The Supreme Illusion by Arnold Bennett
Perhaps it was because I was in a state of excited annoyance that I did not recognize him until he came right across the large hall of the hotel and put his hand on my shoulder.
I had arrived in Paris that afternoon, and driven to that nice, reasonable little hotel which we all know, and whose name we all give in confidence to all our friends; and there was no room in that hotel. Nor in seven other haughtily-managed hotels that I visited! A kind of archduke, who guarded the last of the seven against possible customers, deigned to inform me that the season was at its fullest, half London being as usual in Paris, and that the only central hotels where I had a chance of reception were those monstrosities the Grand and the Hotel Terminus at the Gare St Lazare. I chose the latter, and was accorded room 973 in the roof.
I thought my exasperations were over. But no! A magnificent porter within the gate had just consented to get my luggage off the cab, and was in the act of beginning to do so, when a savagely-dressed, ugly and ageing woman, followed by a maid, rushed neurotically down the steps and called him away to hold a parcel. He obeyed! At the same instant the barbaric and repulsive creature's automobile, about as large as a railway carriage, drove up and forced my frail cab down the street. I had to wait, humiliated and helpless, the taximeter of my cab industriously adding penny to penny, while that offensive hag installed herself, with the help of the maid, the porter and two page-boys, in her enormous vehicle. I should not have minded had she been young and pretty. If she had been young and pretty she would have had the right to be rude and domineering. But she was neither young nor pretty. Conceivably she had once been young; pretty she could never have been. And her eyes were hard--hard.
Hence my state of excited annoyance.
"Hullo! How goes it?" The perfect colloquial English was gently murmured at me with a French accent as the gentle hand patted my shoulder.
"Why," I said, cast violently out of a disagreeable excitement into an agreeable one, "I do believe you are Boissy Minor!"
I had not seen him for nearly twenty years, but I recognized in that soft and melancholy Jewish face, with the soft moustache and the soft beard, the wistful features of the boy of fifteen who had been my companion at an "international" school (a clever invention for inflicting exile upon patriots) with branches at Hastings, Dresden and Versailles.
Soon I was telling him, not without satisfaction, that, being a dramatic critic, and attached to a London daily paper which had decided to flatter its readers by giving special criticisms of the more important new French plays, I had come to Paris for the production of Notre Dame de la Lune at the Vaudeville.
And as I told him the idea occurred to me for positively the first time:
"By the way, I suppose you aren't any relation of Octave Boissy?"
I rather hoped he was; for after all, say what you like, there is a certain pleasure in feeling that you have been to school with even a relative of so tremendous a European celebrity as Octave Boissy--the man who made a million and a half francs with his second play, which was nevertheless quite a good play. All the walls of Paris were shouting his name.
"I'm the johnny himself," he replied with timidity, naively proud of his Saxon slang.
I did not give an astounded No! An astounded No! would have been rude. Still, my fear is that I failed to conceal entirely my amazement. I had to fight desperately against the natural human tendency to assume that no boy with whom one has been to school can have developed into a great man.
"Really!" I remarked, as calmly as I could, and added a shocking lie: "Well, I'm not surprised!" And at the same time I could hear myself saying a few days later at the office of my paper: "I met Octave Boissy in Paris. Went to school with him, you know."
"You'd forgotten my Christian name, probably," he said.
"No, I hadn't," I answered. "Your Christian name was Minor. You never had any other!" He smiled kindly. "But what on earth are you doing here?"
Octave Boissy was a very wealthy man. He even looked a very wealthy man. He was one of the darlings of success and of an absurdly luxurious civilization. And he seemed singularly out of place in the vast, banal foyer of the Hotel Terminus, among the shifting, bustling crowd of utterly ordinary, bourgeois, moderately well-off tourists and travellers and needy touts. He ought at least to have been in a very select private room at the Meurice or the Bristol, if in any hotel at all!
"The fact is, I'm neurasthenic," he said simply, just as if he had been saying, "The fact is, I've got a wooden leg."
"Oh!" I laughed, determined to treat him as Boissy Minor, and not as Octave Boissy.
"I have a morbid horror of walking in the open air. And yet I cannot bear being in a small enclosed space, especially when it's moving. This is extremely inconvenient. Mais que veux-tu?... Suis comme ca!"
"Je te plains" I put in, so as to return his familiar and flattering "thou" immediately.
"I was strongly advised to go and stay in the country," he went on, with the same serious, wistful simplicity, "and so I ordered a special saloon carriage on the railway, so as to have as much breathing room as possible; and I ventured from my house to this station in an auto. I thought I could surely manage that. But I couldn't! I had a terrible crisis on arriving at the station, and I had to sit on a luggage-truck for four hours. I couldn't have persuaded myself to get into the saloon carriage for a fortune! I couldn't go back home in the auto! I couldn't walk! So I stepped into the hotel. I've been here ever since."
"But when was this?"
"Three months ago. My doctors say that in another six weeks I shall be sufficiently recovered to leave. It is a most distressing malady. Mais que veux-tu? I have a suite in the hotel and my own servants. I walk out here into the hall because it's so large. The hotel people do the best they can, but of course--" He threw up his hands. His resigned, gentle smile was at once comic and tragic to me.
"But do you mean to say you couldn't walk out of that door and go home?" I questioned.
"Daren't!" he said, with finality. "Come to my rooms, will you, and have some tea."
A little later his own valet served us with tea in a large private drawing-room on the sixth or seventh floor, to reach which we had climbed a thousand and one stairs; it was impossible for Octave Boissy to use the lift, as he was convinced that he would die in it if he took such a liberty with himself. The room was hung with modern pictures, such as had certainly never been seen in any hotel before. Many knick-knacks and embroideries were also obviously foreign to the hotel.
"But how have you managed to attend the rehearsals of the new play?" I demanded.
"Oh!" said he, languidly, "I never attend any rehearsals of my plays. Mademoiselle Lemonnier sees to all that."
"She takes the leading part in this play, doesn't she, according to the posters?"
"She takes the leading part in all my plays," said he.
"A first-class artiste, no doubt? I've never seen her act."
"Neither have I!" said Octave Boissy. And as I now yielded frankly to my astonishment, he added: "You see, I am not interested in the theatre. Not only have I never attended a rehearsal, but I have never seen a performance of any of my plays. Don't you remember that it was engineering, above all else, that attracted me? I have a truly wonderful engineering shop in the basement of my house in the Avenue du Bois. I should very much have liked you to see it; but you comprehend, don't you, that I'm just as much cut off from the Avenue du Bois as I am from Timbuctoo. My malady is the most exasperating of all maladies."
"Well, Boissy Minor," I observed, "I suppose it has occurred to you that your case is calculated to excite wonder in the simple breast of a brutal Englishman."
He laughed, and I was glad that I had had the courage to reduce him definitely to the rank of Boissy Minor.
"And not only in the breast of an Englishman!" he said. "Mais que veux-tu? One must live."
"But I should have thought you could have made a comfortable living out of engineering. In England consulting engineers are princes."
"And engineering might have cured your neurasthenia, if you had taken it in sufficiently large quantities."
"It would," he agreed quietly.
"Then why the theatre, seeing that the theatre doesn't interest you?"
"In order to live," he replied. "And when I say 'live,' I mean live. It is not a question of money, it is a question of living."
"But as you never go near the theatre--"
"I write solely for Blanche Lemonnier," he said. I was at a loss. Perceiving this, he continued intimately: "Surely you know of my admiration for Blanche Lemonnier?"
I shook my head.
"I have never even heard of Blanche Lemonnier, save in connection with your plays," I said.
"She is only known in connection with my plays," he answered. "When I met her, a dozen years ago, she was touring the provinces, playing small parts in third-rate companies. I asked her what was her greatest ambition, and she said that it was to be applauded as a star on the Paris stage. I told her that I would satisfy her ambition, and that when I had done so I hoped she would satisfy mine. That was how I began to write plays. That was my sole reason. It is the sole reason why I keep on writing them. If she had desired to be a figure in Society I should have gone into politics."
"I am getting very anxious to see this lady," I said. "I feel as if I can scarcely wait till to-night."
"She will probably be here in a few minutes," said he.
"But how did you do it?" I asked. "What was your plan of campaign?"
"After the success of my first play I wrote the second specially for her, and I imposed her on the management. I made her a condition. The management kicked, but I was in a position to insist. I insisted."
"It sounds simple." I laughed uneasily.
"If you are a dramatic critic," he said, "you will guess that it was not at first quite so simple as it sounds. Of course it is simple enough now. Blanche Lemonnier is now completely identified with my plays. She is as well known as nearly any actress in Paris. She has the glory she desired." He smiled curiously. "Her ambition is satisfied--so is mine." He stopped.
"Well," I said, "I've never been so interested in any play before. And I shall expect Mademoiselle Lemonnier to be magnificent."
"Don't expect too much," he returned calmly. "Blanche's acting is not admired by everybody. And I cannot answer for her powers, as I've never seen her at work."
"It's that that's so extraordinary!"
"Not a bit! I could not bear to see her on the stage. I hate the idea of her acting in public. But it is her wish. And after all, it is not the actress that concerns me. It is the woman. It is the woman alone who makes my life worth living. So long as she exists and is kind to me my neurasthenia is a matter of indifference, and I do not even trouble about engineering."
He tried to laugh away the seriousness of his tone, but he did not quite succeed. Hitherto I had been amused at his singular plight and his fatalistic acceptance of it. But now I was touched.
"I'm talking very freely to you," he said.
"My dear fellow," I burst out, "do let me see her portrait."
He shook his head.
"Unfortunately her portrait is all over Paris. She likes it so. But I prefer to have no portrait myself. My feeling is--"
At that moment the valet opened the door and we heard vivacious voices in the corridor.
"She is here," said Octave Boissy, in a whisper suddenly dramatic. He stood up; I also. His expression had profoundly changed. He controlled his gestures and his attitude, but he could not control his eye. And when I saw that glance I understood what he meant by "living." I understood that, for him, neither fame nor artistic achievement nor wealth had any value in his life. His life consisted in one thing only.
"Eh bien, Blanche!" he murmured amorously.
Blanche Lemonnier invaded the room with arrogance. She was the odious creature whose departure in her automobile had so upset my arrival.