By JOHN GALSWORTHY
(From Pears' Annual and The Century Magazine)
Rupert K. Vaness remains freshly in my mind because he was so fine and
large, and because he summed up in his person and behavior a philosophy
which, budding before the war, hibernated during that distressing
epoch, and is now again in bloom.
He was a New-Yorker addicted to Italy. One often puzzled over the
composition of his blood. From his appearance, it was rich, and his
name fortified the conclusion. What the K. stood for, however, I never
learned; the three possibilities were equally intriguing. Had he a
strain of Highlander with Kenneth or Keith; a drop of German or
Scandinavian with Kurt or Knut; a blend of Syrian or Armenian with
Kahalil or Kassim? The blue in his fine eyes seemed to preclude the
last, but there was an encouraging curve in his nostrils and a raven
gleam in his auburn hair, which, by the way, was beginning to grizzle
and recede when I knew him. The flesh of his face, too, had sometimes a
tired and pouchy appearance, and his tall body looked a trifle
rebellious within his extremely well-cut clothes; but, after all, he
was fifty-five. You felt that Vaness was a philosopher, yet he never
bored you with his views, and was content to let you grasp his moving
principle gradually through watching what he ate, drank, smoked, wore,
and how he encircled himself with the beautiful things and people of
this life. One presumed him rich, for one was never aware of money in
his presence. Life moved round him with a certain noiseless ease or
stood still at a perfect temperature, like the air in a conservatory
round a choice blossom which a draught might shrivel.
This image of a flower in relation to Rupert K. Vaness pleases me,
because of that little incident in Magnolia Gardens, near Charleston,
Vaness was the sort of a man of whom one could never say with safety
whether he was revolving round a beautiful young woman or whether the
beautiful young woman was revolving round him. His looks, his wealth,
his taste, his reputation, invested him with a certain sun-like
quality; but his age, the recession of his locks, and the advancement
of his waist were beginning to dim his lustre, so that whether he was
moth or candle was becoming a moot point. It was moot to me, watching
him and Miss Sabine Monroy at Charleston throughout the month of March.
The casual observer would have said that she was "playing him up," as a
young poet of my acquaintance puts it; but I was not casual. For me
Vaness had the attraction of a theorem, and I was looking rather deeply
into him and Miss Monroy.
That girl had charm. She came, I think, from Baltimore, with a strain
in her, they said, of old Southern French blood. Tall and what is known
as willowy, with dark chestnut hair, very broad, dark eyebrows, very
soft, quick eyes, and a pretty mouth,—when she did not accentuate it
with lip-salve,—she had more sheer quiet vitality than any girl I ever
saw. It was delightful to watch her dance, ride, play tennis. She
laughed with her eyes; she talked with a savouring vivacity. She never
seemed tired or bored. She was, in one hackneyed word, attractive. And
Vaness, the connoisseur, was quite obviously attracted. Of men who
professionally admire beauty one can never tell offhand whether they
definitely design to add a pretty woman to their collection, or whether
their dalliance is just matter of habit. But he stood and sat about
her, he drove and rode, listened to music, and played cards with her;
he did all but dance with her, and even at times trembled on the brink
of that. And his eyes, those fine, lustrous eyes of his, followed her
How she had remained unmarried to the age of twenty-six was a mystery
till one reflected that with her power of enjoying life she could not
yet have had the time. Her perfect physique was at full stretch for
eighteen hours out of the twenty-four every day. Her sleep must have
been like that of a baby. One figured her sinking into dreamless rest
the moment her head touched the pillow, and never stirring till she
sprang up into her bath.
As I say, for me Vaness, or rather his philosophy, erat
demonstrandum. I was philosophically in some distress just then. The
microbe of fatalism, already present in the brains of artists before
the war, had been considerably enlarged by that depressing occurrence.
Could a civilization, basing itself on the production of material
advantages, do anything but insure the desire for more and more
material advantages? Could it promote progress even of a material
character except in countries whose resources were still much in excess
of their population? The war had seemed to me to show that mankind was
too combative an animal ever to recognize that the good of all was the
good of one. The coarse-fibred, pugnacious, and self-seeking would, I
had become sure, always carry too many guns for the refined and kindly.
The march of science appeared, on the whole, to be carrying us
backward. I deeply suspected that there had been ages when the
populations of this earth, though less numerous and comfortable, had
been proportionately healthier than they were at present. As for
religion, I had never had the least faith in Providence rewarding the
pitiable by giving them a future life of bliss. The theory seemed to me
illogical, for the more pitiable in this life appeared to me the
thick-skinned and successful, and these, as we know, in the saying
about the camel and the needle's eye, our religion consigns wholesale
to hell. Success, power, wealth, those aims of profiteers and premiers,
pedagogues and pandemoniacs, of all, in fact, who could not see God in
a dewdrop, hear Him in distant goat-bells, and scent Him in a
pepper-tree, had always appeared to me akin to dry rot. And yet every
day one saw more distinctly that they were the pea in the thimblerig of
life, the hub of a universe which, to the approbation of the majority
they represented, they were fast making uninhabitable. It did not even
seem of any use to help one's neighbors; all efforts at relief just
gilded the pill and encouraged our stubbornly contentious leaders to
plunge us all into fresh miseries. So I was searching right and left
for something to believe in, willing to accept even Rupert K. Vaness
and his basking philosophy. But could a man bask his life right out?
Could just looking at fine pictures, tasting rare fruits and wines, the
mere listening to good music, the scent of azaleas and the best
tobacco, above all the society of pretty women, keep salt in my bread,
an ideal in my brain? Could they? That's what I wanted to know.
Every one who goes to Charleston in the spring, soon or late, visits
Magnolia Gardens. A painter of flowers and trees, I specialize in
gardens, and freely assert that none in the world is so beautiful as
this. Even before the magnolias come out, it consigns the Boboli at
Florence, the Cinnamon Gardens of Colombo, Concepcion at Malaga,
Versailles, Hampton Court, the Generaliffe at Granada, and La Mortola
to the category of "also ran." Nothing so free and gracious, so lovely
and wistful, nothing so richly coloured, yet so ghostlike, exists,
planted by the sons of men. It is a kind of paradise which has wandered
down, a miraculously enchanted wilderness. Brilliant with azaleas, or
magnolias, it centres round a pool of dreamy water, overhung by tall
trunks wanly festooned with the grey Florida moss. Beyond anything I
have ever seen, it is otherworldly. And I went there day after day,
drawn as one is drawn in youth by visions of the Ionian Sea, of the
East, or the Pacific Isles. I used to sit paralysed by the absurdity of
putting brush to canvas in front of that dream-pool. I wanted to paint
of it a picture like that of the fountain, by Helleu, which hangs in
the Luxembourg. But I knew I never should.
I was sitting there one sunny afternoon, with my back to a clump of
azaleas, watching an old coloured gardener—so old that he had started
life as an "owned" negro, they said, and certainly still retained the
familiar suavity of the old-time darky—I was watching him prune the
shrubs when I heard the voice of Rupert K. Vaness say, quite close:
"There's nothing for me but beauty, Miss Monroy."
The two were evidently just behind my azalea clump, perhaps four yards
away, yet as invisible as if in China.
"Beauty is a wide, wide word. Define it, Mr. Vaness."
"An ounce of fact is worth a ton of theory: it stands before me."
"Come, now, that's just a get-out. Is beauty of the flesh or of the
"What is the spirit, as you call it? I'm a pagan."
"Oh, so am I. But the Greeks were pagans."
"Well, spirit is only the refined side of sensuous appreciations."
"I have spent my life in finding that out."
"Then the feeling this garden rouses in me is purely sensuous?"
"Of course. If you were standing there blind and deaf, without the
powers of scent and touch, where would your feeling be?"
"You are very discouraging, Mr. Vaness." "No, madam; I face facts.
When I was a youngster I had plenty of fluffy aspiration towards I
didn't know what; I even used to write poetry."
"Oh! Mr. Vaness, was it good?"
"It was not. I very soon learned that a genuine sensation was worth all
the uplift in the world."
"What is going to happen when your senses strike work?"
"I shall sit in the sun and fade out."
"I certainly do like your frankness."
"You think me a cynic, of course; I am nothing so futile, Miss Sabine.
A cynic is just a posing ass proud of his attitude. I see nothing to be
proud of in my attitude, just as I see nothing to be proud of in the
truths of existence."
"Suppose you had been poor?"
"My senses would be lasting better than they are, and when at last they
failed, I should die quicker, from want of food and warmth, that's
"Have you ever been in love, Mr. Vaness?"
"I am in love now."
"And your love has no element of devotion, no finer side?"
"None. It wants."
"I have never been in love. But, if I were, I think I should want to
lose myself rather than to gain the other."
"Would you? Sabine, I am in love with you."
"Oh! Shall we walk on?"
I heard their footsteps, and was alone again, with the old gardener
lopping at his shrubs.
But what a perfect declaration of hedonism! How simple and how solid
was the Vaness theory of existence! Almost Assyrian, worthy of Louis
And just then the old negro came up.
"It's pleasant settin'," he said in his polite and hoarse half-whisper;
"dar ain't no flies yet."
"It's perfect, Richard. This is the most beautiful spot in the world."
"Such," he answered, softly drawling. "In deh war-time de Yanks nearly
burn deh house heah—Sherman's Yanks. Such dey did; po'ful angry wi'
ol' massa dey was, 'cause he hid up deh silver plate afore he went
away. My ol' fader was de factotalum den. De Yanks took 'm, suh; dey
took 'm, and deh major he tell my fader to show 'm whar deh plate was.
My ol' fader he look at 'm an' say: 'Wot yuh take me foh? Yuh take me
foh a sneakin' nigger? No, sub, you kin du wot yuh like wid dis chile;
he ain't goin' to act no Judas. No, suh!' And deh Yankee major he put
'm up ag'in' dat tall live-oak dar, an' he say: 'Yuh darn ungrateful
nigger! I's come all dis way to set yuh free. Now, whar's dat silver
plate, or I shoot yuh up, such!' 'No, suh,' says my fader; 'shoot away.
I's neber goin' t' tell.' So dey begin to shoot, and shot all roun' 'm
to skeer 'm up. I was a li'l boy den, an' I see my ol' fader wid my own
eyes, suh, standin' thar's bold's Peter. No, suh, dey didn't neber git
no word from him. He loved deh folk heah; such he did, suh."
The old man smiled, and in that beatific smile I saw not only his
perennial pleasure in the well-known story, but the fact that he, too,
would have stood there, with the bullets raining round him, sooner than
betray the folk he loved.
"Fine story, Richard; but—very silly, obstinate old man, your father,
He looked at me with a sort of startled anger, which slowly broadened
into a grin; then broke into soft, hoarse laughter.
"Oh, yes, suh, sueh; berry silly, obstinacious ol' man. Yes, suh
indeed." And he went off cackling to himself. He had only just gone
when I heard footsteps again behind my azalea clump, and Miss Monroy's
"Your philosophy is that of faun and nymph. Can you play the part?"
"Only let me try." Those words had such a fevered ring that in
imagination I could see Vaness all flushed, his fine eyes shining, his
well-kept hands trembling, his lips a little protruded.
There came a laugh, high, gay, sweet.
"Very well, then; catch me!" I heard a swish of skirts against the
shrubs, the sound of flight, an astonished gasp from Vaness, and the
heavy thud, thud of his feet following on the path through the azalea
maze. I hoped fervently that they would not suddenly come running past
and see me sitting there. My straining ears caught another laugh far
off, a panting sound, a muttered oath, a far-away "Cooee!" And then,
staggering, winded, pale with heat and vexation, Vaness appeared,
caught sight of me, and stood a moment. Sweat was running down his
face, his hand was clutching at his side, his stomach heaved—a hunter
beaten and undignified. He muttered, turned abruptly on his heel, and
left me staring at where his fastidious dandyism and all that it stood
for had so abruptly come undone.
I know not how he and Miss Monroy got home to Charleston; not in the
same car, I fancy. As for me, I travelled deep in thought, aware of
having witnessed something rather tragic, not looking forward to my
next encounter with Vaness.
He was not at dinner, but the girl was there, as radiant as ever, and
though I was glad she had not been caught, I was almost angry at the
signal triumph of her youth. She wore a black dress, with a red flower
in her hair, and another at her breast, and had never looked so vital
and so pretty. Instead of dallying with my cigar beside cool waters in
the lounge of the hotel, I strolled out afterward on the Battery, and
sat down beside the statue of a tutelary personage. A lovely evening;
from some tree or shrub close by emerged an adorable faint fragrance,
and in the white electric light the acacia foliage was patterned out
against a thrilling, blue sky. If there were no fireflies abroad, there
should have been. A night for hedonists, indeed!
And suddenly, in fancy, there came before me Vaness's well-dressed
person, panting, pale, perplexed; and beside him, by a freak of vision,
stood the old darky's father, bound to the live-oak, with the bullets
whistling past, and his face transfigured. There they stood
alongside the creed of pleasure, which depended for fulfilment on its
waist measurement; and the creed of love, devoted unto death!
"Aha!" I thought, "which of the two laughs last?"
And just then I saw Vaness himself beneath a lamp, cigar in mouth, and
cape flung back so that its silk lining shone. Pale and heavy, in the
cruel white light, his face had a bitter look. And I was sorry—very
sorry, at that moment for Rupert K. Vaness.