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The Masterby Colm Toibin
From Chapter Three
Over the years he had learned something about the English which he had quietly and firmly adapted to his own uses. He had watched how men in England generally respected their own habits until those around them learned to follow suit. He knew men who did not rise until noon, or who slept in a chair each afternoon, or who ate beef for breakfast, and he noticed how these customs became part of the household routine and were scarcely commented on. His habits, of course, were sociable and, in the main, easy; his inclinations were civil and his idiosyncrasies mild. Thus it had become convenient to himself and simple to explain to others that he should turn down invitations, confess himself busy, overworked, engaged both day and night in his art. His time as an inveterate dinner guest in the great London houses had, he hoped, come to an end.
He loved the glorious silence a morning brought, knowing that he had no appointments that afternoon and no engagements that evening. He had grown fat on solitude, he thought, and had learned to expect nothing from the day but at best a dull contentment. Sometimes the dullness came to the fore with a strange and insistent ache which he would entertain briefly, but learn to keep at bay. Mostly, however, it was the contentment he entertained; the slow ease and the silence could, once night had fallen, fill him with a happiness that nothing, no society nor the company of any individual, no glamour or glitter, could equal.
In these days after his opening night and his return from Ireland he discovered that he could control the sadness which certain memories brought with them. When sorrows and fears and terrors came to him in the time after he woke, or in the night, they were like servants come to light a lamp or take away a tray. Carefully trained over years, they would soon disappear of their own accord, knowing not to linger.
Nonetheless, he remembered the shock and the shame of the opening night of Guy Domville. He told himself that the memory would fade, and with that admonition he tried to put all thoughts of his failure out of his mind.
Instead, he thought about money, going over amounts he had received and amounts due; he thought of travel, where he would go and when. He thought of work, ideas and characters, moments of clarity. He controlled these thoughts, he knew that they were like candles leading him through the dark. They could easily, if he did not concentrate, be snuffed out and he would again be pondering defeats and disappointments, which if not managed could lead to thoughts that left him desperate and afraid.
Nonetheless, he knew that he had to allow his mind its freedoms. He lived on the randomness of the mind's workings, and, now, as the day began, he found himself involved in a new set of musings and imaginings. He wondered how an idea could so easily change shape and appear fresh in a new guise; he did not know how close to the surface this story had been lurking. It was a simple tale, made simpler still by his friend Benson's father, the archbishop of Canterbury, who had tried to entertain him one evening after the failure of his play. He had hesitated too much and stopped too often as he attempted to tell a ghost story, knowing neither the middle nor the end and unsure even of the contours of the beginning.
Henry had set it down as soon as he arrived home. He wrote in his notebook: "Note here the ghost story told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the archbishop of Canterbury: the mere vague, undetailed, faint sketch of it: the story of the young children (indefinite number and age), left to the care of servants in an old country house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children: the children are bad, full of evil to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions return to haunt the house and children."
He did not need to look back at his notebook to be reminded of the story; the events remained with him. He thought of setting it in Newport, in a remote house by the rocks, or in one of the newer mansions in New York, but none of these settings captured him, and gradually he abandoned the idea of an American family. It became an English story set in the past; and in the early and slow elaboration of the story he reduced the children to merely two, a boy and his younger sister.
He thought often of the death of his sister Alice, who had died three years earlier. He had read her diaries, so full of indiscretions, for the first time. Now he felt alone, much as she had throughout her life, and he felt close to her, although he never suffered her symptoms or maladies and lacked her stoicism and her acceptance.
In his darkest hours, he felt that both of them had somehow been abandoned as their family toured Europe and returned, often for no reason, to America. They had never been fully included in the passion of events and places, becoming watchers and nonparticipants. Their brother William, the eldest, and then Wilky and Bob, who came between Henry and Alice, had been ready for the world, expertly molded, while Henry and Alice had been left unprotected and unready. He had become a writer and she had taken to her bed.
It began to rain hard that hot summer's day and the sky over the sea was a purple-gray mass of cloud. He was wearing a light jacket, but Alice was wearing only a summer dress and a flimsy straw hat. There was no shelter at hand. A few times they tried to shelter under bushes but the rain, driven by the wind, was insistent. He took off his jacket and held it over both of them and they moved slowly and silently, huddled close together, towards home. He sensed her happiness as intense, almost shrill. He had never before understood the extent of her need for the full attention, the full pity and protection, of him or William or their parents. In these minutes, as they walked the wet sandy soil of the lane from the sea walk back to the village, he felt his sister on fire with satisfaction at being close to him. Watching her radiance and delight as they neared home, he had his first sense of how difficult things were going to be for her.
He began to watch her. Until now, he had considered the joke that William was going to marry her as a light tease, a way to make her smile and William laugh and all the family join in. It was also a show put on for visitors. William, the eldest, was six years older than Alice. As soon as Alice began to present herself to visitors, wear colorful dresses and become alert to the effect she could have on a roomful of adults, the joke that she was going to marry William became a kind of ritual.
"Oh, she's going to marry William," Aunt Kate would say, and if William were there, he would come over to her, take her arm, kiss her on the cheek. And she would say nothing, merely watch everybody, her eyes almost hostile before their smiles and laughter. Her father would lift her and hug her.
"Oh, it won't be long now," he would say.
Alice, Henry thought, never believed that she was going to marry William. She was rational and even when she was in her teens her intelligence had at its core a brittle anger. Yet because the idea that she would marry William had been spoken so many times, and because no outsider had presented himself as even vaguely plausible, the notion had entered surreptitiously but firmly into the silent places of her soul.
As he pondered and tried to shape the story of the two abandoned children told to him by the archbishop, he found himself thinking about his sister's puzzling presence in the world. He went over the scenes where she had made clear to them her considerable intelligence and her raw vulnerability. She was the only little girl he had ever known, and now, as he began to imagine a little girl, it was his sister's unquiet ghost which came to him.
"One need pray for nothing," she said. "Reference to those whom we should meet again makes me shiver. It is an invasion of their sanctity. It is the sort of personal claim to which I am deeply opposed."
She had sounded like Emerson's aunt, someone steeped in the philosophy of life and death, someone who prided herself on the independence of her thought. It was clear to her family that she had a sharp mind and a great wit but that she knew that she would have to conceal them if she wanted to be like the other young women of her age.
Alice had friends and visitors and went on outings. She learned to be acceptable to the sisters of her brothers' associates. But Henry observed her when a young man came into the room and he noticed the change in her behavior. She could not relax and her silences were full of force. She would become garrulous, talking a mixture of nonsense and paradox. There was a terrible shrillness and uneasiness about her. He saw how these social occasions must exhaust her.
Even family meals could be a trial for her, as Bob and Wilky learned to delight in teasing her and leaving her defenseless. These were the years of their father's great restlessness, when they crossed the Atlantic in search of something that none of them understood, a distraction from his father's passionate and eager bewilderment. They were dragged from city to city, hotel to apartment, tutor to school. They spoke French fluently and they knew themselves to be strange. It made all five of them stand apart from their generation; they knew both more and less than others. More about opulence and history and European cities, more about solitude and uncertainty, more about standing alone and being independent. Less about America, and the web of connections and affections being woven by their contemporaries. In these years, they learned to lean on each other, offer each other a private language, a containment, a coherence. They were like an old walled city. No one, no matter how strong the siege, could break down their defenses. And Alice, as she grew older, was trapped inside.
Alice must have been eight or nine at the time. She had been placed beside the novelist and Henry knew that this could not have been easy for her. She would have been nervous about every gesture that she made, every morsel of food touched by her knife and fork. She would have spent the meal wondering what the great man thought about her. Henry knew that on these occasions her pulse would have been faster, her efforts to impress would have been complex and self-conscious and laborious.
He never remembered her wearing crinoline in those years, but the story centered on this. Thackeray turned to her and studied her attire.
"Crinoline!" he said. "I never would have guessed. So young and so depraved!"
The remark, which might have been meant kindly, would have come as a sudden blow to his sister. In the moments that followed she would have felt only shame, as though a secret, dark part of her had been exposed. He imagined the suddenness of the remark, saw his sister's incomprehension, her attempt to smile. Henry alone understood the full cruelty of it, but he did nothing to silence the rest of them as they paraded the story in front of everyone who would listen, happiest if Alice were in the room to hear the story of her own humiliation at the hands of one of the most distinguished novelists of the age.
Alice tried to be sophisticated for William, a woman of the world, a French diarist of the eighteenth century. Their mother one day spoke of how deeply affected Ned Lowell had been by the Boston portrayed in Howells's new novel. Alice clearly wanted to say something, and they all turned to her. She could not begin. Her face was flushed.
"Oh, the poor dear!" she stammered out. "If he is so affected by a novel, one wonders how he feels about the Sack of Rome, or indeed his own wife's flirtations."
Once more, the table stopped. Their mother made as though to stand up, and moved her chair back. The others looked at Alice in surprise. William did not smile at her. She kept her eyes down. She had misjudged the moment, and they had learned how strange an impression she might make if she were to be let loose on the world.
He remembered one night also when his sister must have been eighteen or nineteen. He had come back to the house with news of some sort, a lecture he had heard which would interest his father, or something he had published. He had walked in the door full of bright expectation to be met by his aunt Kate, who immediately alerted him to the fact that his sister was not well.
As he sat downstairs, he could hear Alice calling out. Both parents ministered to her, and Aunt Kate regularly ascended the stairs to hover near her room or join them briefly and then come back down to report to Henry in hushed tones. He could not remember precisely what term his aunt had used to describe Alice's trouble. Alice was having an attack, perhaps, or Alice was suffering from her nerves, but he knew that during the night both of his parents in turn had come to speak with him, and he had noticed their excitement at the new dilemma presented to them. Their nervous daughter and her strange illness deserved all their sympathy and attention.
That night when her sobs did not die down in the room above, and he knew she was being held and comforted, Henry had noticed also that his mother, so often dismissed by Alice for her banal concern with the merely domestic, now was needed desperately by her daughter, and she seemed, in the dim light of the old parlor as she came down and sat with Henry, to derive a certain satisfaction in being so needed.
He had an image, too, of being in Geneva with Alice and Aunt Kate some years later, a time in which none of them dared say to Alice or to each other that her suffering seemed almost willed. They tried to name her malady, and the nearest her mother could come to describing it was to say that Alice was suffering from genuine hysteria. Her illness was incurable, Henry realized, because she looked after it and clung to it as though it were a visitor with whom she had fallen helplessly in love. In Geneva, during their tour of Europe, they must have seemed to onlookers, and at times even to each other, a picture of rare and dutiful New Englanders taking in the sights, observing the Old World with an intelligent and sensuous eye, the brother and sister traveling with their aunt in the time before they would settle. His sister had seemed to him at her happiest, her wittiest and her most hopeful.
He remembered how each afternoon the three of them would walk by the lake, Aunt Kate having ensured that Alice had rested enough in the morning.
"The geography book never mentioned," Alice said on one of these walks, "that lakes have waves. The whole of poetry will have to be rewritten."
"Where shall we start?" Henry asked.
"I shall write to William," Alice replied. "He will know."
"You must rest every day, my dear, and not write too many letters," Aunt Kate said.
"How else shall I let him know?" Alice asked. "Walking is more tiring than writing letters and all this fresh air shall, I fear, be the death of me."
She smiled condescendingly at her aunt, who did not seem amused, Henry noticed, at the mention of death.
"Lungs love hotels," Alice said. "They long for them, especially the lobby and the stairs, but also the dining room and the bedroom, if it has a nice view and a shut window."
"Walk slowly, my dear," Aunt Kate said.
Henry watched Alice as she tried to think of a further remark which would amuse him and annoy Aunt Kate, and then, as they continued walking, she became briefly contented in her silence and in their company.
"The heart," she then continued, "prefers a nice, warm train and the brain, of course, cries out for an ocean liner. I shall convey all of this to William as soon as I return to the hotel, and we must walk fast, Aunt dear, slow walking is anathema to the memory."
"If Dorothy Wordsworth," Henry said, "had let her brother know such things, then his poetry would, I think, have been much improved."
"Was Dorothy Wordsworth not the poet's wife?" Aunt Kate asked.
"No, that was Fanny Brawne," Alice said and smiled mischievously at Henry.
"Walk slowly, my dear," Aunt Kate repeated.
That evening, as she came down to dinner, Henry noticed how carefully Alice had dressed and done her hair, and he knew that things might have been different for her if she had been a great beauty, or not an only girl, or if her intelligence had been less sharp, or her childhood more conventional.
"Could we move around the world staying in nice hotels, just we three, and writing letters home when some very witty remark is made by one of us?" Alice asked. "Could we do this forever?"
"No, we could not," Aunt Kate said.
Aunt Kate took on the role, Henry remembered, of a stern but benevolent governess caring for two orphaned children, Henry obedient and considerate and reliable, and Alice flighty but also ready to do what she was told. And all three of them were happy in those months as long as they put no thought into what would happen to Alice when she returned home.
No one watching them could have guessed that Alice was already a strange and witty invalid. Alice came close in their company to recovery, but Henry knew even then that they could not travel from city to city with her forever. Behind the smiling face and the figure who came so happily down the stairs of the hotel to meet them in the lobby each morning, there was a darkness ready to emerge when the time came. By then Alice's doom was somehow written into every aspect of her being, and, despite those days of equilibrium and happiness in Geneva, what was ahead for her had the shape of a story which now puzzled him and fascinated him, of a young woman who appeared to be light and ambitious and dutiful, but who would soon hear shrill sounds in the night and see frightening faces at the window and allow her daydreams to become nightmares.
The worst time for her was the period before and just after William's marriage, when she had her most severe nervous breakdown, an aggravated recurrence of her old troubles. In England, years later, she told him that most of her had died then, that in the hideous summer of William's marriage to a woman, pretty and practical and immensely healthy, whose name, most cruelly, was also Alice, Alice James went down to the deep sea, and the dark waters clouded over her.
Yet, despite her fearful and debilitating maladies, she maintained a strange mental energy; nothing she did was predictable, or without deliberate ironies and contradictions. When her mother died the family watched her closely, believing this would surely cause her final and complete disintegration. Henry stayed on in Boston, imagining ways he could help her and help his father. But Alice had no more attacks; she became, as plausibly as she could, the competent, dutiful and loving daughter, organizing the domestic life of the house with a light spirit and communicating with the rest of the family as though it were she who held things together. Before he left for London, he saw her one day standing in the hallway of the house as a visitor took leave, her arms folded and her eyes bright as she told the guest to come again soon. He watched her smiling warmly and then almost sadly as she closed the door. Everything about her in those moments, from her stance, to the expressions on her face, to her gestures as she turned back to the hallway, was borrowed from their mother. She was making an effort, Henry saw, to become the woman of the house.
Their father died within a year and once he was buried, her act fell apart. She had developed a close friendship with Katherine Loring, whose intelligence matched hers and whose strength equaled her weakness in its intensity. Miss Loring accompanied her when Alice decided to come to England to avoid being cared for by her aunt Kate, an act of defiance and independence and also, of course, a cry to Henry for help. She would live for eight more years, but they were spent mainly in bed. It was, as she often said, only the shriveling of the empty pea pod which awaited completion.
He remembered this as he waited for her at Liverpool, on her arrival in England, and he knew that her stubborn sense of purpose and preference, and her considerable inheritance from her father's estate, would, with the aid of Miss Loring, delay this completion for some time. He resolved not to entertain the idea that she would disturb his solitude and the fruitfulness of his exile. Nevertheless, he was frightened when he saw her, carried from the ship helpless and ill. She could not speak to him as he approached; she closed her eyes and turned her face away in distress when she thought he was going to touch her. It was clear that she should not have traveled. Miss Loring supervised the moving of Alice to suitable quarters and the finding of a nurse. She rather depended on the invalid state of his sister, Henry came to feel, as much as Alice depended on her.
She did not wish Miss Loring to leave her sight. She had lost her family and she had lost her health, but her will joined now with her intense need to have Katherine Loring to herself. Henry noticed Alice's deterioration verging on hysteria when Miss Loring was absent, and her taking quietly, almost happily, to her bed once Miss Loring promised to stay with her and minister to her. He wrote to his aunt Kate and to William about this strange pair. He tried to make clear his gratitude to Miss Loring for her devotion, so generous and so perfect, but he knew that this devotion depended on Alice's remaining an invalid. He was unhappy at the connection between them, the way it reveled in the unhealthy. He disliked Alice's abject dependence on her steadfast friend. Sometimes, he even believed that Miss Loring did his sister harm, but he could not see who, instead, would do her good and eventually he became resigned to Miss Loring.
Miss Loring stayed with Alice most of the time, caring for her, tolerating her, admiring her as no one ever had. Alice specialized in strong opinions and morbid talk, and Miss Loring seemed to enjoy listening to her as she expressed her views on death and its attendant pleasures, on the Irish Question and the iniquity of the government, and on the nastiness of English life. When Miss Loring was away, however briefly, Alice became sad and indignant that she, who had sat at the table of her brothers and her father, the greatest minds of the age, was now left to the shallow mercies of an English nurse whom Miss Loring had employed.
"Did you know," she would say, "that Mrs. Charles Kingsley was devoted to her husband's memory?"
She would stop as though that were enough, there was no more to be said. And then, by a toss of her head, she would make clear she was ready to continue.
"Did you know that she sat with his bust beside her? When you visited Mrs. Charles Kingsley, you had to visit her husband too. Both of them glowered at you."
Alice glowered herself as though pure evil were being described.
"And what's more," she went on, "Mrs. Charles Kingsley has her dead husband's photograph pinned to the adjoining pillow on her bed!"
She would close her eyes and laugh dryly and at length.
"Oh, a good night's sleep for Mrs. Charles Kingsley! Can you think of anything more grotesquely loathsome?"
And then the doctors. Their visits and prognostications filled her with both contempt and glee, even when she was told she had cancer. One tiny foolish remark from a doctor provided conversation for days. She declared one day that she had been visited by Sir Andrew Clarke and his ghastly grin, as though the latter were a well-known appendage of his. And then, gasping, she would tell her story of how a friend, years before, had been kept waiting by Sir Andrew, who announced himself upon arrival as "the late Sir Andrew Clarke."
"So I said to Miss Loring as we waited for Sir Andrew that I would bet money he would make precisely the same exclamation all these years later on coming into the room. 'Hark,' I said. The door opened and a florid gentleman came in, complete with his ghastly grin, and the phrase 'the late Sir Andrew Clarke' fell from his lips, as though he were saying it for the first time, followed by a very ripe burst of hilarity from the same Sir Andrew, rather too ripe indeed."
She watched herself expectantly for signs of dying, appearing as fearless in the face of mortality as she was fearful in the face of all else. She disliked the clergyman who lived in the apartment below and discussed her dread that he might, should she take ill in the night, minister to her at the end before he could be stopped.
"Imagine," she said, "opening your eyes for the last time and seeing this batlike clergyman."
She stared proudly into the distance as she spoke.
"It would spoil my postmortem expression which I have been practicing for years."
She laughed bitterly.
"It is terrible to be an unprotected being."
Copyright © 2004 by Colm Tóibín
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