Good Reading : March 2006
BOOKBITE that was just so much bunkum when I wrote it.’ For ten years ago, in spite of those audacious, glowing verses, he was an ignorant neophyte. Of course, since then … He smiled, a private, sly, self- satisfied smile. It was certainly pleasant to know oneself no longer a fraud! Returning to the summerhouse to fetch his poems he saw what he took to be Mrs Morrison’s fur boa lying on the floor just by the basket chair which she had occupied. Odd of her not to have missed it on departure – a tribute to his verses perhaps. His housekeeper must send it after her by post. But just at that moment his head gardener approached, desiring some instructions, and when the matter was settled, and Augustine Marchant turned once more to enter the summerhouse, he found that he had been mistaken about the dropped boa, for there was nothing on the floor. Besides, he remembered now that Mrs Morrison’s boa had been a rope of grey feathers, not of dark fur. As he took up Amore Cypriacus he asked himself lazily what could have led him to imagine a woman’s boa there at all, much less a fur one. Suddenly he knew why. A lattice in the house of memory had opened, and he remained rigid, staring out at the jets of the fountain rising and falling in the afternoon sun.Yes; of that glamorous, wonderful, abominable night in Prague the part he least wished to recall was connected – incidentally but undeniably –withafurboa…alongboaofdark fur … Hehadtogouptotownnextday 48 goodreading ı MARCH 2006 to a dinner in his honour.There and then he decided to go up that same night, by late train, a most unusual proceeding, and most disturbing to his valet, who knew that it was doubtful whether he could at such short notice procure him a first-class carriage to himself. However, Augustine Marchant went, and even, to the man’s amazement, deliberately chose a compart- ment with another occupant when he might, after all, have had an empty one. The dinner was brilliant; Augustine had never spoken better. Next day he went round to the little street not far from the British Museum where he found Lawrence Storey, his new illustra- tor, working feverishly at his drawings for Queen Theodora and Queen Marozia, and quite overwhelmed at the honour of a personal visit. Augustine was very kind to him, and while offering a few criticisms, highly praised his delineation of those two Messalinas of tenth-century Rome, their long supple hands, their heavy eyes, their full, almost repellent mouths. Storey had followed the same type for mother and daughter, but with a subtle difference. ‘They were certainly two most evil women, especially the younger,’ he observed ingenuously. ‘But I suppose that, from an artistic point of view, that doesn’t matter nowadays!’ Augustine, smoking one of his special cigarettes, made a delicate little gesture. ‘My dear fellow, Art has nothing what- ever to do with what is called “morality”; happily we know that at last! Show me how you thought of depicting the scene where Marozia orders the execution of her mother’s papal paramour. Good, very good! Yes, the lines there, even the fall of that loose sleeve from the extended arm, express with clarity what I had in mind. You have great gifts!’ ‘I have tried to make her look wick- ed,’ said the young man, reddening with pleasure. ‘But,’ he added deprecatingly, ‘it is very hard for a ridiculously inexperi- enced person like myself to have the right artistic vision. For to you, Mr Marchant, who have penetrated into such wonderful arcana of the forbidden, it would be fool- ish to pretend to be other than I am.’ ‘How do you know that I have penetrated into any such arcana?’ enquired the poet, half-shutting his eyes and look- ing (though not to the almost worship- ping gaze of young Storey) like a great cat being stroked. ‘Why, one has only to read you!’ ‘You must come down and stay with me soon,’ were Augustine Marchant’s part- ing words. (He would give the boy a few days’ good living, for which he would be none the worse; let him drink some decent wine.) ‘How soon do you think you will be able to finish the rough sketches for the rest, and the designs for the culs de lampe? A fortnight or three weeks? Good; I shall look to see you then. Goodbye, my dear fellow; I am very, very much pleased with what you have shown me!’ The worst of going up to London from the country was that one was apt to catch a cold in town. When he got back, Augustine Marchant was almost sure that this misfortune had befallen him, so he ordered a fire in his bedroom, despite the season, and consumed a recherché little supper in seclusion. And, as the cold turned out to have been imaginary, he was very comfortable, sitting there in his silken dressing-gown, toasting his toes and holding up a glass of golden Tokay to the flames. Really Theodora and Marozia would make as much sensation when it came out with these illustrations as when it first appeared! All at once he set down his glass. Not far away on his left stood a big cheval mirror, like a woman’s, in which a good portion of the bed behind him was reflected. And, in this mirror, he had just seen the valance of the bed move. All at once he set down his glass. Not far away on his left stood a big cheval mirror, like a woman’s, in which a good portion of the bed behind him was reflected. And, in this mirror, he had just seen the valance of the bed move.