Vernon Lee.

Vanitas; polite stories, including the hitherto unpublished story entitled a frivolous conversion online

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E-text prepared by Delphine Lettau and the Online Distributed Proofreading
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The Crown Copyright Series


Polite Stories



Author of "Hauntings," Etc.

William Heinemann

[All rights reserved]




We had a conversation once, walking on your terrace, with the
wind-rippled olives above and the quietly nodding cypress tufts
below - about such writings as you chose to compare with carved
cherry-stones. We disagreed, for it seemed to me that the world
needed cherry-stone necklaces as much as anything else; and that
the only pity was that most of its inhabitants could not afford
such toys, and the rest despised them because they were made of
such very cheap material. Still, lest you should wonder at my
sending such things to you, I write to declare that my three
little tales, whatever they be, are not carved cherry-stones.

For round these sketches of frivolous women, there have gathered
some of the least frivolous thoughts, heaven knows, that have ever
come into my head; or rather, such thoughts have condensed and
taken body in these stories. Indeed, how can one look from outside
on the great waste of precious things, delicate discernment,
quick feeling and sometimes stoical fortitude, involved in
frivolous life, without a sense of sadness and indignation? Or what
satisfaction could its portrayal afford, save for the chance that
such pictures might mirror some astonished and abashed creature;
or show to men and women who toil and think that idleness, and
callousness, and much that must seem to them sheer wickedness, is
less a fault than a misfortune. For surely it is a misfortune not
merely to waste the nobler qualities one has, but to have little
inkling of the sense of brotherhood and duty which changes one,
from a blind dweller in caves, to an inmate of the real world of
storms and sunshine and serene night and exhilarating morning.
And, if miracles were still wrought nowadays, as in those times
when great sinners (as in Calderon's play) were warned by plucking
the hood off their own dead face, there would have been no waste
of the supernatural in teaching my Madame Krasinska that poor
crazy paupers and herself were after all exchangeable quantities.

Of my three frivolous women, another performed the miracle
herself, and abandoned freely the service of the great Goddess
Vanitas. While the third ... and there is the utter pity of the
thing, that frivolous living means not merely waste, but in many
cases martyrdom.

That fact, though it had come more than once before my eyes, would
perhaps never have been clear to my mind, but for our long talks
together about what people are and might be. A certain indignation
verging on hatred might have made these stories of mine utterly
false and useless, but for the love of all creatures who may
suffer with which you lit up the subject. And for this reason the
proof sheets of my little book must go first to that old bishop's
villa on the lowest Apennine spur, where the chestnuts are
dropping, with a sound of rustling silk, on to the sere leaves
below, and the autumn rain storms are rushing by, veiling the
plain with inky crape, blotting out that distant white shimmer,
which, in the sunlight, was Florence a moment ago.
CHELSEA, _October_, 1891.






The church of the Salute, with its cupolas and volutes, stared in at
the long windows, white, luminous, spectral. A white carpet of moonlight
stretched to where they were sitting, with only one lamp lit, for fear
of mosquitoes. All the remoter parts of the vast drawing-room were deep
in gloom; you were somehow conscious of the paintings and stuccos of
the walls and vaulted ceilings without seeing them. From the canal rose
plash of oar, gondolier's cry, and distant guitar twang and quaver
of song; and from the balconies came a murmur of voices and women's
laughter. The heavy scent of some flower, vague, white, southern,
mingled with the cigarette smoke in that hot evening air, which seemed,
by contrast to the Venetian day, almost cool.

As Jervase Marion lolled back (that lolling of his always struck one
as out of keeping with his well-adjusted speech, his precise mind, the
something conventional about him) on the ottoman in the shadow, he was
conscious of a queer feeling, as if, instead of having arrived from
London only two hours ago, he had never ceased to be here at Venice,
and under Miss Vanderwerf's hospitable stuccoed roof. All those years
of work, of success, of experience (or was it not rather of study?)
of others, bringing with them a certain heaviness, baldness, and
scepticism, had become almost a dream, and this present moment and the
similar moment twelve years ago remaining as the only reality. Except
his hostess, whose round, unchangeable face, the face of a world-wise,
kind but somewhat frivolous baby, was lit up faintly by the regular
puffs of her cigarette, all the people in the room were strangers to
Marion: yet he knew them so well, he had known them so long.

There was the old peeress, her head tied up in a white pocket-handkerchief,
and lolling from side to side with narcoticised benevolence, who, as it
was getting on towards other people's bedtime, was gradually beginning
to wake up from the day's slumber, and to murmur eighteenth-century
witticisms and Blessingtonian anecdotes. There was the American
Senator, seated with postage-stamp profile and the attitude of a bronze
statesman, against the moonlight, one hand in his waistcoat, the other
incessantly raised to his ear as in a stately "Beg pardon?" There
was the depressed Venetian naval officer who always made the little
joke about not being ill when offered tea; the Roumanian Princess who
cultivated the reputation of saying spiteful things cleverly, and wore
all her pearls for fear of their tarnishing; the English cosmopolitan
who was one day on the Bosphorus and the next in Bond Street, and
was wise about singing and acting; the well turned out, subdued,
Parisian-American æsthete talking with an English accent about modern
pictures and ladies' dresses; and the awkward, enthusiastic English
æsthete, who considered Ruskin a ranter and creaked over the marble
floors with dusty, seven-mile boots. There was a solitary spinster fresh
from higher efforts of some sort, unconscious that no one in Venice
appreciated her classic profile, and that everyone in Venice stared at
her mediæval dress and collar of coins from the British Museum. There
was the usual bevy of tight-waisted Anglo-Italian girls ready to play
the guitar and sing, and the usual supply of shy, young artists from the
three-franc pensions, wandering round the room, candle in hand, with
the niece of the house, looking with shy intentness at every picture
and sketch and bronze statuette and china bowl and lacquer box.

The smoke of the cigarettes mingled with the heavy scent of the flowers;
the plash of oar and snatch of song rose from the canal; the murmur
and laughter entered from the balcony. The old peeress lolled out her
Blessingtonian anecdotes; the Senator raised his hand to his ear and
said "Beg pardon?" the Roumanian Princess laughed shrilly at her own
malignant sayings; the hostess's face was periodically illumined by her
cigarette and the hostess's voice periodically burst into a childlike:
"Why, you don't mean it!" The young men and women flirted in undertones
about Symonds, Whistler, Tolstoy, and the way of rowing gondolas, with
an occasional chord struck on the piano, an occasional string twanged on
the guitar. The Salute, with its cupolas and volutes, loomed spectral in
at the windows; the moonlight spread in a soft, shining carpet to their

Jervase Marion knew it all so well, so well, this half-fashionable,
half-artistic Anglo-American idleness of Venice, with its poetic setting
and its prosaic reality. He would have known it, he felt, intimately,
even if he had never seen it before; known it so as to be able to make
each of these people say in print what they did really say. There is
something in being a psychological novelist, and something in being a
cosmopolitan American, something in being an inmate of the world of
Henry James and a kind of Henry James, of a lesser magnitude, yourself:
one has the pleasure of understanding so much, one loses the pleasure
of misunderstanding so much more.

A singing boat came under the windows of Palazzo Bragadin, and as much
of the company as could, squeezed on to the cushioned gothic balconies,
much to the annoyance of such as were flirting outside, and to the
satisfaction of such as were flirting within. Marion - who, much to poor
Miss Vanderwerf's disgust, had asked to be introduced to no one as yet,
but to be allowed to realise that evening, as he daintily put it, that
Venice was the same and he a good bit changed - Marion leaned upon the
parapet of a comparatively empty balcony and looked down at the canal.
The moonbeams were weaving a strange, intricate pattern, like some
old Persian tissue, in the dark water; further off the yellow and red
lanterns of the singing boat were surrounded by black gondolas, each
with its crimson, unsteady prow-light; and beyond, mysterious in the
moonlight, rose the tower and cupola of St. George, the rigging of
ships, and stretched a shimmering band of lagoon.

He had come to give himself a complete holiday here, after the grind of
furnishing a three-volume novel for Blackwood (Why did he write so much?
he asked himself; he had enough of his own, and to spare, for a dainty
but frugal bachelor); and already vague notions of new stories began
to arrive in his mind. He determined to make a note of them and dismiss
them for the time. He had determined to be idle; and he was a very
methodical man, valuing above everything (even above his consciousness
of being a man of the world) his steady health, steady, slightly depressed
spirits, and steady, monotonous, but not unmanly nor unenjoyable routine
of existence.

Jervase Marion was thinking of this, and the necessity of giving himself
a complete rest, not letting himself be dragged off into new studies of
mankind and womankind; and listening, at the same time, half-unconsciously,
to the scraps of conversation which came from the other little
balconies, where a lot of heads were grouped, dark in the moonlight.

"I do hope it will turn out well - at least not too utterly awful," said
the languid voice of a young English manufacturer's heir, reported to
live exclusively off bread and butter and sardines, and to have no
further desires in the world save those of the amiable people who
condescended to shoot on his moors, yacht in his yachts, and generally
devour his millions, "it's ever so long since I've been wanting a
sideboard. It's rather hard lines for a poor fellow to be unable to
find a sideboard ready made, isn't it? And I have my doubts about it
even now."

There was a faint sarcastic tinge in the languid voice; the eater of
bread and butter occasionally felt vague amusement at his own ineptness.

"Nonsense, my dear boy," answered the cosmopolitan, who knew all about
acting and singing; "it's sure to be beautiful. Only you must _not_ let
them put on that rococo cornice, quite out of character, my dear boy."

"A real rococo cornice is a precious lot better, I guess, than a beastly
imitation Renaissance frieze cut with an oyster knife," put in a gruff
New York voice. "That's my view, leastways."

"I think Mr. Clarence had best have it made in slices, and each
of you gentlemen design him a slice - that's what's called original
nowadays - _c'est notre façon d'entendre l'art aujourd'hui_," said the
Roumanian Princess.

A little feeble laugh proceeded from Mr. Clarence. "Oh," he said, "I
shouldn't mind that at all. I'm not afraid of my friends. I'm afraid of
myself, of my fickleness and weak-mindedness. At this rate I shall never
have a sideboard at all, I fear."

"There's a very good one, with three drawers and knobs, and a ticket
'garantito vero noce a lire 45,' in a joiner's shop at San Vio, which I
pass every morning. You'd much better have that, Mr. Clarence. And it
would be a new departure in art and taste, you know."

The voice was a woman's; a little masculine, and the more so for a
certain falsetto pitch. It struck Marion by its resolution, a sort
of highbred bullying and a little hardness about it.

"Come, don't be cruel to poor Clarence, Tal darling," cried Miss
Vanderwerf, with her kind, infantine laugh.

"Why, what have I been saying, my dear thing?" asked the voice, with
mock humility; "I only want to help the poor man in his difficulties."

"By the way, Lady Tal, will you allow me to take you to Rietti's one
day?" added an æsthetic young American, with a shadowy Boston accent;
"he has some things you ought really to see, some quite good tapestries,
a capital Gubbio vase. And he has a carved nigger really by Brustolon,
which you ought to get for your red room at Rome. He'd look superb. The
head's restored and one of the legs, so Rietti'd let him go for very
little. He really is an awfully jolly bit of carving - and in that red
room of yours - - "

"Thanks, Julian. I don't think I seem to care much about him. The fact
is, I have to see such a lot of ugly white men in my drawing-room, I
feel I really couldn't stand an ugly black one into the bargain."

Here Miss Vanderwerf, despite her solemn promise, insisted on
introducing Jervase Marion to a lady of high literary tastes, who
proceeded forthwith to congratulate him as the author of a novel by
Randolph Tomkins, whom he abominated most of all living writers.

Presently there was a stir in the company, those of the balcony came
trooping into the drawing-room, four or five young men and girls,
surrounding a tall woman in a black walking-dress; people dropped in to
these open evenings of Mrs. Vanderwerf's from their row on the lagoon or
stroll at St. Mark's.

Miss Vanderwerf jumped up.

"You aren't surely going yet, dearest?" she cried effusively. "My
darling child, it isn't half-past ten yet."

"I must go; poor Gerty's in bed with a cold, and I must go and look
after her."

"Bother Gerty!" ejaculated one of the well turned out æsthetic young

The tall young woman gave him what Marion noted as a shutting-up look.

"Learn to respect my belongings," she answered, "I must really go back
to my cousin."

Jervase Marion had immediately identified her as the owner of that
rather masculine voice with the falsetto tone; and apart from the voice,
he would have identified her as the lady who had bullied the poor young
man in distress about his sideboard. She was very tall, straight, and
strongly built, the sort of woman whom you instinctively think of as
dazzlingly fine in a ball frock; but at the same time active and
stalwart, suggestive of long rides and drives and walks. She had
handsome aquiline features, just a trifle wooden in their statuesque
fineness, abundant fair hair, and a complexion, pure pink and white,
which told of superb health. Marion knew the type well. It was one
which, despite all the years he had lived in England, made him feel
American, impressing him as something almost exotic. This great
strength, size, cleanness of outline and complexion, this look of
carefully selected breed, of carefully fostered health, was to him
the perfect flower of the aristocratic civilization of England. There
were more beautiful types, certainly, and, intellectually, higher
ones (his experience was that such women were shrewd, practical, and
quite deficient in soul), but there was no type more well-defined and
striking, in his eyes. This woman did not seem an individual at all.

"I must go," insisted the tall lady, despite the prayers of her hostess
and the assembled guests. "I really can't leave that poor creature alone
a minute longer."

"Order the gondola, Kennedy; call Titta, please," cried Miss Vanderwerf
to one of the many youths whom the kindly old maid ordered about with
motherly familiarity.

"Mayn't I have the honour of offering mine?" piped the young man.

"Thanks, it isn't worth while. I shall walk." Here came a chorus
of protestations, following the tall young woman into the outer
drawing-room, through the hall, to the head of the great flight of
open-air stairs.

Marion had mechanically followed the noisy, squabbling, laughing crew.
The departure of this lady suggested to him that he would slip away to
his inn.

"Do let me have the pleasure of accompanying you," cried one young man
after another.

"_Do_ take Clarence or Kennedy or Piccinillo, darling," implored Mrs.
Vanderwerf. "You can't really walk home alone."

"It's not three steps from here," answered the tall one. "And I'm sure
it's much more proper for a matron of ever so many years standing to go
home alone than accompanied by a lot of fascinating young creatures."

"But, dear, you really don't know Venice; suppose you were spoken to!
Just think."

"Well, beloved friend, I know enough Italian to be able to answer."

The tall lady raised one beautifully pencilled eyebrow, slightly, with a
contemptuous little look. "Besides, I'm big enough to defend myself, and
see, here's an umbrella with a silver knob, or what passes for such in
these degenerate days. Nobody will come near that."

And she took the weapon from a rack in the hall, where the big
seventeenth-century lamp flickered on the portraits of doges in crimson
and senators in ermine.

"As you like, dearest. I know that wilful must have her own way," sighed
Miss Vanderwerf, rising on tiptoe and kissing her on both cheeks.

"Mayn't I really accompany you?" repeated the various young men.

She shook her head, with the tall, pointed hat on it.

"No, you mayn't; good-night, dear friends," and she brandished her
umbrella over her head and descended the stairs, which went sheer down
into the moonlit yard. The young men bowed. One, with the air of a
devotee in St. Mark's, kissed her hand at the bottom of the flight
of steps, while the gondolier unlocked the gate. They could see him
standing in the moonlight and hear him say earnestly:

"I leave for Paris to-morrow; good-night."

She did not answer him, but making a gesture with her umbrella to those
above, she cried: "Good-night."

"Good-night," answered the chorus above the stairs, watching the tall
figure pass beneath the gate and into the moonlit square.

"Well now," said Miss Vanderwerf, settling herself on her ottoman again,
and fanning herself after her exertions in the drawing-room, "there is
no denying that she's a strange creature, dear thing."

"A fine figure-head cut out of oak, with a good, solid, wooden heart,"
said the Roumanian Princess.

"No, no," exclaimed the lady of the house. "She's just as good as
gold, - poor Lady Tal!"


"Tal?" asked Marion.

"Tal. Her name's Atalanta, Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw - but everyone calls
her Tal - Lady Tal. She's the daughter of Lord Ossian, you know."

"And who is or was Walkenshaw? - is, I presume, otherwise she'd have
married somebody else by this time."

"Poor Tal!" mused Miss Vanderwerf. "I'm sure she would have no
difficulty in finding another husband to make up for that fearful old
Walkenshaw creature. But she's in a very sad position for so young a
creature, poor girl."

"Ah!" ejaculated Marion, familiar with ladies thus to be commiserated,
and remembering his friend's passion for romance, unquenchable by many
seriocomic disenchantments, "separated from her husband - that sort of
thing! I thought so."

"Now, why did you think that, you horrid creature?" asked his hostess
eagerly. "Well, now, there's no saying that you're not _real_
psychological, Jervase. Now _do_ tell what made you think of such a

"I don't know, I'm sure," answered Marion, suppressing a yawn. He hated
people who pried into his novelist consciousness, all the more so that
he couldn't in the least explain its contents. "Something about her - or
nothing about her - a mere guess, a stupid random shot that happens to
have hit right."

"Why, that's just the thing, that you haven't hit quite right. That is,
it's right in one way, and wrong in another. Oh, my! how difficult it is
just to explain, when one isn't a clever creature like you? Well, Lady
Tal isn't separated from her husband, but it's just the same as if she
were - - "

"I see. Mad? Poor thing!" exclaimed Marion with that air of concern
which always left you in doubt whether it was utterly conventional, or
might not contain a grain of sympathy after all.

"No, he's not mad. He's dead - been dead ever so long. She's one and
thirty, you know - doesn't look it, does she? - and was married at
eighteen. But she can't marry again, for all that, because if she
marries all his money goes elsewhere, and she's not a penny to bless
herself with."

"Ah - and why didn't she have proper settlements made?" asked Marion.

"That's just it. Because old Walkenshaw, who was a beast - just a
beast - had a prejudice against settlements, and said he'd do much better
for his wife than that - leave her everything, if only they didn't plague
him. And then, when the old wretch died, after they'd been married a
year or so, it turned out that he had left her everything, but only on
condition of her not marrying again. If she did, it would all go to the
next of kin. He hated the next of kin, too, they say, and wanted to keep
the money away from him as long as possible, horrid old wretch! So there
poor Tal is a widow, but unable to marry again."

"Dear me!" ejaculated Marion, looking at the patterns which the
moonlight, falling between the gothic balcony balustrade, was making on
the shining marble floor; and reflecting upon the neat way in which the
late Walkenshaw had repaid his wife for marrying him for his money; for
of course she had married him for his money. Marion was not a stoic, or
a cynic, or a philosopher of any kind. He fully accepted the fact that
the daughters of Scotch lords should marry for money, he even hated
all sorts of sentimental twaddle about human dignity. But he rather
sympathised with this old Walkenshaw, whoever Walkenshaw might have
been, who had just served a mercenary young lady as was right.

"I don't see that it's so hard, aunt," said Miss Vanderwerf's niece, who
was deeply in love with Bill Nettle, a penniless etcher. "Lady Tal might
marry again if she'd learn to do without all that money."

"If she would be satisfied with only a little less," interrupted the
sharp-featured Parisian-American whom Mrs. Vanderwerf wanted for a
nephew-in-law. "Why, there are dozens of men with plenty of money who
have been wanting to marry her. There was Sir Titus Farrinder, only last
year. He mayn't have had as much as old Walkenshaw, but he had a jolly
bit of money, certainly."

"Besides, after all," put in the millionaire in distraction about the
sideboard, "why should Lady Tal want to marry again? She's got a lovely
house at Rome."

"Oh, come, come, Clarence!" interrupted Kennedy horrified; "why, it's
nothing but Japanese leather paper and Chinese fans."

"I don't know," said Clarence, crestfallen. "Perhaps it isn't lovely. I
thought it _rather_ pretty - don't you really think it _rather_ nice,
Miss Vanderwerf?"

"Any house would be nice enough with such a splendid creature inside
it," put in Marion. These sort of conversations always interested him;
it was the best way of studying human nature.

"Besides," remarked the Roumanian Princess, "Lady Tal may have had
enough of the married state. And why indeed should a beautiful creature
like that get married? She's got every one at her feet. It's much more
amusing like that - - "

"Well, all the same, I _do_ think it's just terribly sad, to see a
creature like that condemned to lead such a life, without anyone to
care for or protect her, now poor Gerald Burne's dead."

"Oh, her brother - her brother - do you suppose she cared for _him_?"
asked the niece, pouring out the iced lemonade and Cyprus wine. She
always rebelled against her aunt's romanticalness.

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Online LibraryVernon LeeVanitas; polite stories, including the hitherto unpublished story entitled a frivolous conversion → online text (page 1 of 14)