The doctor tipped his head back against the worn red velvet of the lounge. An oil lamp, swinging from the ceiling, seemed to isolate him in a pool of light. Outside, the invisible sea raced astern, hissing slightly beneath the driving impact of the rain.
I first heard of Grimshaw [the doctor began] in my student days in London. He was perhaps five years my senior, just beginning to be famous, not yet infamous, but indiscreet enough to get himself talked about. He had written a little book of verse, “Vision of Helen,” he called it, I believe.... The oblique stare of the hostile Trojans. Helen coifed with flame. Menelaus. Love ... Greater men than Grimshaw had written of Priam’s tragedy. His audacity called attention to his imperfect, colourful verse, his love of beauty, his sense of the exotic, the strange, the unhealthy. People read his book on the sly and talked about it in whispers. It was indecent, but it was beautiful. At that time you spoke of Cecil Grimshaw with disapproval, if you spoke of him at all, or, if you happened to be a prophet, you saw in him the ultimate bomb beneath the Victorian literary edifice. And so he was.
I saw him once at the Alhambra—poetry in a top hat! He wore evening clothes that were a little too elaborate, a white camellia in his buttonhole, and a thick-lensed monocle on a black ribbon. During the entr’acte he stood up and surveyed the house from pit to gallery, as if he wanted to be seen. He was very tall and the ugliest man in England. Imagine the body of a Lincoln, the hands of a woman, the jaw and mouth of Disraeli, an aristocratic nose, unpleasant eyes, and then that shock of yellow hair—hyacinthine—the curly locks of an insane virtuoso or a baby prodigy.
“Who is that?” I demanded.
“Grimshaw. The chap who wrote the book about naughty Helen. La belle Helene and the shepherd boy.”
I stared. Everyone else stared. The pit stopped shuffling and giggling to gaze at that prodigious monstrosity, and people in the boxes turned their glasses on him. Grimshaw seemed to be enjoying it. He spoke to someone across the aisle and smiled, showing a set of huge white teeth, veritable tombstones.
“Abominable,” I said.
But I got his book and read it. He was the first Englishman to dare break away from literary conventions. Of course he shocked England. He was a savage aesthete. I read the slim volume through at one sitting; I was horrified and fascinated.
I met Grimshaw a year later. He was having a play produced at the Lyceum—“The Labyrinth”—with Esther Levenson as Simonetta. She entertained for him at her house in Chelsea and I got myself invited because I wanted to see the atrocious genius at close range. He wore a lemon-coloured vest and lemon-yellow spats.
“How d’you do?” he said, gazing at me out of those queer eyes of his. “I hear that you admire my work.”
“You have been misinformed,” I replied. “Your work interests me, because I am a student of nervous and mental diseases.”