An Immortal

An Immortal

By

Sidney Benson Thorp

THE dusky little row comprising No. 79 quivered like a jelly
as railway or post-office vans, making a short cut between
two principal thoroughfares, roared over the boulders of Wickham
Road, N.W.

To the left front shone a public-house, another to the right.
Before each an Italian musician had set up his rest (for it was ten
o'clock and a fine, warm night), and thence, reckless of unhappy
beings at the confluence, in friendly rivalry they teemed forth
contradictory tunes. From a neighbouring street floated tepid
air charged with the vibrations of inflated brass; the voices of the
inhabitants, seeking on their doorsteps comparative cool at the
close of a tropical day, fantastically varied the echoes. Linked
bands of frolicsome youth patrolled beneath the window of No. 79,
shouting a parody of Wagner wedded to words by an imitator of
Mr. George R. Sims—the latest success of the halls. Splutters
of gurgling laughter betrayed the whereabouts of amorous pairs.

And the man staring from the open window of the first-floor
front neither saw nor heard.

Within the room a pale circle of light fell, from beneath the
opaque shade of a single candle, directly upon a litter of manuscript
and a few odd volumes of standard literature. The feebler rays

reflected

By Sidney Benson Thorp 157

reflected thence disclosed the furniture indispensable for man's
dual existence : a narrow bed, from beneath which the rim of a
bath protruded ; the table, and a couple of chairs. The walls
were unadorned, the boards were bare.

The appearance of Henry Longton's volume had been the
literary event of a season. The new man had been recognised as
standing in a solitude unapproachable by the twittering mob of a
prolific generation. A great poet, who chanced to be also himself
a great critic, had dared to stake his reputation upon the future of
the new Immortal. And so for a while he had lived in a hashish
dream of exultation. He knew his achievements to be high ; and
as he wandered by day or night through howling thoroughfares,
lonely amid the turgid waves of half-evolved humanity, he forgot
the cruel side of life, and hugged himself in the warm cloak of
flattering memories : the tumult of the traffic sounded drums and
trumpets to his song.

Importunate came the hour when he must set forth once more
to produce. A royalty on a limited edition may mount to a
handsome dole of pocket-money, but it is not a chartered company.
Longton's small capital had long since melted away ; and he sat
down, therefore, to write immortal verse for the liquidation of his
landlady's bill.

The time had been when a mere act of attention sufficed to
the erection of jewelled palaces from the piled-up treasures of his
brain. Now, to his dismay, the most assiduous research could
discover among the remnants nothing but the oft-rejected, the
discoloured, and the flawed. The heavy wrath of the gods had
fallen upon him, and he was dumb : he must betake himself to the
merest hack-work of anonymous journalism j and the bitterest
drop in the cup of this set-back was the reflection that the tide
was ebbing for one whom nature had framed unfit to profit by its

flood.

158 An Immortal

flood. A poet and no man is a crushed worm endowed with
understanding.

A tinkling hansom drew up at the door, and a moment after a
well-dressed man came lightly up the stairs. He welcomed him
self with a breezy confidence that suited well with his pleasant
voice and handsome face, lighted all the candles he could find in
his friend s store-cupboard and, finally, reclined upon the bed ;
while his host, without any remonstrance against these revolu-
tionary proceedings, hastened to produce a bottle, a couple or
tumblers, and a half-empty box of his visitor's own cigars.

The brave shine of seventeen candles (ingeniously fastened to
the mantelboard with a drop of their own wax) revealed a notable
contrast between the friends, suggesting the not uncommon cir-
cumstance of an intimacy cemented by contrasting traits. The
new comer was a man of extremely advantageous exterior ; his
masculine beauty of a type that is familiar among Englishmen, but
seldom so perfectly exampled. Longton, on the other side, was
contemptibly plain ; nor was his barbarous shapelessness of parts
redeemed even by such ensign of superior intelligence as he might
justly have claimed to distinguish him from the general man. His
mean face was dingy with a three days growth ; the opening of his
coarse lips disclosed sparse fragments of discoloured teeth ; his eyes
shone with a distressful expression of diffidential self-esteem ; the
greasy skin was unpleasantly diversified with patches of unwhole
some red. His accustomed bearing was characterised by a deference
that was servile without being humble ; but among the few with
whom he was intimate he betrayed a self-assertive petulance which
might not be confounded with courage. That Freddy Beaumont,
in spite of these defects, had never ceased to revere and to befriend
the solitary creature was the most amiable feature in his otherwise
tolerably selfish and purposeless life.

"And

By Sidney Benson Thorp 159

" And what,* he presently demanded, " might be the sense of
this document ?"—producing, as he spoke, a crumpled scrap.

" I wanted particularly to see you," replied the poet, who lisped
disagreeably.

" So much I gathered : the appeal is in the name of the Deity."

" It was urgent."

" Very. I expected to find serpents coiling round the chairs
and a fat toad squatting on the mantel-piece. It is nothing of
that kind ? "

" Nothing, nothing," replied the other in a tone of distressful
impatience.

Well ? "

The poet strained his eyes helplessly up and around, with diffi-
culty disjoined his sticky lips, wrung his clammy hands together, and
at last, in an insecure voice and with a singular hesitancy, asked :

<c Are you fond of pictures ? "

" No," rejoined Freddy, placidly ; " but the first cousin of the
wife of our gardener has a tame elephant."

" That is fortunate," answered Longton, suppressing with an
effort the irritation which his friend's witticisms rarely failed to
stir up. " Putting the elephant aside, however, for the moment—
the fact is, I am in a difficulty."

" My dear fellow, why couldn't you say so at once ? What's
the demned total ?

A van, the property of the Midland Railway Company, had
made rapid approach, and the dialogue had risen in proportion on
a swift crescendo. At this moment Freddy made as if he were
clinging for his life to a bucker. When the turmoil had partially
subsided——

" A cheque won't serve," replied the poet, shaking his head
sadly.

The Yellow Book—Vol. XIII. K

Anything

160 An Immortal

" Anything in reason, you know, I am always ready to do for
you," the other reassured him.

"This is easy," cried the poet, "and it is not unreasonable."

"Just tell me what it is you want," said Beaumont, "and you
may depend on its being done."

"I am going to place my happiness in your hands."

" Snakes ! What, a woman ? "

Exerting himself once more to master his nerves, the other
continued :

" Do you know the Madonna degli Ansidei ? :

" Never heard of the lady. Where s she on? But really this
is very new—very new and unexpected ! " And his face shaped
itself to an appropriate but displeasing expression of masculine
archness.

"The Madonna degli Ansidei, " the other explained with
laborious precision, though within the decayed slippers his toes
were curled into a knot, " is a picture, painted some years ago by
one Raphael Sanzio, an Italian gentleman, and at present housed
in a public building which stands (for the greater convenience of
exploring Londoners) within a stone's throw of the Alhambra
and Empire Theatres. Do you think——

"Right you are," responded Freddy, cheerily. "I don't know
it—the picture—of course ; but I suppose one of the official
persons would condescend to point it out. What then ?

"You will find it in the third gallery ; it faces the entrance;
and the name is written beneath. You can read, I think you
say ? "

" Oh, shut up ! Well, what am I to do ? Annex the thing ? "

"Precisely; if you can bring it away conveniently, without
attracting attention."

" My dear chap——"

" Otherwise

By Sidney Benson Thorp 161

" Otherwise I shall be satisfied if you will devote yourself, I
won't say to admiring it, but to observing it closely for a quarter
of an hour."

" And therewith, as by a miracle, the Philistine shall put off his
skin and the barbarian wash away his spots ; is that the hope ?
Now, I take this real kind of you, little boy ; and it pains
me to have to assure you that I am incorrigible : you'll have to
put up with me as I am." And twisting up his lips, he joined
his pipe to a passing choir :

    ". . . mahnd 'aow ye ga-ow !
    Nahnteen jolly good boys, all in a ra-ow."

There was a pause.

" From four o clock to-morrow afternoon till a quarter past,"
resumed the petitioner, gazing fixedly past his guest.

Freddy's blue eyes opened childishly. " What the devil are
you up to ? " he demanded curiously.

" I have an engagement," stammered the poet. A flow of
blood flushed his face and ebbed.

" You had better keep it, I suggest."

" I can't : don't you see ? " he wailed, and threw out his hands
with a gesture of despair.

" Why ? Who's the party ? I haven't a dream what you are
driving at, I tell you."

" To meet—to meet—the Madonna," he replied desperately.
" And you must represent me."

The excitement of the moment lent an unwonted rigidity to
the crazy form, which to the young man's eyes, as he looked at
him pitifully, seemed to render it yet more lamentable.

" My dear fellow," he remonstrated, " don't you think—
seriously, you know—you had better knock it off for a bit—the

absinthe

162 An Immortal

absinthe or chloral or whatever it is ? Now, give it up, there's a
dear old chap. Look here," he added, laying a kind hand upon
the other's shoulder, " get shaved and into some decent clothes, and
come along to my chambers. I'll put you up for to-night, and
to-morrow we'll run down to a little place I know on the coast :
a week of it will make a new man of you."

The poet started up, a prodigy of wrath.

" Ass ! " he exclaimed. " It is life and death, I tell you. You
call yourself a friend ; will you do this nothing for me ? I ask
you for the last time."

" No." The answer was given in a tone of quiet obstinacy
which, seldom heard by Freddy's intimates, never failed to carry
conviction. " I will go no such fool's errand," he added, " for
any man. And now I must be off. Good-bye. I'll look round
again in a day or two, and I hope I shall find a rational creature."

For a moment, while he held the handle, he faltered ; the
spectacle might have moved commiseration ; but hardening his
heart—

"It's too damned silly," he muttered, as he descended the steep
stairs.

The poet heard him give a direction to the driver and presently
the clatter of hoofs, as the hansom turned and tinkled away south
wards.

* * * * *

Quarter after quarter chimed from the church of St. Pancras,
and the solitary still sat crouching over the table. Involuntarily
from the bitterness of present despair his mind strayed back into
the past, and by an almost orderly survey reviewed the tissue of
its web ; picking out from it the gilded strands that here and
there diversified the dun—the day when the long-sought publisher
was found, the first handling of the precious volume, the article

in

By Sidney Benson Thorp 163

in the National of which it furnished the subject. For a space
he doted upon the brilliant imagination that had conceived these
choice things and brought them forth. Then he was overwhelmed
by the sense of present barrenness and of the defects that must in
any case for ever link his days with solitude.

He rose and extinguished the candle-flare upon the mantelpiece,
then from a worn despatch-box withdrew a faggot of letters.
They dated over two years : the last from that very interning. He
read each one through ; raised it devoutly for a moment to his
quivering mouth ; and held it in the flame till it was consumed.
The last ran :

" A strange idea of yours, my Poet—but what you tell me I shall
do. To-morrow, then, I am to see the face I have searched a
hundred crowds to find : for I should have known it, never doubt, if
once chance had brought us near. Faces mirror minds : that never
fails : and your mind, how well I know it ! I am not to speak, you
say, and that is hard. Yet I am humble and submit. In this, as in
all else, I am your glad handmaid."

With glistening eyes he re-read the words ; then, with a groan,
held this letter also in the flame. The fire spread along the edge
and marched in a tremulous blue curve across the sheet, leaving
charred ruin behind. He gently placed the unbroken tinder upon
the table and allowed the flame to consume the corner by which
he had held it. While he hesitated to mix these ashes with the
rest, his eye lit upon the tumbler. He crushed the brittle remnant
into the glass, pounding it with his ringers till it was mere dust.
Upon this he poured the contents of a phial ; and having filled up
the goblet from a carafe, stirred the contents with the end of a
quill. He held the glass up towards the candle and watched the
ashes circling and sinking in the yellow liquid.

" I have

164 An Immortal

" I have eaten ashes as It were bread," he murmured (as if to
fulfil the magic), "and have mingled my drink with weeping."

He placed the draught upon the table, and kneeling at the low
window-sill, looked out upon the road.

The clamour thence had grown louder as the hour drew near
to midnight ; the choruses more boisterous and less abject to the
conventions of time and tune. Above the din of perpetual harsh
chatter, on this side and that, rose shrill voices into the extreme
register of denunciation and vituperative challenge, buoyed higher
to each response by antiphonal remonstrance in a lower octave.
A mingled line of young men and women, in various stages of
incipient intoxication, wavered past, and beneath the window of
No. 79, attained the honeyed climax of their song :

    " She was one of the Early Birds,
    And I was one o the Worms."

The solitary lodger closed and bolted the window, and pulled
the blind well down.

*****

Upon Freddy's mind the last view of the unhappy young man
had left an impression which he would gladly have shaken off. It
would be too much, indeed, to assert that the memory chased
sleep from his pillow, but it was a fact—and he noted it with
surprise—that even eight hours of dreamless slumber proved
impotent to efface it. By noon, though still resolved that friend
ship should exact no irrational concession from common sense, he
began to be aware that his purpose was less strenuously set than
at breakfast-time he had supposed it to be. The attempt to
stiffen it ruined his lunch ; the last effort to hold out diminished
the value of his smoke ; and by three o clock he owned him
self vanquished. He presently despatched a telegram to his

arbitrary

By Sidney Benson Thorp 165

arbitrary friend and strolled down Piccadilly towards Trafalgar
Square.

A little while he wandered, with a sense of reposeful well-being,
through the wide rooms ; sharing their spaciousness with some
half-score of travellers from the Continent or the States ; for it
was the height of the season, and to lovers of art there was the
Academy. Then, having found the Raphael of which he had
come in search, with a little grimace he settled himself, as the
clock of St. Martin s struck four, full facing it upon a chair.

Determined, now that he had gone so far, to fulfil to the utter
most his friend s eccentric request, he focussed his eyes resolutely
upon the masterpiece. "I will absorb culture," he thought ; "it
is good form." And he proceeded to concentrate his mind.

But, good as was his will, he found it impossible to stir up in
himself any poignant interest ; nor could he help repining against
the wayward taste of his friend, which had selected as the object
of his study the inspired incongruities of this mediaeval work,
rather than a cheerful canvas representing an Epsom crowd, which
had laid hold upon his imagination in one of the chambers devoted
to the British and Modern Schools. Indeed, such was the tedium
of this futile search after occult beauties that five minutes of the
fifteen had barely sped before he was pressingly aware of a head in
unstable equilibrium. The nod aroused him, and the next
moment he was wide-awake.

From the gallery on his right hand as he sat, from behind a
screen which masked the opening, fluttered the panting figure of
a girl. Her slender shape sloped forward as if the little feet were
clogs upon a buoyant soul ; her hands were pressed crosswise
beneath her throat ; cloud fleeces of evening gold pursued one
another across her forehead, her cheek, her neck, as she stood
gazing with shining eyes upon his face, her dewy lips apart.

An

166 An Immortal

An older women, her companion, emerged and drew her away.
" How sweet ! " murmured the student. " Wonder who she
can be ? " And he arose.

*****

It was almost midnight when Freddy drove into Wickham
Road, swelling with great words, primed with confidences.

About the door of 79 it surprised him to find a loose semi-
circular crowd, radiating from the sheen of police-buttons. With
some difficulty he made his way to the officer, and inquired of him
the reason of the assemblage.

The constable eyed him deliberately, and answered with com-
posure :

" Oh, ther's been a bit of a tragedy : lodger's done for 'i'sulf.
They'll stop here all night, some of 'em."

And he spat wearily upon the pavement.





MLA citation: Thorp, Sidney Benson. "An Immortal." The Yellow Book 13 (April 1897): 156-166. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University. Web. [Date of access]. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV13_thorp_immortal.html