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Enoch Soames: a memory of the eighteen-nineties online

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grasp what T. K. Nupton was driving at.

The document lies before me at this moment. Strange that the words I
here copy out for you were copied out for me by poor Soames just
eighty-two years hence!

From page 234 of "Inglish Littracher 1890-1900" bi T. K. Nupton,
publishd bi th Stait, 1992.

Fr egzarmpl, a riter ov th time, naimed Max Beerbohm, hoo woz stil
alive in th twentith senchri, rote a stauri in wich e pautraid an
immajnari karrakter kauld "Enoch Soames" - a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz
imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no
wot posterriti thinx ov im! It iz a sumwot labud sattire, but not
without vallu az showing hou seriusli the yung men ov th aiteen-ninetiz
took themselvz. Nou that th littreri profeshn haz bin auganized az a
departmnt of publik servis, our riters hav found their levvl an hav
lernt ter doo their duti without thort ov th morro. "Th laibrer iz
werthi ov hiz hire" an that iz aul. Thank hevvn we hav no Enoch
Soameses amung us to-dai!

I found that by murmuring the words aloud (a device which I commend to
my reader) I was able to master them little by little. The clearer
they became, the greater was my bewilderment, my distress and horror.
The whole thing was a nightmare. Afar, the great grisly background of
what was in store for the poor dear art of letters; here, at the table,
fixing on me a gaze that made me hot all over, the poor fellow
whom - whom evidently - but no: whatever down-grade my character might
take in coming years, I should never be such a brute as to -

Again I examined the screed. "Immajnari." But here Soames was, no
more imaginary, alas! than I. And "labud" - what on earth was that?
(To this day I have never made out that word.) "It's all
very - baffling," I at length stammered.

Soames said nothing, but cruelly did not cease to look at me.

"Are you sure," I temporized, "quite sure you copied the thing out


"Well, then, it's this wretched Nupton who must have made - must be
going to make - some idiotic mistake. Look here Soames, you know me
better than to suppose that I - After all, the name Max Beerbohm is
not at all an uncommon one, and there must be several Enoch Soameses
running around, or, rather, Enoch Soames is a name that might occur to
any one writing a story. And I don't write stories; I'm an essayist,
an observer, a recorder. I admit that it's an extraordinary
coincidence. But you must see - "

"I see the whole thing," said Soames, quietly. And he added, with a
touch of his old manner, but with more dignity than I had ever known in
him, "Parlons d'autre chose."

I accepted that suggestion very promptly. I returned straight to the
more immediate future. I spent most of the long evening in renewed
appeals to Soames to come away and seek refuge somewhere. I remember
saying at last that if indeed I was destined to write about him, the
supposed "stauri" had better have at least a happy ending. Soames
repeated those last three words in a tone of intense scorn.

"In life and in art," he said, "all that matters is an INEVITABLE

"But," I urged more hopefully than I felt, "an ending that can be
avoided ISN'T inevitable."

"You aren't an artist," he rasped. "And you're so hopelessly not an
artist that, so far from being able to imagine a thing and make it seem
true, you're going to make even a true thing seem as if you'd made it
up. You're a miserable bungler. And it's like my luck."

I protested that the miserable bungler was not I, was not going to be
I, but T. K. Nupton; and we had a rather heated argument, in the thick
of which it suddenly seemed to me that Soames saw he was in the wrong:
he had quite physically cowered. But I wondered why - and now I guessed
with a cold throb just why - he stared so past me. The bringer of that
"inevitable ending" filled the doorway.

I managed to turn in my chair and to say, not without a semblance of
lightness, "Aha, come in!" Dread was indeed rather blunted in me by
his looking so absurdly like a villain in a melodrama. The sheen of
his tilted hat and of his shirt-front, the repeated twists he was
giving to his mustache, and most of all the magnificence of his sneer,
gave token that he was there only to be foiled.

He was at our table in a stride. "I am sorry," he sneered witheringly,
"to break up your pleasant party, but - "

"You don't; you complete it," I assured him. "Mr. Soames and I want to
have a little talk with you. Won't you sit? Mr. Soames got nothing,
frankly nothing, by his journey this afternoon. We don't wish to say
that the whole thing was a swindle, a common swindle. On the contrary,
we believe you meant well. But of course the bargain, such as it was,
is off."

The devil gave no verbal answer. He merely looked at Soames and
pointed with rigid forefinger to the door. Soames was wretchedly
rising from his chair when, with a desperate, quick gesture, I swept
together two dinner-knives that were on the table, and laid their
blades across each other. The devil stepped sharp back against the
table behind him, averting his face and shuddering.

"You are not superstitious!" he hissed.

"Not at all," I smiled.

"Soames," he said as to an underling, but without turning his face,
"put those knives straight!"

With an inhibitive gesture to my friend, "Mr. Soames," I said
emphatically to the devil, "is a Catholic diabolist"; but my poor
friend did the devil's bidding, not mine; and now, with his master's
eyes again fixed on him, he arose, he shuffled past me. I tried to
speak. It was he that spoke. "Try," was the prayer he threw back at
me as the devil pushed him roughly out through the door - "TRY to make
them know that I did exist!"

In another instant I, too, was through that door. I stood staring all
ways, up the street, across it, down it. There was moonlight and
lamplight, but there was not Soames nor that other.

Dazed, I stood there. Dazed, I turned back at length into the little
room, and I suppose I paid Berthe or Rose for my dinner and luncheon
and for Soames's; I hope so, for I never went to the Vingtieme again.
Ever since that night I have avoided Greek Street altogether. And for
years I did not set foot even in Soho Square, because on that same
night it was there that I paced and loitered, long and long, with some
such dull sense of hope as a man has in not straying far from the place
where he has lost something. "Round and round the shutter'd
Square" - that line came back to me on my lonely beat, and with it the
whole stanza, ringing in my brain and bearing in on me how tragically
different from the happy scene imagined by him was the poet's actual
experience of that prince in whom of all princes we should put not our

But strange how the mind of an essayist, be it never so stricken, roves
and ranges! I remember pausing before a wide door-step and wondering
if perchance it was on this very one that the young De Quincey lay ill
and faint while poor Ann flew as fast as her feet would carry her to
Oxford Street, the "stony-hearted stepmother" of them both, and came
back bearing that "glass of port wine and spices" but for which he
might, so he thought, actually have died. Was this the very door-step
that the old De Quincey used to revisit in homage? I pondered Ann's
fate, the cause of her sudden vanishing from the ken of her boy friend;
and presently I blamed myself for letting the past override the
present. Poor vanished Soames!

And for myself, too, I began to be troubled. What had I better do?
Would there be a hue and cry - "Mysterious Disappearance of an Author,"
and all that? He had last been seen lunching and dining in my company.
Hadn't I better get a hansom and drive straight to Scotland Yard? They
would think I was a lunatic. After all, I reassured myself, London was
a very large place, and one very dim figure might easily drop out of it
unobserved, now especially, in the blinding glare of the near Jubilee.
Better say nothing at all, I thought.

AND I was right. Soames's disappearance made no stir at all. He was
utterly forgotten before any one, so far as I am aware, noticed that he
was no longer hanging around. Now and again some poet or prosaist may
have said to another, "What has become of that man Soames?" but I never
heard any such question asked. As for his landlady in Dyott Street, no
doubt he had paid her weekly, and what possessions he may have had in
his rooms were enough to save her from fretting. The solicitor through
whom he was paid his annuity may be presumed to have made inquiries,
but no echo of these resounded. There was something rather ghastly to
me in the general unconsciousness that Soames had existed, and more
than once I caught myself wondering whether Nupton, that babe unborn,
were going to be right in thinking him a figment of my brain.

In that extract from Nupton's repulsive book there is one point which
perhaps puzzles you. How is it that the author, though I have here
mentioned him by name and have quoted the exact words he is going to
write, is not going to grasp the obvious corollary that I have invented
nothing? The answer can be only this: Nupton will not have read the
later passages of this memoir. Such lack of thoroughness is a serious
fault in any one who undertakes to do scholar's work. And I hope these
words will meet the eye of some contemporary rival to Nupton and be the
undoing of Nupton.

I like to think that some time between 1992 and 1997 somebody will have
looked up this memoir, and will have forced on the world his inevitable
and startling conclusions. And I have reason for believing that this
will be so. You realize that the reading-room into which Soames was
projected by the devil was in all respects precisely as it will be on
the afternoon of June 3, 1997. You realize, therefore, that on that
afternoon, when it comes round, there the selfsame crowd will be, and
there Soames will be, punctually, he and they doing precisely what they
did before. Recall now Soames's account of the sensation he made. You
may say that the mere difference of his costume was enough to make him
sensational in that uniformed crowd. You wouldn't say so if you had
ever seen him, and I assure you that in no period would Soames be
anything but dim. The fact that people are going to stare at him and
follow him around and seem afraid of him, can be explained only on the
hypothesis that they will somehow have been prepared for his ghostly
visitation. They will have been awfully waiting to see whether he
really would come. And when he does come the effect will of course
be - awful.

An authentic, guaranteed, proved ghost, but; only a ghost, alas! Only
that. In his first visit Soames was a creature of flesh and blood,
whereas the creatures among whom he was projected were but ghosts, I
take it - solid, palpable, vocal, but unconscious and automatic ghosts,
in a building that was itself an illusion. Next time that building and
those creatures will be real. It is of Soames that there will be but
the semblance. I wish I could think him destined to revisit the world
actually, physically, consciously. I wish he had this one brief
escape, this one small treat, to look forward to. I never forget him
for long. He is where he is and forever. The more rigid moralists
among you may say he has only himself to blame. For my part, I think
he has been very hardly used. It is well that vanity should be
chastened; and Enoch Soames's vanity was, I admit, above the average,
and called for special treatment. But there was no need for
vindictiveness. You say he contracted to pay the price he is paying.
Yes; but I maintain that he was induced to do so by fraud. Well
informed in all things, the devil must have known that my friend would
gain nothing by his visit to futurity. The whole thing was a very
shabby trick. The more I think of it, the more detestable the devil
seems to me.

Of him I have caught sight several times, here and there, since that
day at the Vingtieme. Only once, however, have I seen him at close
quarters. This was a couple of years ago, in Paris. I was walking one
afternoon along the rue d'Antin, and I saw him advancing from the
opposite direction, overdressed as ever, and swinging an ebony cane and
altogether behaving as though the whole pavement belonged to him. At
thought of Enoch Soames and the myriads of other sufferers eternally in
this brute's dominion, a great cold wrath filled me, and I drew myself
up to my full height. But - well, one is so used to nodding and smiling
in the street to anybody whom one knows that the action becomes almost
independent of oneself; to prevent it requires a very sharp effort and
great presence of mind. I was miserably aware, as I passed the devil,
that I nodded and smiled to him. And my shame was the deeper and
hotter because he, if you please, stared straight at me with the utmost

To be cut, deliberately cut, by HIM! I was, I still am, furious at
having had that happen to me.

[Transcriber's Note: I have closed contractions in the text; e.g.,
"does n't" has become "doesn't" etc.]

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