A Responsibility

A Responsibility


Henry Harland

IT has been an episode like a German sentence, with its pre-
dicate at the end. Trifling incidents occurred at haphazard,
as it seemed, and I never guessed they were by way of making
sense. Then, this morning, somewhat of the suddenest, came the
verb and the full stop.

Yesterday I should have said there was nothing to tell ; to-day
there is too much. The announcement of his death has caused
me to review our relations, with the result of discovering my own
part to have been that of an accessory before the fact. I did not
kill him (though, even there, I'm not sure I didn't lend a hand),
but I might have saved his life. It is certain that he made me
signals of distress—faint, shy, tentative, but unmistakableߞand
that I pretended not to understand : just barely dipped my colours,
and kept my course. Oh, if I had dreamed that his distress was
extreme—that he was on the point of foundering and going down !
However, that doesn't exonerate me : I ought to have turned aside
to find out. It was a case of criminal negligence. That he, poor
man, probably never blamed me, only adds to the burden on my
conscience. He had got past blaming people, I dare say, and
doubtless merely lumped me with the rest—with the sum-total of
things that made life unsupportable. Yet, for a moment, when


104 A Responsibility

we first met, his face showed a distinct glimmering of hope ; so
perhaps there was a distinct disappointment. He must have had
so many disappointments, before it came to—what it came to ; but
it wouldn't have come to that if he had got hardened to them.
Possibly they had lost their outlines, and merged into one dull
general disappointment that was too hard to bear. I wonder
whether the Priest and the Levite were smitten with remorse
after they had passed on. Unfortunately, in this instance, no
Good Samaritan followed.

The bottom of our long table d'hôte was held by a Frenchman,
a Normand, a giant, but a pallid and rather flabby giant, whose
name, if he had another than Monsieur, I never heard. He pro-
fessed to be a painter, used to sketch birds and profiles on the back
of his menu-card between the courses, wore shamelessly the multi-
coloured rosette of a foreign order in his buttonhole, and talked
with a good deal of physiognomy. I had the corner seat at his
right, and was flanked in turn by Miss Etta J. Hicks, a bouncing
young person from Chicago, beyond whom, like rabbits in a
company of foxes, cowered Mr. and Mrs. Jordan P. Hicks, two
broken-spirited American parents. At Monsieur's left, and facing
me, sat Colonel Escott, very red and cheerful ; then a young man
who called the Colonel Cornel, and came from Dublin, proclaiming
himself a barr'ster, and giving his name as Flarty, though on his
card it was written Flaherty ; and then Sir Richard Maistre.
After him, a diminishing perspective of busy diners—for purposes
of conversation, so far as we were concerned, inhabitants of the
Fourth Dimension.

Of our immediate constellation Sir Richard Maistre was the
only member on whom the eye was tempted to linger. The others
were obvious—simple equations, soluble " in the head." But he
called for slate and pencil, offered materials for doubt and specula-


By Henry Harland 105

tion, though it would not have been easy to tell wherein they lay.
What displayed itself to a cursory inspection was quite unremark-
able : simply a decent-looking young Englishman, of medium
stature, with square-cut plain features, reddish-brown hair, grey
eyes, and clothes and manners of the usual pattern. Yet, showing
through this ordinary surface, there was something cryptic. For
me, at any rate, it required a constant effort not to stare at him. I
felt it from the beginning, and I felt it till the end : a teasing
curiosity, a sort of magnetism that drew my eyes in his direction.
I was always on my guard to resist it, and that was really the
inception of my neglect of him. From I don't know what stupid
motive of pride, I was anxious that he shouldn't discern the interest
he had excited in me ; so I paid less ostensible attention to him
than to the others, who excited none at all. I tried to appear
unconscious of him as a detached personality, to treat him as merely
a part of the group as a whole. Then I improved such occasions
as presented themselves to steal glances at him, to study him à la
dérobée—groping after the quality, whatever it was, that made him
a puzzle—seeking to formulate, to classify him.

Already, at the end of my first dinner, he had singled himself
out and left an impression. I went into the smoking-room, and
began to wonder, over a cup of coffee and a cigarette, who he was.
I had not heard his voice ; he hadn't talked much, and his few
observations had been murmured into the ears of his next neigh-
bours. All the same, he had left an impression, and I found
myself wondering who he was, the young man with the square-cut
features and the reddish-brown hair. I have said that his features
were square-cut and plain, but they were small and carefully
finished, and as far as possible from being common. And his
grey eyes, though not conspicuous for size or beauty, had a
character, an expression. They said something, something I


106 A Responsibility

couldn't perfectly translate, something shrewd, humorous, even
perhaps a little caustic, and yet sad ; not violently, not rebelliously
sad (I should never have dreamed that it was a sadness which
would drive him to desperate remedies), but rather resignedly,
submissively sad, as if he had made up his mind to put the best
face on a sorry business. This was carried out by a certain
abruptness, a slight lack of suavity, in his movements, in his
manner of turning his head, of using his hands. It hinted a
degree of determination which, in the circumstances, seemed
superfluous. He had unfolded his napkin and attacked his dinner
with an air of resolution, like a man with a task before him, who
mutters, "Well, it's got to be done, and I'll do it." At a hazard,
he was two- or three-and-thirty, but below his neck he looked
older. He was dressed like everybody, but his costume had,
somehow, an effect of soberness beyond his years. It was
decidedly not smart, and smartness was the dominant note at the
Hôtel d'Angleterre.

I was still more or less vaguely ruminating him, in a corner of
the smoking-room, on that first evening, when I became aware
that he was standing near me. As I looked up, our eyes met, and
for the fraction of a second fixed each other. It was barely the
fraction of a second, but it was time enough for the transmission
of a message. I knew as certainly as if he had said so that he
wanted to speak, to break the ice, to scrape an acquaintance ; I
knew that he had approached me and was loitering in my neigh-
bourhood for that specific purpose. I don't know, I have studied
the psychology of the moment in vain to understand, why I felt a
perverse impulse to put him off. I was interested in him, I was
curious about him ; and there he stood, testifying that the interest
was reciprocal, ready to make the advances, only waiting for a
glance or a motion of encouragement ; and I deliberately secluded


By Henry Harland 107

myself behind my coffee-cup and my cigarette smoke. I suppose
it was the working of some obscure mannish vanity—of what in a
woman would have defined itself as coyness and coquetry. If he
wanted to speak—well, let him speak ; I wouldn't help him. I
could realise the processes of his mind even more clearly than
those of my own—his desire, his hesitancy. He was too timid to
leap the barriers ; I must open a gate for him. He hovered near
me for a minute longer, and then drifted away. I felt his dis-
appointment, his spiritual shrug of the shoulders ; and I perceived
rather suddenly that I was disappointed myself. I must have
been hoping all along that he would speak quand même, and now I
was moved to run after him, to call him back. That, however,
would imply a consciouness of guilt, an admission that my
attitude had been intentional ; so I kept my seat, making a mental
rendezvous with him for the morrow.

Between my Irish vis-à-vis Flaherty and myself there existed
no such strain. He presently sauntered up to me, and dropped
into conversation as easily as if we had been old friends.

Well, and are you here for your health or your entertain
ment ? " he began. " But I don't need to ask that of a man who's
drinking black coffee and smoking tobacco at this hour of the
night. I'm the only invalid at our end of the table, and I'm no
better than an amateur meself. It's a barrister's throat I have—I
caught it waiting for briefs in me chambers at Doblin."

We chatted together for a half-hour or so, and before we parted
he had given me a good deal of general information—about the
town, the natives, the visitors, the sands, the golf-links, the
hunting, and, with the rest, about our neighbours at table.

"Did ye notice the pink-faced bald little man at me right ?
That's Cornel Escott, C.B., retired. He takes a sea-bath every
morning, to live up to the letters ; and faith, it's an act of


108 A Responsibility

heroism, no less, in weather the like of this. Three weeks have I
been here, and but wan day of sunshine, and the mercury never
above fifty. The other fellow, him at me left, is what you'd be
slow to suspect by the look of him, I'll go bail ; and that's a
bar'net, Sir Richard Maistre, with a place in Hampshire, and ten
thousand a year if he's a penny. The young lady beside yourself
rejoices in the euphonious name of Hicks, and trains her Popper
and Mommer behind her like slaves in a Roman triumph.
They're Americans, if you must have the truth, though I oughtn't
to tell it on them, for I'm an Irishman myself, and its not for the
pot to be bearing tales of the kettle. However, their tongues
bewray them ; so I've violated no confidence."

The knowledge that my young man was a baronet with a place
in Hampshire somewhat disenchanted me. A baronet with a
place in Hampshire left too little to the imagination. The de-
scription seemed to curtail his potentialities, to prescribe his orbit,
to connote turnip-fields, house-parties, and a whole system of
British commonplace. Yet, when, the next day at luncheon, I
again had him before me in the flesh, my interest revived. Its
lapse had been due to an association of ideas which I now recog-
nised as unscientific. A baronet with twenty places in Hampshire
would remain at the end of them all a human being ; and no
human being could be finished off in a formula of half a dozen
words. Sir Richard Maistre, anyhow, couldn't be. He was
enigmatic, and his effect upon me was enigmatic too. Why did
I feel that tantalising inclination to stare at him, coupled with
that reluctance frankly to engage in talk with him ? Why did he
attack his luncheon with that appearance of grim resolution ? For
a minute, after he had taken his seat, he eyed his knife, fork, and
napkin, as a labourer might a load that he had to lift, measuring
the difficulties he must cope with ; then he gave his head a


By Henry Harland 109

resolute nod, and set to work. To-day, as yesterday, he said very
little, murmured an occasional remark into the ear of Flaherty,
accompanying it usually with a sudden short smile : but he listened
to everything, and did so with apparent appreciation.

Our proceedings were opened by Miss Hicks, who asked
Colonel Escott, " Well, Colonel, have you had your bath this
morning ? "

The Colonel chuckled, and answered, "Oh, yes—yes, yes—
couldn't forego my bath, you know—couldn't possibly forego my

" And what was the temperature of the water ? " she continued.

" Fifty-two—fifty-two—three degrees warmer than the air—
three degrees," responded the Colonel, still chuckling, as if the
whole affair had been extremely funny.

" And you, Mr. Flaherty, I suppose you've been to Bayonne ? "

" No, I've broken me habit, and not left the hotel."

Subsequent experience taught me that these were conventional
modes by which the conversation was launched every day, like the
preliminary moves in chess. We had another ritual for dinner :
Miss Hicks then inquired if the Colonel had taken his ride, and
Flaherty played his game of golf. The next inevitable step was
common to both meals. Colonel Escott would pour himself a
glass of the vin ordinaire, a jug of which was set by every plate, and
holding it up to the light, exclaim with simulated gusto, "Ah !
Fine old wine ! Remarkably full rich flavour ! " At this
pleasantry we would all gently laugh ; and the word was free.

Sir Richard, as I have said, appeared to be an attentive and
appreciative listener, not above smiling at our mildest sallies ; but
watching him out of the corner of an eye, I noticed that my own
observations seemed to strike him with peculiar force which led
me to talk at him. Why not to him, with him ? The interest


110 A Responsibility

was reciprocal ; he would have liked a dialogue ; he would have
welcomed a chance to commence one ; and I could at any instant
have given him such a chance. I talked at him, it is true ; but I
talked with Flaherty or Miss Hicks, or to the company at large.
Of his separate identity he had no reason to believe me conscious.
From a mixture of motives, in which I'm not sure that a certain
heathenish enjoyment of his embarrassment didn't count for some
thing, I was determined that if he wanted to know me he must
come the whole distance ; I wouldn't meet him half-way. Ot
course I had no idea that it could be a matter of the faintest real
importance to the man. I judged his feelings by my own ; and
though I was interested in him, I shall have conveyed an altogether
exaggerated notion of my interest if you fancy it kept me awake
at night. How was I to guess that his case was more serious—
that he was not simply desirous of a little amusing talk, but
starving, starving for a little human sympathy, a little brotherly
love and comradeship ?—that he was in an abnormally sensitive
condition of mind, where mere-negative unresponsiveness could
hurt him like a slight or a rebuff?

In the course of the week I ran over to Pau, to pass a day with
the Winchfields, who had a villa there. When I came back I
brought with me all that they (who knew everybody) could tell
about Sir Richard Maistre. He was intelligent and amiable, but
the shyest of shy men. He avoided general society, frightened
away perhaps by the British Mamma, and spent a good part of
each year abroad, wandering rather listlessly from town to town.
Though young and rich, he was neither fast nor ambitious : the
Members entrance to the House of Commons, the stage-doors of
the music halls, were equally without glamour for him ; and if he
was a Justice of the Peace and a Deputy Lieutenant, he had become
so through the tacit operation of his stake in the country. He


By Henry Harland 111

had chambers in St. James's Street, was a member of the
Travellers Club, and played the violin—for an amateur rather
well. His brother, Mortimer Maistre, was in diplomacy—at Rio
Janeiro or somewhere. His sister had married an Australian, and
lived in Melbourne.

At the Hôtel dAngleterre I found his shyness was mistaken for
indifference. He was civil to everybody, but intimate with none.
He attached himself to no party, paired off with no individuals.
He sought nobody. On the other hand, the persons who went
out of their way to seek him, came back, as they felt, repulsed.
He had been polite but languid. These, however, were not the
sort of persons he would be likely to care for. There prevailed a
general conception of him as cold, unsociable. He certainly
walked about a good deal alone—you met him on the sands, on the
cliffs, in the stiff little streets, rambling aimlessly, seldom with a
companion. But to me it was patent that he played the solitary
from necessity, not from choice—from the necessity of his tem-
perament. A companion was precisely that which above all
things his heart coveted ; only he didn t know how to set about
annexing one. If he sought nobody, it was because he didn't
know how. This was a part of what his eyes said ; they bespoke
his desire, his perplexity, his lack of nerve. Of the people who
put themselves out to seek him, there was Miss Hicks ; there
were a family from Leeds, named Bunn, a father, mother, son,
and two redoubtable daughters, who drank champagne with every
meal, dressed in the height of fashion, said their say at the tops of
their voices, and were understood to be auctioneers ; a family
from Bayswater named Krausskopf. I was among those whom
he had marked as men he would like to fraternise with. As often
as our paths crossed, his eyes told me that he longed to stop and
speak, and continue the promenade abreast. I was under the


112 A Responsibility

control of a demon of mischief; I took a malicious pleasure
in eluding and baffling him—in passing on with a nod. It had
become a kind of game ; I was curious to see whether he would
ever develop sufficient hardihood to take the bull by the horns.
After all, from a conventional point of view, my conduct was
quite justifiable. I always meant to do better by him next time,
and then I always deferred it to the next. But from a con-
ventional point of view my conduct was quite unassailable. I said
this to myself when I had momentary qualms of conscience. Now,
rather late in the day, it strikes me that the conventional point of
view should have been re-adjusted to the special case. I should
have allowed for his personal equation.

My cousin Wilford came to Biarritz about this time, stopping
for a week, on his way home from a tour in Spain. I couldn't
find a room for him at the Hôtel d'Angleterre, so he put up at
a rival hostelry over the way ; but he dined with me on the
evening of his arrival, a place being made for him between mine
and Monsieur's. He hadn't been at the table five minutes before
the rumour went abroad who he was somebody had recognised
him. Then those who were within reach of his voice listened
with all their ears—Colonel Escott, Flaherty, Maistre, and Miss
Hicks, of course, who even called him by name : " Oh, Mr.
Wilford." "Now, Mr. Wilford," &c. After dinner, in the
smoking-room, a cluster of people hung round us; men with
whom I had no acquaintance came merrily up and asked to be
introduced. Colonel Escott and Flaherty joined us. At the
outskirts of the group I beheld Sir Richard Maistre. His eyes
(without his realising it perhaps) begged me to invite him, to
present him, and I affected not to understand ! This is one of
the little things I find hardest to forgive myself. My whole
behaviour towards the young man is now a subject of self-

reproach ;

By Henry Harland 113

reproach : if it had been different, who knows that the tragedy of
yesterday would ever have happened ? If I had answered his
timid overtures, walked with him, talked with him, cultivated his
friendship, given him mine, established a kindly human relation
with him, I can't help feeling that he might not have got to such
a desperate pass, that I might have cheered him, helped him, saved
him. I feel it especially when I think of Wilford. His eyes
attested so much ; he would have enjoyed meeting him so keenly.
No doubt he was already fond of the man, had loved him through
his books, like so many others. If I had introduced him ? If we
had taken him with us the next morning, on our excursion to
Cambo ? Included him occasionally in our smokes and parleys ?

Wilford left for England without dining again at the Hôtel
d'Angleterre. We were busy "doing" the country, and never
chanced to be at Biarritz at the dinner-hour. During that week
I scarcely saw Sir Richard Maistre.

Another little circumstance that rankles especially now would
have been ridiculous, except for the way things have ended. It
isn't easy to tell it was so petty—and I am so ashamed. Colonel
Escott had been abusing London, describing it as the least
beautiful of the capitals of Europe, comparing it unfavourably to
Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. I took up the cudgels in its
defence, mentioned its atmosphere, its tone ; Paris, Vienna, St.
Petersburg were lyric, London was epic ; and so forth and so,
forth. Then, shifting from the aesthetic to the utilitarian, I
argued that of all great towns it was the healthiest, its death-rate
was lowest. Sir Richard Maistre had followed my dissertation
attentively, and with a countenance that signified approval ; and
when, with my reference to the death-rate, I paused, he suddenly
burned his ships. He looked me full in the eye, and said,
"Thirty-seven, I believe?" His heightened colour, a nervous

The Yellow Book Vol. II. G


114 A Responsibility

movement of the lip, betrayed the effort it had cost him ; but at
last he had done it screwed his courage to the sticking-place, and
spoken. And I—I can never forget it—I grow hot when I
think of it but I was possessed by a devil. His eyes hung on
my face, awaiting my response, pleading for a cue. " Go on,"
they urged. " I have taken the first, the difficult step make the
next smoother for me." And I—I answered lackadaisically, with
just a casual glance at him, " I don't know the figures," and
absorbed myself in my viands.

Two or three days later his place was filled by a stranger, and
Flaherty told me that he had left for the Riviera.

All this happened last March at Biarritz. I never saw him
again till three weeks ago. It was one of those frightfully hot
afternoons in July ; I had come out of my club, and was walking
up St. James's Street, towards Piccadilly ; he was moving in an
opposite sense ; and thus we approached each other. He didn't
see me, however, till we had drawn rather near to a conjunction :
then he gave a little start of recognition, his eyes brightened, his
pace slackened, his right hand prepared to advance itself—and I
bowed slightly, and pursued my way ! Don't ask why I did
it. It is enough to confess it, without having to explain it. I
glanced backwards, by and by, over my shoulder. He was stand
ing where I had met him, half turned round, and looking after
me. But when he saw that I was observing him, he hastily
shifted about, and continued his descent of the street.

That was only three weeks ago. Only three weeks ago I still
had it in my power to act. I am sure—I don't know why I am
sure, but I am sure—that I could have deterred him. For all
that one can gather from the brief note he left behind, it seems he
had no special, definite motive ; he had met with no losses, got
into no scrape ; he was simply tired and sick of life and of himself.

" I have

By Henry Harland 115

" I have no friends," he wrote. " Nobody will care. People
don't like me; people avoid me. I have wondered why ; I have
tried to watch myself, and discover; I have tried to be decent. I
suppose it must be that I emit a repellent fluid ; I suppose I am a
'bad sort.'" He had a morbid notion that people didn't like him,
that people avoided him ! Oh, to be sure, there were the Bunns
and the Krausskopfs and their ilk, plentiful enough : but he under
stood what it was that attracted them. Other people, the people
he could have liked, kept their distance—were civil, indeed, but
reserved. He wanted bread, and they gave him a stone. It never
struck him, I suppose, that they attributed the reserve to him.
But I—I knew that his reserve was only an effect of his shyness ;
I knew that he wanted bread : and that knowledge constituted my
moral responsibility. I didn't know that his need was extreme ;
but I have tried in vain to absolve myself with the reflection. I
ought to have made inquiries. When I think of that afternoon
in St. James's Street—only three weeks ago—I feel like an
assassin. The vision of him, as he stopped and looked after me—
I can't banish it. Why didn't some good spirit move me to turn
back and overtake him ?

It is so hard for the mind to reconcile itself to the irretrievable.
I can't shake off a sense that there is something to be done. I
can't realise that it is too late.

MLA citation: Harland, Henry. "A Responsibility." The Yellow Book 2 (July 1894): 103-15. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2010. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV2_harland_responsibility.html