CLEO THE MAGNIFICENT
* * * * *
MR. LOUIS ZANGWILL'S WORKS.
A Drama in Dutch.
Spectator: Certainly a book which has not merely cleverness but real vitality.
Speaker: Deliciously original ... and told with great spirit, humor and dramatic vigor.
"T. P." in Weekly Sun: What a delightful creation Mrs. de Griendt is! Indeed I should have personally been glad if we had had more of her.... I think the reader will agree with me that I have not exaggerated the literary merit of this exquisitely-described scene.
The World and a Man.
Academy: A masterful novelist.
Illustrated London News: One of the cleverest novels of the day.
Pall Mall Gazette: Finely told.... It is an achievement in a high form of art.
Daily Chronicle: It contains many passages which the greatest masters in the same genre might have been proud to have written.
The Beautiful Miss Brooke.
Brooklyn Eagle: A brilliant bit of work.
Detroit Free Press: He has analyzed with ability and finish.... This is a story to be admired for its discernment and its originality.
Boston Beacon: The story is thoroughly entertaining and well done, ... and in analysis of character, force, and directness, it exceeds the author's previous essays in fiction.
Chicago Record: Very few recent novels which have come out of England will compare with this story in two points—absolute conciseness of form and analysis of motive.... Here is a theme of vital truthfulness and Mr. Louis Zangwill has dealt with it with the hand of a master of form....
A Nineteenth Century Miracle.
Academy: As tantalizing a problem as was ever bound in cloth.
Pall Mall Gazette: As tangled a skein as ever the brain of Gaboriau evolved.
Daily Chronicle: We have seldom read a better piece of mystification.
Morning Leader: It would probably defy the most ingeniously imaginative reader to make in the course of the story even an approximate leap toward the heart of the miracle that Louis Zangwill has wrought for his astonishment.
* * * * *
CLEO THE MAGNIFICENT
The Muse of the Real
Author of "The Beautiful Miss Brooke," "The World and a Man," Etc., Etc.
New York: G. W. Dillingham Co., Publishers. London: Wm. Heinemann. MDCCCXCVIII.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1897, by G. W. DILLINGHAM CO., In the office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington, D. C.
Cleo the Magnificent.
CLEO THE MAGNIFICENT
It was past midnight, and both men were smoking leisurely by the study fireside. Morgan Druce sat just on the edge of a low chair, his long, slim body bent forward, his clean-shaven boyish face well within the glow of the fire. Though he appeared to be looking at it, he was only conscious of its warmth.
Robert Ingram, middle-aged and bearded, lolled back in sensuous comfort. "The long and the short of it is," he resumed, "you've a soul-crisis on just at present. Crises are bad for the digestion, and I took care to grow out of them long ago."
"Our temperaments are very different," said Morgan.
"That's what makes your case so difficult to meet," returned Ingram. "It's your infernal temperament. One never knows how to take it. In fact, you're the sort of person in whose existence I never really believed; for though, as you know, I once had ideals and a literary conscience, I was always aware they would go as soon as I had a market for everything I could manufacture. You are the genuine incorruptible artist, to whom art is sacred. I really don't know whether to be doubtful of my cynicism or your sanity."
"That my case is a pretty bad one I've already admitted," put in Morgan.
"Now, if you were only some poor devil who was alone in the world," went on Ingram without heeding his remark, "I could take you in hand and make something of you, for you've quite brains enough. Poor devils are generally more reasonable in their views than you, even when they're geniuses. You simply keep on wearing out your heart day after day. Why? For fame? What is it worth? Well, I won't answer the question—I deal quite enough in platitudes."
"You don't understand, Ingram. What do you really know of me?"
"Well, if I don't know you by this time, you must be an uncommonly deep person—or perhaps I am an uncommonly shallow one."
Morgan Druce did not answer. His last remark had been more of a reflection than an interrogation. What did Ingram really know of him, he asked himself again, despite the five years of the indefinable relation between them? Admitting that the man beneath the cynic was kindly and sympathetic, yet he could not but be aware that Ingram's treason to the aspirations of his youth had destroyed the finer edge of feeling. His vision did not respond to subtler vibrations; his judgment was broad and coarse.
Such was Morgan's intuition about Robert Ingram. He believed the man to be sincere with him and he trusted him. And yet, as he looked up now and saw Ingram, relapsed into his luxurious arm chair, blowing rings of smoke, he seemed to detect something in his expression that filled him with a vague distrust about the genuineness of his professed interest in him. There was a sort of swagger in his whole posture, a slickness about his well-dressed, well-fed body, and a self-satisfaction in his somewhat burly face, nay, even in the manner his fat fingers held his fat cigar, that set Morgan wondering for the first time whether Ingram's attitude to literature did not in truth sum up the whole man; whether that popular novelist and dramatist could really have a place in his heart for anything that was of unimportance to his own personal existence—for a poor devil of a poetaster, for instance.
It was one of those sudden doubts that are created by a chance glimpse from an accidental new point of view; and Morgan thrust it from him as absurd and unjust. It could have no foundation, else why had Ingram responded to his appeal at the beginning? Why had he tolerated his calls all these years? Why were they talking together in that room now?
He had often been puzzled about this relation between them, though, as with his friendship with Lady Thiselton, its very strangeness and originality pleased him. His relation to that charming woman was, he felt, both indefinable and incredible; and his relation to the man beside him, though less odd, could be included neither in the category of acquaintanceship nor in that of friendship. Morgan was ignorant of Ingram's personal life, even as Ingram was ignorant of such a large fact in his own as Lady Thiselton. Their coming together had been always on the ground of their one common interest; otherwise there was the most absolute mutual exclusiveness between their existences. True that Morgan's periodical appearance at this Albert Gate flat, of which Ingram had made for himself a luxurious bachelor's home, had eventually resulted in a certain frankness of speech and familiarity of manner between them. But here their intercourse began and ended.
Perhaps Morgan had all along seen the position a little bit out of perspective; the very freedom with which Ingram had come to unmask himself before him and the intimacy with which they addressed each other had perhaps misled him. The cheery breeziness of Ingram had attracted him a good deal from the first, and he had liked the man for the ready good nature he had displayed towards him. And altogether it had been easy for him to think that he had done more than just rub up against the surface of Ingram's life, the depth and fullness of which he had scarcely realised.
At the beginning he had looked upon his being allowed to come and see the older man now and again as a privilege. It had never struck him to look at these visits of his from the other's point of view. It was precisely this point of view that now forced itself upon him as he struggled with the suspicion that had come to him. Had Ingram looked upon him merely as somebody who deserved to be good-humouredly tolerated? And was his openness only due to the consciousness of his (Morgan's) being an outsider, into whose ears he had got into the habit of speaking thoughts he would have told to no other living person, pretty much as he might have written them in a diary? Such a habit was easy to acquire with regard to an outsider whom one came into contact with periodically, and with whom one had a long talk each time.
He was not pleased, however, that such a train of thought should have come to him, and, urged by something akin to remorse, his mind went travelling back over the past five years in search of arguments in favour of Ingram.
There was a long interval during which both smoked in silence.
"Do you remember," asked Morgan, at length, "the circumstances under which we first became acquainted?"
"Perfectly," responded Ingram. "You wrote me a long letter, a rather pathetic one. That was the first intimation I had of your existence."
"Did you destroy that letter?"
"I never destroy letters—compromising ones, of course, always excepted."
"Then I may assume it still exists. Would it give you very much trouble to find it now?"
"I pride myself upon my system," answered Ingram.
"Please put it to the test, then."
"Your system is excellent," admitted Morgan, as at the end of about five minutes Ingram held up the sheets in triumph. "Now I wonder if you'd read it to me. I want to hear how it sounds."
"Certainly, you amusing beggar," said Ingram. "You wrote it during your last crisis and you want to compare your feelings then with now."
"I forget what I wrote," said Morgan, with an attempt at gaiety. "It must be very dramatic, so please put the proper expression into it, just as if it were a passage in one of your plays."
"Dear Mr. Ingram," read out that gentleman. "For nearly six years I have been trying to live by writing verse—ever since I was seventeen. Six years of passionate hope and longing, failure and failure, all years of wandering in the desert, of groping in the dark. I know no one—no one to criticise me—no one to encourage, to blame, or to praise; only the voice of purpose in my breast. Amid loneliness this passion for fruitless labour has grown strong, frenzied, blind. Perhaps one day I shall penetrate—if I live. But for life one must have food; for work one must have shelter. At twenty-three one does not want to die; not when one has lived always in the future, when one has striven and toiled for recognition that may yet come. Not mere recognition of genius or talent, of knack or gift, but recognition of Truth as opposed to Imposture, of my right to life, of my right to give free and full expression of the individuality that is mine.
"As matters are now—I am utterly friendless so far as my inner life is concerned—I can see no other end than fall. God knows what shape that fall is destined to take; into what mire my soul must plunge in the fight for life. I could bear anything if I were not so utterly alone and helpless. I would do hack-work if I but knew Grub Street. I would sell my soul to a publisher for fifty pounds a year. Anything to get my foot on the lowest rung of the ladder! Anything to help me on the way to freedom!
"If you could see me, speak to me, help me in any way! Believe me, I do not wish to force my personality on you. I do not want you to give me any material thing. I only beg of you to aid me in asserting my claim on life by telling how I may win bread.
"I should be deeply grateful for a word from you. In any case, pardon this intrusion. Yours, etc., Morgan Druce."
* * * * *
Ingram drew a long breath and threw the sheets on to the table.
"Have I read it nicely?" he asked.
"And I wrote that—to you, Robert Ingram!" exclaimed Morgan, brokenly.
"You did," said Ingram, quietly. "And you know what the sequel was."
"You were moved by my appeal. You came to seek me out."
"Well, your letter interested me. It was not the letter of a duffer or a swindler—the sort of thing you can tell by its ornate pompousness; and it just caught me when I was somewhat bored by things, so that I rather welcomed it as an excitement. I expected to find you lodging in some miserable cottage—a Chatterton in a garret. I came to bring food to the hungry. Instead——"
"You found me living in a palace standing in a fine park, with no lack of loaves and fishes, of milk and honey."
"It was the greatest surprise of my life. When I could no longer doubt that the only people called Druce in the neighbourhood lived in the magnificent Elizabethan mansion, whose name was that of the supposed cottage from which you addressed your letter, I began to think the family kept a skeleton in one of the cupboards. In plain language——"
"You thought one of the members of the family must be a lunatic."
"Anyway, the champagne was first-class, the cigars were worth half-a-crown apiece," said Ingram, laughing.
"And when you had gone into the matter you thought that if I wasn't quite a lunatic, I was not far short of one for disagreeing with my father."
"Frankly, I did."
"You never really sympathised."
"I did—all the time I conceived of you as a Chatterton."
"A palace is worse than a garret," asserted Morgan, "under the conditions in which I lived."
"Bah! You know nothing about garrets. And, as I pointed out to you, even if, in spite of the competition, you did sell your soul to a publisher for fifty pounds a year, he'd take care to stick to it. You were hopelessly wrong in your ideas about getting your foot on the first rung of the ladder."
"I am ashamed of ever having had those ideas—of ever having been willing to suppress my individuality, if only temporarily, for the sake of living. It all ought to have ended then. Why did you advise me to go on?"
"I only advised you to go on writing—I took the other thing for granted. In the light of my experience of myself at the same age, I judged it was the only advice you would take. And then having entered on the adventure, I wanted to finish it; so naturally I set about making peace between father and son. Excellent man, your father! So open to reason! You must have been deuced clumsy to irritate him. To refuse to enter such a business! You'd have been a rich man in a few years. But I'm sorry to see your last remark implied a sort of reproach."
"It was a stupid remark," admitted Morgan. "Of course I wanted to go on. At twenty-three one does not want to die."
"If there is still a prospect of being allowed to write poetry," added Ingram. "You wanted to be put in the way of earning fifty pounds a year, and naturally you invoked the assistance of the man who was reputed to have a weakness for embryo genius. However, at the age of twenty-eight, it appears, one does want to die. I helped you over the last crisis; perhaps I may help you over this one. Let us look at the facts. You've had a good chance and you've been defeated. Your poetry is not wanted. As I've told you before, I am not competent to say whether it's great or whether it's downright drivel—it's years since I discovered my limitations. You've been imprudent enough to pay the expenses of publishing two small volumes, and certain it is that nobody found any greatness in them. I admit I couldn't make head or tail of the bulk of the stuff—I'm satisfied myself to write what plain folk can understand. To put the matter bluntly, you send work to market that most people would look on as the ravings of a lunatic. Now, my advice is—cut poetry. There is plenty in the world for you to live for. Go and travel awhile. See men and cities, sculpture and paintings. Study humanity instead of merely thinking about it. Sail over the wide seas; breathe in the good air; be true to your youth and fall in love right bravely. You are rich—all this is in your power. I am sure your father will be pleased."
Morgan was touched by the other's enthusiasm.
"I have always misunderstood you," he cried, remorsefully; "you are not the mere gross tradesman you boast of being."
"Really, you embarrass me. Anyway, I hope that, now your opinion of me has gone up, my advice will bear fruit. After which I shall not mind confessing that that last nice bit is a quotation from my first novel. I could have invented nothing more apropos."
"You give me advice I am powerless to act on," said Morgan, after some hesitation. "I spent my last shilling to-day."
"No money!" ejaculated Ingram. "The deuce! Don't you draw a regular income from your father?"
"That was not the arrangement," said Morgan. "I was the first-born, and he was mortally offended by my refusal to enter the bank and carry on the name and the tradition of the house. During all those six years there had been friction and bitterness between us. At last came an appalling outbreak, and I was suffering from the full pain of my wounds when I wrote to you. You were good enough to tell him that genius sometimes earned quite considerable amounts, and the ultimate result of your intercession, of which you only knew the happy issue, not the details, was that he agreed to give me six thousand pounds, with the understanding I was never to expect another penny from him. My brother was to take my commercial birthright and I the responsibility for my whole future. I've earned nothing save an odd few shillings now and again, and all I had from my father I've somehow managed to mess away."
"Good God!" shrieked Ingram. "Six thousand pounds in five years! An exemplary young man of simple habits like you! What could you have done with it all? You're not a spendthrift. You don't gamble, do you?"
"I don't know how it has gone," said Morgan, helplessly. "I made bad investments, I lent some of it away, and I suppose I spent the rest."
"And you wanted to sell your soul to a publisher for fifty pounds a year! The fact is, I suppose, you don't know the value of money at all—it just melts away."
"For me money has no value. I don't care a pin about it," said Morgan, doggedly.
"That's scarcely the point," said Ingram. "Whether you care about it or not, you'll have to raise some of it. Let me interview your father. The fault is his. He knew you were a poet, and yet he was imprudent enough to give you capital instead of an income."
"It was my doing. I wanted to be perfectly free and independent of him—not to be worried by sordid complaints and lectures and warnings with each quarter's cheque. I told him so frankly, and I so annoyed him even at the end that he gave me the money, saying he did not care what I did with it. I certainly intend to stand by the arrangement I made with him. That money was to be the last, and the last it shall be."
"You are difficult," said Ingram.
"You must be indulgent."
Ingram lighted a new cigar and appeared lost in reflection a little while.
"There is only one thing, then, I can suggest," he said at last.
"And that is?" asked Morgan, in a tone that clearly indicated his belief that he was beyond all suggestions.
"You can be my ghost. Don't be alarmed—you must do some work, you know, and that is the only work I can think of for you. I have to refuse very many commissions. Try your hand at some of them and I'll run over the work and sign. As I've said before, you've got brains enough if you'll only use them in the right direction."
"You mean it for the best; but I could not be party to a fraud."
"How so? My business in life is to manufacture stories and plays for the people. My signature merely guarantees the quality just as the name of a maker on a pianoforte guarantees the instrument. But every such maker employs others whose names do not appear in connection with the finished product."
"The whole thing is impossible. Forgive me for ignoring your arguments. I ought never to have troubled you with my miserable concerns. It would, perhaps, have been better if I had never written you this."
And Morgan took up his own letter from the table, morbidly fascinated by it, and impelled to read again the words that had been wrung from him five years before by his torturing sense of his position in life.
But, as he began to read, an odour he had been vaguely conscious of inhaling all along was wafted very perceptibly to his nostrils. Then he became aware that the letter was subtly scented.
An unreasoning anger came upon him.
"Some woman has had this in her possession," he exclaimed.
Ingram looked at him strangely, hesitated, then seemed finally to comprehend.
"You are a veritable Lecoq," he said coolly.
Then that conception of Ingram that had before begun to hover in Morgan's mind now forced itself upon him wholly. He had always understood that the man had been inclined to take him somewhat as a good joke, but this he had not minded so much, so long as he believed that his personality and his aspirations really interested him. Now his sense of not having been looked upon seriously predominated, and with it came an exaggerated consciousness of everything in Ingram that was obnoxious to his spirit. If the re-reading of the letter had been a torture for him, the knowledge that it had been ruthlessly exposed to other eyes aggravated the pain tenfold, especially at this particular moment.
"And so this person, whose vile scent impregnates this, has had my soul laid bare before her for her amusement!"
"Whose vile scent?" repeated Ingram, angrily. "I must ask you not to use such language about any friend of mine."
"You went to her, no doubt, to be praised and fawned upon for your generosity to me, and afterwards——"
"Don't be a fool!" exclaimed Ingram, cutting him short.
"Thank you. I shall take the advice. I have been a fool long enough."
Morgan moved out of the room, leaving Ingram flushed and motionless.
As Morgan had told Ingram, he had that day spent his last shilling. He had thus no option but to walk home to his rooms in Chester Terrace, Regent's Park. It was a long walk, and one had already struck, but he did not hurry. The night was a fine one of early spring, and it suited his mood to linger in the free air.
He had not really gone to Ingram for advice, though he had been unable to prevent his despair from showing itself. He was sorry that the exhaustion of his funds should have come just at the moment when he had resigned himself to the final abandonment of the ambition that had determined his whole life. He was sure now that a mind like Ingram's would inevitably set down his despair to his money difficulties. But the next moment he told himself it was grotesque on his part to care just then what inference Ingram might draw about him. Ingram and he would be concerned with each other but little in the future!
But what was the future to be? Were there not others who would be fully as astonished as Ingram at learning the truth? And even if it were possible for him to hide besides there was Margaret Medhurst. What meaning could the future have for him without her?
His old inner life had at length come to an end and he was now to pass from it into he knew not what—perhaps a raw, cold air. And yet his feeling now was not so entirely one of despair as when he had that evening rung Ingram's bell. He seemed to have been stung out of his terrible apathy. The smart had stirred up his deadened nerves. He was trying to set in order the jumble that possessed his mind and to think clear and straight.
The vague figure of a scented woman reading his letter haunted him, and at moments Ingram was added to the picture, and he saw them uniting in mockery of him—prosaic, prosperous author, and strange, romantic serpent-woman!
Though that letter of five years before had been wrung from him, he had written it with but the vaguest idea of sending it. A romantic impulse had dictated its form as an appeal to a prominent novelist, and it was only when he had finished it that the same romantic impulse urged him to post it. His feeling about it was purely poetic, and he scarcely realised he was addressing a real, living person. The commercial world of literature was to him a mysterious, far-off chaos, and at very bottom he had no belief the letter would be the means of his getting nearer to it.
So far as he was concerned at the moment, he had sent his bolt flying into the clouds, and the contingency of its being shown about had never occurred to him; moreover, if Ingram had left his appeal unanswered, the fact he now resented so much would never have come within the sphere of his consciousness. But to become cognisant of it years later at a moment of despair humiliated him unbearably. The mere re-reading of the letter had already humiliated him, for the lapse of time, the change of circumstance, the literary degeneration of Ingram, and his very acquaintance with the man, had made him feel the words very differently than when they had come spontaneously out of his blood. His sense of their futility added to his resentment.
But as he now walked along he was beginning to be conscious that, side by side with this resentment, had come something fantastic, something luring, immanent in the far faintness of the scent that had perfumed his letter.
He found himself repeating Browning's lines with a sense of the thrill and romance of life.
"Heap cassia, sandal-buds and stripes Of labdanum, and aloe balls, Smeared with dull nard an Indian wipes From out her hair: such balsam falls Down seaside mountain pedestals, From treetops, where tired winds are fain, Spent with the vast and howling main, To treasure half their island-gain.
"And strew faint sweetness from some old Egyptian's fine worm-eaten shroud, Which breaks to dust when once unrolled; Or shredded perfume, like a cloud From closet long to quiet vowed, With mothed and dropping arras hung, Mouldering her lute and books among, As when a queen, long dead, was young."
If his sense of overwhelming defeat made for despair, he was conscious of his nature being effectively appealed to from another direction. If he had that evening determined to throttle his ambition and write poetry no more, he seemed to have become aware of the stirring of a new motive for existence. But what it was he could not definitely tell himself.
And always before him rose the figure of the scented serpent-woman holding his letter in her long fingers, her white teeth gleaming in mockery!
"I shall live—live!" he exclaimed, as he entered his own door at last.
He lighted the gas in his large, comfortable sitting-room, and noticed there were letters for him on the mantel resting against the clock, whose hands pointed to half-past two.
But he would not look at them just yet. His was a strange mood just then and he did not wish his thoughts disturbed. There was something he had to do at once. Let the letters wait till he had finished.
Again he heard Ingram's voice reading. Every word had branded itself on him.
Soon he had the large table littered with bundles of manuscript. They represented his poetic output. Many of them had travelled far and wide; never again should they be sent forth into the world to bring him that which his heart had most desired. He took up one here and there and ran his eye through it. Considering the years he had worked, the output—for a young man's muse—was perhaps not large. But then he had only taken up his pen when inspiration had come. Certainly during the earlier years most of his time had been spent in reading and study. Otherwise he had had a habit of losing himself in the play of his imagination, awaking after having lived in worlds innumerable. Thus the actual amount of verse he had produced in the first years was really quite small.
He could not help dawdling a little before proceeding with the work of destruction. They were strange products, most of these poems of his; mirroring vague metaphysical moods, unseizable mystic fancies; incomprehensible save to one whose own inwardness they suggested, or to one of infinite emotional sympathy. A blurred, shapeless spirit brooded behind these melodious masses of words, these outpourings of disconnected ideas—a spirit invisible for reason and responsive only to divination, as love responds to love. Sometimes it was hidden amid a flow of sensuous images; sometimes in an impression of a landscape, of an atmospheric effect, of a play of light and shade. Such impression was never pure and complete, such visual effect never pictured for its own sake; for here and there amid it would lurk a phrase that was not of it, that struck a note—an elusive key-note—which set vibrating something haunting in its familiarity, terrifying in its strangeness; something mocking and meaningless, that went echoing away into the infinite.
He had not been able to find contentment in the mere presentation of beauty. Even where he dealt with the concrete there was always something to destroy the semblance of reality. The world that was revealed to his vision was a surface-world, for he had not pierced it by experience, but only dimly through the medium of books, and the elements it gave him he used freely. But his combinations of them were seldom along the lines of the possible. Here a colour would flash out at one; there a jewel would sparkle; now a perfume would be wafted; now a bird would sing. But all this individual definiteness was merged into a general blur, or formed itself into a sort of kaleidoscopic pattern that subtly suggested a meaning to be seized.
And all that Morgan now looked over again gave back to him the spirit he had put into them. The gaps in his expression of that spirit he was blind to. Shaped in the mould of his peculiar fantasy, these poems lived for the mind that had created them, that had been compelled by its own inner necessity to give them what was to him their particular form, to others their very formlessness.
His belief that this poetry was of immortal quality was unshaken, but he had been born into a wrong world, he now told himself. He was aware that he did not know the world of every-day affairs; that he was not fitted to know it. The very thought of its swirling incomprehensible activities turned him giddy; and if he walked amid it daily it was for him pure visual perception. Beyond that perception he did not seek to look and so he escaped discomfort.
Well, let him not linger. His old life—the singer's life—was over, and nothing of it must remain.
The grate was a big one, but even then the work of destruction would take some time. A fire had been laid that morning, but had not been lighted. He put back the coals into the vase and filled the grate with his manuscripts. Then, striking a match, he watched the blaze blackening and curling up the edges of the sheets.
When eventually the table was bare, he reflected it was strange he should now feel so little emotion. His predominating sense was one of physical fatigue, but the figure of the scented woman was still with him. Would it not be splendid, he asked himself, now that his past life lay there in a charred heap, to enter with his new life into the life of this woman—nay, to win her away from Ingram?
He took his letters. There were three of them, and they read as follows:
"My Dear Morgan:—This is to let you know I shall be in town to-morrow. I want you to come and meet me at Victoria at one o'clock and we shall lunch together before I go on to my hotel. My chief business is to see friend Medhurst about my eyes. I fear my present reading-glasses no longer suit me. By the way, I've some splendid ideas for you to work out. It's quite clear to me now from whom you inherited your genius. Mind you are in time. Your dad, Archibald D.
"P. S.—The 'Pleiad' to-day publishes that little poem of yours about Diana. I feel very proud of being your father. Present my regards to Mr. Ingram."
Morgan merely smiled. He had not had a poem published for many months, and this was his first indication that the one in point had been accepted. Curious, he reflected, it should just appear that day.
"Dear Prince Charming," ran the second. "This is to reproach you for not coming yesterday afternoon. For two hours I waited without giving up hope. Softest-hearted of mortals, for me alone is your heart a stone! I had all the sensations of Mariana in the moated grange, but whilst you are in the world, I certainly shall not wish myself dead.
"When are you going to take me to Whitechapel? My mind wanders longingly from this prosaic Belgrave Square to yon fantastic region. It's quite a month since we last got lost together. I have next Monday and Thursday free. I wonder whether it will occur to you to connect the two last sentences. Either day—or both—will suit me. This doesn't count as a letter. I shall write you a real one this evening. Helen."
"Dear Morgan," read the last. "As you have probably heard, your father is coming to town to see Mr. Medhurst professionally, and of course he is to dine here to-morrow evening. Come in and join us; we shall be strictly en famille. By the way, Margaret has not only finished 'Chiron' and the 'Spanish Marauder,' but she has actually sold both! They look very well, indeed, in bronze. Yours ever, Kate Medhurst.
"P. S.—Diana sends her love and hopes that if you have any more stamps you will bring them with you."
This postscript was in the writing of the young lady herself.
The reading of these letters did not give him any pleasure just then. These other lives in whose round he was an important figure were going on without any intuition of his inner tragedy, without any suspicion that they would henceforwards have to go on without him; that he could no more carry them forward into his vague, new life than those equally vital elements of his old self—his poems! How strangely did their moods contrast with his—his father's playful good-humour, Lady Thiselton's sprightly camaraderie and Mrs. Medhurst's cheerful domesticity!
But the last letter made him wince. It was only a simple invitation, but it hurt him as though a finger had been put on a raw wound. For he, who had made a failure of his existence, whose one remaining link with life was a mere grotesque possibility of an adventure with an unknown serpent-woman, loved Margaret Medhurst with a poet's despairing love.
The figure of the scented woman floated up again. She had let the letter fall into her lap now and her wonderful face seemed to smile at him.
He awoke in the morning, acceptant of what he had done in the night. A calmness had set in and with it had come a clarification of his thought. His grasp of the position was more definite, and his feeling was that, to meet it adequately, he must disattach himself completely from the past.
But the future was mystic and seductive.
However, his tendency to dwell on it had to be put aside in favour of commonplace things that must be done immediately. As Ingram had pointed out to him, he might be as indifferent to money as he pleased, yet he must give it his first attention. Though ready cash was exhausted, he remembered almost with surprise he had several possessions that might be converted into it.
His breakfast was served to him as usual, but he did not open the promised letter which duly arrived from Lady Thiselton. His general sense of things filled his mind sufficiently.
His first business was to wait upon the family jeweller in Oxford Street, from whom he had made occasional purchases for birthday presents. The experience was a strange one for him, and he felt somewhat timid about it. However, when he had explained what he wanted, he was agreeably astonished at the man's insisting, with a great show of goodwill towards him, he must accommodate him with fifty pounds, and before Morgan had recovered from his flurry, he had given an I. O. U. for the amount and had bank notes in his pocket.
"Why, I shouldn't think of charging you any interest," the jeweller had declared, and Morgan was much puzzled to understand why. Nor did he quite know what this piece of paper he had signed represented.
He had now accomplished all the action his brain had planned, and it was time to go and meet his father. And then it struck him as curious that life seemed to be ignoring his ideas and to be taking him forward despite himself. With all his intense feeling that he must complete his disattachment from the past, its impetus was stronger than he. Somehow he must go and meet his father; he must dine with the Medhursts that evening.
As was clear from Archibald Druce's note, the relation between father and son was scarcely so theatrical as Ingram might have gathered from Morgan's talk the evening before, a fact of which Morgan was well aware. He had not really intended to give Ingram a theatrical impression, but the somewhat subtle truth could never have been conveyed in the few words they had had together, apart from the fact that it must inevitably have got coloured by the mood of the moment.
There had been many vicissitudes between father and son. The latter well remembered the moment when, unable to keep his big idea to himself any longer, he had divulged it to his father as they were strolling together in the grounds one sunny afternoon. The two had always been on the best of terms. Now Archibald Druce's ideas about his Morgan's career had been definitely shaped for years. He intended that the boy should, after passing through the University, enter the banking business with which his whole life had been associated, and ultimately become a partner therein. But Morgan's own idea of his mission in life seemed to the banker so extraordinary that it made him laugh outright. Unfortunately, too, in addition to pooh-poohing his son's unexpected ambition, he went on, by way of implanting in him sensible and serious views of life, to point out that the right to spend money had to be acquired by effort expended.
Morgan had made up his mind at a very boyish age that he was destined to become an immortal bard; the conceptions he had then formed had remained with him in all their boyish freshness. They were pure conceptions, detached from the realities, of which he then knew nothing. Poetry was a great and glorious thing, and when he first decided that his whole life could be devoted to nothing nobler, he had selected it away from the actual material circumstances from which existence cannot be extricated.
But in this first talk with his father he had already been brought into collision with these sordid complications. Archibald's well-intentioned scorn had inflicted a wound that pained still after the lapse of years. Moreover, by raising financial questions, he had unwittingly poured poison into that wound. Morgan, however, refused to have his eyes opened and clung desperately to his detached conception of poetry and the poet's life.
The thought of his being destined for business terrified the lad. He felt he could never live in the atmosphere of an office. He was born to sing, to charm, to enchant. What had he to do with money? He must argue with his father and convince him. And he effectually did succeed in making him understand he was serious. The banker was upset, and Morgan, carried along by the freshness and purity of his enthusiasm, made an altogether wrong judgment of the position. For the first opposition and the first clash of wills represented a bigger fact to Morgan than it did to the father, who, not entirely understanding the force of the ferment in his son's mind, as yet took it for granted that time was only needed to eradicate this strange, startling madness. He therefore pressed Morgan to proceed at once to the University, in the belief he would take a more sensible view of things when he was a few years older. But Morgan refused. He held to his ambition with frenzied persistence, and he had felt the bitterness of dependence. He determined, therefore, to try his wings at once, remembering that money was attached to success, and, in the optimism of enthusiasm, forming impossible hopes of supporting himself before long.
Archibald Druce did not mind his being apparently idle for awhile, and, by a sort of common understanding, the subject was not touched upon between them for some time. Morgan perforce had to live at home, and, as time went by, this very fact caused him a great deal of misery. Perhaps the very magnificence of his surroundings made matters worse for him.
His mother, too, was against him, and, after awhile she seemed to expend all the time she could spare from playing the role of grande dame in the county, in egging on his father against him. The sense of her injustice embittered him, for he knew he could not fairly be accused of spending his time unprofitably. He was studying perhaps harder than he would have done at college, for he was a student almost as much as he was poet. Of recreation, though, he had no stint. He rode, fished, swam and boated; but always alone, for his instinct made for solitude. With his brother he was not unfriendly, but there was no intimate sympathy between the two.
During the years that followed there were many fallings-out and reconciliations between father and son. If the banker had been entirely able to rid his mind of the plans he had so long cherished for his son, he would have been quite content that the latter should go through life as a gentleman of wealth and leisure. But he was wedded to the business to which he had given the best energies of his life, and the idea that Morgan must eventually take his place in it amounted almost to an obsession. A reconciliation always made Morgan happy, for its own sake quite as much as for the belief that his ambition was being recognised. Estrangement and friction were always terrible things to him and caused him unspeakable suffering.
His letter to Ingram was the culmination. It was sincere and expressed exactly what he felt. The immediate cause of the mood which prompted it had been Archibald's putting before him again all the old propositions and his letting it be clearly seen he had never really abandoned them.
Then followed a few months of happiness in London. At last he felt master of his own destiny—free of all that had vexed him, free to succeed. But the routine of his days was much the same as before. He studied and wrote and dreamed. Now and again he was allowed to come and chat with Ingram. Friends of the family made him welcome at their houses whenever he chose to emerge from the isolation that was natural to him. At the Medhurst's, in particular, he was almost one of the family.
But, some time after Morgan's leaving home, Archibald Druce retired from active affairs and began to acquire the taste for reading. And now came a great change in Archibald's attitude. Morgan one day realised with astonishment that his father had become perfectly reconciled to the idea of his following a literary career, nay, that he was now proud of having a son who was a man of letters. Archibald, in fact, seemed to be relishing the literary atmosphere tremendously. He made constant additions to his library, consulting Morgan as to the choice of books, and spent a great part of his time amid its oaken magnificence. He read very many novels, buying the newest ones as they appeared. When Morgan's first volume of poems was published, Archibald went about in a state of intense excitement. He bought fifty copies to give away, and never went abroad without carrying one in his pocket. He bragged and boasted about Morgan, till one might have imagined the latter had scornfully refused the laureateship.
Morgan, however, had no great respect for his father's literary judgment. It was all very well when he came to him for advice about his reading, but there were times when the banker did not hesitate to lay down the law, for he was growing accustomed to a respectful hearing on the part of his friends, which was somewhat spoiling him. All his world knew he had trouble with his eyes. As a matter of fact, his sight was scarcely worse than it had been for years, his visual weakness being little more than imaginary, and but one of the manifestations of his literary phase.
Altogether, Archibald Druce seemed quite satisfied with Morgan's slow progress. Once he had finally got rid of the notion of making Morgan a banker, he was a delightful man to have for a father, a fact which Morgan fully appreciated. Often had he asked the latter if "he were all right for money," and Morgan had replied he was; so that he knew quite well his father would take a very lenient view of his expenditure and had no desire at all to hold him to the arrangement made. But Archibald always limited himself to the general question, and never sought to know whether Morgan was living on his interest or spending the capital.
The relation between the two now was a perfectly hearty one. The banker was glad to have Morgan home for a few days now and again, and equally enjoyed coming to town occasionally to see him. But in spite of his father's liberality and cordiality, Morgan's pride, combined with the sense of his failure, made him determine never to come upon the paternal purse again. It was this very pride perhaps that had made him somewhat distort his father's attitude—rather by implication than by any definite statement—in his last evening's conversation with Ingram.
He was but too conscious of that attitude as he waited on the platform for the train to arrive—it had gradually become an intolerable irony to him.
"I'm perfectly ravenous," said Archibald Druce. "We must lunch at once."
Morgan restrained his usual impatient stride, falling in with the slow, dignified step of his sire, who, though of broad build, would have been as tall as his son, had it not been for a slight stoop, of which he was proud, as it gave him an air of erudition.
They repaired to a restaurant close at hand and had a sumptuous lunch served them. Archibald, who had a weakness for punning, was in one of his gayest moods, and was not above being occasionally appreciated by the waiter. Morgan did his best to appear cheerful; he did not wish his father to suspect anything was amiss. He listened to a humourous account of home affairs with smiling face, even interposing a few humourous comments of his own. Eventually he enquired about his father's eyesight and Archibald's face brightened still more. Soon the banker grew eloquent on the subject, detailing all the minute symptoms a morbid attention had detected.
"But I've great faith in John—he's the cleverest oculist in the Kingdom. And so I thought I'd better come up to town and see him before—ha, I was just going to let my secret slip out!"
And Archibald sipped his coffee and beamed at Morgan behind his gold spectacles.
"That sounds like a direct encouragement to me to be inquisitive," said Morgan.
"Well, if you'd like to know the secret, it's simply this: I'm going to write a book."
"What about?" Morgan's tone and gesture summed up his amused astonishment.
"A good many things," answered Archibald, his face assuming a serious expression. "You see, I've got into the habit of thinking a good deal of late, and I've come to the conclusion I ought to be putting my thoughts down on paper. New ideas occur to me almost every day, and I'm really beginning to feel that a man like myself can derive more mental culture from the free play of his own original thought than from simply following other men's, however admirable it be. The latter course rather encourages a certain mental laziness, whereas in thinking for oneself so many points occur which cannot be passed over till they have been wrestled with and vanquished. Now yesterday, for instance, some very stiff problems occurred to me—as thus: Can a man justly lay claim to merit for the talents he possesses, and is it immodest of him to let others perceive by his conversation that he is quite aware he possesses them? Or, on the contrary, is not the fact that he is talented purely a piece of good fortune, and would it not be the merest humbug on his part to pretend to be blind to it? Again, if a man performs what is called a good deed, ought he to claim merit for that? Does not the performance of such a deed give one pleasure, and is not that pleasure the real end in view? It has struck me of late that on such points there's a great confusion of thinking, and between ourselves, Morgan, I've been lately arriving at conclusions that most people would call revolutionary and dangerous. But I set truth above all things, and I can't do better than devote my remaining years to its service. Now, I think I have really sufficient material for an original and interesting volume. I have been a man of affairs all my days, and I think the views of such a man who has lived in contact with the world should at least be as valuable as those of a college professor who has been secluded from it. It is really about this volume I propose to write that I want to consult you. I have made a memorandum of a few points I should like to thresh out thoroughly with you."
Morgan was rather startled at this sudden and serious awakening of literary ambition in his father, though he had before now had many a hint that he was wrestling with formidable ethical and moral difficulties. He could see Archibald had set his heart on writing the book, so he could not do otherwise than encourage him. It would simply keep him enjoyably occupied, and, as the task would no doubt cause him to dip into accredited works on ethical science, he would ultimately discover that the problems he had chanced upon were not quite so original as he supposed.
But even while Morgan discussed the idea with his father, he had a curious dream-like consciousness of his own affairs, which somehow seemed to be retarded by this appearance of the banker in London. And, all the time he was endeavoring to concentrate himself on the conversation, he was aware of that floating vision which had never ceased to haunt him.
Minute details respecting the work were gone into, even to the colour of the paper on which it was to be written. Morgan did not know whether blue or buff was the more restful for the eyes, and the question was left open for John Medhurst to decide. Archibald looked tremendously pleased at his son's reception of his project, and it certainly raised his opinion of Morgan's judgment.
"I'm glad to see you've not been spoiled by success, Morgan," he could not help saying.
It was a strange irony, Morgan thought, that his father's acceptance of him should be so complete just when he himself had finally abandoned all hope. The reflection would have been a bitter one had he not found Archibald's pride in him amusing, in view of the latter's new theories about "merit."
Later on, at the hotel, Archibald produced the copy of the "Pleiad," which contained the verses inspired by Margaret Medhurst's younger sister, and insisted on reading them aloud. His paternal pride was more than satisfied by the small sum total of Morgan's published work, and each little addition to it furnished an occasion of great excitement for him.
Of course, Ingram was mentioned before long, and Morgan had to say that that gentleman and he were no longer friends. Archibald said he was sorry, and looked it. He considered Ingram a great author, and the breach rather a misfortune.
"Is there no hope of smoothing things over?" he asked. "Why not take me into your confidence? I flatter myself I have had some experience in patching up even serious differences between people, and you know I'm at your disposal."
Time had, indeed, brought about a strange reversal of role between the banker and Ingram.
Morgan explained that Ingram had behaved in such a way as to make him revise his estimate of him, but that it would scarcely serve any purpose to go into details.
The banker again said he was sorry, and looked it still more than before. Anyhow, as the subject was so obviously disagreeable to Morgan, he would not allude to it again.
In the afternoon they took a little stroll together, and, after partaking of a cup of tea, they parted, promising to see each other at Wimpole Street.
"By the way," said his father, at the last moment, "I hear from Katie that they haven't seen very much of you of late, and that you had struck them as pre-occupied. She even seemed rather doubtful about your coming this evening. I hope you don't stick too long at your desk. I've long since found out that sort of thing is a mistake."
Morgan arrived rather late at Wimpole Street, for father and son had dallied almost till evening. However, he was the earlier of the two, and he took the opportunity of presenting Diana with the stamps he had got together for her and of chatting with her about her collection and her newest acquisitions. He was relieved to find that Mrs. Medhurst gave him his usual warm welcome, but at the same time he felt rather guilty about his unsuspected intention to cease all relations with the family. This house was more associated with happiness for him than any other place in the world; he had passed in it perhaps the best moments of his life. He had always been a favourite with the Medhursts, and they had believed in him and taken his part even in the early days when he had been looked at askance in his own family.
Were oblivion of all else possible, he would have felt to-night supremely happy, for that needed but the sole condition of his being where he was. But he thought of the borrowed money in his pocket, of the charred remains of his manuscripts, of his hopeless love for Margaret, now so near him, speaking to him, of the vague future to which he was going to abandon himself. And the comfort he could not help finding here mingled strangely with the emotions that troubled his spirit and gave him a quivering sense of unrest.
The link between him and the Medhursts had been from the first one of more than ordinary friendship. For, some thirty years before, when Mrs. Medhurst was only seventeen, Archibald Druce had been a suitor for her hand. But her romance with John Medhurst had already begun, and she waited to marry her true love seven years later. Though Archibald married within a few years of his rejection, he had all but kept Kate to her promise to be a sister to him all his life. Certainly he had remained one of her most devoted admirers.
Mrs. Medhurst was still beautiful, and even Morgan admitted that she was just the mother a girl like Margaret ought to have. Her face was winning and sweet, and the simplicity of her attire held no suggestion of severity. Morgan's eye was pleased by the quiet harmony of the gray silk dress with its silver girdle and its touches of silver at the throat and wrists.
Margaret herself was only just nineteen. Taller than her mother by half a head, she was built with a slender grace and a rare purity of outline. A somewhat high forehead lent her distinction, perhaps accentuating the shade of thoughtfulness that was characteristic of her expression, and that never clashed with its sweetness; rather were the two qualities blended into a charming spirituality. Her dark blue, velvety eyes suggested the clear depth of a stream, her cheeks were modelled in a full, soft curve, her nostrils were delicately chiselled, and her mouth was small, red and sweet. The neck showed cool and white above the silver-blue of her girl's soft, silk evening gown that came almost to her throat. Margaret rather affected silver-blue—she knew quite well it made her adorable; for, being a sweet human being, she had just a charming touch of vanity, and would have been less charming without it. The only other note of colour was given by the quaint silver buckle at her waist, for the sash was of the same material as the gown itself.
At sixty-three, Archibald Druce—for the old fellow's heart was still susceptible—worshipped her almost as much as he had once worshipped her mother. And Morgan had only realised how she had grown into his spirit just when despair had begun to show itself again. The discovery had perhaps given him a fresh spurt of hope, but the charred mass had marked the end of that.
John Medhurst was somewhat past fifty, and his beard was getting just a little grey. He was of medium height, and wore spectacles himself—a fact which, in view of his profession, had given Archibald endless material for humour. His manner and voice alike were singularly soft and gentle. He possessed both a sense of humour and a quiet humour of his own; and his laugh was always ready to ring out. Sometimes it struck Morgan that Margaret's features were hinted at in his face even more than in Mrs. Medhurst's, but so subtly, that the resemblance would seem to vanish for long stretches of time, and he would only be able to detect it at odd moments.
Archibald arrived quite half an hour late, so that his ferocious knock and ring caused general rejoicing. His spirits invariably mounted as soon as he set foot on the Medhursts' doorstep, and, once within the house, he overflowed with jest and laughter, extracting fun and merriment from anything and everything, making rather a terrible noise and enjoying every instant.
"My scamp of a boy and I got talking together," he explained, in high-pitched apology. "Now, Morgan has some ideas in that head-piece of his"—here he tapped his son playfully on the skull—"so that when we two do get talking together, we both find it so fascinating that we lose all count of time. I've had quite a rush to get here, though I see Morgan has raced me. I suppose that, at my age, I mustn't expect——"
"To keep pace with the youngsters."
Margaret finished the sentence for him in playful anticipation of his platitudinarianism. Archibald took her in his arms and kissed her on the forehead, with a "No harm at my age, my dear," after which he laughed gleefully, and proceeded to kiss Diana on the lips, adding: "No harm at your age, my dear."
"I'm thirteen, and I shall really not allow that sort of thing any more," said Diana, severely.
"Not from me—your sweetheart!" exclaimed Archibald. "Ah! I understand," he went on. "It's the grown-up frock."
She was in a shaped dress to-day, but he had recalled her as she was in her poke-bonnet days, when she had been wont to accept the same kind of salutation without demur. It did not seem so very long ago since he had seen her bare-kneed, in short, crimson skirts and all sorts of fantastic caps and brilliant turbans; and he now reminded her of the fact, undeterred by the haughtiness of her mien and the arrogantly rippling masses of golden-brown hair, just a shade darker than Margaret's.
She gave him a withering glance that asked how he dared!
"Perhaps it's not the frock. It's the poem in the 'Pleiad.' Morgan has turned her head," recommenced Archibald.
"Morgan, take me down, please," said Diana, majestically ignoring her tormentor, who thereupon offered his arm to Mrs. Medhurst, and Margaret and her father brought up the rear.
But when they came to take their seats, they somehow got mixed up again, so that Morgan found himself next to Margaret, whilst Diana and Archibald sat opposite. Morgan had more than a suspicion that this was the result of adroit manoeuvring on Diana's part. Very soon, however, there arose such a clattering dispute between that young lady and her neighbour, that Morgan could not talk to his, which made him rather angry. Anyhow, it was impossible not to be amused after a while by the altercation, for Diana's tongue was ready and brisk and attacking. Margaret was a far less militant character, and would never strike, were there the slightest chance of wounding. Diana's aim was always to wound, and to wound deeply, provided it was some dear friend she was pitted against.
In view of the fact that this was the last visit he purposed to the Medhursts, Morgan had been feeling that a close conversation with Margaret would prove too much of an ordeal for him, and he had determined to talk to her as little as possible. But somehow he did not find himself welcoming the practical inhibition from the other side of the table; it gave him a sense of frustrated desire. If his will made him say "I must not talk to her intimately, for I shall lose all the ground I have gained by purposely avoiding this house so long; I shall be drawn back close to her and, as the parting must come nevertheless, the greater will be its anguish," his temperament made reply: "What! you calculating effects, whose business has always been poetry? Let your business still be poetry, but weave it out of life instead of words. Abandon yourself without underthought. Live in that wonderful region which is here, even as it is everywhere, but in which only the souls of poets may wander and rejoice." And his temperament prevailed over his will. He allowed the full flow of love to flood his spirit. Great poems were summed up in one quick flash; in a second he lived through a century of fine words.
And, as if divining his thought, she turned to him and spoke. Her words seemed softly to ring through the din, and he gave himself up to the full delight of the moment.
"Do you know, Morgan"—for he was always "Morgan" to everybody there—"a great change has occurred in my dignity the last few days?"
"You are to marry a peer," he hazarded.
"I have risen much higher than that."
"You were at the utmost height."
"I only moved in yesterday, with my benches and mess and clay and wax and tools. Pa had a hole made in the roof and a top light put in. I feel so pleased with my studio, and, of course, I mean to entertain there. We shall have such gay times, and I've a fine excuse for keeping the company young and select."
"Too high up for old legs?"
"How shrewd!" she exclaimed. "I see that for real worldly insight one must go to a poet."
"Thank you. This is the first time I've been accused of common sense."
"That is hardly to be wondered at. Your poems have every other quality. You'll come up and see my studio anyhow?"
"No, by candle light. And you the bearer, like the Latin motto on one of my old school books."
Meanwhile the combat opposite still raged, and in the end Archibald and Diana had to be parted almost by force. Diana sent a final shot from the door, and then scampered away.
"The little rogue!" murmured Archibald, and then broke into one of those unrestrained laughs which he usually reserved for his own witticisms.
The three men drew near the fire. Medhurst said something about taking Diana in hand. She had been somewhat spoiled at school, being looked upon as a sort of demi-goddess by her classmates. Archibald declared he wouldn't have her any different for the world. What was the good of a girl if she was just the same as any other girl? Thence, proceeding to attack convention, Archibald eventually steered the conversation round to the contribution he himself purposed making to ethical philosophy, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to let Medhurst into the secret.
"It's curious that the more one thinks, John, the more one gets one's notions upset. I know quite well that most people would think it a highly dangerous doctrine to put forward, but I really cannot see that the man who is a saint deserves any more to be praised than the man who is a murderer. The murderer is simply unfortunate and ought to be pitied. Nature gave him the impulse to murder—in fact, on a closer analysis, all personal responsibility seems to disappear."
"And what does your wife say to all this? Isn't she rather alarmed?" asked Medhurst.
"My wife!" exclaimed the banker, contemptuously. "She's hopelessly behind the times. Why, she's a perfect child. She takes no interest in anything beyond the tittle-tattle of the county. We had quite a scene the other day because I gave expression to my opinion that young people should be properly instructed in life by means of explanatory handbooks, instead of being left to gather their knowledge haphazard. I have never known her to make a single original remark—her observations are invariably the most obvious. Morgan should be thankful for the happy hazard of nature which fashioned his brain rather in the mould of mine than in that of his mother."
"And so you really intend publishing?" said Medhurst.
"I am not afraid. People must be taught to look the problems of life straight in the face. Truth must be driven home, my dear John, and it is my intention to say some pretty straight things to the world."
"Have you yet fixed on a title?" asked Medhurst, secretly amused at this sudden, strange development on the part of his old friend.
"Ah! there's just the difficulty. It was one of the first questions I put to myself—what about the title? The thing is to get a good striking one, and that's by no means an easy task. The title of a book is almost as important as its contents, and, confound it all, my dear John, I'm blessed if it doesn't take nearly as long to manufacture. I've been cudgelling my brains for the last three months, and I must confess my mind is an absolute blank so far."
"Why not call it 'Plain Thoughts of a Practical Thinker?'" suggested Morgan. "And perhaps you might add a sub-title—'An attempt to investigate some questions of primary importance that are usually shelved.' How does that strike you?"
"Splendid!" exclaimed Archibald, enthusiastically. "'Plain Thoughts of a Practical Thinker'—the very thing. 'An attempt to investigate some questions of primary importance that are usually shelved.' Admirable! 'Practical Thinker!' That is just the idea I want to convey to the world. I am not one of your mere dreamers, your theorists, your college professors. I speak as one who has had a large experience of men and affairs, as one who has for years administered the fortunes of a great house. And yet I have sufficient of the thinker and the idealist in me to have begotten a son whose name will live in English letters. It will, Morgan, I tell you. You are a little bit misunderstood now, but what great man has ever escaped misunderstanding? I expect to be misunderstood, but if they think I am to be howled down—'Plain Thoughts of a Practical Thinker!' A perfect inspiration! Suppose we join the ladies. I want to tell Kate about it."
While Archibald unfolded his literary scheme to Mrs. Medhurst, Diana mimicking his enthusiastic gestures at a safe distance, Morgan and Margaret sat apart in that region of the drawing-room which lay nearest the door. She had been telling him about some parties she had gone to, and he, terribly jealous of the men who had danced with her, made pretence to rally her about them. She, however, remained quite calm, admitting cheerfully she had a good many admirers, who filled her programme, and whom it was always pleasant to meet. Then they were both silent and looked at each other.
"Once upon a time," said Margaret, deciding at length to speak her mind; "you used to be one of those who wrote on my programme. Now you never appear anywhere. I suppose you are afraid you might have to talk to me a little."
"You are unjust," he said somewhat bitterly. "It is not kind of you to say such things."
"If a friend suddenly develops a distaste for one's company and manifests it as markedly as you have, how can one be blind to it? You are a changed man, Morgan. In two months you have come here once to tea, and you had not even the decency to put on a cheerful face. Such a lackadaisical expression you had! And not even an enquiry about my great works. You seemed to be saying the whole time, 'How you commonplace people depress me—me, the genius, the genius; you are killing my inspiration.'"
Something in his look checked her.
"Genius suffers from fits of melancholy as well as from fits of inspiration," he reminded her.
"Poor Morgan!" said Margaret, softening. "And so you've had a fit of melancholy! What a long one, too! All the same, I ought to reproach you for not believing in our sympathy. Well, I suppose now I may tell mamma not to be afraid to send you a card for our dance next month."
"I had no idea your mamma was so timid a person," he said, with successful evasion. "And how goes Chiron, how the Spanish marauder? And how much did you get for them?" he went on gaily, in one breath. "You see I am well posted in your affairs."
"Well, since you are a little bit interested, come."
Instinctively they looked towards the other group. Archibald still harangued Mrs. Medhurst, endeavouring to prove to her that John's abilities were no merit of his, any more than her beauty was a merit of hers. A happy accident was the cause of either, and he had been intellectually wrong in lavishing so many compliments on her during all these years.
Morgan and Margaret left the room quietly, and stole up the stairs on tip-toe, like two children at play. Right on the top landing Margaret threw open a door, and Morgan peered into a shadowy abyss, for the one gaslight was round a corner by which its rays were cut off from this part of the landing.
"The candle is on a ledge in the hall," explained Margaret, disappearing within the darkness; and in a second he heard her strike a light.
"This is the hall," she went on. "I insisted on pa having it partitioned off from the rest of the room—though, as you see, only by a sort of green baize screen that doesn't reach to the ceiling. But it makes the place ever so much more romantic."
Morgan stepped into the tiny vestibule, which was fitted with a little oak table, and passed through a door in the green baize into the attic itself.
"Was I not to be the candle-bearer?" he asked, taking the light from her. "What a tremendous place!"
"It's perfectly ripping," said Margaret, "though I reckon it won't hold more than four of us when we're in a gay mood. That's an old piano. It takes up a lot of room, but there's still a good deal of thumping to be got out of it. As yet the place is quite bare, but all next week I'm going to hunt up odd things in back streets, and when you come again you'll be astonished at the transformation. All that mess there covered up in the corner—well, you can guess what it consists of."
"And where are Chiron and the Spanish gentleman?"
"The first casts are on the mantel yonder—lost in the gloom. Pa wants them for the drawing-room, but I am so childishly pleased, I can't part with them yet. The moulds were to be destroyed after sixty examples of each had been taken. I have received twenty-five pounds each. You see, Morgan, I, too, am a genius."
On closer examination Morgan found he could conscientiously extol Margaret's handiwork. From a technical point of view both figures were excellent, and there was a virility and vigour in the handling which one would scarcely have associated with the work of a young lady modeller, and which certainly showed she had towered above her material. The Spanish Marauder swaggered along in helmet, breast-plate, doublet and hose, a hare and pheasant slung jauntily over his shoulder, and his jolly, devil-may-care face, that had evidently smelt powder, full of an arrogant self-satisfaction. The Chiron was a strong piece of anatomical modelling. The ancient centaur, indeed, looked very wise and very noble, and the horse into which he merged was arranged with quiet skill in its lying posture, so that not a line, limb, hoof or muscle struck a note of awkwardness.
"Then you think I really am worth talking to—a little?" asked Margaret.
He set down the light on the mantelshelf and somehow found himself holding her hand. Neither appeared to be aware of the fact.
"My dear Margaret, I was hoping you had accepted my fit of melancholy——"
"You stupid Morgan! I only wanted you to tell me how clever I am. I am so greedy for praise—because I haven't any of those melancholy fits, and my vanity must be gratified somehow. At least, when I do have the mopes I always know the reason, and it has never been anything connected with my genius."
"What! you don't mean to say that you ever——"
"Sometimes," she interrupted. "A good deal of late, only, unlike you, I never let anybody guess."
"I thought you were a perfectly happy girl in the first flood of enthusiasm for your work and with all those nice men to admire you."
Her fingers tightened perceptibly on his.
"If you continue to plague me about those nice men, Morgan, you shall not have a single dance next time, but you'll just see those nice men get them all."
"I am sure you don't look a bit as if you could devise such cruel torture."
"Would it be a very terrible punishment?"
"I would do any penance to avoid it."
"You'd look too comic in sackcloth and ashes. Come to my studio-warming instead."
"A charming penance, Margaret."
"Perhaps we ought to go down now," she suggested, irrelevantly.
He took up the light again.
"Have you fixed the date for the warming?"
"Impossible yet. But I'll send you——"
"Not cards—now you've moved up into Bohemia!"
"Oh, no. A little pink note. I hope that is the correct thing in Bohemia, or, at least, that it isn't incorrect."
"In Bohemia there are no correct things."
"What an awful place it must be. Whatever one does is wrong."
"On the contrary, whatever one does is right."
"Then all things are correct in Bohemia!"
"How can that be, Margaret? There are things—no, there aren't, and—and—I'm afraid I've got myself into an awful tangle. You've quite turned my head with your logic."
He began to move across the room towards the door.
"If it's only my logic that turns your head, then I take everything back. I won't speak to you ever again."
"My goodness!" began Morgan, losing his wits, forgetting he held the candle and letting it fall. The light vanished like a spectre. "I beg your pardon," he ejaculated, in some astonishment, whilst Margaret's laugh rang out.
Just as he stooped down to recover the candle, they became aware of footsteps, and in a moment the handle of the outer door was being turned.
"All dark," said Diana's voice. "Then I suppose they're not here—or, at least, I shouldn't like to think they were. I fancy Marjy put a candle and matches on the table."
They heard the sound of her fumbling, and, as if by common understanding, they remained still as mice. Then Diana declared the things weren't there, and Archibald suggested they might inspect the place in the dark.
"I certainly shall do nothing so improper," returned Diana severely. "There must be match-light at least. I draw the line at that. Produce your pretty, golden box."
Diana opened the green baize door, and Archibald struck a light.
"Ho, ho!" he said, playfully.
"We are evidently de trop" said Diana. "Let us retire."
"Be careful," called Margaret. "You'll burn your fingers."
But the mischief was already done. Archibald uttered a "d—n," threw down the end of the match and stamped on it wrathfully.
Morgan picked up the fallen candle, lighted it and replaced it on the mantelshelf. The wax was broken in the middle, and the top part leaned disconsolately to one side.
"We are sorry to have unwittingly interfered with your little arrangement," said Margaret, curtseying in mock apology. "But you are quite welcome to make free of my humble abode, so we shall leave you in possession. Come, Morgan." And the two swept out of the room.
"Come and lunch with me to-morrow at the hotel," said Archibald to Morgan, as he got into a hansom an hour later. "We'll spend the afternoon together. There are some points about my book I want to settle. 'Plain Thoughts of a Practical Thinker!' Splendid title! Morgan, you're indeed a genius. 'An attempt to investigate some questions of primary importance that are usually shelved.' That just hits it off—the very book I intended to write!"
When his father had driven off, Morgan, seized with a restlessness, began to stroll slowly homeward. He had at least wrung some happiness from the evening. His love for Margaret had been strong enough to absorb him, save when at moments his sense of his general position had obtruded. But now he surrendered himself once more to the mood which the events of the day had interrupted.
He was again conscious of the tragedy of his past life with its culminating episode of the evening before, and of the infinite possibility that life held of mystery and fantasy—a mystery and fantasy into which he was going to plunge. The hours he had just enjoyed, he told himself, must not be allowed to influence him. They must be sternly isolated from the future; the disattachment of the new life before him from the wreckage of the old must be complete.
Wreckage! He used the word deliberately, though he was aware there were elements in the position that would have made his estimate of it seem grotesque to many ears.
He was the son of a father of unlimited wealth, who idolised him now. In addition to very many acquaintanceships, both in London and the country, that were pleasant even if they did not occupy the centre of his consciousness, he had the friendship of Lady Thiselton and the more intimate though less fantastic relation with the Medhursts. And, moreover, he was in love with a beautiful and talented girl, who, he modestly felt, had a great esteem for him—though any other eyes than those of the diffident lover would have seen at a glance that she loved him in return.
How could all these things fail to make a man happy, especially when the man was only twenty-eight years old?
But Morgan's happiness was dependent on his attitude towards things, not on the things themselves. And just now he but perceived all these elements that might have made another life enviable as so many ironies. His ambition—his self-realisation and its recognition by his fellows—had been all in all to him; its abandonment had been the culmination of anguish infinite. The best years of his youth had been lost in vain effort, and some of the bitterness of early opposition that success might have purged still lingered in his spirit. His nature was proud and sensitive and his very failure made it impossible for him to ask for more money, even though he knew it would be forthcoming without stint. What wonder now if he perceived his life as a tragedy!
Common Sense would have advised him to put on one side all emotions and moods that arose out of and summed up the past, all the subtle feelings that possessed and mastered him; would have urged him to begin a new epoch, seek the paternal aid, retain his friendships, and persevere in his love; would have given him assurance of a perfectly satisfactory outlook if he would but readjust his mental focus.
But Common Sense is obtuse and safe. Morgan was a mass of fine sensibility; his temperament was full of subtle light and shade—therefore dangerous. Plain-souled, clumsy-handed Common Sense, with perception limited to the thick outlines of character, could not have comprehended him, and would unwittingly have confessed it by classifying him contemptuously.
Morgan had lived his own life—felt it. His present estimation of it was, therefore, spontaneous; not a cold estimation by mere intellect, but a living one by his whole complex being. And, as the result, he was meditating, at this period of pause and summing-up, to carry forward all that Common Sense would have suppressed, and to suppress all that Common Sense would have carried forward, to sacrifice all the inter-relations with others that constituted his outer life—even as he had already sacrificed the expression of his corresponding inner life; retaining only his emotional unrest.
And the seductive picture of the scented serpent-woman, ever smiling at him now with gleaming teeth, symbolised the future for him, and alone preserved the continuity of interest that stimulated him to go forward at all. His attitude, in some respects, was analogous to that of a romantic boy playing with the idea of running away from home, drawn by visions of marvellous adventures in strange lands. The sequel might be vague and in the clouds, but that very fact only made it the more fascinating.
His temperament had said to him that evening: "Let your business still be poetry, but weave it out of life instead of out of words." The thought resurged in his brain and then it struck him as crystallising his whole feeling about the future course of his existence, as furnishing the key to his position.
To make of life a fantasy, a poem, a dream! The idea was an illumination.
But beyond a half-considered intention of changing to humbler rooms and hiding therein from his world, he did not meditate any definite activity. The feeling at the bottom of his mind was rather that events would shape themselves. To this attitude of passivity his whole life had tended. His will-strength had gone into his passionate desire of poetic achievement, and were it not that he had, so to speak, grown into relation with others, his life would have been utterly static. The movement of their lives alone had taken his along. He had not the least idea now how he was going to become acquainted with the strange woman who filled his thoughts, but, without actually translating his feelings on the point into definite terms, he counted it as a certainty that a path would somehow be opened. It pleased him, too, to think that he owed his cognisance of her existence to that first impulse which had caused him to write to Ingram. That fantastic initiation had set in motion fantastic life-waves that were now flowing back to him.
For others the regularities of existence, the steady round of work, the care and hoarding of money; for him the mystery and the colour of life!
And in a flash of insight he seemed to understand that the poet in him had already asserted itself in his life as well as in his work. Was it not the very curiousness of his relationship with Ingram had made it so palatable? Was it not the strangeness of his friendship with Lady Thiselton and the originality of her personality that appealed to him so much, and was it not his imaginative side that had always been so pleased with both? Was it not his peculiar temperament that had always made him keep his relation with each person a thing apart, so that each was unaware of the others; that had made him like to feel that his life, in a manner, was cut up into strips, along each of which he could look back with a certain sense of completeness, though it was only by the nice fusion of all these isolated completenesses that his existence could be seen as a whole?