Amore, Arte e Verità: la filosofia di W. Somerset Maugham/Appendice E

W. Somerset Maugham

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Dear Miss Ley,—You will not consider it unflattering if I ask myself when exactly it was that I had the good fortune to make your acquaintance; for, though I am well aware the date is not far distant, I seem to have known you all my life. Was it really during the summer before last, at Naples? (I forget why you go habitually to winter resorts in the middle of August; the reasons you gave were ingenious but inconclusive—surely it is not to avoid your fellow-countrymen?) I was in the Gallery of Masterpieces, looking at the wonderful portrait-statue of Agrippina, when you, sitting beside me, asked some question. We began to talk—by the way, we never inquired if our respective families were desirable; you took my reputability for granted—and since then we have passed a good deal of time together; indeed, you have been seldom absent from my thoughts.

Now that we stand at a parting of ways (the phrase is hackneyed and you would loathe it), you must permit me to tell you what pleasure your regard has given me and how thoroughly I have enjoyed our intercourse, regretting always that inevitable circumstances made it so rare. I confess I stand in awe of you—this you will not believe, for you have often accused me of flippancy (I am not half so flippant as you); but your thin and mocking smile, after some remark of mine, continually makes me feel that I have said a foolish thing, than which in your eyes I know there is no greater crime.... You have told me that when an acquaintance has left a pleasant recollection, one should resist the temptation to renew it; altered time and surroundings create new impressions which cannot rival with the old, doubly idealised by novelty and absence. The maxim is hard, but therefore, perhaps, more likely to be true. Still, I cannot wish that the future may bring us nothing better than forgetfulness. It is certain that our paths are different, I shall be occupied with other work and you will be lost to me in the labyrinth of Italian hotels, wherein it pleases you, perversely, to hide your lights. I see no prospect of reunion (this sounds quite sentimental and you hate effusiveness. My letter is certainly over-full of parentheses); but I wish, notwithstanding and with all my heart, that some day you may consent to risk the experiment. What say you? I am, dear Miss Ley, very truly (don’t laugh at me, I should like to say—affectionately),—Yours,

W. M.

MRS. CRADDOCK modifica

Chapter I modifica

THIS book might be called also The Triumph of Love. Bertha was looking out of window, at the bleakness of the day. The sky was sombre and the clouds heavy and low; the neglected carriage-drive was swept by the bitter wind, and the elm-trees that bordered it were bare of leaf, their naked branches shivering with horror of the cold. It was the end of November, and the day was utterly cheerless. The dying year seemed to have cast over all Nature the terror of death; the imagination would not bring to the wearied mind thoughts of the merciful sunshine, thoughts of the Spring coming as a maiden to scatter from her baskets the flowers and the green leaves.

Bertha turned round and looked at her aunt, cutting the leaves of a new Spectator. Wondering what books to get down from Mudie’s, Miss Ley read the autumn lists and the laudatory expressions which the adroitness of publishers extracts from unfavourable reviews.

“You’re very restless this afternoon, Bertha,” she remarked, in answer to the girl’s steady gaze.

“I think I shall walk down to the gate.”

“You’ve already visited the gate twice in the last hour. Do you find in it something alarmingly novel?”

Bertha did not reply, but turned again to the window: the scene in the last two hours had fixed itself upon her mind with monotonous accuracy.

“What are you thinking about, Aunt Polly?” she asked suddenly, turning back to her aunt and catching the eyes fixed upon her.

“I was thinking that one must be very penetrative to discover a woman’s emotions from the view of her back hair.”

Bertha laughed: “I don’t think I have any emotions to discover. I feel ...” she sought for some way of expressing the sensation—“I feel as if I should like to take my hair down.”

Miss Ley made no rejoinder, but looked again at her paper. She hardly wondered what her niece meant, having long ceased to be astonished at Bertha’s ways and doings; indeed, her only surprise was that they never sufficiently corroborated the common opinion that Bertha was an independent young woman from whom anything might be expected. In the three years they had spent together since the death of Bertha’s father the two women had learned to tolerate one another extremely well. Their mutual affection was mild and perfectly respectable, in every way becoming to fastidious persons bound together by ties of convenience and decorum.... Miss Ley, called to the deathbed of her brother in Italy, made Bertha’s acquaintance over the dead man’s grave, and the girl was then too old and of too independent character to accept a stranger’s authority; nor had Miss Ley the smallest desire to exert authority over any one. She was a very indolent woman, who wished nothing more than to leave people alone and be left alone by them. But if it was obviously her duty to take charge of an orphan niece, it was also an advantage that Bertha was eighteen, and, but for the conventions of decent society, could very well take charge of herself. Miss Ley was not unthankful to a merciful Providence on the discovery that her ward had every intention of going her own way, and none whatever of hanging about the skirts of a maiden aunt who was passionately devoted to her liberty.

They travelled on the Continent, seeing many churches, pictures, and cities, in the examination of which their chief aim appeared to be to conceal from one another the emotions they felt. Like the Red Indian who will suffer the most horrid tortures without wincing, Miss Ley would have thought it highly disgraceful to display feeling at some touching scene. She used polite cynicism as a cloak for sentimentality, laughing that she might not cry—and her want of originality herein, the old repetition of Grimaldi’s doubleness, made her snigger at herself. She felt that tears were unbecoming and foolish.

“Weeping makes a fright even of a good-looking woman,” she said, “but if she is ugly they make her simply repulsive.”

Finally, letting her own flat in London, Miss Ley settled down with Bertha to cultivate rural delights at Court Leys, near Blackstable, in the county of Kent. The two ladies lived together with much harmony, although the demonstrations of their affection did not exceed a single kiss morning and night, given and received with almost equal indifference. Each had considerable respect for the other’s abilities, and particularly for the wit which occasionally exhibited itself in little friendly sarcasms. But they were too clever to get on badly, and since they neither hated nor loved one another excessively, there was really no reason why they should not continue on the best of terms. The general result of their relations was that Bertha’s restlessness on this particular day aroused in Miss Ley no more question than was easily answered by the warmth of her young blood; and her eccentric curiosity in respect of the gate on a very cold and unpleasant winter afternoon did not even cause a shrug of disapproval or an upraising of the eyelids in wonder.

Bertha put on a hat and walked out. The avenue of elm-trees, reaching from the façade of Court Leys in a straight line to the gates, had been once rather an imposing sight, but now announced clearly the ruin of an ancient house. Here and there a tree had died and fallen, leaving an unsightly gap, and one huge trunk still lay upon the ground after a terrific storm of the preceding year, left there to rot in the indifference of bailiffs and of tenants. On either side of the elms was a broad strip of meadow which once had been a well-kept lawn, but now was foul with docks and rank weeds; a few sheep nibbled the grass where a century ago fine ladies in hoops and gentlemen with periwigs had sauntered, discussing the wars and the last volumes of Mr. Richardson. Beyond was an ill-trimmed hedge, and then the broad fields of the Ley estate.... Bertha walked down, looking at the highway beyond the gate. It was a relief to feel no longer Miss Ley’s cold eyes fixed upon her; she had emotions enough in her breast, they beat against one another like birds in a net struggling to get free; but not for worlds would Bertha have bidden any one look in her heart full of expectation, of longings, of a hundred strange desires. She went out on the highroad that led from Blackstable to Tercanbury, she looked up and down with a tremor, and a quick beating of the heart. But the road was empty, swept by the winter wind, and she almost sobbed with disappointment.

She could not return to the house; a roof just then would stifle her, and the walls seemed like a prison: there was a certain pleasure in the biting wind that blew through her clothes and chilled her to the bone. The waiting was terrible. She entered the grounds and looked up the carriage-drive to the big white house which was hers. The very roadway was in need of repair, and the dead leaves that none troubled about rustled hither and thither in the gusts of wind. The house stood in its squareness without relation to any environment: built in the reign of George II., it seemed to have acquired no hold upon the land which bore it. With its plain front and many windows, the Doric portico exactly in the middle, it looked as if it were merely placed upon the ground as a house of cards is built upon the floor, with no foundations. The passing years had given it no beauty, and it stood now as for more than a century it had stood, a blot upon the landscape, vulgar and new. Surrounded by the fields, it had no garden but for a few beds planted about its feet, and in these the flowers, uncared for, had grown wild or withered away.

The day was declining and the lowering clouds seemed to shut out the light. Bertha gave up hope. But she looked once more down the hill and her heart gave a great thud against her chest; she felt herself blushing furiously. Her blood seemed to rush through the vessels with sudden rapidity, and in dismay at her want of composure she had an impulse to turn quickly and fly. She forgot the sickening expectation, the hours she had spent in looking for the figure that tramped up the hill.

Of course it was a man! He came nearer, a tall fellow of twenty-seven, massively set together, big boned, with long arms and legs, and a magnificent breadth of chest. Bertha recognised the costume that always pleased her, the knickerbockers and gaiters, the Norfolk-jacket of rough tweed, the white stock and the cap—all redolent of the country which for his sake she was beginning to love, and all vigorously masculine. Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure; their dimensions suggested a certain firmness of character, a masterfulness, which were intensely reassuring. The style of dress fitted perfectly the background of brown road and of ploughed field. Bertha wondered if he knew that he was exceedingly picturesque as he climbed the hill.

“Afternoon, Miss Bertha.”

He showed no sign of pausing, and the girl’s heart sank at the thought that he might go on with only a commonplace word of greeting.

“I thought it was you I saw coming up the hill,” she said, stretching out her hand.

He stopped and shook it; the touch of his big, firm fingers made her tremble. His hand was massive and hard as if it were hewn of stone. She looked up at him and smiled.

“Isn’t it cold?” she said. It is terrible to be desirous of saying all sorts of passionate things, while convention debars you from any but the most commonplace.

“You haven’t been walking at the rate of five miles an hour,” he said, cheerily. “I’ve been into Blackstable to see about buying a nag.”

He was the very picture of health; the winds of November were like summer breezes to him, and his face glowed with the pleasant cold. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes glistened. His vitality was intense, shining out upon others with almost a material warmth.

“Were you going out?” he asked.

“Oh no,” Bertha replied, without strict regard to truth. “I just walked down to the gate and I happened to catch sight of you.”

“I am very glad—I see you so seldom now, Miss Bertha.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call me Miss Bertha” she cried, “it sounds horrid.” It was worse than that, it sounded almost menial. “When we were boy and girl we used to call each other by our Christian names.”

He blushed a little and his modesty filled Bertha with delight.

“Yes, but when you came back six months ago, you had changed so much—I didn’t dare; and besides, you called me Mr. Craddock.”

“Well, I won’t any more,” she said, laughing; “I’d much sooner call you Edward.”

She did not add that the word seemed to her the most beautiful in the whole list of Christian names, nor that in the past few weeks she had already repeated it to herself a thousand times.

“It’ll be like old days,” he said. “D’you remember what fun we used to have when you were a little girl, before you went abroad with Mr. Ley?”

“I remember that you used to look upon me with great contempt because I was a little girl,” she replied, laughing.

“Well, I was awfully frightened the first time I saw you again—with your hair up and long dresses.”

“I’m not really very terrible.”

For five minutes they had been looking into one another’s eyes, and suddenly, without obvious reason, Craddock blushed. Bertha noticed it, and a strange little thrill went through her; she reddened too, and her dark eyes flashed even more brightly than before.

“I wish I didn’t see you so seldom, Miss Bertha,” he said.

“You have only yourself to blame, fair sir. You perceive the road that leads to my palace, and at the end you will certainly find a door.”

“I’m rather afraid of your aunt.”

It was on the tip of Bertha’s tongue to say that faint heart never won fair lady, but for modesty’s sake she refrained. Her spirits had suddenly gone up and she felt extraordinarily happy.

“Do you want to see me very badly?” she asked, her heart beating at quite an absurd rate.

Craddock blushed again and seemed to have some difficulty in finding a reply; his confusion and his ingenuous air were new enchantments to Bertha.

“If he only knew how I adored him!” she thought; but naturally she could not tell him in so many words.

“You’ve changed so much in these years,” he said, “I don’t understand you.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“Of course I want to see you, Bertha,” he said quickly, seeming to take his courage in both hands; “I want to see you always.”

“Well,” she said, with a charming smile, “I sometimes take a walk after dinner to the gate and observe the shadows of night.”

“By Jove, I wish I’d known that before.”

“Foolish creature!” said Bertha to herself with amusement, “he doesn’t gather that this is the first night upon which I shall have done anything of the kind.”

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