'What gibberish is that?' I said, pricking up my ears.
'That, my dear, is the advance publicity that Monsieur Achille is putting out. It will appear in every paper in France of any consequence. He has been magnificent. Meyerheim's terms were onerous, but Monsieur Achille accepted them as if they were a bagatelle. There will be a champagne d'honneur at the private view and the Minister of Fine Arts, who is under an obligation to Monsieur Achille, will open the exhibition with an eloquent speech in which he will dwell upon my virtues as a woman and my talent as a painter and which he will end with the declaration that the state, whose duty and privilege it is to reward merit, has bought one of my pictures for the national collections. All Paris will be there and Meyerheim is looking after the critics himself. He has guaranteed that their notices will be not only favourable but lengthy. Poor devils, they earn so little, it is a charity to give them an opportunity of making something on the side.'
'You've deserved it all, my dear. You've always been a good sort.'
'Et ta soeur,' she replied, which is untranslatable. 'But that's not all. Monsieur Achille has bought in my name a villa on the coast at St Rafael, so I shall take my place in Lille society not only as a distinguished artist, but as a woman of property. In two or three years he is going to retire and we shall live on the Riviera like gentlefolks (comme des gens bien). He can paddle in the sea and catch shrimps while I devote myself to my art. Now I will show you my pictures.'
Suzanne had been painting for several years and she had worked through the manner of her various lovers to arrive at a style of her own. She still could not draw, but she had acquired a pretty sense of colour. She showed me landscapes that she had painted while staying with her mother in the province of Anjou, bits of the gardens at Versailles and the forest at Fontainebleau, street scenes that had taken her fancy in the suburbs of Paris. Her painting was vaporous and unsubstantial, but it had a flowerlike grace and even a certain careless elegance. There was one picture that took my fancy and because I thought she would be pleased I offered to buy it. I cannot remember whether it was called A Glade in the Forest or The White Scarf and subsequent examination has left me uncertain to this day. I asked the price, which was reasonable, and said I would take it.
'You're an angel,' she cried. 'My first sale. Of course you can't have it till after the show, but I'll see that it gets into the papers that you've bought it. After all, a little publicity can do you no harm. I'm glad you've chosen that one, I think it's one of my best.' She took a hand mirror and looked at the picture in it. 'It has charm,' she said, screwing up her eyes. 'No one can deny that. Those greens - how rich they are and yet how delicate! And that white note in the middle, that is a real find; it ties the picture together, it has distinction. There's talent there, there can be no doubt of it, there's real talent.'
I saw that she was already a long way on the road to being a professional painter.
'And now, my little one, we've gossiped long enough, I must get back to work.'
'And I must be going,' I said.
'A propos, is that poor Larry still among the Redskins?'
For that was the disrespectful way in which she was accustomed to refer to the inhabitants of God's Own Country.
'So far as I know.'
'It must be hard for someone like him who is so sweet and gentle. If one can believe the movies life is terrible over there with all those gangsters and cowboys and Mexicans. Not that those cowboys haven't physical attraction which says something to you. Oh, la la! But it appears that it is excessively dangerous to go out into the streets of New York without a revolver in your pocket.'
She came to the door to see me out and kissed me on both cheeks.
'We've had some good times together. Keep a good recollection of me.'
This is the end of my story. I have heard nothing of Larry, nor indeed did I expect to. Since he generally did what he proposed, I think it likely that on his return to America he got a job in a garage and then drove a truck till he had acquired the knowledge he wanted of the country from which he had for so many years absented himself. When he had done that he may very well have carried out his fantastic suggestion of becoming a taxi driver: true, it was only a random idea thrown across a cafe table in jest, but I shouldn't be altogether surprised if he had put it into effect; and I have never since taken a taxi in New York without glancing at the driver on the chance that I might meet Larry's gravely smiling, deep-set eyes. I never have. War broke out. He would have been too old to fly, but he may be once more driving a truck, at home or abroad; or he may be working in a factory. I should like to think that in his leisure hours he is writing a book in which he is trying to set forth whatever life has taught him and the message he has to deliver to his fellow-men; but if he is, it may be long before it is finished. He has plenty of time, for the years have left no mark on him and to all intents and purposes he is still a young man.
He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame; to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than just himself. He is too modest to set himself up as an example to others; but it may be he thinks that a few uncertain souls, drawn to him like moths to a candle, will be brought in time to share his own glowing belief that ultimate satisfaction can only be found in the life of the spirit, and that by himself following with selflessness and renunciation the path of perfection he will serve as well as if he wrote books or addressed multitudes.
But this is conjecture. I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature, I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his innermost heart as I sometimes think I can do with persons more nearly allied to the common run of men. Larry has been absorbed, as he wished, into that tumultuous conglomeration of humanity, distracted by so many conflicting interests, so lost in the world's confusion, so wishful of good, so cocksure on the outside, so diffident within, so kind, so hard, so trustful, and so cagey, so mean and so generous, which is the people of the United States. That is all I can tell of him: I know it is very unsatisfactory; I can't help it. But as I was finishing this book, uneasily conscious that I must leave my reader in the air and seeing no way to avoid it, I looked back with my mind's eye on my long narrative to see if there was any way in which I could devise a more satisfactory ending; and to my intense surprise it dawned upon me that without in the least intending to I had written nothing more or less than a success story. For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and cultured community; Gray a steady and lucrative job, with an office to go to from nine till six every day; Suzanne Rouvier security; Sophie death; and Larry happiness. And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.