London, in England, the capital city of the British Empire, is situated upon the banks of the Thames. It is not likely that these facts were unfamiliar to James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a Scottish gentleman born in America and resident in Paris, but it is certain that he did not appreciate them. For he settled quietly down to discover a fact which no one had previously observed; namely, that it was very beautiful at night. The man was steeped in Highland fantasy, and he revealed London as Wrapt in a soft haze of mystic beauty, a fairy tale of delicacy and wistfulness.
It is here that the Fates showed partiality; for London should rather have been painted by Goya. The city is monstrous and misshapen; its mystery is not a brooding, but a conspiracy. And these truths are evident above all to one who recognizes that London's heart is Charing Cross.
For the old Cross, which is, even technically, the centre of the city, is so in sober moral geography. The Strand roars toward Fleet Street, and so to Ludgate Hill, crowned by St. Paul's Cathedral; Whitehall sweeps down to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Trafalgar Square, which guards it at the third angle, saves it to some extent from the modern banalities of Piccadilly and Pall Mall, mere Georgian sham stucco, not even rivals to the historic grandeur of the great religious monuments, for Trafalgar really did make history; but it is to be observed that Nelson, on his monument, is careful to turn his gaze upon the Thames. For here is the true life of the city, the aorta of that great heart of which London and Westminster are the ventricles. Charing Cross Station, moreover, is the only true Metropolitan terminus. Euston, St. Pancras, and King's Cross merely convey one to the provinces, even, perhaps, to savage Scotland, as nude and barren to-day as in the time of Dr. Johnson; Victoria and Paddington seem to serve the vices of Brighton and Bournemouth in winter, Maidenhead and Henley in summer. Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street are mere suburban sewers; Waterloo is the funereal antechamber to Woking; Great Central is a "notion" imported, name and all, from Broadway, by an enterprising kind of railway Barnum, named Yerkes; nobody ever goes there, except to golf at Sandy Lodge. If there are any other terminals in London, I forget them; clear proof of their insignificance.
But Charing Cross dates from before the Norman Conquest. Here Caesar scorned the advances of Boadicea, who had come to the station to meet him; and here St. Augustin uttered his famous mot, "Non Angli, sed angeli."
Stay: there is no need to exaggerate. Honestly, Charing Cross is the true link with Europe, and therefore with history. It understands its dignity and its destiny; the station officials never forget the story of King Alfred and the cakes, and are too wrapped in the cares of — who knows what? — to pay any attention to the necessities of would-be travellers. The speed of the trains is adjusted to that of the Roman Legions: three miles per hour. And they are always late, in honour of the immortal Fabius, "qui cunctando restituit rem."
This terminus is swathed in immemorial gloom; it was in one of the waiting-rooms that James Thomson conceived the idea for his City of Dreadful Night; but it is still the heart of London, throbbing with a clear longing towards Paris. A man who goes to Paris from Victoria will never reach Paris! He will find only the city of the demi-mondaine and the tourist.
It was not by appreciation of these facts, it was not even by instinct, that Lavinia King chose to arrive at Charing Cross. She was, in her peculiar, esoteric style, the most famous dancer in the world; and she was about to poise upon one exquisite toe in London, execute one blithe pirouette, and leap to Petersburg. No: her reason for alighting at Charing Cross was utterly unconnected with any one of the facts hitherto discussed; had you asked her, she would have replied with her unusual smile, insured for seventy-five thousand dollars, that it was convenient for the Savoy Hotel.
So, on that October night, when London almost shouted its pity and terror at the poet, she only opened the windows of her suite because it was unseasonably hot. It was nothing to her that they gave on to the historic Temple Gardens; nothing that London's favourite bridge for suicides loomed dark beside the lighted span of the railway.
She was merely bored with her friend and constant companion, Lisa la Giuffria, who had been celebrating her birthday for twenty-three hours without cessation as Big Ben tolled eleven.
Lisa was having her fortune told for the eighth time that day by a lady so stout and so iron-clad in corsets that any reliable authority on high explosives might have been tempted to hurl her into Temple Gardens, lest a worse thing come unto him, and so intoxicated that she was certainly worth her weight in grape-juice to any Temperance lecturer.
The name of this lady was Amy Brough, and she told the cards with resistless reiteration. "You'll certainly have thirteen birthday presents," she said, for the hundred and thirteenth time, "and that means a death in the family. Then there's a letter about a journey; and there's something about a dark man connected with a large building. He is very tall, and I think there's a journey coming to you — something about a letter. Yes; nine and three's twelve, and one's thirteen; you'll certainly have thirteen presents." "I've only had twelve," complained Lisa, who was tired, bored, and peevish. "Oh, forget it! "snapped Lavinia King from the window, "you've got an hour to go, anyhow!" "I see something about a large building," insisted Amy Brough, "I think it means Hasty News." "That's extraordinary!" cried Lisa, suddenly awake. "That's what Bunyip said my dream last night meant! That's absolutely wonderful! And to think there are people who don't believe in clairvoyance!"
From the depths of an armchair came a sigh of infinite sadness "Gimme a peach!" Harsh and hollow, the voice issued cavernously from a lantern-jawed American with blue cheeks. He was incongruously clad in a Greek dress, with sandals. It is difficult to find a philosophical reason for disliking the combination of this costume with a pronounced Chicago accent. But one does. He was Lavinia's brother; he wore the costume as an advertisement; it was part of the family game. As he himself would explain in confidence, it made people think he was a fool, which enabled him to pick their pockets while they were preoccupied with this amiable delusion.
"Who said peaches?" observed a second sleeper, a young Jewish artist of uncannily clever powers of observation.
Lavinia King went from the window to the table. Four enormous silver bowls occupied it. Three contained the finest flowers to be bought in London, the tribute of the natives to her talent; the fourth was brimmed with peaches at four shillings a peach. She threw one apiece to her brother and the Knight of the Silver Point.
"I can't make out this Jack of Clubs," went on Amy Brough, "it's something about a large building!"
Blaustein, the artist, buried his face and his heavy curved spectacles in his peach.
"Yes, dearie," went on Amy, with a hiccough, "there's a journey about a letter. And nine and one's ten, and three's thirteen. You'll get another present, dearie, as sure as I'm sitting here."
"I really will?" asked Lisa, yawning.
"If I never take my hand off this table again!"
"Oh, cut it out!" cried Lavinia. "I'm going to bed!"
"If you go to bed on my birthday I'll never speak to you again!"
"Oh, can t we do something?" said Blaustein, who never did anything, anyhow, but draw.
"Sing something!" said Lavinia's brother, throwing away the peach-stone, and settling himself again to sleep. Big Ben struck the half hour. Big Ben is far too big to take any notice of anything terrestrial. A change of dynasty is nothing in his young life!
"Come in, for the land's sake!" cried Lavinia King. Her quick ear had caught a light knock upon the door.
She had hoped for something exciting, but it was only her private tame pianist, a cadaverous individual with the manners of an undertaker gone mad, the morals of a stool-pigeon, and imagining himself a bishop.
"I had to wish you many happy returns," he said to Lisa, when he had greeted the company in general, "and I wanted to introduce my friend, Cyril Grey."
Every one was amazed. They only then perceived that a second man had entered the room without being heard or seen. This individual was tall and thin, almost, as the pianist; but he had the peculiar quality of failing to attract attention. When they saw him, he acted in the most conventional way possible; a smile, and a bow, and a formal handshake, and the right word of greeting. But the moment that introductions were over, he apparently vanished! The conversation became general; Amy Brough went to sleep; Blaustein took his leave; Arnold King followed; the pianist rose for the same purpose and looked round for his friend. Only then did anyone observe that he was seated on the floor with crossed legs, perfectly indifferent to the company.
The effect of the discovery was hypnotic. From being nothing in the room, he became everything. Even Lavinia King, who had wearied of the world at thirty, and was now forty-three, saw that here was something new to her. She looked at that impassive face. The jaw was square, the planes of the face curiously fiat. The mouth was small, a poppy-petal of vermilion, intensely sensuous. The nose was small and rounded, but fine, and the life of the face seemed concentrated in the nostrils. The eyes were tiny and oblique, with strange brows of defiance. A small tuft of irrepressible hair upon the forehead started up like a lone pine-tree on the slope of a mountain; for with this exception, the man was entirely bald; or, rather, clean-shaven, for the scalp was grey. The skull was extraordinarily narrow and long.
Again she looked at the eyes. They were parallel, focussed on infinity. The pupils were pin-points. It was clear to her that he saw nothing in the room. Her dancer's vanity came to her rescue; she moved in front of the still figure, and made a mock obeisance. She might have done the same to a stone image.
To her astonishment, she found the hand of Lisa on her shoulder. A look, half shocked, half pious, was in her friend's eyes. She found herself rudely pushed aside. Turning, she saw Lisa squatting on the floor opposite the visitor, with her eyes fixed upon his. He remained apparently quite unconscious of what was going on.
Lavinia King was flooded with a sudden causeless anger. She plucked her pianist by the arm, and drew him to the window-seat.
Rumour accused Lavinia of too close intimacy with the musician: and rumour does not always lie. She took advantage of the situation to caress him. Monet-Knott, for that was his name, took her action as a matter of course. Her passion satisfied alike his purse and his vanity; and, being without temperament — he was the curate type of ladies' man — he suited the dancer, who would have found a more masterful lover in her way. This creature could not even excite the jealousy of the wealthy automobile manufacturer who financed her.
But this night she could not concentrate her thoughts upon him; they wandered continually to the man on the floor. "Who is he?" she whispered, rather fiercely, "what did you say his name was?" "Cyril Grey," answered Monet-Knott, indifferently; "he's probably the greatest man in England, in his art." "And what's his art?" "Nobody knows," was the surprising reply, "he won't show anything. He's the one big mystery of London." "I never heard such nonsense," retorted the dancer, angrily; "anyhow, I'm from Missouri!" The pianist stared. "I mean you've got to show me," she explained; "he looks to me like One Big Bluff! "Monet-Knott shrugged his shoulders; he did not care to pursue that topic.
Suddenly Big Ben struck midnight. It woke the room to normality. Cyril Grey unwound himself, like a snake after six months' sleep; but in a moment he was a normal suave gentleman, all smiles and bows again. He thanked Miss King for a very pleasant evening; he only tore himself away from a consideration of the lateness of the hour—-
"Do come again!" said Lavinia sarcastically, "one doesn't often enjoy so delightful a conversation."
"My birthday's over," moaned Lisa from the floor, "and I haven't got my thirteenth present."
Amy Brough half woke up. "It's something to do with a large building," she began and broke off suddenly, abashed, she knew not why.
"I'm always in at tea-time," said Lisa suddenly to Cyril. He simpered over her hand. Before they realized it, he had bowed himself out of the room.
The three women looked at each other. Suddenly Lavinia King began to laugh. It was a harsh, unnatural performance: and for some reason her friend took it amiss. She went tempestuously into her bedroom, and banged the door behind her.
Lavinia, almost equally cross, went into the opposite room and called her maid. In half-an-hour she was asleep. In the morning she went in to see her friend. She found her lying on the bed, still dressed, her eyes red and haggard. She had not slept all night. Amy Brough on the contrary, was still asleep in the arm-chair. When she was roused, she only muttered: "something about a journey in a letter." Then she suddenly shook herself and went off without a word to her place of business in Bond
Street. For she was the representative of one of the great Paris dressmaking houses.
Lavinia King never knew how it was managed; she never realized even that it had been managed; hut that afternoon she found herself inextricably bound to her motor millionaire.
So Lisa was alone in the apartment. She sat upon the couch, with great eyes, black and lively, staring into eternity. Her black hair coiled upon her head, plait over plait; her dark skin glowed; her full mouth moved continually.
She was not surprised when the door opened without warning. Cyril Grey closed it behind him, with swift stealth. She was fascinated; she could not rise to greet him. He came over to her, caught her throat in both his hands, bent back her head, and, taking her lips in his teeth, bit them bit them almost through. It was a single deliberate act: instantly he released her, sat down upon the couch by her, and made some trivial remark about the weather. She gazed at him in horror and amazement. He took no notice; he poured out a flood of small-talk — theatres, politics, literature, the latest news of art —-
Ultimately she recovered herself enough to order tea when the maid knocked.
After tea — another ordeal of small-talk — she had made up her mind. Or, more accurately, she had become conscious of herself. She knew that she belonged to this man, body and soul. Every trace of shame departed; it was burnt out by the fire that consumed her. She gave him a thousand opportunities; she fought to turn his words to serious things. He baffled her with his shallow smile and ready tongue, that twisted all topics to triviality. By six o'clock she was morally on her knees before him; she was imploring him to stay to dinner with her. He refused. He was engaged' to dine with a Miss Badger in Cheyne Walk; possibly he might telephone later, if he got away early. She begged him to excuse himself; he answered — serious for the first time — that he never broke his word.
At last he rose to go. She clung to him. He pretended mere embarrassment. She became a tigress; he pretended innocence, with that silly shallow smile.
He looked at his watch. Suddenly his manner changed, like a flash. "I'll telephone later, if I can," he said, with a sort of silky ferocity, and flung her from him violently on to the sofa.
He was gone. She lay upon the cushions, and sobbed her heart out.
The whole evening was a nightmare for her — and also for Lavinia King.
The pianist, who had looked in with the idea of dinner, was thrown out with objurgations. Why had he brought that cad, that brute, that fool? Amy Brough was caught by her fat wrists, and sat down to the cards; but the first time that she said "large building," was bundled bodily out of the apartment. Finally, Lavinia was astounded to have Lisa tell her that she would not come to see her dance — her only appearance that season in London! It was incredible. But when she had gone, thoroughly huffed, Lisa threw on her wraps to follow her; then changed her mind before she had gone half way down the corridor.
Her evening was a tempest of indecisions. When Big Ben sounded eleven she was lying on the floor, collapsed. A moment later the telephone rang. It was Cyril Grey — of course — of course — how could it be any other?
"When are you likely to be in?" he was asking. She could imagine the faint hateful smile, as if she had known it all her life." Never!" she answered, "I'm going to Paris the first train to-morrow." "Then I'd better come up now." The voice was nonchalant as death — or she would have hung up the receiver. "You can't come now; I'm undressed!" "Then when may I come?" It was terrible, this antinony of persistence with a stifled yawn! Her soul failed her. "When you will," she murmured. The receiver dropped from her hand; but she caught one word - the word "taxi."
In the morning, she awoke, almost a corpse. He had come, and he had gone — he had not spoken a single word, not even given a token that he would come again. She told her maid to pack for Paris: but she could not go. Instead, she fell ill. Hysteria became neurasthenia; yet she knew that a single word would cure her.
But no word came. Incidentally she heard that Cyril Grey was playing golf at Hoylake; she had a mad impulse to go to find him; another to kill herself.
But Lavinia King, perceiving after many days that something was wrong — after many days, for her thoughts rarely strayed beyond the contemplation of her own talents and amusements — carried her off to Paris. She needed her, anyhow, to play hostess.
But three days after their arrival Lisa received a postcard. It bore nothing but an address and a question-mark. No signature; she had never seen the handwriting; but she knew. She snatched up her hat, and her furs, and ran downstairs. Her car was at the door; in ten minutes she was knocking at the door of Cyril's studio.
His arms were ready to receive her; but she was on the floor, kissing his feet.
"My Chinese God! My Chinese God!" she cried.
"May I be permitted," observed Cyril, earnestly, "to present my friend and master, Mr. Simon Iff?"
Lisa looked up. She was in the presence of a man, very old, but very alert and active. She scrambled to her feet in confusion.
"I am not really the master," said the old man, cordially, "for our host is a Chinese God, as it appears. I am merely a student of Chinese Philosophy."