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He said I was trying to get credit for a kind heart which I didn't
possess; and perhaps this was so. But at the private view of the New
English Art Club, a few weeks later, I beheld a pastel portrait of
"Enoch Soames, Esq." It was very like him, and very like Rothenstein
to have done it. Soames was standing near it, in his soft hat and his
waterproof cape, all through the afternoon. Anybody who knew him would
have recognized the portrait at a glance, but nobody who didn't know
him would have recognized the portrait from its bystander: it "existed"
so much more than he; it was bound to. Also, it had not that
expression of faint happiness which on that day was discernible, yes,
in Soames's countenance. Fame had breathed on him. Twice again in the
course of the month I went to the New English, and on both occasions
Soames himself was on view there. Looking back, I regard the close of
that exhibition as having been virtually the close of his career. He
had felt the breath of Fame against his cheek - so late, for such a
little while; and at its withdrawal he gave in, gave up, gave out. He,
who had never looked strong or well, looked ghastly now - a shadow of
the shade he had once been. He still frequented the domino-room, but
having lost all wish to excite curiosity, he no longer read books
there. "You read only at the museum now?" I asked, with attempted
cheerfulness. He said he never went there now. "No absinthe there,"
he muttered. It was the sort of thing that in old days he would have
said for effect; but it carried conviction now. Absinthe, erst but a
point in the "personality" he had striven so hard to build up, was
solace and necessity now. He no longer called it "la sorciere
glauque." He had shed away all his French phrases. He had become a
plain, unvarnished Preston man.

Failure, if it be a plain, unvarnished, complete failure, and even
though it be a squalid failure, has always a certain dignity. I
avoided Soames because he made me feel rather vulgar. John Lane had
published, by this time, two little books of mine, and they had had a
pleasant little success of esteem. I was a - slight, but
definite - "personality." Frank Harris had engaged me to kick up my
heels in "The Saturday Review," Alfred Harmsworth was letting me do
likewise in "The Daily Mail." I was just what Soames wasn't. And he
shamed my gloss. Had I known that he really and firmly believed in the
greatness of what he as an artist had achieved, I might not have
shunned him. No man who hasn't lost his vanity can be held to have
altogether failed. Soames's dignity was an illusion of mine. One day,
in the first week of June, 1897, that illusion went. But on the
evening of that day Soames went, too.

I had been out most of the morning and, as it was too late to reach
home in time for luncheon, I sought the Vingtieme. This little
place - Restaurant du Vingtieme Siecle, to give it its full title - had
been discovered in '96 by the poets and prosaists, but had now been
more or less abandoned in favor of some later find. I don't think it
lived long enough to justify its name; but at that time there it still
was, in Greek Street, a few doors from Soho Square, and almost opposite
to that house where, in the first years of the century, a little girl,
and with her a boy named De Quincey, made nightly encampment in
darkness and hunger among dust and rats and old legal parchments. The
Vingtieme was but a small whitewashed room, leading out into the street
at one end and into a kitchen at the other. The proprietor and cook
was a Frenchman, known to us as Monsieur Vingtieme; the waiters were
his two daughters, Rose and Berthe; and the food, according to faith,
was good. The tables were so narrow and were set so close together
that there was space for twelve of them, six jutting from each wall.

Only the two nearest to the door, as I went in, were occupied. On one
side sat a tall, flashy, rather Mephistophelian man whom I had seen
from time to time in the domino-room and elsewhere. On the other side
sat Soames. They made a queer contrast in that sunlit room, Soames
sitting haggard in that hat and cape, which nowhere at any season had I
seen him doff, and this other, this keenly vital man, at sight of whom
I more than ever wondered whether he were a diamond merchant, a
conjurer, or the head of a private detective agency. I was sure Soames
didn't want my company; but I asked, as it would have seemed brutal not
to, whether I might join him, and took the chair opposite to his. He
was smoking a cigarette, with an untasted salmi of something on his
plate and a half-empty bottle of Sauterne before him, and he was quite
silent. I said that the preparations for the Jubilee made London
impossible. (I rather liked them, really.) I professed a wish to go
right away till the whole thing was over. In vain did I attune myself
to his gloom. He seemed not to hear me or even to see me. I felt that
his behavior made me ridiculous in the eyes of the other man. The
gangway between the two rows of tables at the Vingtieme was hardly more
than two feet wide (Rose and Berthe, in their ministrations, had always
to edge past each other, quarreling in whispers as they did so), and
any one at the table abreast of yours was virtually at yours. I
thought our neighbor was amused at my failure to interest Soames, and
so, as I could not explain to him that my insistence was merely
charitable, I became silent. Without turning my head, I had him well
within my range of vision. I hoped I looked less vulgar than he in
contrast with Soames. I was sure he was not an Englishman, but what
WAS his nationality? Though his jet-black hair was en brosse, I did
not think he was French. To Berthe, who waited on him, he spoke French
fluently, but with a hardly native idiom and accent. I gathered that
this was his first visit to the Vingtieme; but Berthe was offhand in
her manner to him: he had not made a good impression. His eyes were
handsome, but, like the Vingtieme's tables, too narrow and set too
close together. His nose was predatory, and the points of his
mustache, waxed up behind his nostrils, gave a fixity to his smile.
Decidedly, he was sinister. And my sense of discomfort in his presence
was intensified by the scarlet waistcoat which tightly, and so
unseasonably in June, sheathed his ample chest. This waistcoat wasn't
wrong merely because of the heat, either. It was somehow all wrong in
itself. It wouldn't have done on Christmas morning. It would have
struck a jarring note at the first night of "Hernani." I was trying to
account for its wrongness when Soames suddenly and strangely broke
silence. "A hundred years hence!" he murmured, as in a trance.

"We shall not be here," I briskly, but fatuously, added.

"We shall not be here. No," he droned, "but the museum will still be
just where it is. And the reading-room just where it is. And people
will be able to go and read there." He inhaled sharply, and a spasm as
of actual pain contorted his features.

I wondered what train of thought poor Soames had been following. He
did not enlighten me when he said, after a long pause, "You think I
haven't minded."

"Minded what, Soames?"

"Neglect. Failure."

"FAILURE?" I said heartily. "Failure?" I repeated vaguely.
"Neglect - yes, perhaps; but that's quite another matter. Of course you
haven't been - appreciated. But what, then? Any artist who - who
gives - " What I wanted to say was, "Any artist who gives truly new and
great things to the world has always to wait long for recognition"; but
the flattery would not out: in the face of his misery - a misery so
genuine and so unmasked - my lips would not say the words.

And then he said them for me. I flushed. "That's what you were going
to say, isn't it?" he asked.

"How did you know?"

"It's what you said to me three years ago, when 'Fungoids' was
published." I flushed the more. I need not have flushed at all.
"It's the only important thing I ever heard you say," he continued.
"And I've never forgotten it. It's a true thing. It's a horrible
truth. But - d'you remember what I answered? I said, 'I don't care a
sou for recognition.' And you believed me. You've gone on believing
I'm above that sort of thing. You're shallow. What should YOU know of
the feelings of a man like me? You imagine that a great artist's faith
in himself and in the verdict of posterity is enough to keep him happy.
You've never guessed at the bitterness and loneliness, the" - his voice
broke; but presently he resumed, speaking with a force that I had never
known in him. "Posterity! What use is it to ME? A dead man doesn't
know that people are visiting his grave, visiting his birthplace,
putting up tablets to him, unveiling statues of him. A dead man can't
read the books that are written about him. A hundred years hence!
Think of it! If I could come back to life THEN - just for a few
hours - and go to the reading-room and READ! Or, better still, if I
could be projected now, at this moment, into that future, into that
reading-room, just for this one afternoon! I'd sell myself body and
soul to the devil for that! Think of the pages and pages in the
catalogue: 'Soames, Enoch' endlessly - endless editions, commentaries,
prolegomena, biographies" - But here he was interrupted by a sudden
loud crack of the chair at the next table. Our neighbor had half risen
from his place. He was leaning toward us, apologetically intrusive.

"Excuse - permit me," he said softly. "I have been unable not to hear.
Might I take a liberty? In this little restaurant-sans-facon - might I,
as the phrase is, cut in?"

I could but signify our acquiescence. Berthe had appeared at the
kitchen door, thinking the stranger wanted his bill. He waved her away
with his cigar, and in another moment had seated himself beside me,
commanding a full view of Soames.

"Though not an Englishman," he explained, "I know my London well, Mr.
Soames. Your name and fame - Mr. Beerbohm's, too - very known to me.
Your point is, who am _I_?" He glanced quickly over his shoulder, and
in a lowered voice said, "I am the devil."

I couldn't help it; I laughed. I tried not to, I knew there was
nothing to laugh at, my rudeness shamed me; but - I laughed with
increasing volume. The devil's quiet dignity, the surprise and disgust
of his raised eyebrows, did but the more dissolve me. I rocked to and
fro; I lay back aching; I behaved deplorably.

"I am a gentleman, and," he said with intense emphasis, "I thought I
was in the company of GENTLEMEN."

"Don't!" I gasped faintly. "Oh, don't!"

"Curious, nicht wahr?" I heard him say to Soames. "There is a type of
person to whom the very mention of my name is - oh, so awfully - funny!
In your theaters the dullest comedien needs only to say 'The devil!'
and right away they give him 'the loud laugh what speaks the vacant
mind.' Is it not so?"

I had now just breath enough to offer my apologies. He accepted them,
but coldly, and re-addressed himself to Soames.

"I am a man of business," he said, "and always I would put things
through 'right now,' as they say in the States. You are a poet. Les
affaires - you detest them. So be it. But with me you will deal, eh?
What you have said just now gives me furiously to hope."

Soames had not moved except to light a fresh cigarette. He sat
crouched forward, with his elbows squared on the table, and his head
just above the level of his hands, staring up at the devil.

"Go on," he nodded. I had no remnant of laughter in me now.

"It will be the more pleasant, our little deal," the devil went on,
"because you are - I mistake not? - a diabolist."

"A Catholic diabolist," said Soames.

The devil accepted the reservation genially.

"You wish," he resumed, "to visit now - this afternoon as-ever-is - the
reading-room of the British Museum, yes? But of a hundred years hence,
yes? Parfaitement. Time - an illusion. Past and future - they are as
ever present as the present, or at any rate only what you call 'just
round the corner.' I switch you on to any date. I project you - pouf!
You wish to be in the reading-room just as it will be on the afternoon
of June 3, 1997? You wish to find yourself standing in that room, just
past the swing-doors, this very minute, yes? And to stay there till
closing-time? Am I right?"

Soames nodded.

The devil looked at his watch. "Ten past two," he said. "Closing-time
in summer same then as now - seven o'clock. That will give you almost
five hours. At seven o'clock - pouf! - you find yourself again here,
sitting at this table. I am dining to-night dans le monde - dans le
higlif. That concludes my present visit to your great city. I come
and fetch you here, Mr. Soames, on my way home."

"Home?" I echoed.

"Be it never so humble!" said the devil, lightly.

"All right," said Soames.

"Soames!" I entreated. But my friend moved not a muscle.

The devil had made as though to stretch forth his hand across the
table, but he paused in his gesture.

"A hundred years hence, as now," he smiled, "no smoking allowed in the
reading-room. You would better therefore - "

Soames removed the cigarette from his mouth and dropped it into his
glass of Sauterne.

"Soames!" again I cried. "Can't you" - but the devil had now stretched
forth his hand across the table. He brought it slowly down on the
table-cloth. Soames's chair was empty. His cigarette floated sodden
in his wine-glass. There was no other trace of him.

For a few moments the devil let his hand rest where it lay, gazing at
me out of the corners of his eyes, vulgarly triumphant.

A shudder shook me. With an effort I controlled myself and rose from
my chair. "Very clever," I said condescendingly. "But - 'The Time
Machine' is a delightful book, don't you think? So entirely original!"

"You are pleased to sneer," said the devil, who had also risen, "but it
is one thing to write about an impossible machine; it is a quite other
thing to be a supernatural power." All the same, I had scored.

Berthe had come forth at the sound of our rising. I explained to her
that Mr. Soames had been called away, and that both he and I would be
dining here. It was not until I was out in the open air that I began
to feel giddy. I have but the haziest recollection of what I did,
where I wandered, in the glaring sunshine of that endless afternoon. I
remember the sound of carpenters' hammers all along Piccadilly and the
bare chaotic look of the half-erected "stands." Was it in the Green
Park or in Kensington Gardens or WHERE was it that I sat on a chair
beneath a tree, trying to read an evening paper? There was a phrase in
the leading article that went on repeating itself in my fagged mind:
"Little is hidden from this August Lady full of the garnered wisdom of
sixty years of Sovereignty." I remember wildly conceiving a letter (to
reach Windsor by an express messenger told to await answer): "Madam:
Well knowing that your Majesty is full of the garnered wisdom of sixty
years of Sovereignty, I venture to ask your advice in the following
delicate matter. Mr. Enoch Soames, whose poems you may or may not
know - " Was there NO way of helping him, saving him? A bargain was a
bargain, and I was the last man to aid or abet any one in wriggling out
of a reasonable obligation. I wouldn't have lifted a little finger to
save Faust. But poor Soames! Doomed to pay without respite an eternal
price for nothing but a fruitless search and a bitter disillusioning.

Odd and uncanny it seemed to me that he, Soames, in the flesh, in the
waterproof cape, was at this moment living in the last decade of the
next century, poring over books not yet written, and seeing and seen by
men not yet born. Uncannier and odder still that to-night and evermore
he would be in hell. Assuredly, truth was stranger than fiction.

Endless that afternoon was. Almost I wished I had gone with Soames,
not, indeed, to stay in the reading-room, but to sally forth for a
brisk sight-seeing walk around a new London. I wandered restlessly out
of the park I had sat in. Vainly I tried to imagine myself an ardent
tourist from the eighteenth century. Intolerable was the strain of the
slow-passing and empty minutes. Long before seven o'clock I was back
at the Vingtieme.

I sat there just where I had sat for luncheon. Air came in listlessly
through the open door behind me. Now and again Rose or Berthe appeared
for a moment. I had told them I would not order any dinner till Mr.
Soames came. A hurdy-gurdy began to play, abruptly drowning the noise
of a quarrel between some Frenchmen farther up the street. Whenever
the tune was changed I heard the quarrel still raging. I had bought
another evening paper on my way. I unfolded it. My eyes gazed ever
away from it to the clock over the kitchen door.

Five minutes now to the hour! I remembered that clocks in restaurants
are kept five minutes fast. I concentrated my eyes on the paper. I
vowed I would not look away from it again. I held it upright, at its
full width, close to my face, so that I had no view of anything but it.
Rather a tremulous sheet? Only because of the draft, I told myself.

My arms gradually became stiff; they ached; but I could not drop
them - now. I had a suspicion, I had a certainty. Well, what, then?
What else had I come for? Yet I held tight that barrier of newspaper.
Only the sound of Berthe's brisk footstep from the kitchen enabled me,
forced me, to drop it, and to utter:

"What shall we have to eat, Soames?"

"Il est souffrant, ce pauvre Monsieur Soames?" asked Berthe.

"He's only - tired." I asked her to get some wine - Burgundy - and
whatever food might be ready. Soames sat crouched forward against the
table exactly as when last I had seen him. It was as though he had
never moved - he who had moved so unimaginably far. Once or twice in
the afternoon it had for an instant occurred to me that perhaps his
journey was not to be fruitless, that perhaps we had all been wrong in
our estimate of the works of Enoch Soames. That we had been horribly
right was horribly clear from the look of him. But, "Don't be
discouraged," I falteringly said. "Perhaps it's only that you - didn't
leave enough time. Two, three centuries hence, perhaps - "

"Yes," his voice came; "I've thought of that."

"And now - now for the more immediate future! Where are you going to
hide? How would it be if you caught the Paris express from Charing
Cross? Almost an hour to spare. Don't go on to Paris. Stop at
Calais. Live in Calais. He'd never think of looking for you in
Calais."

"It's like my luck," he said, "to spend my last hours on earth with an
ass." But I was not offended. "And a treacherous ass," he strangely
added, tossing across to me a crumpled bit of paper which he had been
holding in his hand. I glanced at the writing on it - some sort of
gibberish, apparently. I laid it impatiently aside.

"Come, Soames, pull yourself together! This isn't a mere matter of
life or death. It's a question of eternal torment, mind you! You
don't mean to say you're going to wait limply here till the devil comes
to fetch you."

"I can't do anything else. I've no choice."

"Come! This is 'trusting and encouraging' with a vengeance! This is
diabolism run mad!" I filled his glass with wine. "Surely, now that
you've SEEN the brute - "

"It's no good abusing him."

"You must admit there's nothing Miltonic about him, Soames."

"I don't say he's not rather different from what I expected."

"He's a vulgarian, he's a swell mobs-man, he's the sort of man who
hangs about the corridors of trains going to the Riviera and steals
ladies' jewel-cases. Imagine eternal torment presided over by HIM!"

"You don't suppose I look forward to it, do you?"

"Then why not slip quietly out of the way?"

Again and again I filled his glass, and always, mechanically, he
emptied it; but the wine kindled no spark of enterprise in him. He did
not eat, and I myself ate hardly at all. I did not in my heart believe
that any dash for freedom could save him. The chase would be swift,
the capture certain. But better anything than this passive, meek,
miserable waiting. I told Soames that for the honor of the human race
he ought to make some show of resistance. He asked what the human race
had ever done for him. "Besides," he said, "can't you understand that
I'm in his power? You saw him touch me, didn't you? There's an end of
it. I've no will. I'm sealed."

I made a gesture of despair. He went on repeating the word "sealed."
I began to realize that the wine had clouded his brain. No wonder!
Foodless he had gone into futurity, foodless he still was. I urged him
to eat, at any rate, some bread. It was maddening to think that he,
who had so much to tell, might tell nothing. "How was it all," I
asked, "yonder? Come, tell me your adventures!"

"They'd make first-rate 'copy,' wouldn't they?"

"I'm awfully sorry for you, Soames, and I make all possible allowances;
but what earthly right have you to insinuate that I should make 'copy,'
as you call it, out of you?"

The poor fellow pressed his hands to his forehead.

"I don't know," he said. "I had some reason, I know. I'll try to
remember. He sat plunged in thought.

"That's right. Try to remember everything. Eat a little more bread.
What did the reading-room look like?"

"Much as usual," he at length muttered.

"Many people there?"

"Usual sort of number."

"What did they look like?"

Soames tried to visualize them.

"They all," he presently remembered, "looked very like one another."

My mind took a fearsome leap.

"All dressed in sanitary woolen?"

"Yes, I think so. Grayish-yellowish stuff."

"A sort of uniform?" He nodded. "With a number on it perhaps - a
number on a large disk of metal strapped round the left arm? D. K. F.
78,910 - that sort of thing?" It was even so. "And all of them, men
and women alike, looking very well cared for? Very Utopian, and
smelling rather strongly of carbolic, and all of them quite hairless?"
I was right every time. Soames was only not sure whether the men and
women were hairless or shorn. "I hadn't time to look at them very
closely," he explained.

"No, of course not. But - "

"They stared at ME, I can tell you. I attracted a great deal of
attention." At last he had done that! "I think I rather scared them.
They moved away whenever I came near. They followed me about, at a
distance, wherever I went. The men at the round desk in the middle
seemed to have a sort of panic whenever I went to make inquiries."

"What did you do when you arrived?"

Well, he had gone straight to the catalogue, of course, - to the S
volumes, - and had stood long before SN-SOF, unable to take this volume
out of the shelf because his heart was beating so. At first, he said,
he wasn't disappointed; he only thought there was some new arrangement.
He went to the middle desk and asked where the catalogue of
twentieth-century books was kept. He gathered that there was still
only one catalogue. Again he looked up his name, stared at the three
little pasted slips he had known so well. Then he went and sat down
for a long time.

"And then," he droned, "I looked up the 'Dictionary of National
Biography,' and some encyclopedias. I went back to the middle desk and
asked what was the best modern book on late nineteenth-century
literature. They told me Mr. T. K. Nupton's book was considered the
best. I looked it up in the catalogue and filled in a form for it. It
was brought to me. My name wasn't in the index, but - yes!" he said
with a sudden change of tone, "that's what I'd forgotten. Where's that
bit of paper? Give it me back."

I, too, had forgotten that cryptic screed. I found it fallen on the
floor, and handed it to him.

He smoothed it out, nodding and smiling at me disagreeably.

"I found myself glancing through Nupton's book," he resumed. "Not very
easy reading. Some sort of phonetic spelling. All the modern books I
saw were phonetic."

"Then I don't want to hear any more, Soames, please."

"The proper names seemed all to be spelt in the old way. But for that
I mightn't have noticed my own name."

"Your own name? Really? Soames, I'm VERY glad."

"And yours."

"No!"

"I thought I should find you waiting here to-night, so I took the
trouble to copy out the passage. Read it."

I snatched the paper. Soames's handwriting was characteristically dim.
It and the noisome spelling and my excitement made me all the slower to


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Online LibraryMax BeerbohmEnoch Soames: a memory of the eighteen-nineties → online text (page 2 of 3)