Margaret in Venice
There comes into my mind a confused memory of conversations with Margaret; we must have had dozens altogether, and they mix in now for the most part inextricably not only with one another, but with later talks and with things we discussed at Pangbourne. We had the immensest anticipations of the years and opportunities that lay before us. I was now very deeply in love with her indeed. I felt not that I had cleaned up my life but that she had. We called each other “confederate” I remember, and made during our brief engagement a series of visits to the various legislative bodies in London, the County Council, the House of Commons, where we dined with Villiers, and the St. Pancras Vestry, where we heard Shaw speaking. I was full of plans and so was she of the way in which we were to live and work. We were to pay back in public service whatever excess of wealth beyond his merits old Seddon’s economic advantage had won for him from the toiling people in the potteries. The end of the Boer War was so recent that that blessed word “efficiency” echoed still in people’s minds and thoughts. Lord Roseberry in a memorable oration had put it into the heads of the big outer public, but the Baileys with a certain show of justice claimed to have set it going in the channels that took it to him—if as a matter of fact it was taken to him. But then it was their habit to make claims of that sort. They certainly did their share to keep “efficient” going. Altiora’s highest praise was “thoroughly efficient.” We were to be a “thoroughly efficient” political couple of the “new type.” She explained us to herself and Oscar, she explained us to ourselves, she explained us to the people who came to her dinners and afternoons until the world was highly charged with explanation and expectation, and the proposal that I should be the Liberal candidate for the Kinghamstead Division seemed the most natural development in the world.
I was full of the ideal of hard restrained living and relentless activity, and throughout a beautiful November at Venice, where chiefly we spent our honeymoon, we turned over and over again and discussed in every aspect our conception of a life tremendously focussed upon the ideal of social service.
Most clearly there stands out a picture of ourselves talking in a gondola on our way to Torcella. Far away behind us the smoke of Murano forms a black stain upon an immense shining prospect of smooth water, water as unruffled and luminous as the sky above, a mirror on which rows of posts and distant black high-stemmed, swan-necked boats with their minutely clear swinging gondoliers, float aerially. Remote and low before us rises the little tower of our destination. Our men swing together and their oars swirl leisurely through the water, hump back in the rowlocks, splash sharply and go swishing back again. Margaret lies back on cushions, with her face shaded by a holland parasol, and I sit up beside her.
“You see,” I say, and in spite of Margaret’s note of perfect acquiescence I feel myself reasoning against an indefinable antagonism, “it is so easy to fall into a slack way with life. There may seem to be something priggish in a meticulous discipline, but otherwise it is so easy to slip into indolent habits—and to be distracted from one’s purpose. The country, the world, wants men to serve its constructive needs, to work out and carry out plans. For a man who has to make a living the enemy is immediate necessity; for people like ourselves it’s—it’s the constant small opportunity of agreeable things.”
“Frittering away,” she says, “time and strength.”
“That is what I feel. It’s so pleasant to pretend one is simply modest, it looks so foolish at times to take one’s self too seriously. We’ve GOT to take ourselves seriously.”
She endorses my words with her eyes.
“I feel I can do great things with life.”
“I KNOW you can.”
“But that’s only to be done by concentrating one’s life upon one main end. We have to plan our days, to make everything subserve our scheme.”
“I feel,” she answers softly, “we ought to give—every hour.”
Her face becomes dreamy. “I WANT to give every hour,” she adds.
That holiday in Venice is set in my memory like a little artificial lake in uneven confused country, as something very bright and skylike, and discontinuous with all about it. The faded quality of the very sunshine of that season, the mellow discoloured palaces and places, the huge, time-ripened paintings of departed splendours, the whispering, nearly noiseless passage of hearse-black gondolas, for the horrible steam launch had not yet ruined Venice, the stilled magnificences of the depopulated lagoons, the universal autumn, made me feel altogether in recess from the teeming uproars of reality. There was not a dozen people all told, no Americans and scarcely any English, to dine in the big cavern of a dining-room, with its vistas of separate tables, its distempered walls and its swathed chandeliers. We went about seeing beautiful things, accepting beauty on every hand, and taking it for granted that all was well with ourselves and the world. It was ten days or a fortnight before I became fretful and anxious for action; a long tranquillity for such a temperament as mine.
Our pleasures were curiously impersonal, a succession of shared aesthetic appreciation threads all that time. Our honeymoon was no exultant coming together, no mutual shout of “YOU!” We were almost shy with one another, and felt the relief of even a picture to help us out. It was entirely in my conception of things that I should be very watchful not to shock or distress Margaret or press the sensuous note. Our love-making had much of the tepid smoothness of the lagoons. We talked in delicate innuendo of what should be glorious freedoms. Margaret had missed Verona and Venice in her previous Italian journey—fear of the mosquito had driven her mother across Italy to the westward route—and now she could fill up her gaps and see the Titians and Paul Veroneses she already knew in colourless photographs, the Carpaccios, (the St. George series delighted her beyond measure,) the Basaitis and that great statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni that Ruskin praised.
But since I am not a man to look at pictures and architectural effects day after day, I did watch Margaret very closely and store a thousand memories of her. I can see her now, her long body drooping a little forward, her sweet face upraised to some discovered familiar masterpiece and shining with a delicate enthusiasm. I can hear again the soft cadences of her voice murmuring commonplace comments, for she had no gift of expressing the shapeless satisfaction these things gave her.
Margaret, I perceived, was a cultivated person, the first cultivated person with whom I had ever come into close contact. She was cultivated and moral, and I, I now realise, was never either of these things. She was passive, and I am active. She did not simply and naturally look for beauty but she had been incited to look for it at school, and took perhaps a keener interest in books and lectures and all the organisation of beautiful things than she did in beauty itself; she found much of her delight in being guided to it. Now a thing ceases to be beautiful to me when some finger points me out its merits. Beauty is the salt of life, but I take my beauty as a wild beast gets its salt, as a constituent of the meal....
And besides, there was that between us that should have seemed more beautiful than any picture....
So we went about Venice tracking down pictures and spiral staircases and such-like things, and my brains were busy all the time with such things as a comparison of Venice and its nearest modern equivalent, New York, with the elaboration of schemes of action when we returned to London, with the development of a theory of Margaret.
Our marriage had done this much at least, that it had fused and destroyed those two independent ways of thinking about her that had gone on in my mind hitherto. Suddenly she had become very near to me, and a very big thing, a sort of comprehensive generalisation behind a thousand questions, like the sky or England. The judgments and understandings that had worked when she was, so to speak, miles away from my life, had now to be altogether revised. Trifling things began to matter enormously, that she had a weak and easily fatigued back, for example, or that when she knitted her brows and stammered a little in talking, it didn’t really mean that an exquisite significance struggled for utterance.
We visited pictures in the mornings chiefly. In the afternoon, unless we were making a day-long excursion in a gondola, Margaret would rest for an hour while I prowled about in search of English newspapers, and then we would go to tea in the Piazza San Marco and watch the drift of people feeding the pigeons and going into the little doors beneath the sunlit arches and domes of Saint Mark’s. Then perhaps we would stroll on the Piazzetta, or go out into the sunset in a gondola. Margaret became very interested in the shops that abound under the colonnades and decided at last to make an extensive purchase of table glass. “These things,” she said, “are quite beautiful, and far cheaper than anything but the most ordinary looking English ware.” I was interested in her idea, and a good deal charmed by the delightful qualities of tinted shape, slender handle and twisted stem. I suggested we should get not simply tumblers and wineglasses but bedroom waterbottles, fruit- and sweet-dishes, water-jugs, and in the end we made quite a business-like afternoon of it.
I was beginning now to long quite definitely for events. Energy was accumulating in me, and worrying me for an outlet. I found the TIMES and the DAILY TELEGRAPH and the other papers I managed to get hold of, more and more stimulating. I nearly wrote to the former paper one day in answer to a letter by Lord Grimthorpe—I forget now upon what point. I chafed secretly against this life of tranquil appreciations more and more. I found my attitudes of restrained and delicate affection for Margaret increasingly difficult to sustain. I surprised myself and her by little gusts of irritability, gusts like the catspaws before a gale. I was alarmed at these symptoms.
One night when Margaret had gone up to her room, I put on a light overcoat, went out into the night and prowled for a long time through the narrow streets, smoking and thinking. I returned and went and sat on the edge of her bed to talk to her.
“Look here, Margaret,” I said; “this is all very well, but I’m restless.”
“Restless!” she said with a faint surprise in her voice.
“Yes. I think I want exercise. I’ve got a sort of feeling—I’ve never had it before—as though I was getting fat.”
“My dear!” she cried.
“I want to do things;—ride horses, climb mountains, take the devil out of myself.”
She watched me thoughtfully.
“Couldn’t we DO something?” she said.
“I don’t know. Couldn’t we perhaps go away from here soon—and walk in the mountains—on our way home.”
I thought. “There seems to be no exercise at all in this place.”
“Isn’t there some walk?”
“I wonder,” I answered. “We might walk to Chioggia perhaps, along the Lido.” And we tried that, but the long stretch of beach fatigued Margaret’s back, and gave her blisters, and we never got beyond Malamocco....
A day or so after we went out to those pleasant black-robed, bearded Armenians in their monastery at Saint Lazzaro, and returned towards sundown. We fell into silence. “PIU LENTO,” said Margaret to the gondolier, and released my accumulated resolution.
“Let us go back to London,” I said abruptly.
Margaret looked at me with surprised blue eyes.
“This is beautiful beyond measure, you know,” I said, sticking to my point, “but I have work to do.”
She was silent for some seconds. “I had forgotten,” she said.
“So had I,” I sympathised, and took her hand. “Suddenly I have remembered.”
She remained quite still. “There is so much to be done,” I said, almost apologetically.
She looked long away from me across the lagoon and at last sighed, like one who has drunk deeply, and turned to me.
“I suppose one ought not to be so happy,” she said. “Everything has been so beautiful and so simple and splendid. And clean. It has been just With You—the time of my life. It’s a pity such things must end. But the world is calling you, dear.... I ought not to have forgotten it. I thought you were resting—and thinking. But if you are rested.—Would you like us to start to-morrow?”
She looked at once so fragile and so devoted that on the spur of the moment I relented, and we stayed in Venice four more days.
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