bomb at that place, and be in at the looting!"

And with that, on the way home, he unpacked his grievance - pulled the
bandage off the wound, and showed me the ugly mark it had made on his
little white soul.

It wasn't the struggling, stinting, self-denying that galled him - it was
the inadequacy of the result. It was, in short, the old tragedy of the
discrepancy between a man's wants and his power to gratify them. Neave's
taste was too exquisite for his means - was like some strange, delicate,
capricious animal, that he cherished and pampered and couldn't satisfy.

"Don't you know those little glittering lizards that die if they're not
fed on some wonderful tropical fly? Well, my taste's like that, with
one important difference - if it doesn't get its fly, it simply turns and
feeds on me. Oh, it doesn't die, my taste - worse luck! It gets larger
and stronger and more fastidious, and takes a bigger bite of me - that's

That was all. Year by year, day by day, he had made himself into this
delicate register of perceptions and sensations - as far above the
ordinary human faculty of appreciation as some scientific registering
instrument is beyond the rough human senses - only to find that the
beauty which alone could satisfy him was unattainable - that he was never
to know the last deep identification which only possession can give. He
had trained himself in short, to feel, in the rare great thing - such
an utterance of beauty as the Daunt Diana, say - a hundred elements of
perfection, a hundred _reasons why_, imperceptible, inexplicable even,
to the average "artistic" sense; he had reached this point by a long
austere process of discrimination and rejection, the renewed great
refusals of the intelligence which perpetually asks more, which will
make no pact with its self of yesterday, and is never to be beguiled
from its purpose by the wiles of the next-best-thing. Oh, it's a
poignant case, but not a common one; for the next-best-thing usually

You see, the worst of Neave's state was the fact of his not being a mere
collector, even the collector raised to his highest pitch of efficiency.
The whole thing was blent in him with poetry - his imagination had
romanticized the acquisitive instinct, as the religious feeling of the
Middle Ages turned passion into love. And yet his could never be the
abstract enjoyment of the philosopher who says: "This or that object is
really mine because I'm capable of appreciating it." Neave _wanted_ what
he appreciated - wanted it with his touch and his sight as well as with
his imagination.

It was hardly a year afterward that, coming back from a long tour in
India, I picked up a London paper and read the amazing headline: "Mr.
Humphrey Neave buys the Daunt collection"... I rubbed my eyes and read
again. Yes, it could only be our old friend Humphrey. "An American
living in Rome ... one of our most discerning collectors"; there was no
mistaking the description. I clapped on my hat and bolted out to see the
first dealer I could find; and there I had the incredible details. Neave
had come into a fortune - two or three million dollars, amassed by an
uncle who had a corset-factory, and who had attained wealth as the
creator of the Mystic Super-straight. (Corset-factory sounds odd, by
the way, doesn't it? One had fancied that the corset was a personal, a
highly specialized garment, more or less shaped on the form it was to
modify; but, after all, the Tanagras were all made from two or
three moulds - and so, I suppose, are the ladies who wear the Mystic

The uncle had a son, and Neave had never dreamed of seeing a penny of
the money; but the son died suddenly, and the father followed, leaving
a codicil that gave everything to our friend. Humphrey had to go out to
"realize" on the corset-factory; and his description of _that_ ... Well,
he came back with his money in his pocket, and the day he landed old
Daunt went to smash. It all fitted in like a Chinese puzzle. I believe
Neave drove straight from Euston to Daunt House: at any rate, within two
months the collection was his, and at a price that made the trade sit
up. Trust old Daunt for that!

I was in Rome the following spring, and you'd better believe I looked
him up. A big porter glared at me from the door of the Palazzo Neave:
I had almost to produce my passport to get in. But that wasn't Neave's
fault - the poor fellow was so beset by people clamouring to see his
collection that he had to barricade himself, literally. When I had
mounted the state _Scalone_, and come on him, at the end of half a dozen
echoing saloons, in the farthest, smallest _reduit_ of the vast suite, I
received the same welcome that he used to give us in his little den over
the wine shop.

"Well - so you've got her?" I said. For I'd caught sight of the Diana
in passing, against the bluish blur of an old _verdure_ - just the
background for her poised loveliness. Only I rather wondered why she
wasn't in the room where he sat.

He smiled. "Yes, I've got her," he returned, more calmly than I had

"And all the rest of the loot?"

"Yes. I had to buy the lump."

"Had to? But you wanted to, didn't you? You used to say it was your
idea of heaven - to stretch out your hand and have a great ripe sphere of
beauty drop into it. I'm quoting your own words, by the way."

Neave blinked and stroked his seedy moustache. "Oh, yes. I remember the
phrase. It's true - it _is_ the last luxury." He paused, as if seeking a
pretext for his lack of warmth. "The thing that bothered me was having
to move. I couldn't cram all the stuff into my old quarters."

"Well, I should say not! This is rather a better setting."

He got up. "Come and take a look round. I want to show you two or three
things - new attributions I've made. I'm doing the catalogue over."

The interest of showing me the things seemed to dispel the vague apathy
I had felt in him. He grew keen again in detailing his redistribution of
values, and above all in convicting old Daunt and his advisers of their
repeated aberrations of judgment. "The miracle is that he should have
got such things, knowing as little as he did what he was getting. And
the egregious asses who bought for him were no better, were worse in
fact, since they had all sorts of humbugging wrong reasons for admiring
what old Daunt simply coveted because it belonged to some other rich

Never had Neave had so wondrous a field for the exercise of his
perfected faculty; and I saw then how in the real, the great collector's
appreciations the keenest scientific perception is suffused with
imaginative sensibility, and how it's to the latter undefinable quality
that in the last resort he trusts himself.

Nevertheless, I still felt the shadow of that hovering apathy, and he
knew I felt it, and was always breaking off to give me reasons for it.
For one thing, he wasn't used to his new quarters - hated their bigness
and formality; then the requests to show his things drove him mad. "The
women - oh, the women!" he wailed, and interrupted himself to describe
a heavy-footed German Princess who had marched past his treasures as
if she were inspecting a cavalry regiment, applying an unmodulated
_Mugneeficent_ to everything from the engraved gems to the Hercules

"Not that she was half as bad as the other kind," he added, as if with
a last effort at optimism. "The kind who discriminate and say: 'I'm not
sure if it's Botticelli or Cellini I mean, but _one of that school_, at
any rate.' And the worst of all are the ones who know - up to a certain
point: have the schools, and the dates and the jargon pat, and yet
wouldn't know a Phidias if it stood where they hadn't expected it."

He had all my sympathy, poor Neave; yet these were trials inseparable
from the collector's lot, and not always without their secret
compensations. Certainly they did not wholly explain my friend's
attitude; and for a moment I wondered if it were due to some strange
disillusionment as to the quality of his treasures. But no! the Daunt
collection was almost above criticism; and as we passed from one object
to another I saw there was no mistaking the genuineness of Neave's pride
in his possessions. The ripe sphere of beauty was his, and he had found
no flaw in it as yet...

A year later came the amazing announcement - the Daunt collection was for
sale. At first we all supposed it was a case of weeding out (though how
old Daunt would have raged at the thought of anybody's weeding _his_
collection!) But no - the catalogue corrected that idea. Every stick and
stone was to go under the hammer. The news ran like wildfire from Rome
to Berlin, from Paris to London and New York. Was Neave ruined, then?
Wrong again - the dealers nosed that out in no time. He was simply
selling because he chose to sell; and in due time the things came up at

But you may be sure the trade had found an answer to the riddle; and
the answer was that, on close inspection, Neave had found the collection
less impeccable than he had supposed. It was a preposterous answer - but
then there was no other. Neave, by this time, was pretty generally
recognized as having the subtlest _flair_ of any collector in Europe,
and if he didn't choose to keep the Daunt collection it could be only
because he had reason to think he could do better.

In a flash this report had gone the rounds and the buyers were on their
guard. I had run over to London to see the thing through, and it was the
queerest sale I ever was at. Some of the things held their own, but a
lot - and a few of the best among them - went for half their value. You
see, they'd been locked up in old Daunt's house for nearly twenty years,
and hardly shown to any one, so that the whole younger generation of
dealers and collectors knew of them only by hearsay. Then you know
the effect of suggestion in such cases. The undefinable sense we were
speaking of is a ticklish instrument, easily thrown out of gear by
a sudden fall of temperature; and the sharpest experts grow shy and
self-distrustful when the cold current of depreciation touches them. The
sale was a slaughter - and when I saw the Daunt Diana fall at the wink of
a little third-rate _brocanteur_ from Vienna I turned sick at the folly
of my kind.

For my part, I had never believed that Neave had sold the collection
because he'd "found it out"; and within a year my incredulity was
justified. As soon as the things were put in circulation they were known
for the marvels they are. There was hardly a poor bit in the lot; and
my wonder grew at Neave's madness. All over Europe, dealers began to be
fighting for the spoils; and all kinds of stuff were palmed off on the
unsuspecting as fragments of the Daunt collection!

Meanwhile, what was Neave doing? For a long time I didn't hear, and
chance kept me from returning to Rome. But one day, in Paris, I ran
across a dealer who had captured for a song one of the best Florentine
bronzes in the Daunt collection - a marvellous _plaquette_ of
Donatello's. I asked him what had become of it, and he said with a grin:
"I sold it the other day," naming a price that staggered me.

"Ye gods! Who paid you that for it?"

His grin broadened, and he answered: "Neave."

"_ Neave?_ Humphrey Neave?"

"Didn't you know he was buying back his things?"


"He is, though. Not in his own name - but he's doing it."

And he _was_, do you know - and at prices that would have made a sane man
shudder! A few weeks later I ran across his tracks in London, where he
was trying to get hold of a Penicaud enamel - another of his scattered
treasures. Then I hunted him down at his hotel, and had it out with him.

"Look here, Neave, what are you up to?"

He wouldn't tell me at first: stared and laughed and denied. But I
took him off to dine, and after dinner, while we smoked, I happened
to mention casually that I had a pull over the man who had the
Penicaud - and at that he broke down and confessed.

"Yes, I'm buying them back, Finney - it's true." He laughed nervously,
twitching his moustache. And then he let me have the story.

"You know how I'd hungered and thirsted for the _real thing_ - you quoted
my own phrase to me once, about the 'ripe sphere of beauty.' So when I
got my money, and Daunt lost his, almost at the same moment, I saw the
hand of Providence in it. I knew that, even if I'd been younger, and had
more time, I could never hope, nowadays, to form such a collection as
_that_. There was the ripe sphere, within reach; and I took it. But when
I got it, and began to live with it, I found out my mistake. It was a
_mariage de convenance_ - there'd been no wooing, no winning. Each of
my little old bits - the rubbish I chucked out to make room for Daunt's
glories - had its own personal history, the drama of my relation to it,
of the discovery, the struggle, the capture, the first divine moment
of possession. There was a romantic secret between us. And then I
had absorbed its beauties one by one, they had become a part of
my imagination, they held me by a hundred threads of far-reaching
association. And suddenly I had expected to create this kind of
intense personal tie between myself and a roomful of new cold alien
presences - things staring at me vacantly from the depths of unknown
pasts! Can you fancy a more preposterous hope? Why, my other things, my
_own_ things, had wooed me as passionately as I wooed them: there was a
certain little bronze, a little Venus Callipyge, who had drawn me,
drawn me, drawn me, imploring me to rescue her from her unspeakable
surroundings in a vulgar bric-a-brac shop at Biarritz, where she shrank
out of sight among sham Sevres and Dutch silver, as one has seen
certain women - rare, shy, exquisite - made almost invisible by the vulgar
splendours surrounding them. Well! that little Venus, who was just
a specious seventeenth century attempt at the 'antique,' but who had
penetrated me with her pleading grace, touched me by the easily
guessed story of her obscure, anonymous origin, was more to me
imaginatively - yes! more than the cold bought beauty of the Daunt

"The Daunt Diana!" I broke in. "Hold up, Neave - _the Daunt Diana?_"

He smiled contemptuously. "A professional beauty, my dear
fellow - expected every head to be turned when she came into a room."

"Oh, Neave," I groaned.

"Yes, I know. You're thinking of what we felt that day we first saw her
in London. Many a poor devil has sold his soul as the result of such
a first sight! Well, I sold _her_ instead. Do you want the truth about
her? _Elle etait bete a pleurer._"

He laughed, and stood up with a little shrug of disenchantment.

"And so you're impenitent?" I paused. "And yet you're buying some of the
things back?"

Neave laughed again, ironically. "I knew you'd find me out and call
me to account. Well, yes: I'm buying back." He stood before me half
sheepish, half defiant. "I'm buying back because there's nothing else
as good in the market. And because I've a queer feeling that, this time,
they'll be _mine_. But I'm ruining myself at the game!" he confessed.

It was true: Neave was ruining himself. And he's gone on ruining himself
ever since, till now the job's nearly done. Bit by bit, year by year,
he has gathered in his scattered treasures, at higher prices than the
dealers ever dreamed of getting. There are fabulous details in the story
of his quest. Now and then I ran across him, and was able to help him
recover a fragment; and it was wonderful to see his delight in the
moment of reunion. Finally, about two years ago, we met in Paris, and he
told me he had got back all the important pieces except the Diana.

"The Diana? But you told me you didn't care for her."

"Didn't care?" He leaned across the restaurant table that divided us.
"Well, no, in a sense I didn't. I wanted her to want me, you see; and
she didn't then! Whereas now she's crying to me to come to her. You know
where she is?" he broke off.

Yes, I knew: in the centre of Mrs. Willy P. Goldmark's yellow and gold
drawing-room, under a thousand-candle-power chandelier, with reflectors
aimed at her from every point of the compass. I had seen her wincing and
shivering there in her outraged nudity at one of the Goldmark "crushes."

"But you can't get her, Neave," I objected.

"No, I can't get her," he said.

Well, last month I was in Rome, for the first time in six or seven
years, and of course I looked about for Neave. The Palazzo Neave was let
to some rich Russians, and the splendid new porter didn't know where the
proprietor lived. But I got on his trail easily enough, and it led me to

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 6 of 22)