THE FIGURE IN THE CARPET
THE FIGURE IN THE CARPET
I had done a few things and earned a few pence--I had perhaps even
had time to begin to think I was finer than was perceived by the
patronising; but when I take the little measure of my course (a
fidgety habit for it's none of the longest yet) I count my real
start from the evening George Corvick breathless and worried came
in to ask me a service. He had done more things than I and earned
more pence though there were chances for cleverness I thought he
sometimes missed. I could only however that evening declare to him
that he never missed one for kindness. There was almost rapture in
hearing it proposed to me to prepare for The Middle the organ of
our lucubrations so called from the position in the week of its
day of appearance an article for which he had made himself
responsible and of which tied up with a stout string he laid on
my table the subject. I pounced upon my opportunity--that is on
the first volume of it--and paid scant attention to my friend's
explanation of his appeal. What explanation could be more to the
point than my obvious fitness for the task? I had written on Hugh
Vereker but never a word in The Middle where my dealings were
mainly with the ladies and the minor poets. This was his new
novel an advance copy and whatever much or little it should do
for his reputation I was clear on the spot as to what it should do
for mine. Moreover if I always read him as soon as I could get
hold of him I had a particular reason for wishing to read him now:
I had accepted an invitation to Bridges for the following Sunday
and it had been mentioned in Lady Jane's note that Mr. Vereker was
to be there. I was young enough for a flutter at meeting a man of
his renown and innocent enough to believe the occasion would
demand the display of an acquaintance with his "last."
Corvick who had promised a review of it had not even had time to
read it; he had gone to pieces in consequence of news requiring--as
on precipitate reflexion he judged--that he should catch the night-
mail to Paris. He had had a telegram from Gwendolen Erme in answer
to his letter offering to fly to her aid. I knew already about
Gwendolen Erme; I had never seen her but I had my ideas which
were mainly to the effect that Corvick would marry her if her
mother would only die. That lady seemed now in a fair way to
oblige him; after some dreadful mistake about a climate or a "cure"
she had suddenly collapsed on the return from abroad. Her
daughter unsupported and alarmed desiring to make a rush for home
but hesitating at the risk had accepted our friend's assistance
and it was my secret belief that at sight of him Mrs. Erme would
pull round. His own belief was scarcely to be called secret; it
discernibly at any rate differed from mine. He had showed me
Gwendolen's photograph with the remark that she wasn't pretty but
was awfully interesting; she had published at the age of nineteen a
novel in three volumes "Deep Down" about which in The Middle he
had been really splendid. He appreciated my present eagerness and
undertook that the periodical in question should do no less; then
at the last with his hand on the door he said to me: "Of course
you'll be all right you know." Seeing I was a trifle vague he
added: "I mean you won't be silly."
"Silly--about Vereker! Why what do I ever find him but awfully
"Well what's that but silly? What on earth does 'awfully clever'
mean? For God's sake try to get AT him. Don't let him suffer by
our arrangement. Speak of him you know if you can as _I_ should
have spoken of him."
I wondered an instant. "You mean as far and away the biggest of
the lot--that sort of thing?"
Corvick almost groaned. "Oh you know I don't put them back to
back that way; it's the infancy of art! But he gives me a pleasure
so rare; the sense of"--he mused a little--"something or other."
I wondered again. "The sense pray of want?"
"My dear man that's just what I want YOU to say!"
Even before he had banged the door I had begun book in hand to
prepare myself to say it. I sat up with Vereker half the night;
Corvick couldn't have done more than that. He was awfully clever--
I stuck to that but he wasn't a bit the biggest of the lot. I
didn't allude to the lot however; I flattered myself that I
emerged on this occasion from the infancy of art. "It's all
right" they declared vividly at the office; and when the number
appeared I felt there was a basis on which I could meet the great
man. It gave me confidence for a day or two--then that confidence
dropped. I had fancied him reading it with relish but if Corvick
wasn't satisfied how could Vereker himself be? I reflected indeed
that the heat of the admirer was sometimes grosser even than the
appetite of the scribe. Corvick at all events wrote me from Paris
a little ill-humouredly. Mrs. Erme was pulling round and I hadn't
at all said what Vereker gave him the sense of.
The effect of my visit to Bridges was to turn me out for more
profundity. Hugh Vereker as I saw him there was of a contact so
void of angles that I blushed for the poverty of imagination
involved in my small precautions. If he was in spirits it wasn't
because he had read my review; in fact on the Sunday morning I felt
sure he hadn't read it though The Middle had been out three days
and bloomed I assured myself in the stiff garden of periodicals
which gave one of the ormolu tables the air of a stand at a
station. The impression he made on me personally was such that I
wished him to read it and I corrected to this end with a
surreptitious hand what might be wanting in the careless
conspicuity of the sheet. I'm afraid I even watched the result of
my manoeuvre but up to luncheon I watched in vain.
When afterwards in the course of our gregarious walk I found
myself for half an hour not perhaps without another manoeuvre at
the great man's side the result of his affability was a still
livelier desire that he shouldn't remain in ignorance of the
peculiar justice I had done him. It wasn't that he seemed to
thirst for justice; on the contrary I hadn't yet caught in his talk
the faintest grunt of a grudge--a note for which my young
experience had already given me an ear. Of late he had had more
recognition and it was pleasant as we used to say in The Middle
to see how it drew him out. He wasn't of course popular but I
judged one of the sources of his good humour to be precisely that
his success was independent of that. He had none the less become
in a manner the fashion; the critics at least had put on a spurt
and caught up with him. We had found out at last how clever he
was and he had had to make the best of the loss of his mystery. I
was strongly tempted as I walked beside him to let him know how
much of that unveiling was my act; and there was a moment when I
probably should have done so had not one of the ladies of our
party snatching a place at his other elbow just then appealed to
him in a spirit comparatively selfish. It was very discouraging:
I almost felt the liberty had been taken with myself.
I had had on my tongue's end for my own part a phrase or two
about the right word at the right time; but later on I was glad not
to have spoken for when on our return we clustered at tea I
perceived Lady Jane who had not been out with us brandishing The
Middle with her longest arm. She had taken it up at her leisure;
she was delighted with what she had found and I saw that as a
mistake in a man may often be a felicity in a woman she would
practically do for me what I hadn't been able to do for myself.
"Some sweet little truths that needed to be spoken" I heard her
declare thrusting the paper at rather a bewildered couple by the
fireplace. She grabbed it away from them again on the reappearance
of Hugh Vereker who after our walk had been upstairs to change
something. "I know you don't in general look at this kind of
thing but it's an occasion really for doing so. You HAVEN'T seen
it? Then you must. The man has actually got AT you at what _I_
always feel you know." Lady Jane threw into her eyes a look
evidently intended to give an idea of what she always felt; but she
added that she couldn't have expressed it. The man in the paper
expressed it in a striking manner. "Just see there and there
where I've dashed it how he brings it out." She had literally
marked for him the brightest patches of my prose and if I was a
little amused Vereker himself may well have been. He showed how
much he was when before us all Lady Jane wanted to read something
aloud. I liked at any rate the way he defeated her purpose by
jerking the paper affectionately out of her clutch. He'd take it
upstairs with him and look at it on going to dress. He did this
half an hour later--I saw it in his hand when he repaired to his
room. That was the moment at which thinking to give her pleasure
I mentioned to Lady Jane that I was the author of the review. I
did give her pleasure I judged but perhaps not quite so much as I
had expected. If the author was "only me" the thing didn't seem
quite so remarkable. Hadn't I had the effect rather of diminishing
the lustre of the article than of adding to my own? Her ladyship
was subject to the most extraordinary drops. It didn't matter; the
only effect I cared about was the one it would have on Vereker up
there by his bedroom fire.
At dinner I watched for the signs of this impression tried to
fancy some happier light in his eyes; but to my disappointment Lady
Jane gave me no chance to make sure. I had hoped she'd call
triumphantly down the table publicly demand if she hadn't been
right. The party was large--there were people from outside as
well but I had never seen a table long enough to deprive Lady Jane
of a triumph. I was just reflecting in truth that this
interminable board would deprive ME of one when the guest next me
dear woman--she was Miss Poyle the vicar's sister a robust
unmodulated person--had the happy inspiration and the unusual
courage to address herself across it to Vereker who was opposite
but not directly so that when he replied they were both leaning
forward. She enquired artless body what he thought of Lady
Jane's "panegyric" which she had read--not connecting it however
with her right-hand neighbour; and while I strained my ear for his
reply I heard him to my stupefaction call back gaily his mouth
full of bread: "Oh it's all right--the usual twaddle!"
I had caught Vereker's glance as he spoke but Miss Poyle's
surprise was a fortunate cover for my own. "You mean he doesn't do
you justice?" said the excellent woman.
Vereker laughed out and I was happy to be able to do the same.
"It's a charming article" he tossed us.
Miss Poyle thrust her chin half across the cloth. "Oh you're so
deep!" she drove home.
"As deep as the ocean! All I pretend is that the author doesn't
see--" But a dish was at this point passed over his shoulder and
we had to wait while he helped himself.
"Doesn't see what?" my neighbour continued.
"Doesn't see anything."
"Dear me--how very stupid!"
"Not a bit" Vereker laughed main. "Nobody does."
The lady on his further side appealed to him and Miss Poyle sank
back to myself. "Nobody sees anything!" she cheerfully announced;
to which I replied that I had often thought so too but had somehow
taken the thought for a proof on my own part of a tremendous eye.
I didn't tell her the article was mine; and I observed that Lady
Jane occupied at the end of the table had not caught Vereker's
I rather avoided him after dinner for I confess he struck me as
cruelly conceited and the revelation was a pain. "The usual
twaddle"--my acute little study! That one's admiration should have
had a reserve or two could gall him to that point! I had thought
him placid and he was placid enough; such a surface was the hard
polished glass that encased the bauble of his vanity. I was really
ruffled and the only comfort was that if nobody saw anything
George Corvick was quite as much out of it as I. This comfort
however was not sufficient after the ladies had dispersed to
carry me in the proper manner--I mean in a spotted jacket and
humming an air--into the smoking-room. I took my way in some
dejection to bed; but in the passage I encountered Mr. Vereker who
had been up once more to change coming out of his room. HE was
humming an air and had on a spotted jacket and as soon as he saw
me his gaiety gave a start.
"My dear young man" he exclaimed "I'm so glad to lay hands on
you! I'm afraid I most unwittingly wounded you by those words of
mine at dinner to Miss Poyle. I learned but half an hour ago from
Lady Jane that you're the author of the little notice in The
I protested that no bones were broken; but he moved with me to my
own door his hand on my shoulder kindly feeling for a fracture;
and on hearing that I had come up to bed he asked leave to cross my
threshold and just tell me in three words what his qualification of
my remarks had represented. It was plain he really feared I was
hurt and the sense of his solicitude suddenly made all the
difference to me. My cheap review fluttered off into space and
the best things I had said in it became flat enough beside the
brilliancy of his being there. I can see him there still on my
rug in the firelight and his spotted jacket his fine clear face
all bright with the desire to be tender to my youth. I don't know
what he had at first meant to say but I think the sight of my
relief touched him excited him brought up words to his lips from
far within. It was so these words presently conveyed to me
something that as I afterwards knew he had never uttered to any
one. I've always done justice to the generous impulse that made
him speak; it was simply compunction for a snub unconsciously
administered to a man of letters in a position inferior to his own
a man of letters moreover in the very act of praising him. To make
the thing right he talked to me exactly as an equal and on the
ground of what we both loved best. The hour the place the
unexpectedness deepened the impression: he couldn't have done
anything more intensely effective.
"I don't quite know how to explain it to you" he said "but it was
the very fact that your notice of my book had a spice of
intelligence it was just your exceptional sharpness that produced
the feeling--a very old story with me I beg you to believe--under
the momentary influence of which I used in speaking to that good
lady the words you so naturally resent. I don't read the things in
the newspapers unless they're thrust upon me as that one was--it's
always one's best friend who does it! But I used to read them
sometimes--ten years ago. I dare say they were in general rather
stupider then; at any rate it always struck me they missed my
little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they
patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins.
Whenever since I've happened to have a glimpse of them they were
still blazing away--still missing it I mean deliciously. YOU
miss it my dear fellow with inimitable assurance; the fact of
your being awfully clever and your article's being awfully nice
doesn't make a hair's breadth of difference. It's quite with you
rising young men" Vereker laughed "that I feel most what a
failure I am!"
I listened with keen interest; it grew keener as he talked. "YOU a
failure--heavens! What then may your 'little point' happen to be?"
"Have I got to TELL you after all these years and labours?" There
was something in the friendly reproach of this--jocosely
exaggerated--that made me as an ardent young seeker for truth
blush to the roots of my hair. I'm as much in the dark as ever
though I've grown used in a sense to my obtuseness; at that moment
however Vereker's happy accent made me appear to myself and
probably to him a rare dunce. I was on the point of exclaiming
"Ah yes don't tell me: for my honour for that of the craft
don't!" when he went on in a manner that showed he had read my
thought and had his own idea of the probability of our some day
redeeming ourselves. "By my little point I mean--what shall I call
it?--the particular thing I've written my books most FOR. Isn't
there for every writer a particular thing of that sort the thing
that most makes him apply himself the thing without the effort to
achieve which he wouldn't write at all the very passion of his
passion the part of the business in which for him the flame of
art burns most intensely? Well it's THAT!"
I considered a moment--that is I followed at a respectful distance
rather gasping. I was fascinated--easily you'll say; but I wasn't
going after all to be put off my guard. "Your description's
certainly beautiful but it doesn't make what you describe very
"I promise you it would be distinct if it should dawn on you at
all." I saw that the charm of our topic overflowed for my
companion into an emotion as lively as my own. "At any rate" he
went on "I can speak for myself: there's an idea in my work
without which I wouldn't have given a straw for the whole job.
It's the finest fullest intention of the lot and the application
of it has been I think a triumph of patience of ingenuity. I
ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does
say it is precisely what we're talking about. It stretches this
little trick of mine from book to book and everything else
comparatively plays over the surface of it. The order the form
the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the
initiated a complete representation of it. So it's naturally the
thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me" my visitor
added smiling "even as the thing for the critic to find."
This seemed a responsibility indeed. "You call it a little trick?"
"That's only my little modesty. It's really an exquisite scheme."
"And you hold that you've carried the scheme out?"
"The way I've carried it out is the thing in life I think a bit
well of myself for."
I had a pause. "Don't you think you ought--just a trifle--to
assist the critic?"
"Assist him? What else have I done with every stroke of my pen?
I've shouted my intention in his great blank face!" At this
laughing out again Vereker laid his hand on my shoulder to show
the allusion wasn't to my personal appearance.
"But you talk about the initiated. There must therefore you see
"What else in heaven's name is criticism supposed to be?" I'm
afraid I coloured at this too; but I took refuge in repeating that
his account of his silver lining was poor in something or other
that a plain man knows things by. "That's only because you've
never had a glimpse of it" he returned. "If you had had one the
element in question would soon have become practically all you'd
see. To me it's exactly as palpable as the marble of this chimney.
Besides the critic just ISN'T a plain man: if he were pray what
would he be doing in his neighbour's garden? You're anything but a
plain man yourself and the very raison d'etre of you all is that
you're little demons of subtlety. If my great affair's a secret
that's only because it's a secret in spite of itself--the amazing
event has made it one. I not only never took the smallest
precaution to keep it so but never dreamed of any such accident.
If I had I shouldn't in advance have had the heart to go on. As it
was I only became aware little by little and meanwhile I had done
"And now you quite like it?" I risked.
"Your secret. It's the same thing."
"Your guessing that" Vereker replied "is a proof that you're as
clever as I say!" I was encouraged by this to remark that he would
clearly be pained to part with it and he confessed that it was
indeed with him now the great amusement of life. "I live almost to
see if it will ever be detected." He looked at me for a jesting
challenge; something far within his eyes seemed to peep out. "But
I needn't worry--it won't!"
"You fire me as I've never been fired" I declared; "you make me
determined to do or die." Then I asked: "Is it a kind of esoteric
His countenance fell at this--he put out his hand as if to bid me
good-night. "Ah my dear fellow it can't be described in cheap
I knew of course he'd be awfully fastidious but our talk had made
me feel how much his nerves were exposed. I was unsatisfied--I
kept hold of his hand. "I won't make use of the expression then"
I said "in the article in which I shall eventually announce my
discovery though I dare say I shall have hard work to do without
it. But meanwhile just to hasten that difficult birth can't you
give a fellow a clue?" I felt much more at my ease.
"My whole lucid effort gives him the clue--every page and line and
letter. The thing's as concrete there as a bird in a cage a bait
on a hook a piece of cheese in a mouse-trap. It's stuck into
every volume as your foot is stuck into your shoe. It governs
every line it chooses every word it dots every i it places every
I scratched my head. "Is it something in the style or something in
the thought? An element of form or an element of feeling?"
He indulgently shook my hand again and I felt my questions to be
crude and my distinctions pitiful. "Good-night my dear boy--don't
bother about it. After all you do like a fellow."
"And a little intelligence might spoil it?" I still detained him.
He hesitated. "Well you've got a heart in your body. Is that an
element of form or an element of feeling? What I contend that
nobody has ever mentioned in my work is the organ of life."
"I see--it's some idea ABOUT life some sort of philosophy. Unless
it be" I added with the eagerness of a thought perhaps still
happier "some kind of game you're up to with your style something
you're after in the language. Perhaps it's a preference for the
letter P!" I ventured profanely to break out. "Papa potatoes
prunes--that sort of thing?" He was suitably indulgent: he only
said I hadn't got the right letter. But his amusement was over; I
could see he was bored. There was nevertheless something else I
had absolutely to learn. "Should you be able pen in hand to
state it clearly yourself--to name it phrase it formulate it?"
"Oh" he almost passionately sighed "if I were only pen in hand
one of YOU chaps!"
"That would be a great chance for you of course. But why should
you despise us chaps for not doing what you can't do yourself?"
"Can't do?" He opened his eyes. "Haven't I done it in twenty
volumes? I do it in my way" he continued. "Go YOU and don't do
it in yours."
"Ours is so devilish difficult" I weakly observed.
"So's mine. We each choose our own. There's no compulsion. You
won't come down and smoke?"