The MasterA Novel
By Colm Toibin
ScribnerCopyright © 2004 Colm Toibín
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJanuary 1895
Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead - familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up. Now as he woke, it was, he imagined, an hour or more before the dawn; there would be no sound or movement for several hours. He touched the muscles on his neck which had become stiff; to his fingers they seemed unyielding and solid but not painful. As he moved his head, he could hear the muscles creaking. I am like an old door, he said to himself.
It was imperative, he knew, that he go back to sleep. He could not lie awake during these hours. He wanted to sleep, enter a lovely blackness, a dark, but not too dark, resting place, unhaunted, unpeopled, with no flickering presences.
When he woke again, he was agitated and unsure where he was. He often woke like this, disturbed, only half remembering the dream and desperate for the day to begin. Sometimes when he dozed, he would bask in the hazy, soft light of Bellosguardo in the early spring, the distances all misty, feeling the sheer pleasure of sunlight on his face, sitting in a chair, close to the wall of the old house with the smell of wisteria and early roses and jasmine. He would hope when he woke that the day would be like the dream, that traces of the ease and the color and the light would linger at the edge of things until night fell again.
But this dream was different. It was dark or darkening somewhere, it was a city, an old place in Italy like Orvieto or Siena, but nowhere exact, a dream-city with narrow streets, and he was hurrying; he was uncertain now whether he was alone or with somebody, but he was hurrying and there were students walking slowly up the hill too, past lighted shops and cafes and restaurants, and he was eager to get by them, finding ways to pass them. No matter how hard he tried to remember, he was still not sure if he had a companion; perhaps he did, or perhaps it was merely someone who walked behind him. He could not recall much about this shadowy, intermittent presence, but for some of the time there seemed to be a person or a voice close to him who understood better than he did the urgency, the need to hurry, and who insisted under his breath in mutterings and mumbles, cajoled him to walk faster, edge the students out of his path.
Why did he dream this? At each long and dimly lit entrance to a square, he recalled, he was tempted to leave the bustling street, but he was urged to carry on. Was his ghostly companion telling him to carry on? Finally, he walked slowly into a vast Italian space, with towers and castellated roofs, and a sky the color of dark blue ink, smooth and consistent. He stood there and watched as though it were framed, taking in the symmetry and texture. This time - and he shivered when he recalled the scene - there were figures in the center with their backs to him, figures forming a circle, but he could see none of their faces. He was ready to walk towards them when the figures with their backs to him turned. One of them was his mother at the end of her life, his mother when he had last seen her. Near her among the other women stood his aunt Kate. Both of them had been dead for years; they were smiling at him and moving slowly towards him. Their faces were lit like faces in a painting. The word that came to him, he was sure that he had dreamt the word as much as the scene, was the word "beseeching." They were imploring him or somebody, asking, yearning, and then putting their hands out in front of them in supplication, and as they moved towards him he woke in cold fright, and he wished that they could have spoken, or that he could have offered the two people whom he had loved most in his life some consolation. What came over him in the aftertaste of the dream was a wearying, gnawing sadness and, since he knew that he must not go back to sleep, an overwhelming urge to start writing, anything to numb himself, distract himself, from the vision of these two women who were lost to him.
He covered his face for a moment when he remembered one second in the dream which had caused him to wake abruptly. He would have given anything now to forget it, to prevent it from following him into the day: in that square he had locked eyes with his mother, and her gaze was full of panic, her mouth ready to cry out. She fiercely wanted something beyond her reach, which she could not obtain, and he could not help her.
In the days coming up to the New Year he had refused all invitations. He wrote to Lady Wolseley that he sat all day at rehearsals in the company of several fat women who made the costumes. He was uneasy and anxious, often agitated, but sometimes, too, he was involved in the action on the stage as though it were all new to him, and he was moved by it. He asked Lady Wolseley and her husband to unite in prayers for him on the opening night of his play, not far away now.
In the evening he could do nothing, and his sleep was fitful. He saw nobody except his servants, and they knew not to speak to him or trouble him beyond what was entirely necessary.
His play Guy Domville, the story of a rich Catholic heir who must choose whether to carry on the family line or join a monastery, would open on January 5. All the invitations to the opening night had gone out and he had already received many replies of acceptance and thanks. Alexander, the producer and lead actor, had a following among theatergoers, and the costumes - the play was set in the eighteenth century - were sumptuous. Yet, despite his new enjoyment of the society of actors and the glitter and the daily small changes and improvements in the production, he was, he said, not made for the theater. He sighed as he sat at his desk. He wished it were an ordinary day and he could read over yesterday's sentences, spend a slow morning making corrections, and then start out once more, filling the afternoon with ordinary work. And yet he knew that his mood could change as quickly as the light in the room could darken, and he easily could feel only happiness at his life in the theater and begin again to hate the company of his blank pages. Middle age, he thought, had made him fickle.
His visitor had arrived promptly at eleven o'clock. He could not have refused to see her; her letter had been carefully insistent. Soon she would be leaving Paris for good, she said, and this would be her last visit to London. There was something oddly final and resigned in her tone, a tone so alien to her general spirit that he was quickly alerted to the seriousness of her situation. He had not seen her for many years, but over these years he had received some letters from her and news from others about her. That morning, however, still haunted by his dream, and so full of concern about his play, he saw her as merely a name in his diary, stirring an old memory sharp in its outlines and faded in its detail.
When she came into the room, her old face smiling warmly, her large-boned frame moving slowly and deliberately, her greeting so cheerful, open and affectionate, and her voice so beautiful and soft, almost whispering, it was easy to put aside his worries about his play and the time he was wasting by not being in the theater. He had forgotten how much he liked her and how easy it was to be taken instantly back to those days when he was in his twenties and lingered as much as he could in the company of French and Russian writers in Paris.
Somehow, in the years that followed, the shadowy presences interested him as much as the famous ones, the figures who had not become known, who had failed, or who had never planned to flourish. His visitor had been married to the Prince Oblisky. The prince had a reputation for being stern and distant; the fate of Russia and his purposeful exile concerned him more than the evening's amusement and the glamorous company who stood around. The princess was Russian too, but she had lived most of her life in France. Around her and her husband there were always hints and rumors and suggestions. It was part of the time and the place, he thought. Everyone he knew carried with them the aura of another life which was half-secret and half-open, to be known about but not mentioned. In those years, you searched each face for what it might unwittingly disclose and you listened carefully for nuances and clues. New York and Boston had not been like that, and in London, when he finally came to live there, people allowed themselves to believe that you had no hidden and secret self unless you emphatically declared to the contrary.
He remembered the shock when he first came to know Paris, the culture of easy duplicity, the sense he got of these men and women, watched over by the novelists, casually withholding what mattered to them most.
He had never loved the intrigue. Yet he liked knowing secrets, because not to know was to miss almost everything. He himself learned never to disclose anything, and never even to acknowledge the moment when some new information was imparted, to act as though a mere pleasantry had been exchanged. The men and women in the salons of literary Paris moved like players in a game of knowing and not knowing, pretense and disguise. He had learned everything from them.
He found the princess a seat, brought her extra cushions, and then offered her a different chair, or indeed a chaise longue which might be more comfortable.
"At my age" - she smiled at him - "nothing is comfortable."
He stopped moving about the room and turned to look at her. He had learned that when he quietly fixed his calm gray eyes on somebody they too became calm; they realized, or so he thought, that what they said next should be serious in some way, that the time for the casual play of half talk had come to an end.
"I have to go back to Russia," she said in slow, carefully pronounced French. "That is what I have to do. When I say go back, I talk as though I have been there before, and yes, I have, but not in any way that means anything to me. I have no desire to see Russia again, but he insists that I stay there, that I leave France for good."
As she spoke she smiled, as she had always done, but now there was anguish and a sort of puzzlement in her face. She had brought the past into the room with her, and for him now, in these years after the death of his parents and his sister, any reminder of a time that was over brought with it a terrible and heavy melancholy. Time would not relent, and when he was young, he had never imagined the pain that loss would bring, pain that only work and sleep could keep at bay now.
Her soft voice and her easy manners made it clear that she had not changed. Her husband was known to treat her badly. He had problems with estates. She began to talk now about some remote estate to which she was going to be banished.
The January light was liquid and silky in the room. He sat and listened. He knew that the Prince Oblisky had left the son by his first marriage in Russia, and had gruffly spent his life in Paris. There was always a whiff of political intrigue about him, a sense that he counted somehow in the future of Russia, and that he was waiting for his moment.
"My husband has said it is time for us all to go back to Russia, the homeland. He has become a reformer. He says that Russia will collapse if it does not reform. I told him that Russia collapsed a long time ago, but I did not remind him that he had very little interest in reform when he was not in debt. His first wife's family have brought up the child and they want nothing to do with him."
"Where will you live?" he asked her.
"I will live in a crumbling mansion and half-crazed peasants will have their noses up against the glass of my windows, if there is glass still in the windows. That is where I will live."
"I have to give up everything, the house, the servants, my friends, my whole life. I will freeze to death or I will die of boredom. It will be a race between the two."
"He says I have wasted all his money. I have sold the house and I have spent days burning letters and crying and throwing away clothes. And now I am saying good-bye to everyone. I am leaving London tomorrow and I am going to spend one month in Venice. Then I will travel to Russia. He says that others are returning too, but they are going to St. Petersburg. That is not what he has chosen for me."
She spoke with feeling, but as he watched her he sensed that he was listening to one of his actors enjoying her own performance. Sometimes she spoke as though she were telling an amusing anecdote about somebody else.
"I've seen everyone I know who's still alive and I've read over all the letters of those who are dead. With some people I've done both. I burned Paul Joukowsky's letters and then I saw him. I did not expect to see him. He is aging badly. I did not expect that either."
She caught his eye for one second and it was as though a flash of clear summer light had come into the room. Paul Joukowsky was almost fifty now, he calculated; they had not met for many years. No one had ever come like this and mentioned his name.
Henry was careful to try to speak immediately, ask a question, change the subject. Perhaps there was something in the letters, a stray sentence, or the account of a conversation or a meeting. But he did not think so. Perhaps his visitor was letting him know for nostalgia's sake what his aura had suggested in those years, his own designed self. His attempt to be earnest, hesitant and polite had not fooled women like her who watched his full mouth and the glance of his eyes and instantly understood it all. They said, of course, nothing, just as she was saying nothing now, merely a name, an old name that rang in his ears. A name that, once, had meant everything to him.
"That is the promise he has extracted from me. That I will not return, that I will stay in Russia."
The tone was dramatic, and he suddenly saw her on the stage, moving casually, talking as though she put no thought into it, and then throwing an arrow, a single line intended to hit home. From what she had said, he understood for the first time what had happened. She must have done something very wrong to place herself back in his power. In her circle, there would be knowledge and speculation. Some would know, and those who did not know would be able to guess. Just as she let him guess now.
These thoughts preoccupied him, and he found that he watched the princess, carefully weighing up what she had been saying, while thinking how he could use this. He must write it down as soon as she left. He hoped to hear nothing more, none of the explicit details, but as she continued speaking, it was clear that she was frightened and his sympathy was once more aroused.
"You know, others have gone back and the reports are excellent. There is new
life in St.