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A Chef-d’Œuvre

By Reginald Turner

As I, his literary executor, arrange and destroy his papers, I
realise at last and to the full the tragedy of Alan Herbert’s
life. If ever man lived for his art, he did ; all that he had, of
health and strength, of means and leisure, he gave to what he be-
lieved that art demanded of him. And art was no cant word to him.
By talking of it he dazzled no clique, he became no lion of tea
parties, he gained no undeserved renown. Sincerity, in all the
plainness of that austere word, guided his actions and his
thoughts. He possessed all the prejudices which so many of his
kind affect, and for those prejudices he was ready to suffer. I have
known him ill for a week from the hand-shake of a professional
journalist, though several of his intimate friends were occasional
contributors to the evening papers. Having known him all my
life, I never took him quite seriously. At school and at home I
had never detected anything abnormal in him, but, as boyhood is
not critical of character, this is not surprising ; and I must confess
that his parents, pastors and masters, who were all grown-up,
thought him unremarkable. I never thought about him till my
third year at Oxford. He was in his second year, and though I had
seen him frequently while he was yet a freshman, I had never had
cause to separate him, in my mind, from any of the other men I

The Yellow Book—Vol. XI. P


                        238 A Chef-d’Œuvre

knew. The first time he surprised me was one day in the beginning
of the October term. I had come up from the river after trying
some of the freshmen for the boats, and I looked in at his rooms
on my way to my own ” Diggs.” At that time, Alan was a very
good-looking fellow of twenty-one, and as I saw him in his chair
with a book in his hand, it struck me for the first time that he had
a student’s face. After a few moments’ conversation, I happened
to ask him what he was going to read for his final schools ; he
seemed to me like a man who would read history, not being scholar
enough for “greats,” nor plodding enough for a pass. ” I think,” he
answered, ” that I shall not take my degree. Reading for a school
narrows one.” I had heard idle or stupid men say that before, and
I told him that being at the ‘Varsity one might as well do some-
thing and read with some object in view. As I said it his face lit
up, and he answered :

” Do something ? I intend to ! I am reading with an object in
view. A month ago I had no object. I intended to get a decent
class and then go down and see what life I should drift into. But
to-day my whole life is changed. You have heard of religious
conversions. There are other kinds. I have been converted, I
have found salvation, and I intend to live—don’t laugh at me !
—for Art. I am not going to shrink from any of the hard-
ships which such a decision brings with it. I take myself
seriously, I believe in myself, because I know that concentration
and determination always gives a man his heart s desire. Look
at this book, it is the life of Balzac, perhaps the greatest
literary character of all time, if we consider his circumstances
and his influence. In this book I have found my salvation.
Before I die I will produce a work which shall be abiding,
which shall be my raison d’être, and by which I shall gain the true
immortality. I am feverish now, the heat of conversion is upon


                        239 By Reginald Turner

me, but I believe I have strength enough of purpose to persevere,
for long years, for a lifetime, till at last I conquer. I know I
seem to you now to be a prig, but I am not a prig. I am
sincere ! ”

I saw indeed that he was in earnest, and I confess I was sur-
prised and touched. ” Are you going to write a magnum opus ?
I asked, without any attempt at a sneer, but half in fun.

“The quantity of my work I cannot yet decide, its form lean-
not yet tell, but neither concerns me very much. The smallest
stars are those which shine the brightest.”

” It is perhaps because they are the furthest off that they look
small,” I murmured.

” I know,” he went on, without noticing my interruption, ” that
most men who have done great things in quality have also produced
a large amount of work, but that is perhaps an accident, certainly
not a necessity, and I shall do nothing in a hurry. Balzac pro-
duced for ten years work which was but a preparation, which
might have been destroyed without loss to the world and with
profit to himself. I shall prepare myself, but I shall not produce
till I feel within myself that the time has come, when I can give
to the world my heart s desire.”

” My dear Alan, you won’t find Oxford a very sympathetic
place,” I said, a little impatiently.

“No, I quite think that, and I shall not stay, when I
have exhausted all it can give me for my purpose. I shall
travel and I shall live alone ; fortunately I shall be able to
live my own life. But as yet I am in confusion, I have
formed no plans either for studying the works of others, or
for forming my own, but I am in earnest, and that s the great
thing, surely.”

That night we dined together, and 1 found him so distrait a


                        240 A Chef-d’Œuvre

companion that I vowed to see little of my enthusiast till his mania
had worn off. For weeks I saw nothing of him, and one day,
towards the end of term I was surprised to hear that he had been
” sent down.” He had been out all night and could give no better
explanation than that he had gone out, and, forgetting rules and
time, had walked all through the night, till, at six o’clock in the
morning, he had astonished the porter by demanding admittance at
the lodge. Of course neither Don nor Undergraduate would
believe such a story, and so he was told that he would be rusti-
cated for a year. I went to see him before he departed. When
I got to his rooms, he was packing his books, and as I was trying
to say something by way of sympathy, he shrugged his shoulders
and told me that it was the first sacrifice his purpose demanded of
him, and he -didn t regret it. His people at home would not
understand him, but he should hope for as little unpleasantness as
his father’s time with the birds (it was November) would allow
him. And, after all, he said the Varsity was never kind to
dreamers.—” Look at Shelley ! ”

Two years passed before I saw Alan again. During the year of
his rustication, we heard he was abroad, and I received an occasional
letter from him, sometimes from Spain and sometimes from Italy.
When the year was nearly over I got a long letter from him.
He told me that he could never come back to Oxford, with its
rigid rules and narrow ambitions.

” I am going to-morrow,” so his letter, dated from Paris, ran,
” to Croisset, there perhaps to feel the spirit of the great Master
steal over me. In the little rooms which I have taken I shall
study and ponder over that great life which devoted itself to
absolute perfection, and then when I feel I am sufficiently imbued
with the perfect spirit of the scholar and the artist, I shall come
to London and live quietly in my studio. How much nicer that


                        241 By Reginald Turner

word ‘studio’ sounds than ‘study.’ The one conjures up all
beautiful, studious, and working things, the other merely conveys
the impression of vain learning and formless severity ! ”

The letter was long, but I won t quote more. I have here before
me, as I write, my answer to that letter, and I confess I feel rather
ashamed of it. For six months Alan stayed at Croisset, going
occasionally to Rouen to chat with the booksellers and study life
on the quay, very much after the manner of Flaubert, I suppose.
Then he suddenly left for Italy again. I fancy a reading party
drove him away from Croisset. At last one of my uncles told
me he had seen him in London. His mother sent me his
address. She seemed rather distressed about him, and begged that I
would try and get him to take some interest in life. I wrote to
him and he wrote back asking me to dine with him. He was
living in some rooms in an old house off the Strand, and when I
entered I noticed that his sitting-room was almost bare of furni-
ture. The wall was covered with long strips of paper, on which
were written what looked like genealogies. I was quite shocked
when 1 1 saw my friend. In place of his former vigorous bearing,
I found him thin, pale, and care-worn, and he certainly had not
been cheating himself by pretending to work, for his face was that
of one who studied by day and by night. As I looked around
me, I saw two or three chairs, a bare writing table, and on the
floor a heap of books in utter confusion.

“I thought we would dine at a restaurant,” he exclaimed,
evidently thinking I was looking for some signs of an impending
meal. ” We shall be more free to talk over old times. This room
is my studio, and while here I cannot take my thoughts from
my work. I’m afraid you’ll find me a bore and an egoist, but
living alone for two years with but one object in view doesn’t
improve one as a companion.”


                        242 A Chef-d’Œuvre

We went out to dine, and I found that Alan had indeed not
improved as a companion. We talked of old times and friends, and
he told me something of where he had been and what he had done
since we last met. But our conversation soon flagged, and I was
rather glad when he suggested that we should take our coffee in
his rooms. When we got back, I saw that he flung himself into
his chair with infinite content, and when our pipes were lighted
and the coffee—excellent coffee by the way—was brought in, I
began to feel quite cheerful. ” And now, Alan,” I said, between
sips of coffee and whiffs at my pipe, “now that you are back in
London, you must neglect your friends no longer, and we shall
expect you to marry.”

He laughed. ” My friends are here on the wall, and as for my
heart, I have given that away. An artist’s life is a lonely one, he
has some hardships to endure, but he has compensations also. I
should have liked to marry and to have had sons and daughters to
carry me on into the future, but I intend to live in the heart and
memory of every one that knows what beauty in Art is. I
have certainly given my life and my soul to the service of Art.
Since that day in Oxford when I told you my ambition, I have
never faltered ; all my actions have been taken for one object
and though the way has often seemed hard, I have never
regretted it, for I knew I was paying the penalty of my choice.
I remember that day you asked me what form my work would
take. I couldn’t tell you then, but to-day I can. The prepara-
tion is over, the work begun. Will you smile when I tell you
how I have chosen to live ? Please don’t ; it means so much to me.
I may in the future write much, or little, I care not which, but I
am going to stand or fall, to stand I know it will be, by what in
English must be called the ‘short story.'”

” Yes,” I said, rather vacantly, ” the short story s the thing.”

                                                ” Why !

                        243 By Reginald Turner

” Why ! I have always loved small gems rather than large ones.
They can be judged, comprehended, embraced, more completely.
Fiction involves creation. The characters are mine ; I invented
them, made them live, and they shall never die. Who was Hamlet ?
What woman gave him birth ? What vault holds his body ? Yet
he is more real than any general, whose name is written large on
bloody battlefields, or any king buried beneath a pyramid. Shall I
produce a Hamlet ? No ; for I wish my work to be not a monu-
ment but a cathedral. A perfect orchestra is more beautiful than
the most exquisite achievement of one single instrument. Nor
shall my puppets be mere creatures of the imagination. As I
conceived them, so have I traced their history. You see those
genealogies on the wall ? They are the ancestors of the persons in
my story. I will have justification for every word they utter,
reason for every step they take—reason and justification to
myself. The world who reads my story shall not know, but I,
the author will know, and knowing will convince. There is a
waiter in my story, a Marseillais, he does but little, says nothing,
is of no perceptible consequence. But do you think I would put
him down among my other characters, knowing nothing of him ?
I am far too conscientious. At Marseilles I studied the man, I have
invented for him a history, a family. No man springs from nowhere,
and those who read with eyes open will realise that here is a crea-
tion, ‘This waiter,’ they will say, ‘is not a mere garçon de café, but
a human being with soul and personality.'”

I shifted my seat. In fact I was rather bored and just a little
inclined to laugh ; only his extreme seriousness kept me at atten-
tion. Alan looked at me. He suggested whisky, and I gladly
accepted. I noticed he took none himself and asked him if
living in southern cafs had made him forsake whisky for

                                                ” I don’t

                        244 A Chef-d’Œuvre

“I don’t drink spirits,” he said almost shyly, “I am afraid of
them. At any cost I am going to keep my head clear and my brain
untainted. I don’t want people to speak of my work as of that of
a mad genius. Above all else I must be sane, and spirits give an
unnatural energy, an excited imagination. To a satire or political
pamphlet, alcohol may give point, but the maker of beautiful
things must rely entirely upon himself and his lightness of touch,
his keen insight. His impartiality is bound to be impaired by
stimulants. I am afraid you think me a prig. I have warned you
before ! ”

” You punish yourself, at any rate, Alan,” I answered him.
“Great writers have managed to get on without such austerity,
and have even produced great work, if one can credit rumour,
while consuming quantities of whisky ; I thought it was what
one associated with—”

” With journalists and such creatures, not with real writers. I
will take nothing to vitiate my imagination, just as I will do and
see nothing to vitiate my taste. I never go to a music-hall or a
theatre. Idealist or realist, whichever you be, the theatre will
spoil you. How dramatists can allow actors to interpret inter
pret !—their works, has always been a very painful problem
to me.”

As he talked, I realised to some extent what this man’s life was.
He was single-hearted, he believed in himself, and he sacrificed
himself to his opinions. I looked upon him almost with awe,
certainly with some apprehension, and I rose to go.

” Come and see me sometimes—often ! ” he said, as we shook
hands. ” I am generally alone, and occasionally lonely, so don t be
afraid of disturbing me. Friendship and the companionship of
friends can do no one anything but good.”

” Come and dine with me ? ” I asked him.


                        245 By Reginald Turner

” No, society is different. You will find me here when you want
me, but I should not be an amusing visitor to you. Look! ” and
he pointed to a bundle of uncut books, ” here is my night s work—
Italian love songs. My hero writes one and he must know what to
avoid before he sets himself to the work. Ah ! My hero … for
five months I have searched vainly for his name. I have looked in
directories ; I have walked the streets looking at the names over
the shops, in vain. I have found no name to suit him—no name
which is his.

” Why not try Smith ? ” I thought as I went downstairs. But
when I got to my cosy chambers, I felt myself to be a low brute
with no aim in life, and I thought of my friend reading his Italian
love-songs in his rooms off the Strand. I saw him continually all
through that summer. He steadily refused to leave London. His
work was really in progress, and whenever I came to town for a
day or two between my various visits in the country, I found my
friend hard at work.

” When is the Chef-d’Œuvre going to be finished ? ” I asked
him one day, and I silently prayed heaven it might be soon,
for Alan waxed thinner and paler as the summer gave place to

” I’ve been at it for over two years now and I shall finish it in
a few months,if all goes well,” he said, cheerfully. “But sometimes
I stop altogether. I look for a word for several days, and then
don’t find it in the end. There are countless other troubles
too wearisome to relate. When it is all over, I shall go to the

But he was never to go. As winter came on he fell ill, and yet
he stuck to work. Day after day, night after night, he was at his
desk, writing, almost letter by letter, his wonderful story.

One day (it was mid-way through November), on going to see


                        246 A Chef-d’Œuvre

him, I found him frantically writing. His face was flushed and I
thought that on it I saw the mark of tears. When I entered, he
stood up quite still and looked at me. I saw that something had

” I must tell some one. I will tell you,” he gasped out. ” This
morning, I saw my doctor, and he tells me I have to die—only
three weeks more and perhaps I shall be dead ! ”

He took a stride to his table and snatched up his pen. ” But I
must finish this. I must launch it on the world. I must know that
it is safe. I shall never in this world know the estimation they put
upon my work, but I shall at least know that it is safe. I
realise now how hard it must be for a mother to die when her
child is about to begin life. But how much harder if her child
doesn t live and she goes out into the darkness, leaving nothing.”

” You are going to publish the story ? ” I asked. I felt that
commiseration for his fate would be out of place.

” I am going to send it to H—,” and he named the editor of
a well known Review. ” I shall send it with just my initials and
address. Perhaps H— may have heard of me and of my life. I
rather hope not. This gem shall have no borrowed light. It shall
go without a word into the literary world, there to take up its
place. But now I must be alone, I must finish my work. Good

And I left him. Every day I went to see him. Every day
he seemed more feverish, more unearthly. A week later,
when I called, I found him in bed, weary and feeble but quite

” It is finished,” he said. ” I sent it off this morning, and now
I have done. I hope I shall hear from him quickly. I wrote a
note with it, and said that I was going abroad shortly and should
hope to hear from him in a day or two.”


                        247 By Reginald Turner

” Why not go abroad ! ” I suggested, though I saw clearly he
was far too ill.

” I have given my life for that one story, but I don’t regret it.
Most men die and leave nothing behind. I have given the world a
possession. I have given it my best.”

Day after day I sat with him. As I watched him dying, I
realised how singularly simple and devoted his life had been. And
he, we both, waited eagerly for news of his life s work.

One morning, a fortnight later, as I sat reading to him, a
passage from the Tentation de Saint Antoine, his landlady came in
with a note. I saw it was from the office of the — Review.
I stretched out my hand to take it, but he prevented me, crying
out with a petulant, childish anxiety.

” No, no, it is for me,” he cried, clutching at it.

Thus the note ran : ” Dear Sir,—We regret that your story,
which we have perused with interest, can find no place in our pages.
It is of no inconsiderable merit, but is somewhat crude and in
places ill-considered. We should advise you however to persevere
and in time no doubt you may produce something worthy.”

As he reached the end, Alan Herbert turned his face to the wall
and died.

MLA citation:

Turner, Reginald. “A Chef-d’Œuvre.” The Yellow Book, vol. 11, October 1896, pp. 237-247. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.