She stopped herself now and began to concentrate hard on what the Spaniard was saying. She asked him a question that he failed to understand so she repeated it, making it simpler. When she had asked a number of other questions and listened attentively to the replies, she was relieved when she knew that her time with him was up and she could turn now to Henry James, who seemed heavier than before as though his large head were filled with oak or ivory. As they began to talk, he took her in with his grey eyes, which had a level of pure understanding in them that was almost affecting. For a split second she was tempted to tell him what had happened with Blunt, suggest that it occurred to a friend of hers while visiting Egypt, a friend married to an older man who was seduced by a friend of his, a poet. But she knew it was ridiculous, James would see through her immediately.
Yet something had stirred in her, a need that she had ruminated on in the past but kept out of her mind for some time now. She wanted to say Blunt's name and wondered if she could find a way to ask James if he read his work or admired it. But James was busy describing the best way to see old Rome now that Rome had changed so much, and the best way to avoid Americans in Rome, Americans one did not want to see or be associated with. How odd he would think her were she to interrupt him or wait for a break in the conversation and ask him what he thought of the work of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt! It was possible he did not even read modern poetry. It would be hard, she thought, to turn the conversation around to Blunt or even find a way to mention him in passing. In any case, James had moved his arena of concern to Venice and was discussing whether it was best to lodge with friends there or find one's own lodging and thus win greater independence.
As he pondered the relative merits of various American hostesses in Venice, going over the quality of their table, the size of their guest rooms, what they put at one's disposal, she thought of love. James sighed and mentioned how a warm personality, especially of the American sort, had a way of cooling one's appreciation of ancient beauty, irrespective of how grand the palazzo of which this personality was in possession, indeed irrespective of how fine or fast-moving her gondola.
When he had finished, Lady Gregory turned towards him quietly and asked him if he was tired of people telling him stories he might use in his fiction, or if he viewed such offerings as an essential element in his art. He told her in reply that he often, later when he arrived home, noted down something interesting that had been said to him, and on occasion the germ of a story had come to him from a most unlikely source, and other times, of course, from a most obvious and welcome one. He liked to imagine his characters, he said, but he also liked that they might have lived already, to some small extent perhaps, before he painted a new background for them and created a new scenario. Life, he said, life, that was the material that he used and needed. There could never be enough life. But it was only the beginning, of course, because life was thin.
There was an eminent London man, she began, a clergyman known to dine at the best tables, a man of great experience who had many friends, friends who were both surprised and delighted when this man finally married. The lady in question was known to be highly respectable. But on the day of their wedding as they crossed to France from Dover to Calais, he found a note addressed to her from a man who had clearly been her lover and now felt free, despite her new circumstances, to address her ardently and intimately.
James listened, noting every word. Lady Gregory found that she was trembling and had to control herself; she realized that she would have to speak softly and slowly. She stopped and took a sip of water, knowing that if she did not continue in a tone that was easy and nonchalant she would end by giving more away than she wished to give. The clergyman, she went on, was deeply shocked, and, since he had been married just a few hours to this woman, he decided that, when they had arrived in Paris, he would send her back home to her family, make her an outcast; she would be his wife merely in name. He would not see her again.
Excerpted from The Empty Family by Colm Toibin. Copyright © 2011 by Colm Toibin. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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