An Extract from John Johns, by Frederic Carrel

This extract from John Johns, a distinctly unflattering portrayal of Frank Harris, also features a lightly disguised Oscar Wilde in the character of 'Horace'.

 

All through the summer, Johns, tired of making love, sought new sensations in old vintages, and he soon became renowned among his cup companions for his extraordinary capacity for ingurgitation. After a little practice and a strong exercise of will, he was able to absorb large quantities of alcohol without apparent inconvenience. He wanted to be remarkable even in insobriety. For it marked superiority, according to his way of thinking, to have the power of resisting the effect of alcohol. "By God," he would say to those who endeavoured to keep pace with him, "your heads, my friends, are made of a rum sort of stuff!"

One evening, however, he was leaving a restaurant on the Embankment in the company of an erotic poet whose mind was a strange mixture of wit and incoherence, and who had attracted the attention of the public by his eccentricities. Both had been indulging freely, and as they walked arm-in-arm, leaning affectionately towards each other, they indulged in rhetoric.

The evening sun was shedding a mellow light upon the Thames, softening the outlines of the buildings on its banks. The air, after the rain which had fallen in the mornings, was light and fresh. It was an ideal afternoon. Pointing to the left bank of the river, Johns, in a tender mood, was saying-

"I tell you, Horace, that there is beauty in those chimneys over yonder! Look at them. Behold the gentle smoke issuing in majestic clouds from the stately orifice. See how it ascends upwards in the most beautiful of spirals, soft and delicate in its shade of tender grey. Horace, why are there no poets to sing the beauties of that smoke, to immortalize that land of industry which looks from here so placid? Ah, Horace, Horace, why is it that you never paint the real, the incomparable real?"

But the friend whom Johns addressed as Horace, a tall man with long curled hair and a shaven face, beside whom he looked strangely dwarfed, replied-

"John, dear John, reality does not exist. Reality is one of those chimeras which are forged by the middle classes to account for elephantine dullness. Reality, dear John, is like that obelisk, an ugly thing, a thing inimical to art. Do you think Praxiteles or any of the divine Greeks descended to the real? No, dear John, they worshipped at the perennial font of fantasy. Ah, no! ah, no! In this land of grocerdom it is not substance we must cultivate, but artifice. We are surfeited with realism. Our lives in this city of brute commerce are made burdensome with the hideousness of trade; we are submerged in a repugnant sea of barter. Our sense of beauty is ever lacerated. Look at the lovely flower which for a brief day is living with me in my button-hole! Do not its tender petals, so reposeful in their pallor, seem to shrink from the crude brutality of yonder land of ugliness? Is it not so perfect that it deserves the praise of being called unreal?"

As he said this, he thrust his large fleshy hand beneath the lappet of his coat, and raised the flower to his lips, exclaiming rapturously-

"Sweet emblem of immaculate perfection, no stockbroker possesses you! You are resting your sweet beauty on the breast of culture! Your radiance is enjoyed by one whose senses vibrate only for true loveliness, whose soul lives on the Parnassian slopes, for whom the common herd must ever be as dross! Ah, there's nothing in the world so beautiful as the unreal!" .Johns had listened to this panegyric patiently. He knew, like everybody, the nature of the man; that he had a band of followers who worshipped him, a woman here and there in London whose thoughts and feelings he had utterly capsized, and for some reason which no one had ever clearly understood, lie professed to think him a great genius, and supported him in his habitual arraignment of the middle classes, at whom he had, himself, so often tilted. He answered-

"My good Horace, I agree with you. In principle I myself detest vulgarity, but what I meant to say was that there was beauty in that Turneresqueness. Look at them once again, Horace. Observe the majesty with which they rise up to the sky, the grand unrolling of the smoke-cloud which issues from the orifice, and tell me if you do not think those chimneys are suggestive of idealisms such as not even that narcissus in your buttonhole can give."

As he said this, Johns made inside the poet stop. Then, waving his hand in a wave which embraced all that was visible of the other bank, he cried in a vinous voice "Say, is it not superb?"

The poet, clutching his companion's arm and leaning on it, looked across the river, down which a steamer, full of passengers, was gliding rapidly.

"John, dear John, I see but chimneys, chimneys, ugly chimneys and a nasty boat."

"Then, to-day, you're blind, Horace."

"I'm not blind, John, to-day."

"I say that they're ideal chimneys!"

"And I say that they are not!"

They stood gazing at the river, unable to proceed further with their argument, when they suddenly became conscious that an old man in black, with white hair and a shrunk face, carrying a volume under his left arm, was contemplating them.

Recognizing Tarte, Johns said-

"Well, Tarte, what do you think of the artistic merit of those chimneys?"

"I think," the old man said, "that you're both looking at them through the spectacles of Bacchus."

"Ancient," the poet said, " you may be right, but know that the rare Falernian we have both been quaffing at that palace of delights above, is of such potent virtue that its effect should be to call forth from its votaries the choicest of their faculties. To-day, I regret to say, its effect upon my friend has not been good. This afternoon it has impaired his vision. Mine, worthy ancient, it has improved."

The old man looked at them for a moment silently. Then, with his arms crossed and the volume brought more forward, he commenced-

"Oh, Sybarites! Oh, Sybarites! You for whom life is one long fête, you who taste the pleasures which are said to make life sweet, do you know that I, an ancient as you call me, hanging on to life by the slender thread of a daily wage, am inclined to pity you?

"I find you here on this sunny afternoon, with your faces flushed and your minds adrift, disputing about chimneys!

"Blind? Yes, certainly you're blind. You can see no farther than the narrow bounds of your magnificence. You can conceive nothing which exists outside your luxury. It has never occurred to you, my friends, to go into that land of industry to see how life is lived there. You have never guessed that there is poetry in that place of toil. No, you could not see it if you went. You could not see it, because you have not measured life with the true measure-the measure of necessity. To you it seems of moment whether there is or is not artistic motive in that smoke, but I tell you that life, hard, struggling life is there, that poverty is there, that misery is there, and that is what makes it of more interest than smoke.

"Will you ever learn that there is something more than art in life, that the vast majority of men and women do not know it, that they only live to feed and clothe their bodies? Ah, yes, I say to you that you let art take too much room in life, you will fall victims to it. When the tree of culture has been climbed until the top is reached, a fall is imminent, and that fall is often into the pond of incoherence. Sometimes the road of the cultured hedonist leads to Bedlam, sometimes it leads to Newgate, and in neither of those places are the muses wooed, my friends. If either of you take one or the other of those roads, you'll be worse off than I, the Philistine, whose days are destined to be ended in a select establishment of paupers.

"If you knew how empty life can seem to a man like me who knows it! If you knew how useless all of you appear to me, and how I see the pleasures which you prize-I who yet have never tasted one of them! Do not think that envy prompts me. I envy no man. Life passes before my eyes as a race to annihilation. I don't know whence I came; I have no knowledge whither I may go when my organism ends. I desire nothing, I hope for nothing, and I fear nothing. Long ago I would have retired from the game had not my meagre pittance served to keep alive another, more attached to life than I.

"But yesterday I buried her, and now death is not far from me. I feel it in the air, it whispers warnings in my ears. I see it in my mirror, and I feel it in my gait. Perhaps it will overtake me before I reach that home of indigence in the sweet Surrey hills where a man can feel himself decay in ease. Whenever it may be, I'm ready. If there be a God, as this old missal, which I've bought for sixpence, says there is, he ought to think me a deserving person; for I have never sinned. My body will leave the world as pure as it came into it. 0h, Sybarites, remember that pleasure, culture, art, are mere delusions fraught with peril!"

Saying this, without even taking leave, and after placing his russet volume under his arm again, he moved away, leaving them to their reflections. After a moment the poet asked-

"Who is that melancholy person?"

Johns answered, "Oh, only an old devil on an evening paper."

"He is an example," pursued the poet, "of the infirmity of sense-perception which afflicts some men who have never known the higher things. I shall write a poem on his singular perversity."

Johns did not reply, and they resumed their walk.

In a few moments they reached a turning leading to the Strand, and here they parted.

But the words of Tarte had caused Johns to stop and think, and to take himself to task. He was slipping into foolish habits, into habits which, if not stopped in time, might make a slave of him. Rather than be tied to liquor, he would put himself upon cold water. There was some truth in what old Tarte had said; there was a danger of getting soft in leading this emollient life of pleasure. He must pull himself together, discipline himself. He wanted to climb higher, not to descend lower. He realized that there was something wise enough in the practice of respectability, and that Bohemianism was a dissolvent he would do better to avoid.

Horace was very well in his own way, but he wasn't a man to be seen with often, for though he had the thought and bearing of a genius, and though he (Johns) had pronounced him to be one, there was an instability about the man which made him a person to be frequented with caution. Moral unconsciousness might be very well, but there was a way in things, and Horace with his vices and his mannerisms, went too far. In short, he recognized that there was danger not only in the companionship of Horace, but also in the band of casual inebriates whom, in his taedium vitae he had gathered round him. A change there must be. Johns ordered it, and it was Johns's duty to obey.

Henceforth he placed himself upon a regime of a pint of claret daily, and when his cup companions called, he was invariably "out."

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