A Little Holiday

A Little Holiday

By

Oswald Sickert

ROY had twice stayed with us in London during the vacation ;
but since our days at Cambridge most of his time had been
spent in Paris, and I had never been to his home till that spring.

I had eagerly looked forward to the visit, for not only should I
enjoy Roy's company uninterruptedly for eight whole days, but I
should at last meet his sister. And looking forward with curiosity
and excitement to the sunny prospect, I had only seen on the
clear horizon one little cloud—a certain fear I had of Roy's
uncle. This uncle had lived with them even before the father's
death, and had since acted as guardian to the two children, for
their mother, his sister, was an invalid. He used to come up to
Cambridge to see Roy, so I had met him frequently. I took a
great fancy to him from the first, and he had my unbounded
respect ; he was the ideal of steadfastness and honour and clear
judgment. But I always experienced in his presence the same
feeling—a feeling which no difference of age could explain. I
was before him a person of no weight, of no principles, a butterfly
character—he would have passed me on one side if I had not been
Roy's friend. I felt just the same when I saw him after an
interval of three years, although in between he had warmly
praised my verses and had gone out of his way to write me from

time

By Oswald Sickert 205

time to time matters of encouragement. I was flattered that he
should choose to keep up an unflagging correspondence—for
though our letters did not pass at frequent intervals, they gave me
a pleasant impression of continuity, showing that the silence of a
month or two in no way weakened the thread of interest that had
been spun between us. Our letters sometimes touched upon
certain points in the working of the department which I had
entered ; but they were chiefly concerned with the writing of
verses, and on the evening of my arrival I was emboldened, in the
hope of assuring the ground beneath my feet, to ask him whether
he did not think my last disquisition priggish, conceited, over-
ignorant, slight. No, he did not think so at all ; in fact, he had waited
for my arrival in order to discuss the question more fully. And
all the while I was talking of my own subject—something I could
do and he couldn't, something he thought worth doing, my work,
hard work—I yet felt a humbug. I felt so with a few other
men, one or two even of my own age ; but I did not like any of
them so much as Roy's uncle. He was not sixty, a small man
with one shoulder bigger than the other, almost a hump-back, and
his red hair was turning grey.

I wondered whether he approved of Roy's great affection for
me ; I used even to think sometimes that he looked upon me as
an adventurer, and then, in no spirit, I am sure, of pitting myself
against my dear Roy, I would argue the point. Roy, it was true,
was of an old family ; he was rich (I had no idea they were so
well off—it was a beautiful house). But there was nothing I
could gain from him, and, as far as a career went, I was a good
way ahead of him, for he had only just finished three years of study
in a Paris studio.

Even if my uncomfortable sensation were pure fancy, even if
he did really think there was a firm foundation in me, still I

thought

206 A Little Holiday

thought there must be some reason for my imagination to play me
such tricks, and I could not discover it. Moreover, I was sure he
liked me ; he was more than polite, he made much of me ; and
every now and then we came very close to each other. He must
have seen, too, how sincerely I reverenced him.

Roy's sister was enchanting—not quite so pretty as Roy. She
was just seventeen. Roy told me she had a deep admiration for
me, not only because I was his friend, but because she had heard
I was very clever. For the first day or two this admiration stood
in our way. Conversation with me was an honour which made
her proud, a privilege not to be abused. The eight years which
divided us were to her the whole difference between a grown man
in the world and a child. She had been educated at home, and
had seen very few people. But after a time our intercourse grew
easier. No attempt of mine could have shaken the faith she had
in my opinions. I was a genius : that was the point from
which she started. Under the light she shed upon me, I was
scrupulously careful of everything I said, everything I thought ; I
never felt so tender of any one. The touching faith and respect
of the girl cast a spell over my stay with Roy, a penetrating
softness.

Insincerity would have been impossible, as well as immoral, in
the face of so much enthusiasm and trust, so I was most happy
when we talked of men I wholly admired. I was safe when
we were capping each other's praises of Shelley or Jane Austen ;
I was safe when I tried to make her share my love of Wordsworth.
But it was more difficult when she started an admiration in which
I could not join. She had learned from her uncle to love Ruskin,
and one day, when we were walking up and down the garden
alone, she asked me about him. I answered that I did not think
I understood him properly—at least, I did not see his teaching as

a whole ;

By Oswald Sickert 207

a whole ; in the end he might well turn out to be right, but just
now I did not see him quite. She was swerving round already,
and when she wanted me to explain why I did not like him, I
suggested we should talk about him in the evening when her uncle
was with us ; he knew much more about Ruskin than I did—he
was sure to be right. But this modesty on my part only made
her look upon my objections to Ruskin, whatever they might be,
as certainly superior to any other opinions that could be held of
him. I was peculiarly careful, when the time came, not to put
my case, if I could help it, but to make the discussion as much as
possible an exposition of Ruskin by her uncle. This was difficult,
because he always deferred to me on questions of art, and Roy,
who entirely agreed with me, let me do all the talking. And during
our conversation that evening I experienced more acutely than
ever the uneasy sensation of unworthiness, and all the time I was
asking myself why I should feel a humbug. Were not plenty of
men, men who knew, who knew better than Roy's uncle, con-
vinced that Ruskin was mistaken about the points we were
discussing ? And was not I speaking as little as possible, softening
everything down, and agreeing with humility wherever he let me ?
And I had read a great deal of Ruskin at one time, and my
objections were of respectably long standing. I felt, too, all the
more uncomfortable, because here I sat, extremely against my
wish, helplessly seducing the niece he loved so from her pious
opinions, the opinions she had learnt from him. I could not help
it ; she was quite on my side, although I had tried not to take a
side, and she disliked Ruskin more than I did.

I can hardly explain how much our conversations about Mill
meant to me ; they were the best of all. When she first men-
tioned him I did little more than respect her sacred admiration, so
natural to a girl of her age ; but gradually I was caught too. We

The Yellow Book—Vol. XII. N

talked

208 A Little Holiday

talked of him a great deal, more than of any one; with Shelley
he was her chief hero. Mill had been one of the keenest admira-
tions of my boyhood, and boyhood's opinions are far off at twenty-
five. The men of my age were inclined to be condescending to
Mill : our idea of a State had outgrown the limits of Liberty ;
his political economy—the whole science, indeed—was rather in
disgrace, his Logic was perhaps amusing to read, but the style was
stilted, and we had got far beyond his essays on religion, in fact,
we were coming round the other side ; and as I had no occasion
to re-read any of his books, I acquiesced. I certainly should have
shrunk from the notion of putting such a man in my thoughts
near Flaubert or Tolstoy, for instance. But when we began to
talk of his autobiography, I saw once more in its entirety the
enthralling power the man had in my boyhood, the honesty that
was almost lyrical, the sane and delicate intelligence, the peculiar
love of truth, which would make him in all times, however far the
world might progress, an ideal and adorable figure. I loved him
once more, and it was heaven to follow her lead, and get back in
all sincerity with the girl to this old enthusiasm, forgotten, slighted,
while I was following in the train of superior art.

Once when we two were talking of Shelley—Mill's poet—Roy
interrupted after a remark of hers :

"Why, Beatrice, I never knew you were so fond of reading."

"What else is there to be fond of?" she answered ; and I too
could think of nothing else at the moment.

On the second Sunday we had tea in the summer-house, and
we meant to enjoy ourselves especially, because it was my last
day. Beatrice had brought out paper and pencils, and we were
going to write verses, or play on paper in any way we liked. At
first we all played together, her jolly brother, my good friend,
sitting opposite his sister and me. We fooled with writing in

various

By Oswald Sickert 209

various pretty ways suited to the pretty girl, the summer-house,
our high spirits. The more we wrote, the higher our spirits rose,
till at last we were floating in a summery ether of butterflies and
flowers and breezes, high above everyday prose, in a charmed
world of fancy. I had never known the pen a magician's rod of
this power. We made verses together, writing each a line and
passing the paper round. Beatrice appeared in a light which
plainly surprised her brother. Her imagination, her spirituality,
burst into radiant life. Her strokes were by far the most brilliant,
some of her lines were beautiful. A half-realised thought came
into my head that of her own self such brilliant fancies would
never have been called to her mind and her ringers, that it was
our presence which made it possible for her—nay, that it was her
neighbour ; and so in the delicious atmosphere I felt that her
inventions, though they often outstripped mine, were yet mine
too.

We had made many such verses, and, as an empty sheet lay
before me, a new idea struck me, and asking, "Who is this by ?"
I began to make up a line ; but at the fifth word she had guessed.
When it came to Roy's turn, and he was just writing the first
word very large, that we might read it upside down, she stretched
out her hand across the table and laid it on his paper, and, fearing
lest she should not guess sooner than I, said without looking at
me :

"But you must write very slowly and stop after each word !"
And that made me feel still happier in my neighbour ; happy,
too, that she only withdrew her hand a little way in her unfair
rivalry, half-conscious surely that it would divide the attention of
my eyes. At the third round she wrote two lines to make us
laugh, not for the guessing, for the Chaucer could not be hid even
in the first two words of her couplet ; and laugh we did to see

Chaucer

210 A Little Holiday

Chaucer writing of that "Jewe abhominable" (Roy had dared a
Heine verse, and we had talked of Heine in the morning, but
Beatrice knew nothing of him herself). Roy cried out on
"potence," it was not a Chaucer word. And that correction
was the first sign of a change ; for soon it came that he had
slipped out of our game and only laughed with us, and then he
pushed back his chair and began to draw us, and he almost faded
from my mind, and the game lay between us two.

She followed where I led, and I started prose, beginning reck-
lessly anyhow, without sense, not even imitating any one, but for
the pleasure of the pompous words :

"Beneath him lay the valley of content, seawards bared by the
salt wind, its few shorn trees scorched and bent inland, but up-
stream increasing in fulness until they thickened to the joyous
orchard"—any large-mouthed nonsense that came into my head,
And she followed, for now we had a whole sheet before us and
two pencils, and she wrote on her side and I on mine. The thing
began aimlessly, but sense came into it as we went on, and such
an idyll grew up as has never been written, so full and free. At
first there was much joking and many grotesque digressions com-
pelling laughter ; here and there, like notes passed by boys in
class, there would come expostulations, enclosed in brackets—on
her side.

"(A moment ago we were standing on the old mill bridge,
watching the red cider-apples circling in the eddies and trying to
break away down stream. How did we get to the top of this
hill from which you see the minarets of the Golden City glittering
in the morning sky ?)"

"(Not the Golden City. I was thinking of the Crystal Palace
from Campden Hill, where I went to school ; but we'll come
down again.)"

But

By Oswald Sickert 211

But soon the laughter passed out. Our two wits, sharpened to
the keenest edge by the strange rivalry, were yet by this rivalry
converging to meet. Only at the points where the love story
grew too intense, the one of us whose turn it was would rest, pro-
longing the joy, putting off the inevitable meaning with some
sentence of wayward description ; but even these interludes, and
especially such as she wrote, bore a treasonable reflection of things
which were around us ; and into the valley of our fancy there
grew the lilacs which looked in at the summer-house, the wooden
paling in front of the orchard, the sheep on the distant Surrey
Hills.

She wrote the girl and I the man, and we kept to our proper
spheres, until, as the love scene came to rapture, at the height of
daring, the man said to the girl :

"And would you love me if I were a beggar ?" For though
we were writing of to-day, the man had still upon him something
of the heroic glory in an old tale. We were beyond all bounds,
and had been caught up to a perilous height ; we were alone, and
she had loved to make the man a wonder of manhood in her
maiden's eyes. But, even as I set down the question, I felt some-
where that it was a final madness to come to so close an inversion ;
it was leaping with eyes wilfully shut from a dizzy precipice. On
her column she wrote :

"The girl raised her eyes to her fairy prince, that he might
read there that she gave him what no riches can buy."

She turned her fearless eyes to me, and the first glance from
them swept me down horribly to the world. What had I been
doing ? how could anything so irrevocable have happened ? Dead-
ness came over me and dragged me down, down. I never felt
so completely on the earth, so immovably, hopelessly everyday.
What would else have been a discomfort, or frightening even, was

now

212 A Little Holiday

now almost a relief—or at any rate I had reached the bottom—
her uncle stood between us, and his presence did not surprise me.
We had not heard his coming. His face was expressionless, his
eyes were fixed on the paper before us. My hand almost moved
forward to cover it ; but she made no attempt at hiding, so I too
kept still. Roy laughed in his jolly fashion, and cried out from
his sudden proximity :

"Stop there, uncle, I'll put you in too !"

The sheet was laden with love, I knew, and as my once more
greyly critical eye caught a hateful sentence here and there, I
would have hidden it from him, if only for vanity. However I
did not fancy he was paying much attention to what was written,
but was thinking : here is the adventurer doing what I feared
most ; winning the love of my little Beatrice, hardly past her
childhood, the heiress—and under pretence of art. I was so
hideously aware that I had never meant that, that I did not love
her, or want to pretend I did, that I was not so base as he must
think, and he stood so long without moving, that I murmured :

"We were only joking," conscious, when the words had passed
my lips, that they were despicable and the very bottom of
cowardice, without knowing why. He had put his arm on his
niece's shoulder, and I knew she was leaning her head on his coat.
He left us, he had not noticed me, and went over to Roy and
looked at his drawing ; I felt that his going to Roy and looking
at the sketch had some connection with the reproachful disaster.
I began :

"Surely your uncle is not really angry with us—" and then
I went to the end of what I had started to say—"he must have
seen we were only joking," as if I were repeating words learned
by rote ; for when our eyes met once more, I saw she had not
realised ; and she did not know why I should be repeating the

meaningless

By Oswald Sickert 213

meaningless excuse I had given her uncle. And then—and then
—Oh, I had not yet reached the worst, for she smiled and put
out her hand as if to lay it on my arm, to comfort me in my
evident distress ; it was her first impulse, it was all she thought
of. I appealed to myself in dull agony, how was it possible I
could resist that movement, why couldn't I at any rate pretend
to love such a person, and leave it to time to make the pretence
a reality ? Or rather, what did I matter here at all ? But I was
lead. She rose from the table, and just then Roy came up to us
and showed us his drawings, and we walked back to the house,
her brother talking between us. She was silent and oppressed,
her thoughts were turned inwards : the puzzle now began to
weigh on her, she had started to question and solve it. She ad-
vanced us by a few steps as we neared the house, and I could
think of nothing, only my spirit was straining forward to the
girl's figure in front. I was dragging after her on my knees
through the abject dust, and in my head the despairing excuse, a
nightmare repetition, "we were only joking, we were only
joking."

Roy was the sole cheerful one at dinner, and he and his uncle
talked much as usual. Every now and again I felt Beatrice's
eyes fixed on me. After dinner she went up to see her mother.
Roy and I sat on, talking, and two hours later the door opened
and let in a flood of light from the hall into our dark room, and
Beatrice stood there. She did not come in, but said good-night,
and hesitated a moment in the light, with one hand still resting
on the door post and the other holding the handle ; and then she
turned, and the door closed us into darkness again. Then another
thing was revealed to me : I knew that even when she realised
fully, no shadow of blame for me would cross her mind.

Next morning Roy and I carried out the cherished plan we

had

214 A Little Holiday

had made with so much pleasure long ago. We were to be at
Mr. Gow's soon after sunrise, to breakfast there and feel the
"nec requies" as the farm bestirred itself for another week's
work, and thus warmed and elated ramble some six or seven miles
to a railway station. I talked and simulated sympathy while my
head was full of something else, and so these last morning hours
of my visit served chiefly to assure me that my closest friend was
now to be counted among those with whom I could not deal
simply. It was still unwontedly early when I reached London
and the office.





MLA citation: Sickert, Oswald. "A Little Holiday" The Yellow Book 12 (January 1897): 204-214. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2013. Web. [Date of access]. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV12_sickert_little.html