Read CHAPTER IX of The Book-Bills of Narcissus, free online book, by Le Gallienne‚ Richard, on


’Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’
Merchant of Venice.

It occurs to me here to wonder whether there can be any reader ungrateful enough to ask with grumbling voice, ’What of the book-bills? The head-line has been the sole mention of them now for many pages; and in the last chapter, where a book was referred to, the writer was perverse enough to choose one that never belonged to Narcissus at all.’ To which I would venture to make humble rejoinder Well, Goodman Reader, and what did you expect? Was it accounts, with all their thrilling details, with totals, ‘less discount,’ and facsimiles of the receipt stamps? Take another look at our first chapter. I promised nothing of the sort there, I am sure. I promised simply to attempt for you the delineation of a personality which has had for all who came into contact with it enduring charm, in hope that, though at second-hand, you might have some pleasure of it also; and I proposed to do this mainly from the hints of documents which really are more significant than any letters or other writings could be, for the reason that they are of necessity so unconscious. I certainly had no intention of burdening you with the original data, any more than, should you accept the offer I made, also in that chapter, and entrust me with your private ledger for biographical purposes, I would think of printing it in extenso, and calling it a biography; though I should feel justified, after the varied story had been deduced and written out, in calling the product, metaphorical wise, ’The private ledger of Johannes Browne, Esquire’ a title which, by the way, is copyright and duly ‘entered.’ Such was my attempt, and I maintain that I have so far kept my word. Because whole shelves have been disposed of in a line, and a ninepenny ‘Canterbury’ has rustled out into pages, you have no right to complain, for that is but the fashion of life, as I have endeavoured to show. And let me say in passing that that said copy of Mr. Rhys’s Whitman, though it could not manifestly appear in his book-bills, does at the present moment rest upon his shelf ’a moment’s monument.’

Perhaps it would be well, before proceeding with this present ’place in the story,’ to set out with a statement of the various ‘authorities’ for it; as, all this being veritable history, perhaps one should. But then, Reader, here again I should have to catalogue quite a small library. However, I will enumerate a few of the more significant ones.

‘Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyonesse, 9/-, less dis., 6/9.’

All that this great poem of ’springtide passion with its fire and flowers’ meant to Narcissus and his ‘Thirteenth Maid’ in the morning of their love, those that have loved too will hardly need telling, while those who have not could never understand, though I spake with the tongue of the poet himself. In this particular copy, which, I need hardly say, does not rest upon N.’s shelves, but on another in a sweet little bedchamber, there is a tender inscription and a sonnet which aimed at acknowledging how the hearts of those young lovers had gone out to that poet ‘with mouth of gold and morning in his eyes.’ The latter I have begged leave to copy here:

’Dear Heart, what thing may symbolise for us
A love like ours; what gift, whate’er it be,
Hold more significance ’twixt thee and me
Than paltry words a truth miraculous,
Or the poor signs that in astronomy
Tell giant splendours in their gleaming might?
Yet love would still give such, as in delight
To mock their impotence so this for thee.

’This book for thee; our sweetest honeycomb
Of lovesome thought and passion-hearted rhyme,
Builded of gold, and kisses, and desire,
By that wild poet whom so many a time
Our hungering lips have blessed, until a fire
Burnt speech up, and the wordless hour had come.’

‘Meredith’s Richard Feverel, 6/-, less dis., 4/6.’

Narcissus was never weary of reading those two wonderful chapters where Lucy and Richard meet, and he used to say that some day he would beg leave from Mr. Meredith to reprint at his own charges just those two chapters, to distribute to all true lovers in the kingdom. It would be hard to say how often he and his maid had read them aloud together, with amorous punctuation caresses for commas, and kisses for full-stops.

‘Morris’ Sigurd the Volsung, 12/-, less dis., 9/-.’

This book they loved when their love had grown to have more of earnest purpose in it, and its first hysteric ecstasy had passed into the more solemn ardours of the love that goes not with spring, but loves even unto the winter and beyond. It is marked all through in pencil by Narcissus; but on one page, where it opens easily, there are written initials, in a woman’s hand, against this great passage:

’She said: “Thou shalt never unsay it, and thy heart is mine indeed:
Thou shalt bear thy love in thy bosom as thou helpest the earth-folk’s
Thou shalt wake to it dawning by dawning; thou shalt sleep and it shall
not be strange:
There is none shall thrust between us till our earthly lives shall
Ah, my love shall fare as a banner in the hand of thy renown,
In the arms of thy fame accomplished shall it lie when we lay us adown.
O deathless fame of Sigurd! O glory of my lord!
O birth of the happy Brynhild to the measureless reward!”
So they sat as the day grew dimmer, and they looked on days to come,
And the fair tale speeding onward, and the glories of their home;
And they saw their crowned children and the kindred of the kings,
And deeds in the world arising and the day of better things:
All the earthly exaltation, till their pomp of life should be passed,
And soft on the bosom of God their love should be laid at the last.’

And on the page facing this lies a pressed flower there used to be two guarded by these tender rhymes:

’Whoe’er shall read this mighty song
In some forthcoming evensong,
We pray thee guard these simple flowers,
For, gentle Reader, they are “ours."’

But ill has some ‘gentle Reader’ attended to the behest, for, as I said, but one of the flowers remains. One is lost and Narcissus has gone away. This inscription is but one of many such scattered here and there through his books, for he had a great facility in such minor graces, as he had a neat hand at tying a bow. I don’t think he ever sent a box of flowers without his fertility serving him with some rose-leaf fancy to accompany them; and on birthdays and all red-letter days he was always to be counted upon for an appropriate rhyme. If his art served no other purpose, his friend would be grateful to him for that alone, for many great days would have gone without their ‘white stone’ but for him; when, for instance, J.A.W. took that brave plunge of his, which has since so abundantly justified him and more than fulfilled prophecy; or when Samuel Dale took that bolder, namely a wife, he being a philosopher incidents, Reader, on which I long so to digress, and for which, if you could only know beforehand, you would, I am sure, give me freest hand. But beautiful stories both, I may not tell of you here; though if the Reader and I ever spend together those hinted nights at the ‘Mermaid,’ I then may.

But to return. I said above that if I were to enumerate all the books, so to say, ‘implicated’ in the love of Narcissus and his Thirteenth Maid, I should have to catalogue quite a small library. I forgot for the moment what literal truth I was writing, for it was indeed in quite a large library that they first met. In ‘our town’ there is, Reader, an old-world institution, which, I think, you would well like transported to yours, a quaint subscription library ‘established’ ever so long ago, full of wonderful nooks and corners, where (of course, if you are a member) one is sure almost at any time of the day of a solitary corner for a dream. It is a sweet provision, too, that it is managed by ladies, whom you may, if you can, image to yourself as the Hesperides; for there are three of them; and may not the innumerable galleries and spiral staircases, serried with countless shelves, clustered thick with tome on tome, figure the great tree, with its many branches and its wonderful gold fruit the tree of knowledge? The absence of the dragon from the similitude is as well, don’t you think?

Books, of all things, should be tended by reverent hands; and, to my mind, the perfunctory in things ecclesiastical is hardly more distressing than the service of books as conducted in many great libraries. One feels that the librarii should be a sacred order, nearly allied to the monastic, refined by varying steps of initiation, and certainly celibates. They should give out their books as the priest his sacrament, should wear sacred vestments, and bear about with them the priestlike aura, as of divine incarnations of the great spirit of Truth and Art in whose temples they are ministrants. The next step to this ideal ministry is to have our books given out to us by women. Though they may understand them not, they handle them with gentle courtesy, and are certainly in every way to be preferred to the youthful freckled monster with red spines upon his head, and nailed boots, ’the work of the Cyclops,’ upon his feet, whose physiognomy is contorted by cinnamon-balls at the very moment he carries in his arms some great Golden-lips or gentle Silver-tongue. What good sweet women there are, too, who would bless heaven for the occupation!

Well, as I said, we in that particular library are more fortunate, and two of the ‘subscribers,’ at least, did at one time express their appreciation of its privileges by a daily dream among its shelves. One day had Hercules been there overnight? we missed one of our fair attendants. Was it Aegle, Arethusa, or Hesperia? Narcissus probably knew. And on the next she was still missing; nor on the third had she returned; but lo! there was another in her stead and on her Narcissus bent his gaze, according to wont. A little maid, with noticeable eyes, and the hair Rossetti loved to paint called Hesper, ‘by many,’ said Narcissus, one day long after, solemnly quoting the Vita Nuova, ’who know not wherefore.’

‘Why! do you know?’ I asked.

‘Yes!’ And then, for the first time, he had told me the story I have now to tell again. He had, meanwhile, rather surprised me by little touches of intimate observation of her which he occasionally let slip as, for instance, ’Have you noticed her forehead? It has a fine distinction of form; is pure ivory, surely; and you should watch how deliciously her hair springs out of it, like little wavy threads of “old gold” set in the ivory by some cunning artist.’

I had just looked at him and wondered a moment. But such attentive regard was hardly matter for surprise in his case; and, moreover, I always tried to avoid the subject of women with him, for it was the one on which alone there was danger of our disagreeing. It was the only one in which he seemed to show signs of cruelty in his disposition, though it was, I well know, but a thoughtless cruelty; and in my heart I always felt that he was too right-minded and noble in the other great matters of life not to come right on that too when ‘the hour had struck.’ Meanwhile, he had a way of classifying amours by the number of verses inspired as, ’Heigho! it’s all over; but never mind, I got two sonnets out of her’ which seemed to me an exhibition of the worst side of his artist disposition, and which well, Reader, jarred much on one who already knew what a true love meant. It was, however, I could see, quite unconscious; and I tried hard not to be intolerant towards him, because fortune had blessed me with an earlier illumination.

Pray, go not away with the misconception that Narcissus was ever base to a woman. No! he left that to Circe’s hogs, and the one temptation he ever had towards it he turned into a shining salvation. No! he had nothing worse than the sins of the young egoist to answer for, though he afterwards came to feel those pitiful and mean enough.

Another noticeable feature of Hesper’s face was an ever-present sadness not as of a dull grief, but as of some shining sorrow, a quality which gave her face much arresting interest. It seemed one great, rich tear. One loved to dwell upon it as upon those intense stretches of evening sky when the day yearns through half-shut eyelids in the west. One continually wondered what story it meant, for some it must mean.

Watching her thus quietly, day by day, it seemed to me that as the weeks from her first coming went by, this sadness deepened; and I could not forbear one day questioning the elder Hesperides about her, thus bringing upon myself a revelation I had little expected. For, said she, ’she was glad I had spoken to her, for she had long wished to ask me to use my influence with my friend, that he might cease paying Hesper attentions which he could not mean in earnest, but which she knew were already causing Hesper to be fond of him. Having become friendly with her, she had found out her secret and remonstrated with her, with the result that she had avoided Narcissus for some time, but not without much misery to herself, over which she was continually brooding.’

All this was an utter surprise, and a saddening one; for I had grown to feel much interest in the girl, and had been especially pleased by all absence of the flighty tendencies with which too many girls in public service tempt men to their own destruction. She had seemed to me to bear herself with a maidenly self-respect that spoke of no little grace of breeding. She had two very strong claims on one’s regard. She was evidently a woman, in the deep, tragic sense of that word, and a lady in the only true sense of that. The thought of a life so rich in womanly promise becoming but another of the idle playthings of Narcissus filled me with something akin to rage, and I was not long in saying some strong words to him. Not that I feared for her the coarse ‘ruin’ the world alone thinks of. Is that the worst that can befall woman? What of the spiritual deflowering, of which the bodily is but a symbol? If the first fine bloom of the soul has gone, if the dream that is only dreamed once has grown up in the imagination and been once given, the mere chastity of the body is a lie, and whatever its fecundity, the soul has nought but sterility to give to another. It is not those kisses of the lips kisses that one forgets as one forgets the roses we smelt last year which profane; they but soil the vessel of the sacrament, and it is the sacrament itself which those consuming spirit-kisses, which burn but through the eyes, may desecrate. It is strange that man should have so long taken the precisely opposite attitude in this matter, caring only for the observation of the vessel, and apparently dreaming not of any other possible approach to the sanctities. Probably, however, his care has not been of sanctities at all. Indeed, most have, doubtless, little suspicion of the existence of such, and the symbol has been and is but a selfish superstition amongst them woman, a symbol whose meaning is forgotten, but still the object of an ignorant veneration, not unrelated to the preservation of game.

Narcissus took my remonstrance a little flippantly, I thought, evidently feeling that too much had been made out of very little; for he averred that his ‘attentions’ to Hesper had been of the slightest character, hardly more than occasional looks and whispers, which, from her cold reception of them, he had felt were more distasteful to her than otherwise. He had indeed, he said, ceased even these the last few days, as her reserve always made him feel foolish, as a man fondling a fair face in his dream wakes on a sudden to find that he is but grimacing at the air. This reassured me, and I felt little further anxiety. However, this security only proved how little I really understood the weak side of my friend. I had not realised how much he really was Narcissus, and how dear to him was a new mirror. My speaking to him was the one wrong course possible to be taken. Instead of confirming his growing intention of indifference, it had, as might have been foreseen, the directly opposite effect; and from the moment of his learning that Hesper secretly loved him, she at once became invested with a new glamour, and grew daily more and more the forbidden fascination few can resist.

I did not learn this for many months. Meanwhile Narcissus chose to deceive me for the first and only time. At last he told me all; and how different was his manner of telling it from his former gay relations of conquest. One needed not to hear the words to see he was unveiling a sacred thing, a holiness so white and hidden, the most reverent word seemed a profanation; and, as he laboured for the least soiled wherein to enfold the revelation, his soul seemed as a maid torn with the blushing tremors of a new knowledge. Men only speak so after great and wonderful travail, and by that token I knew Narcissus loved at last. It had seemed unlikely ground from which love had first sprung forth, that of a self-worship that could forgo no slightest indulgence but thence indeed it had come. The silent service my words had given him to know that Hesper’s heart was offering to him was not enough; he must hear it articulate, his nostrils craved an actual incense. To gain this he must deceive two his friend, and her whose poor face would kindle with hectic hope, at the false words he must say for the true words he must hear. It was pitifully mean; but whom has not his own hidden lust made to crawl like a thief, afraid of a shadow, in his own house? Narcissus’ young lust was himself, and Moloch knew no more ruthless hunger than burns in such. Of course, it did not present itself quite nakedly to him; he persuaded himself there could be little harm he meant none.

And so, instead of avoiding Hesper, he sought her the more persistently, and by some means so far wooed her from her reticence as to win her consent to a walk together one autumn afternoon. How little do we know the measure of our own proposing! That walk was to be the most fateful his feet had ever trodden through field and wood, yet it seemed the most accidental of gallantries. A little town-maid, with a romantic passion for ‘us’; it would be interesting to watch the child; it would be like giving her a day’s holiday, so much sunshine ‘in our presence.’ And so on. But what an entirely different complexion was the whole thing beginning to take before they had walked a mile. Behind the flippancy one had gone to meet were surely the growing features of a solemnity. Why, the child was a woman indeed; she could talk, she had brains, ideas and, Lord bless us, Theories! She had that ’excellent thing in woman,’ not only a voice, which she had, too, but character. Narcissus began to loose his regal robes, and from being merely courteously to be genuinely interested. Why, she was a discovery! As they walked on, her genuine delight in the autumnal nature, the real imaginative appeal it had for her, was another surprise. She had, evidently, a deep poetry in her disposition, rarest of all female endowments. In a surprisingly few minutes from the beginning of their walk he found himself taking that ‘little child’ with extreme seriousness, and wondering many ‘whethers.’

They walked out again, and yet again, and Narcissus’ first impressions deepened. He had his theories, too; and, surely, here was the woman! He was not in love at least, not with her, but with her fitness for his theory.

They sat by a solitary woodside, beneath a great elm tree. The hour was full of magic, for though the sun had set, the smile of her day’s joy with him had not yet faded from the face of earth. It was the hour vulgarised in drawing-room ballads as the ‘gloaming.’ They sat very near to each other; he held her hand, toying with it; and now and again their eyes met with the look that flutters before flight, that says, ’Dare I give thee all? Dare I throw my eyes on thine as I would throw myself on thee?’ And then, at last, came the inevitable moment when the eyes of each seem to cry ‘O yes!’ to the other, and the gates fly back; all the hidden light springs forth, the woods swim round, and the lips meet with a strange shock, while the eyes of the spirit close in a lapping dream of great peace.

If you are not ready to play the man, beware of a kiss such as the lips of little Hesper, that never knew to kiss before, pressed upon the mouth of Narcissus. It sent a chill shudder through him, though it was so sweet, for he could feel her whole life surging behind it; and was the kiss he had given her for it such a kiss as that? But he had spoken much to her of his ideas of marriage; she knew he was sworn for ever against that. She must know the kiss had no such meaning; for, besides, did she not scorn the soiled ‘tie’ also? Were not their theories at one in that? He would be doing her no wrong; it was her own desire. Yet his kiss did mean more than he could have imagined it meaning a week before. She had grown to be genuinely desirable. If love tarried, passion was awake that dangerous passion, too, to which the intellect has added its intoxication, and that is, so to say, legitimised by an ‘idea.’

Her woman’s intuition read the silence and answered to his thought. ‘Have no fear,’ she said, with the deep deliberation of passion; ’I love you with my whole life, but I shall never burden you, Narcissus. Love me as long as you can, I shall be content; and when the end comes, though another woman takes you, I shall not hinder.’

O great girl-soul! What a poltroon, indeed, was Narcissus beside you at that moment. You ready to stake your life on the throw, he temporising and bargaining as over the terms of a lease. Surely, if he could for one moment have seen himself in the light of your greatness, he had been crushed beneath the misery of his own meanness. But as yet he had no such vision; his one thought was, ‘She will do it! will she draw back?’ and the feeble warnings he was obliged to utter to keep his own terms, by assuring his conscience of ‘her free-will,’ were they not half-fearfully whispered, and with an inward haste, lest they should give her pause? ‘But the world, my dear think!’ ’It will have cruel names for thee.’ ‘It will make thee outcast think!’

‘I know all,’ she had answered; ’but I love you, and two years of your love would pay for all. There is no world for me but you. Till to-night I have never lived at all, and when you go I shall be as dead. The world cannot hurt such a one.’

Ah me, it was a wild, sweet dream for both of them, one the woman’s, one the poet’s, of a ‘sweet impossible’ taking flesh! For, do not let us blame Narcissus overmuch. He was utterly sincere; he meant no wrong. He but dreamed of following a creed to which his reason had long given a hopeless assent. In a more kindly-organised community he might have followed it, and all have been well; but the world has to be dealt with as one finds it, and we must get sad answers to many a fair calculation if we ‘state’ it wrongly in the equation. That there is one law for the male and another for the female had not as yet vitally entered into his considerations. He was too dizzy with the dream, or he must have seen what an unequal bargain he was about to drive.

At last he did awake, and saw it all; and in a burning shame went to Hesper, and told her that it must not be.

Her answer was unconsciously the most subtly dangerous she could have chosen: ’If I like to give myself to you, why should you not take me? It is of my own free-will. My eyes are open.’ It was his very thought put into words, and by her. For a moment he wavered who could blame him? ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

‘Yes! a thousand times yes!’ cried his soul; for he was awake now, and he had come to see the dream as it was, and to shudder at himself as he had well-nigh been, just as one shudders at the thought of a precipice barely escaped. In that moment, too, the idea of her love in all its divineness burst upon him. Here was a heart capable of a great tragic love like the loves of old he read of and whimpered for in sonnets, and what had he offered in exchange? A poor, philosophical compromise, compounded of pessimism and desire, in which a man should have all to gain and nothing to lose, for

’The light, light love he has wings to fly
At suspicion of a bond.’

‘I would I did love her,’ his heart was crying as he went away. ’Could I love her?’ was his next thought. ’Do I love her?’ but that is a question that always needs longer than one day to answer.

Already he was as much in love with her as most men when they take unto themselves wives. She was desirable he had pleasure in her presence. He had that half of love which commonly passes for all the passion; but he lacked the additional incentives which nerve the common man to face that fear which seems well-nigh as universal as the fear of death, I mean the fear of marriage life’s two fears: that is, he had no desire to increase his worldly possessions by annexing a dowry, or ambition of settling down and procuring a wife as part of his establishment. After all, how full of bachelors the world would be if it were not for these motives: for the one other motive to a true marriage, the other half of love, however one names it, is it not a four-leaved clover indeed? Narcissus was happily poor enough to be above those motives, even had Hesper been anything but poor too; and if he was to marry her, it would be because he was capable of loving her with that perfect love which, of course, has alone right to the sacred name, that which cannot take all and give nought, but which rather holds as watchword that to love is better than to be loved.

Who shall hope to express the mystery? Yet, is not thus much true, that, if it must be allowed to the cynic that love rises in self, it yet has its zenith and setting in another in woman as in man? Two meet, and passion, the joy of the selfish part of each, is born; shall love follow depends on whether they have a particular grace of nature, love being the thanksgiving of the unselfish part for the boon granted to the other. The common nature snatches the joy and forgets the giver, but the finer never forgets, and deems life but a poor service for a gift so rare; and, though passion be long since passed, love keeps holy an eternal memory.

’Love took up the harp of life and smote on all the chords
with might;
Smote the chord of self, that, trembling, pass’d in music
out of sight.’

Since the time of fairy-tales Love has had a way of coming in the disguise of Duty. What is the story of Beauty and the Beast but an allegory of true love? We take this maid to be our wedded wife, for her sake it perhaps seems at the time. She is sweet and beautiful and to be desired; but, all the same, we had rather shake the loose leg of bachelordom, if it might be. However it be, so we take her, or maybe it is she takes us, with a feeling of martyrdom; but lo! when we are home together, what wonderful new lights are these beginning to ray about her, as though she had up till now kept a star hidden in her bosom. What is this new morning strength and peace in our life? Why, we thought it was but Thestylis, and lo! it is Diana after all. For the Thirteenth Maid or the Thirteenth Man, both alike, rarely come as we had expected. There seems no fitness in their arrival. It seems so ridiculously accidental, as I suppose the hour of death, whenever it comes, will seem. One had expected some high calm prelude of preparation, ending in a festival of choice, like an Indian prince’s, when the maids of the land pass before him and he makes deliberate selection of the fateful She. But, instead, we are hurrying among our day’s business, maybe, our last thought of her; we turn a corner, and suddenly she is before us. Or perhaps, as it fell with Narcissus, we have tried many loves that proved but passions; we have just buried the last, and are mournfully leaving its grave, determined to seek no further, to abjure bright eyes, at least for a long while, when lo! on a sudden a little maid is in our path holding out some sweet modest flowers. The maid has a sweet mouth, too, and, the old Adam being stronger than our infant resolution, we smell the flowers and kiss the mouth to find arms that somehow, we know not why, are clinging as for life about us. Let us beware how we shake them off, for thus it is decreed shall a man meet her to have missed whom were to have missed all. Youth, like that faithless generation in the Scriptures, always craveth after a sign, but rarely shall one be given. It can only be known whether a man be worthy of Love by the way in which he looks upon Duty. Rachel often comes in the grey cloak of Leah. It rests with the man’s heart whether he shall know her beneath the disguise; no other divining-rod shall aid him. If it be as Bassanio’s, brave to ‘give and hazard all he hath,’ let him not fear to pass the seeming gold, the seeming silver, to choose the seeming lead. ‘Why, that’s the lady,’ thou poor magnificent Morocco. Nor shall the gold fail, for her heart is that, and for silver thou shalt have those ‘silent silver lights undreamed of’ of face and soul.

These are but scattered hints of the story of Narcissus’ love as he told it me at last, in broken, struggling words, but with a light in his face one power alone could set there.

When he came to the end, and to all that little Hesper had proved to him, all the strength and illumination she had brought him, he fairly broke down and sobbed, as one may in a brother’s arms. For, of course, he had come out of the ordeal a man; and Hesper had consented to be his wife. Often she had dreamed as he had passed her by with such heedless air: ’If I love him so, can it be that my love shall have no power to make him mine, somehow, some day? Can I call to him so within my soul and he not hear? Can I wait and he not come?’ And her love had been strong, strong as a destiny; her voice had reached him, for it was the voice of God.

When I next saw her, what a strange brightness shone in her face, what a new beauty was there! Ah, Love, the great transfigurer! And why, too, was it that his friends began to be dissatisfied with their old photographs of Narcissus, though they had been taken but six months before? There seemed something lacking in the photograph, they said. Yes, there was; but the face had lacked it too. What was the new thing ’grip’ was it, joy, peace? Yes, all three, but more besides, and Narcissus had but one name for all. It was Hesper.

Strange, too, that in spite of promises we never received a new one. Narcissus, who used to be so punctual with such a request. Perhaps it was because he had broken his looking-glass.