_With Five Illustrations By_Maurice Greiffenhagen_
London: Walter Scott, Ltd. Paternoster Square
Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, Printers to Her Majesty
I hope it will not seem presumptuous to ask my critics to treat this new edition of Vain Fortune as a new book: for it is a new book. The first edition was kindly noticed, but it attracted little attention, and very rightly, for the story as told therein was thin and insipid; and when Messrs. Scribner proposed to print the book in America, I stipulated that I should be allowed to rewrite it. They consented, and I began the story with Emily Watson, making her the principal character instead of Hubert Price. Some months after I received a letter from Madam Couperus, offering to translate the English edition into Dutch. I sent her the American edition, and asked her which she would prefer to translate from. Madam Couperus replied that many things in the English edition, which she would like to retain, had been omitted from the American edition, that the hundred or more pages which I had written for the American edition seemed to her equally worthy of retention.
She pointed out that, without the alteration of a sentence, the two versions could be combined. The idea had not occurred to me; I saw, however, that what she proposed was not only feasible but advantageous. I wrote, therefore, giving her the required permission, and thanking her for a suggestion which I should avail myself of when the time came for a new English edition.
The union of the texts was no doubt accomplished by Madam Couperus, without the alteration of a sentence; but no such accomplished editing is possible to me; I am a victim to the disease of rewriting, and the inclusion of the hundred or more pages of new matter written for the American edition led me into a third revision of the story. But no more than in the second has the skeleton, or the attitude of the skeleton been altered in this third version, only flesh and muscle have been added, and, I think, a little life. Vain Fortune, even in its present form, is probably not my best book, but it certainly is far from being my worst. But my opinion regarding my own work is of no value; I do not write this Prefatory Note to express it, but to ask my critics and my readers to forget the original Vain Fortune, and to read this new book as if it were issued under another title.
The lamp had not been wiped, and the room smelt slightly of paraffin. The old window-curtains, whose harsh green age had not softened, were drawn. The mahogany sideboard, the threadbare carpet, the small horsehair sofa, the gilt mirror, standing on a white marble chimney-piece, said clearly, 'Furnished apartments in a house built about a hundred years ago.' There were piles of newspapers, there were books on the mahogany sideboard and on the horsehair sofa, and on the table there were various manuscripts,—The Gipsy, Act I.; The Gipsy, Act III., Scenes iii. and iv.
A sheet of foolscap paper, and upon it a long slender hand. The hand traced a few lines of fine, beautiful caligraphy, then it paused, correcting with extreme care what was already written, and in a hesitating, minute way, telling of a brain that delighted in the correction rather than in the creation of form.
The shirt-cuff was frayed and dirty. The coat was thin and shiny. A half-length figure of a man drew out of the massed shadows between the window and sideboard. The red beard caught the light, and the wavy brown hair brightened. Then a look of weariness, of distress, passed over the face, and the man laid down the pen, and, taking some tobacco from a paper, rolled a cigarette. Rising, and leaning forward, he lighted it over the lamp. He was a man of about thirty-six feet, broad-shouldered, well-built, healthy, almost handsome.
The time he spent in dreaming his play amounted to six times, if not ten times, as much as he devoted to trying to write it; and he now lit cigarette after cigarette, abandoning himself to every meditation,—the unpleasantness of life in lodgings, the charm of foreign travel, the beauty of the south, what he would do if his play succeeded. He plunged into calculation of the time it would take him to finish it if he were to sit at home all day, working from seven to ten hours every day. If he could but make up his mind concerning the beginning and the middle of the third act, and about the end, too,—the solution,—he felt sure that, with steady work, the play could be completed in a fortnight. In such reverie and such consideration he lay immersed, oblivious of the present moment, and did not stir from his chair until the postman shook the frail walls with a violent double knock. He hoped for a letter, for a newspaper—either would prove a welcome distraction. The servant's footsteps on the stairs told him the post had brought him something. His heart sank at the thought that it was probably only a bill, and he glanced at all the bills lying one above another on the table.
It was not a bill, nor yet an advertisement, but a copy of a weekly review. He tore it open. An article about himself!
After referring to the deplorable condition of the modern stage, the writer pointed out how dramatic writing has of late years come to be practised entirely by men who have failed in all other branches of literature. Then he drew attention to the fact that signs of weariness and dissatisfaction with the old stale stories, the familiar tricks in bringing about 'striking situations,' were noticeable, not only in the newspaper criticisms of new plays, but also among the better portion of the audience. He admitted, however, that hitherto the attempts made by younger writers in the direction of new subject-matter and new treatment had met with little success. But this, he held, was not a reason for discouragement. Did those who believed in the old formulas imagine that the new formula would be discovered straight away, without failures preliminary? Besides, these attempts were not utterly despicable; at least one play written on the new lines had met with some measure of success, and that play was Mr. Hubert Price's Divorce.
'Yes, the fellow is right. The public is ready for a good play: it wasn't when Divorce was given. I must finish The Gipsy. There are good things in it; that I know. But I wish I could get that third act right. The public will accept a masterpiece, but it will not accept an attempt to write a masterpiece. But this time there'll be no falling off in the last acts. The scene between the gipsy lover and the young lord will fetch 'em.' Taking up the review, Hubert glanced over the article a second time. 'How anxious the fellows are for me to achieve a success! How they believe in me! They desire it more than I do. They believe in me more than I do in myself. They want to applaud me. They are hungry for the masterpiece.'
At that moment his eye was caught by some letters written on blue paper. His face resumed a wearied and hunted expression. 'There's no doubt about it, money I must get somehow. I am running it altogether too fine. There isn't twenty pounds between me and the deep sea.'
* * * * *
He was the son of the Rev. James Price, a Shropshire clergyman. The family was of Welsh extraction, but in Hubert none of the physical characteristics of the Celt appeared. He might have been selected as a typical Anglo-Saxon. The face was long and pale, and he wore a short reddish beard; the eyes were light blue, verging on grey, and they seemed to speak a quiet, steadfast soul. Hubert had always been his mother's favourite, and the scorn of his elder brothers, two rough boys, addicted in early youth to robbing orchards, and later on to gambling and drinking. The elder, after having broken his father's heart with debts and disgraceful living, had gone out to the Cape. News of his death came to the Rectory soon after; but James's death did not turn Henry from his evil courses, and one day his father and mother had to go to London on his account, and they brought him back a hopeless invalid. Hubert was twelve years of age when he followed his brother to the grave.
It was at his brother's funeral that Hubert met for the first time his uncle, Mr. Burnett. Mr. Burnett had spent the greater part of his life in New Zealand, where he had made a large fortune by sheep-farming and investments in land. He had seemed to be greatly taken with his nephew, and for many years it was understood that he would leave him the greater part, if not the whole, of his fortune. But Mr. Burnett had come under the influence of some poor relations, some distant cousins, the Watsons, and had eventually decided to adopt their daughter Emily and leave her his fortune. He did not dare intimate his change of mind to his sister; but the news having reached Mrs. Price in various rumours, she wrote to her brother asking him to confirm or deny these rumours; and when he admitted their truth, Mrs. Price never spoke to him again. She was a determined woman, and the remembrance of the wrong done to her son never left her.
While the other children had been a torment and disgrace, Hubert had been to his parents a consolation and a blessing. They had feared that he too might turn to betting and drink, but he had never shown sign of low tastes. He played no games, nor did he care for terriers or horses; but for books and drawing, and long country walks. Immediately on hearing of his disinheritance he had spoken at once of entering a profession; and for many months this was the subject of consideration in the Rectory. Hubert joined in these discussions willingly, but he could not bring himself to accept the army or the bar. It was indeed only necessary to look at him to see that neither soldier's tunic nor lawyer's wig was intended for him; and it was nearly as clear that those earnest eyes, so intelligent and yet so undetermined in their gaze, were not those of a doctor.
But if his eyes failed to predict his future, his hands told the story of his life distinctly enough—those long, white, languid hands, what could they mean but art? And very soon Hubert began to draw, evincing some natural aptitude. Then an artist came into the neighbourhood, the two became friends, and went together on a long sketching tour. Life in the open air, the shade of the hedge, the glare of the highway, the meditation of the field, the languor of the river-side, the contemplation of wooded horizons, was what Hubert's pastoral nature was most fitted to enjoy; and, for the sake of the life it afforded him, he pursued the calling of a landscape painter long after he had begun to feel his desire turning in another direction. When the landscape on the canvas seemed hopelessly inadequate, he laid aside the brush for the pencil, and strove to interpret the summer fields in verse. From verse he drifted into the article and the short story, and from the story into the play. And it was in this last form that he felt himself strongest, and various were the dramas and comedies that he dreamed from year's end to year's end.
While he was in the midst of his period of verse-writing his mother died, and in the following year, just as he was working at his stories, he received a telegram calling him to attend his father's death-bed. When the old man was laid in the shadow of the weather-beaten village church, Hubert gathered all his belongings and bade farewell for ever to the Shropshire rectory.
In London Hubert made few friends. There were some two or three men with whom he was frequently seen—quiet folk like himself, whose enjoyment consisted in smoking a tranquil pipe in the evening, or going for long walks in the country. He was one of those men whose indefiniteness provokes curiosity, and his friends noticed and wondered why it was that he was so frequently the theme of their conversation. His simple, unaffected manners were full of suggestion, and in his writings there was always an indefinable rainbow-like promise of ultimate achievement. So, long before he had succeeded in writing a play, detached scenes and occasional verses led his friends into gradual belief that he was one from whom big things might be expected. And when the one-act play which they had all so heartily approved of was produced, and every newspaper praised it for its literary quality, the friends took pride in this public vindication of their opinion. After the production of his play people came to see the new author, and every Saturday evening some fifteen or twenty men used to assemble in Hubert's lodgings to drink whisky, smoke cigars, and talk drama. Encouraged by his success, Hubert wrote Divorce. He worked unceasingly upon it for more than a year, and when he had written the final scene, he was breaking into his last hundred pounds. The play was refused twice, and then accepted by a theatrical speculator, to whom it seemed to afford opportunity for the exhibition of the talents of a lady he was interested in.
The success of the play was brief. But before it was withdrawn, Hubert had sold the American rights for a handsome sum, and within the next two years he had completed a second play, which he called An Ebbing Tide. Some of the critics argued that it contained scenes as fine as any in Divorce, but it was admitted on all sides that the interest withered in the later acts. But the failure of the play did not shake the established belief in Hubert's genius; it merely concentrated the admiration of those interested in the new art upon Divorce, the partial failure of which was now attributed to the acting. If it had only been played at the Haymarket or the Lyceum, it could not have failed.
The next three years Hubert wasted in various aestheticisms. He explained the difference between the romantic and realistic methods in the reviews; he played with a poetic drama to be called The King of the Beggars, and it was not until the close of the third year that he settled down to definite work. Then all his energies were concentrated on a new play—The Gipsy. A young woman of Bohemian origin is suddenly taken with the nostalgia of the tent, and leaves her husband and her home to wander with those of her race. He had read portions of this play to his friends, who at last succeeded in driving Montague Ford, the popular actor-manager, to Hubert's door; and after hearing some few scenes he had offered a couple of hundred pounds in advance of fees for the completed manuscript. 'But when can I have the manuscript?' said Ford, as he was about to leave. 'As soon as I can finish it,' Hubert replied, looking at him wistfully out of pale blue-grey eyes. 'I could finish it in a month, if I could count on not being worried by duns or disturbed by friends during that time.'
Ford looked at Hubert questioningly; then he said 'I have always noticed that when a fellow wants to finish a play, the only way to do it is to go away to the country and leave no address.'
But the country was always so full of pleasure for him, that he doubted his power to remain indoors with the temptation of fields and rivers before his eyes, and he thought that to escape from dunning creditors it would be sufficient to change his address. So he left Norfolk Street for the more remote quarter of Fitzroy Street, where he took a couple of rooms on the second floor. One of his fellow-lodgers, he soon found, was Rose Massey, an actress engaged for the performance of small parts at the Queen's Theatre. The first time he spoke to her was on the doorstep. She had forgotten her latch-key, and he said, 'Will you allow me to let you in?' She stepped aside, but did not answer him. Hubert thought her rude, but her strange eyes and absent-minded manner had piqued his curiosity, and, having nothing to do that night, he went to the theatre to see her act. She was playing a very small part, and one that was evidently unsuited to her—a part that was in contradiction to her nature; but there was something behind the outer envelope which led him to believe she had real talent, and would make a name for herself when she was given a part that would allow her to reveal what was in her.
In the meantime, Rose had been told that the gentleman she had snubbed in the passage was Mr. Hubert Price, the author of Divorce.
'Oh, it was very silly of me,' she said to Annie. 'If I had only known!'
'Lor', he don't mind; he'll be glad enough to speak to you when you meets him again.'
And when they met again on the stairs, Rose nodded familiarly, and Hubert said—
'I went to the Queen's the other night.'
'Did you like the piece?'
'I did not care about the piece; but when you get a wild, passionate part to play, you'll make a hit. The sentimental parts they give you don't suit you.'
A sudden light came into the languid face. 'Yes, I shall do something if I can get a part like that.'
Hubert told her that he was writing a play containing just such a part.
Her eyes brightened again. 'Will you read me the play?' she said, fixing her dark, dreamy eyes on him.
'I shall be very glad.... Do you think it won't bore you?' And his wistful grey eyes were full of interrogation.
'No, I'm sure it won't.'
And a few days after she sent Annie with a note, reminding him of his promise to read her what he had written. As she had only a bedroom, the reading had to take place in his sitting-room. He read her the first and second acts. She was all enthusiasm, and begged hard to be allowed to study the part—just to see what she could do with it—just to let him see that he was not mistaken in her. Her interest in his work captivated him, and he couldn't refuse to lend her the manuscript.
Rose often came to see Hubert in his rooms. Her manner was disappointing, and he thought he must be mistaken in his first judgment of her talents. But one afternoon she gave him a recitation of the sleep-walking scene in Macbeth. It was strange to see this little dark-complexioned, dark-eyed girl, the merest handful of flesh and bone, divest herself at will of her personality, and assume the tragic horror of Lady Macbeth, or the passionate rapture of Juliet detaining her husband-lover on the balcony of her chamber. Hubert watched in wonderment this girl, so weak and languid in her own nature, awaking only to life when she assumed the personality of another. There she lay, her wispy form stretched in his arm-chair, her great dark eyes fixed, her mind at rest, sunk in some inscrutable dream. Her thin hand lay on the arm of the chair: when she woke from her day-dream she burst into irresponsible laughter, or questioned him with petulant curiosity. He looked again: her dark curling hair hung on her swarthy neck, and she was somewhat untidily dressed in blue linen.
'Were you ever in love?' she said suddenly. 'I don't suppose you could be; you are too occupied with your play. I don't know, though; you might be in love, but I don't think that many women would be in love with you.... You are too good a man, and women don't like good men.'
Hubert laughed, and without a trace of offended vanity in his voice he said, 'I don't profess to be much of a lady-killer.'
'You don't know what I mean,' she said, looking at him fixedly, a maze of half-childish, half-artistic curiosity in her handsome eyes.
Perplexed in his shy, straightford nature, Hubert inquired if she took sugar in her tea. She said she did; stretched her feet to the fire, and lapsed into dream. She was one of the enigmas of Stageland. She supported herself, and went about by herself, looking a poor, lost little thing. She spoke with considerable freedom of language on all subjects, but no one had been able to fix a lover upon her.
'What a part Lady Hayward is! But tell me,—I don't quite catch your meaning in the second act. Is this it?' and starting to her feet, she became in a moment another being. With a gesture, a look, an intonation, she was the woman of the play,—a woman taken by an instinct, long submerged, but which has floated to the surface, and is beginning to command her actions. In another moment she had slipped back into her weary lymphatic nature, at once prematurely old and extravagantly childish. She could not talk of indifferent things; and having asked some strange questions, and laughed loudly, she wished Hubert 'Good-afternoon' in her curious, irresponsible fashion, taking her leave abruptly.
The next two days Hubert devoted entirely to his play. There were things in it which he knew were good, but it was incomplete. Montague Ford would not produce it in its present form. He must put his shoulder to the wheel and get it right; one more push, that was all that was wanted. And he could be heard walking to and fro, up and down, along and across his tiny sitting-room, stopping suddenly to take a note of an idea that had occurred to him.
One day he went to Hampstead Heath. A long walk, he thought, would clear his mind, and he returned home thinking of his play. The sunset still glittering in the skies; the bare trees were beautifully distinct on the blue background of the suburban street, and at the end of the long perspective, a 'bus and a hansom could be seen coming towards him. As they grew larger, his thoughts defined themselves, and the distressing problem of his fourth act seemed to solve itself. That very evening he would sketch out a new dramatic movement around which all the other movements of the act would cluster. But at the corner of Fitzroy Square, within a few yards of No. 17, he was accosted by a shabbily-dressed man, who inquired if he were Mr. Price. On being answered in the affirmative, the shabbily-dressed man said, 'Then I have something for ye; I have been a-watching for ye for the last three days, but ye didn't come out; missed yer this morning: 'ere it is;' and he thrust a folded paper into Hubert's hand.
'What is this?'
'Don't yer know?' he said with a grin; 'Messrs. Tomkins & Co., Tailors, writ—twenty-two pound odd.'
Hubert made no answer; he put the paper in his pocket, opened the door quietly, stole up to his room, and sat down to think. The first thing to do was to examine into his finances. It was alarming to find that he was breaking into his last five-pound note. True that he was close on the end of his play, and when it was finished he would be able to draw on Ford. But a summons to appear in the county court could not fail to do him immense injury. He had heard of avoiding service, but he knew little of the law, and wondered what power the service of the writ gave his creditor over him. His instinct was to escape—hide himself where they would not be able to find him, and so obtain time to finish his play. But he owed his landlady money, and his departure would have to be clandestine. As he reflected on how many necessaries he might carry away in a newspaper, he began to feel strangely like a criminal, and while rolling up a couple of shirts, a few pairs of socks, and some collars, he paused, his hands resting on the parcel. He did not seem to know himself, and it was difficult to believe that he really intended to leave the house in this disreputable fashion. Mechanically he continued to add to his parcel, thinking all the while that he must go, otherwise his play would never be written.
He had been working very well for the last few days, and now he saw his way quite clearly; the inspiration he had been so long waiting for had come at last, and he felt sure of his fourth act. At the same time he wished to conduct himself honestly, even in this distressing situation. Should he tell his landlady the truth? But the desire to realise his idea was intolerable, and, yielding as if before an irresistible force, he tied the parcel and prepared to go. At that moment he remembered that he must leave a note for his landlady, and he was more than ever surprised at the naturalness with which lying phrases came into his head. But when it came to committing them to paper, he found he could not tell an absolute lie, and he wrote a simple little note to the effect that he had been called away on urgent business, and hoped to return in about a week.
He descended the stairs softly. Mrs. Wilson's sitting-room opened on to the passage; she might step out at any moment, and intercept his exit. He had nearly reached the last flight when he remembered that he had forgotten his manuscripts. His flesh turned cold, his heart stood still. There was nothing for it but to ascend those creaking stairs again. His already heavily encumbered pockets could not be persuaded to receive more than a small portion of the manuscripts. He gathered them in his hand, and prepared to redescend the perilous stairs. He walked as lightly as possible, dreading that every creak would bring Mrs. Wilson from her parlour. A few more steps, and he would be in the passage. A smell of dust, sounds of children crying, children talking in the kitchen! A few more steps, and, with his eyes on the parlour door, Hubert had reached the rug at the foot of the stairs. He hastened along, the passage. Mrs. Wilson was a moment too late. His hand was on the street-door when she appeared at the door of her parlour.
'Mr. Price, I want to speak to you before you go out. There has——'
'I can't wait—running to catch a train. You'll find a letter on my table. It will explain.'
Hubert slipped out, closed the door, and ran down the street, and it was not until he had put two or three streets between him and Fitzroy Street that he relaxed his pace, and could look behind him without dreading to feel the hand of the 'writter' upon his shoulder.
Then he wandered, not knowing where he was going, still in the sensation of his escape, a little amused, and yet with a shadow of fear upon his soul, for he grew more and more conscious of the fact that he was homeless, if not quite penniless. Suddenly he stopped walking. Night was thickening in the street, and he had to decide where he would sleep. He could not afford to pay more than five or six shillings a week for a room, and he thought of Holloway, as being a neighbourhood where creditors would not be able to find him. So he retraced his steps, and, tired and footsore, entered the Tottenham Court Road by the Oxford Street end.
There the omnibuses stopped. A conductor shouted for fares, with the light of the public-house lamps on his open mouth. There was smell of mud, of damp clothes, of bad tobacco, and where the lights of the costermongers' barrows broke across the footway the picture was of a group of three coarse, loud-voiced girls, followed by boys. There were fish shops, cheap Italian restaurants, and the long lines of low houses vanished in crapulent night. The characteristics of the Tottenham Court Road impressed themselves on Hubert's mind, and he thought how he would have to bear for at least three weeks with all the grime of its poverty. It would take about that time to finish his play, and the neighbourhood would suit his purpose excellently well. So long as he did not pass beyond it he ran little risk of discovery, and to secure himself against friends and foes he penetrated farther northward, not stopping till he reached the confines of Holloway.
Then a little dim street caught his eye, and he knocked at the door of the first house exhibiting a card in the parlour window. But they did not let their bedroom under seven shillings, and this seemed to Hubert to be an extravagant price. He tried farther on, and at last found a clean room for six shillings. Having no luggage, he paid a week's rent in advance, and the landlady promised to get him a small table, on which he could write, a small table that would fit in somewhere near the window. She asked him when he would like to be called, and put the candlestick on the chair. Hubert looked round the room, and a moment sufficed to complete the survey. It was about seven feet long. The lower half of the window was curtained by a piece of muslin hardly bigger than a good-sized pocket-handkerchief; to do anything in this room except to lie in bed seemed difficult, and Hubert sat down on the bed and emptied out his pockets. He had just four pounds, and the calculation how long he could live on such a sum took him some time. His breakfast, whether he had it at home or in the coffee-house, would cost him at least fourpence. He thought he would be able to obtain a fairly good dinner in one of the little Italian restaurants for ninepence. His tea would cost the same as his breakfast. To these sums he must add twopence for tobacco and a penny for an evening paper—impossible to do without tobacco, and he must know what was going on in the world. He could therefore live for one shilling and eightpence a day—eleven shillings a week—to which he would have to add six shillings a week for rent, altogether seventeen shillings a week. He really did not see how he could do it cheaper. Four times seventeen are sixty-eight; sixty-eight shillings for a month of life, and he had eighty shillings—twelve shillings for incidental expenses; and out of that twelve shillings he must buy a shirt, a sponge, and a tooth brush, and when they were bought there would be very little left. He must finish his play under the month. Nothing could be clearer than that.
Next morning he asked the landlady to let him have a cup of tea and some bread and butter, and he ate as much bread as he could, to save himself from being hungry in the middle of the day. He began work immediately, and continued until seven, and feeling then somewhat light-headed, but satisfied with himself, went to the nearest Italian restaurant. The food was better than he expected; but he spent twopence more than he had intended, so, to accustom himself to a life of strict measure and discipline, he determined to forego his tea that evening. And so he lived and worked until the end of the week.
But the situation he had counted on to complete his fourth act had proved almost impracticable in the working out; he laboured on, however, and at the end of the tenth day at least one scene satisfied him. He read it over slowly, carefully, thought about it, decided that it was excellent, and lay down on his bed to consider it. At that moment it struck him that he had better calculate how much he had spent in the last ten days. He gathered himself into a sitting posture and counted his money; he had spent thirty shillings, and at that rate his money would not hold out till the end of the month. He must reduce his expenditure; but how? Impossible to find a room where he could live more cheaply than in the one he had got, and it is not easy to dine in London on less than ninepence. Only the poor can live cheaply. He pressed his hands to his face. His head seemed like splitting, and his monetary difficulty, united with his literary difficulties, produced a momentary insanity. Work that morning was impossible, so he went out to study the eating-houses of the neighbourhood. He must find one where he could dine for sixpence. Or he might buy a pound of cooked beef and take it home with him in a paper bag; but that would seem an almost intolerable imprisonment in his little room. He could go to a public-house and dine off a sausage and potato. But at that moment his attention was caught by black letters on a dun, yellowish ground: 'Lockhart's Cocoa Rooms.' Not having breakfasted, he decided to have a cup of cocoa and a roll.
It was a large, barn-like place, the walls covered with a coat of grey-blue paint. Under the window there was a zinc counter, with zinc urns always steaming, emiting odours of tea, coffee, and cocoa. The seats were like those which give a garden-like appearance to the tops of some omnibuses. Each was made to hold two persons, and the table between them was large enough for four plates and four pairs of hands. A few hollow-chested men, the pale vagrants of civilisation, drowsed in the corners. They had been hunted through the night by the policeman, and had come in for something hot. Hubert noted the worn frock-coats, and the miserable arms coming out of shirtless sleeves. One looked up inquiringly, and Hubert thought how slight had become the line that divided him from the outcast. A serving-maid collected the plates, knives and forks, when the customers left, and carried them back to the great zinc counter.
Impressed by his appearance, she brought him what he had ordered and took the money for it, although the custom of the place was for the customer to pay for food at the counter and carry it himself to the table at which he chose to eat. Hubert learnt that there was no set dinner, but there was a beef-steak pudding at one, price fourpence, a penny potatoes, a penny bread. So by dining at Lockhart's he would be able to cut down his daily expense by at least twopence; that would extend the time to finish his play by nearly a week. And if his appetite were not keen, he could assuage it with a penny plum pudding; or he could take a middle course, making his dinner off a sausage and mashed potatoes. The room was clean, well lighted, and airy; he could read his paper there, and forget his troubles in the observation of character. He even made friends. An old wizen creature, who had been a prize-fighter, told him of his triumphs. If he hadn't broke his hand on somebody's nose he'd have been champion light-weight of England. 'And to think that I have come to this,' he added emphatically. 'Even them boys knock me about now, and 'alf a century ago I could 'ave cleared the bloomin' place.' There was a merry little waif from the circus who loved to come and sit with Hubert. She had been a rider, she said, but had broken her leg on one occasion, and cut her head all open on another, and had ended by running away with some one who had deserted her. 'So here I am,' she remarked, with a burst of laughter, 'talking to you. Did you never hear of Dolly Dayrell?' Hubert confessed that he had not. 'Why,' she said, 'I thought every one had.'
About eight o'clock in the evening, the table near the stairs was generally occupied by flower-girls, dressed in dingy clothes, and brightly feathered hats. They placed their empty baskets on the floor, and shouted at their companions—men who sold newspapers, boot-laces, and cheap toys. About nine the boys came in, the boys who used to push the old prize-fighter about, and Hubert soon began to perceive how representative they were of all vices—gambling, theft, idleness, and cruelty were visible in their faces. They were led by a Jew boy who sold penny jewellery at the corner of Oxford Street, and they generally made for the tables at the end of the room, for there, unless custom was slack indeed, they could defeat the vigilance of the serving-maid and play at nap at their ease. The tray of penny jewellery was placed at the corner of a table, and a small boy set to watch over it. His duty was also to shuffle his feet when the servant-maid approached, and a precious drubbing he got if he failed to shuffle them loud enough. The ''ot un,' as he was nicknamed, always had a pack of cards in his pocket, and to annex everything left on the tables he considered to be his privilege. One day, when he was asked how he came by the fine carnation in his buttonhole, he said it was a present from Sally, neglecting to add that he had told the child to steal it from a basket which a flower-girl had just put down.
Hubert hated this boy, and once could not resist boxing his ears. The ''ot un' writhed easily out of his reach, and then assailed him with foul language, and so loud were his words that they awoke the innocent cause of the quarrel, a weak, sickly-looking man, with pale blue eyes and a blonde beard. Hubert had protected him before now against the brutality of the boys, who, when they were not playing nap, divided their pleasantries between him and the decrepit prize-fighter. He came in about nine, took a cup of coffee from the counter, and settled himself for a snooze. The boys knew this, and it was their amusement to keep him awake by pelting him with egg-shells and other missiles. Hubert noticed that he had always with him a red handkerchief full of some sort of loose rubbish, which the boys gathered when it fell about the floor, or purloined from the handkerchief when they judged that the owner was sufficiently fast asleep. Hubert now saw that the handkerchief was filled with bits of coloured chalk, and guessed that the man must be a pavement artist.
'A dirty, hignominious lot, them boys is,' said the artist, fixing his pale, melancholy eyes on Hubert; 'bad manners, no eddication, and, above all, no respect.'
'They are an unmannerly lot—that Jew boy especially. I don't think there's a vice he hasn't got.'
The artist stared at Hubert a long time in silence. A thought seemed to be stirring in his mind.
'I'm speaking, I can see, to a man of eddication. I'm a fust-rate judge of character, though I be but a pavement artist; but a picture's none the less a picture, no matter where it is drawn. That's true, ain't it?'
'Quite true. A horse is a horse, and an ass is an ass, no matter what stable you put them into.'
The artist laughed a guttural laugh, and, fixing his pale blue porcelain eyes on Hubert, he said—
'Yes; see I made no bloomin' error when I said you was a man of eddication. A literary gent, I should think. In the reporting line, most like. Down in the luck like myself. What was it—drink? Got the chuck?'
'No,' said Hubert, 'never touch it. Out of work.'
'No offence, master, we're all mortal, we is all weak, and in misfortune we goes to it. It was them boys that drove me to it.'
'How was that?'
'They was always round my show; no getting rid of them, and their remarks created a disturbance; the perlice said he wouldn't 'ave it, and when the perlice won't 'ave it, what's a poor man to do? They are that hignorant. But what's the use of talking of it, it only riles me.' The blue-eyed man lay back in his seat, and his head sank on his chest. He looked as if he were going to sleep again, but on Hubert's asking him to explain his troubles, he leaned across the table.
'Well, I'll tell yer. Yer be an eddicated man, and I likes to talk to them that 'as 'ad an eddication. Yer says, and werry truly, just now, that changing the stable don't change an 'orse into a hass, or a hass into an 'orse. That is werry true, most true, none but a eddicated man could 'ave made that 'ere hobservation. I likes yer for it. Give us yer 'and. The public just thinks too much of the stable, and not enough of what's inside. Leastways that's my experience of the public, and I 'ave been a-catering for the public ever since I was a growing lad—sides of bacon, ships on fire, good old ship on fire.... I knows the public. Yer don't follow me?'
'A moment, and I'll explain. You'll admit there's no blooming reason except the public's blooming hignorance why a man shouldn't do as good a picture on the pavement as on a piece of canvas, provided he 'ave the blooming genius. There is no doubt that with them 'ere chalks and a nice smooth stone that Raphael—I 'ave been to the National Gallery and 'ave studied 'is work, and werry fine some of it is, although I don't altogether hold—but that's another matter. What was I a-saying of? I remember,—that with them 'ere chalks, and a nice smooth stone, there's no reason why a masterpiece shouldn't be done. That's right, ain't it? I ask you, as a man of eddication, to say if that ain't right; as a representative of the Press, I asks you to say.' Hubert nodded, and the pale-eyed man continued. 'Well, that's what the public won't see, can't see. Raphael, says I, could 'ave done a masterpiece with them 'ere chalks and a nice smooth stone. But do yer think 'e 'd 'ave been allowed? Do yer think the perlice would 'ave stood it? Do yer think the public would 'ave stood him doing masterpieces on the pavement? I'd give 'im just one afternoon. Them boys would 'ave got 'im into trouble, just as they did me. Raphael would 'ave been told to wipe them out just as I was.'
The conversation paused; and, half amused, half frightened, Hubert considered the pale vague face, and he was struck by the scattered look of aspiration that wandered in the pale blue eyes.
'I'll tell you,' said the man, growing more excited, and leaning further across the table; 'I'll tell you, because I knows you for an eddicated man, and won't blab. S'pose yer thinks, like the rest of the world, that the chaps wot smears, for it ain't drawing, the pavement with bits of bacon, a ship on fire, and the regulation oysters, does them out of their own 'eads?' Hubert nodded. 'I'm not surprised that you do, all the world do, and the public chucks down its coppers to the poor hartist; but 'e aint no hartist, no more than is them 'ere boys that did for my show.' Leaning still further forward, he lowered his voice to a whisper. 'They learns it all by 'art; there is schools for the teaching of it down in Whitechapel. They can just do what they learns by 'art, not one of them could draw that 'ere chair or table from natur'; but I could. I 'ave an original talent. It was a long time afore I found out it was there,' he said, tapping his forehead; 'but it is there,' he said, fixing his eyes on Hubert, 'and when it is there they can't take it away—I mean my mates—though they do laugh at my ideas. They call me "the genius," for they don't believe in me, but I believe in myself, and they laughs best that laughs last.... I don't know,' he said, looking round him, his eyes full of reverie, 'that the public liked my fancy landscapes better than the ship on fire, but I said the public will come to them in time, and I continued my fancy landscapes. But one day in Trafalgar Square it came on to rain very 'eavy, and I went for shelter into the National Gallery. It was my fust visit, and I was struck all of a 'eap, and ever since I can 'ardly bring myself to go on with the drudgery of the piece of bacon, and the piece of cheese, with the mouse nibbling at it. And ever since my 'ead 'as been filled with other things, though for a long time I could not make exactly out what. I 'ave 'eard that that is always the case with men that 'as an idea—daresay you 'ave found it so yourself. So in my spare time I goes to the National to think it out, and in studying the pictures there I got wery interested in a chap called Hetty, and 'e do paint the female form divine. I says to myself, Why not go in for lovely woman? the public may not care for fancy landscapes, but the public allus likes a lovely woman, and, as well as being popular, lovely woman is 'igh 'art. So, after dinner hour, I sets to work, and sketches in a blue sea with three bathers, and two boxes, with the 'orse's head looking out from behind one of the boxes. For a fust attempt at the nude, I assure you—it ain't my way to blow my own trumpet, but I can say that the crowd that 'ere picture did draw was bigger than any that 'ad assembled about the bits o' bacon and ship-a-fire of all the other coves. 'Ad I been let alone, I should 'ave made my fortune, but the crowd was so big and the curiosity so great that it took the perlice all their time to keep the pavement from being blocked. It wasn't that the public didn't like it enough, it was that the public liked it too much, that was the reason of my misfortune.'
'What do you mean?' said Hubert.
'Well, yer see them boys was a-hawking their cheap toys in the neighbourhood, and when they got wind of my success they comes round to see, and they remains on account of the crowd. Pockets was picked, I don't say they wasn't, and the perlice turned rusty, and then a pious old gent comes along, and 'earing the remarks of them boys, which I admit wasn't nice, complains to the hauthorities, and I was put down! Now, what I wants to know is why my art should be made to suffer for the beastly-mindedness of them 'ere boys.'
Hubert admitted that there seemed to be an injustice somewhere, and asked the artist if he had never tried again.
'Try again? Should think I did. When once a man 'as tasted of 'igh art, he can't keep his blooming fingers out of it. It was impossible after the success of my bathers to go back to the bacon, so I thought I would circumvent the hauthorities. I goes to the National Gallery, makes a sketch, 'ere it is,' and after some fumbling in his breast pocket, he produced a greasy piece of paper, which he handed to Hubert. 'S'pose yer know the picture?' Hubert admitted that he did not. 'Well, that is a drawing from Gainsborough's celebrated picture of Medora a-washing of her feet.... But the perlice wouldn't 'ave it any more than my original, 'e said it was worse than the bathers at Margaret, and when I told the hignorant brute wot it was, 'e said he wanted no hargument, that 'e wouldn't 'ave it.'
Hubert had noticed, during the latter part of the narrative, a look of dubious cunning twinkling in the pale eyes; but now this look died away, and the eyes resumed their habitual look of vague reverie.
'I've been 'ad up before the Beak: from him I expected more enlightenment, but he, too, said 'e wouldn't 'ave it, and I got a month. But I'll beat them yet, the public is on my side, and if it worn't for them 'ere boys, I'd say that the public could be helevated. They calls me "the genius," and they is right.' Then something seemed to go out like a flame, the face grew dim, and changed expression. 'It is 'ere all right,' he said, no longer addressing Hubert, but speaking to himself, 'and since it is there, it must come out.'
Hubert at last found himself obliged to write to Ford for an advance of money. But Ford replied that he would advance money only on the delivery of the completed manuscript. And the whole of one night, in a room hardly eight feet long, sitting on his bed, he strove to complete the fourth and fifth acts. But under the pressure of such necessity ideas died within him. And all through the night, and even when the little window, curtained with a bit of muslin hardly bigger than a pocket-handkerchief, had grown white with dawn, he sat gazing at the sheet of paper, his brain on fire, unable to think. Laying his pen down in despair, he thought of the thousands who would come to his aid if they only knew—if they only knew! And soon after he heard life beginning again in the little brick street. He felt that his brain was giving way, that if he did not find change, whatever it was, he must surely run raving mad. He had had enough of England, and would leave it for America, Australia—anywhere. He wanted change. The present was unendurable. How would he get to America? Perhaps a clerkship on board one of the great steamships might be obtained.
The human animal in extreme misery becomes self-reliant, and Hubert hardly thought of making application to his uncle. The last time he had applied for help his letter had remained unanswered, and he now felt that he must make his own living or die. And, quite indifferent as to what might befall him, he walked next day to the Victoria Docks. He did not know where or how to apply for work, and he tired himself in fruitless endeavour. At last he felt he could strive with fate no longer, and wandered mile after mile, amused and forgetful of his own misery in the spectacle of the river—the rose sky, the long perspectives, the houses and warehouses showing in fine outline, and then the wonderful blue night gathering in the forest of masts and rigging. He was admirably patient. There was no fretfulness in his soul, nor did he rail against the world's injustice, but took his misfortunes with sweet gentleness.
He slept in a public-house, and next day resumed his idle search for employment. The weather was mild and beautiful, his wants were simple, a cup of coffee and a roll, a couple of sausages, and the day passed in a sort of morose and passionless contemplation. He thought of everything and nothing, least of all of how he should find money for the morrow. When the day came, and the penny to buy a cup of coffee was wanting, he quite naturally, without giving it a second thought, engaged himself as a labourer, and worked all day carrying sacks of grain out of a vessel's hold. For a large part of his nature was patient and simple, docile as an animal's. There was in him so much that was rudimentary, that in accepting this burden of physical toil he was acting not in contradiction to, but in full and perfect harmony with, his true nature.
But at the end of a week his health began to give way, and, like a man after a violent debauch, he thought of returning to a more normal existence. He had left the manuscript of his unfortunate play in the North. Had they destroyed it? The involuntary fear of the writer for his child made him smile. What did it matter? Clearly the first thing to do would be to write to the editor of The Cosmopolitan, and ask if he could find him some employment, something certain; writing occasional articles for newspapers, that he couldn't do.
Hubert had saved twelve shillings. He would therefore be able to pay his landlady: he smiled—one of his landladies! The earlier debt was now hopelessly out of his reach, and seemed to represent a social plane from which he had for ever fallen. If he had succeeded in getting that play right, what a difference it would have made! He would have been able to do a number of things he had never done, things which he had always desired to do. He had desired above all to travel—to see France and Italy; to linger, to muse in the shadows of the world's past; and after this he had desired marriage, an English wife, an English home, beautiful children, leisure, the society of friends. A successful play would have given him all these things, and now his dream must remain for ever unrealised by him. He had sunk out of sight and hearing of such life.
Rose was another; she might sink as he had sunk; she might never find the opportunity of realising her desire. How well she would have played that part! He knew what was in her. And now! What did his failure to write that play condemn him to? Heaven only knows, he did not wish to think. Strange, was it not strange?... A man of genius—many believed him a genius—and yet he was incapable of earning his daily bread otherwise than by doing the work of a navvy. Even that he could not do well, society had softened his muscles and effeminised his constitution. Indeed, he did not know what life fate had willed him for. He seemed to be out of place everywhere. His best chance was to try to obtain a clerkship. The editor of The Cosmopolitan might be able to do that for him; if he could not, far better it would be to leave a world in which he was out of place, and through no fault of his own—that was the hard part of it. Hard part! Nonsense! What does Fate know of our little rights and wrongs—or care? Her intentions are inscrutable; she watches us come and go, and gives no sign. Prayers are vain. The good man is punished, and the wicked is sent on his way rejoicing.
In such mournful thought, his clothes stained and torn, with all the traces of a week's toil in the docks upon them, Hubert made his way round St. Paul's and across Holborn. As he was about to cross into Oxford Street, he heard some one accost him,—
'Oh, Mr. Price, is that you?' It was Rose. 'Where have you been all this time?'
She seemed so strange, so small, and so much alone in the great thoroughfare, that Hubert forgot all his own troubles in a sudden interest in this little mite. 'Where have you been hiding yourself?... It is lucky I met you. Don't you know that Ford has decided to revive Divorce?'
'You don't mean it!'
'Yes; Ford said that the last acts of The Gipsy were not satisfactorily worked out, and as there was something wrong with that Hamilton Brown's piece, he has decided to revive Divorce. He says it never was properly played ... he thinks he'll make a hit in the husband's part, and I daresay he will. But I have been unfortunate again; I wanted the part of the adventuress. I really could play it. I don't look it, I know ... I have no weight, but I could play it for all that. The public mightn't see me in it at first, but in five minutes they would.'
'And what part has he cast you for—the young girl?'
'Of course; there's no other part. He says I look it; but what's the good of looking it when you don't feel it? If he had cast me for Mrs. Barrington, I should have had just the five minutes in the second act that I have been waiting for so long, and I should have just wiped Miss Osborne out, acted her off the stage.... I know I should; you needn't believe it if don't like, but I know I should.'
Hubert wondered how any one could feel so sure of herself, and then he said, 'Yes, I think you could do just what you say.... How do you think Miss Osborne will play the part?'
'She'll be correct enough; she'll miss nothing, and yet somehow she'll miss the whole thing. But you must go at once to Ford. He was saying only this morning that if you didn't turn up soon, he'd have to give up the idea.'
'I can't go and see him to-night. You see what a state I'm in.'
'You're rather dusty; where have you been? what have you been doing?'
'I've been down at the dock.... I thought of going to America.'
'Well, we'll talk about that another time. It doesn't matter if you are a bit dusty and worn-out-looking. Now that he's going to revive your play, he'll let you have some money. You might get a new hat, though. I don't know how much they cost, but I've five shillings; can you get one for that?'
Hubert thanked her.
'But you are not offended?'
'Offended, my dear Rose! I shall be able to manage. I'll get a brush up somewhere.'
'That's all right. Now I'm going to jump into that 'bus,' and she signed with her parasol to the conductor. 'Mind you see Ford to-night,' she cried; and a moment after he saw a small space of blue back seated against one of the windows.
There was much prophecy abroad. Stiggins' words, 'The piece never did, and never will draw money,' were evidently present in everybody's mind. They were visible in Ford's face, and more than once Hubert expected to hear that—on account of severe indisposition—Mr. Montague Ford has been obliged to indefinitely postpone his contemplated revival of Mr. Hubert Price's play Divorce. But, besides the apprehension that Stiggins' unfavourable opinion of his enterprise had engendered in him, Ford was obviously provoked by Hubert's reluctance to execute the alterations he had suggested. Night after night, sometimes until six in the morning, Hubert sat up considering them. Thanks to Ford's timely advance he was back in his old rooms in Fitzroy Street. All was as it had been. He was working at his play every evening, waiting for Rose's footsteps on the stairs. And yet a change had come into his life! He believed now that his feet were set on the way to fortune—that he would soon be happy.
He stared at the bright flame of the lamp, he listened to the silence. The clock chimed sharply, and the windows were growing grey. Hubert had begun to drowse in his chair; but he had promised to rewrite the young girl's part, Ford having definitely refused to intrust Rose with the part of the adventuress. He was sorry for this. He believed that Rose had not only talent, but genius. Besides, they were friends, neighbours; he would like to give her a chance of distinguishing herself—the chance which she was seeking. All the time he could not but realise that, however he might accentuate and characterise the part of the sentimental girl, Rose would not be able to do much with it. To bring out her special powers something strange, wild, or tragic was required. But of what use thinking of what was not to be? Having made some alterations and additions he folded his papers up, and addressed them to Miss Massey. He wrote on a piece of paper that they were to be given to her at once, and that he was to be called at ten. There was a rehearsal at twelve.
On the night of the first performance, Hubert asked Rose to dine in his rooms. Mr. Wilson proposed that they should have a roast chicken, and Annie was sent to fetch a bottle of champagne from the grocer's. Annie had been given a ticket for the pit. Mrs. Wilson was going to the upper boxes. Annie said,—
'Why, you look as if you was going to a funeral, and not to a play. Why don't ye laugh?'
In truth, Hubert and Rose were a little silent. Rose was thinking how she could say certain lines. She had said them right once at rehearsal, but had not since been able to reproduce to her satisfaction a certain effect of voice. Hubert was too nervous to talk. There was nothing in his mind but 'Will the piece succeed? What shall I do if it fails?' He could give heed to nothing but himself, all the world seemed blotted out, and he suffered the pain of excessive self-concentration. Rose, on the other hand, had lost sight of herself, and existed almost unconsciously in the soul of another being. She was sometimes like a hypnotised spectator watching with foolish, involuntary curiosity the actions of one whom she had been bidden to watch. Then a little cloud would gather over her eyes, and then this other being would rise as if out of her very entrails and recreate her, fashioning her to its own image and likeness.
She did not answer when she was spoken to, and when the question was repeated, she awoke with a little start. Dinner was eaten in morbid silence, with painful and fitful efforts to appear interested in each other. Walking to the theatre, they once took the wrong turning and had to ask the way. At the stage door they smiled painfully, nodded, glad to part. Hubert went up to Montague Ford's room. He found the comedian on a low stool, seated before a low table covered with brushes and cosmetics, in front of a triple glass.
'My dear friend, do not trouble me now. I am thinking of my part.'
Hubert turned to go.
'Stay a moment,' cried the actor. 'You know when the husband meets the wife he has divorced?'
Hubert remembered the moment referred to, and, with anxious, doubting eyes, the comedian sought from the author justification for some intonations and gestures which seemed to him to form part and parcel of the nature of the man whose drunkenness he had so admirably depicted on his face.
'"This is most unfortunate, very unlucky—very, my dear Louisa; but——"
'"I am no longer obliged to bear with your insults; I can now defend myself against you."
'Now, is that your idea of the scene?'
A pained look came upon Hubert's face. 'Don't question me now, my dear fellow. I cannot fix my attention. I can see, however, that your make-up is capital—you are the man himself.'
The actor was satisfied, and in his satisfaction he said, 'I think it will be all right, old chap.'
Hubert hoped to reach his box without meeting critics or authors. The serving-maids bowed and smiled,—he was the author of the play. 'They'll think still more of me if the notices are right,' he thought, as he hurried upstairs, and from behind the curtain of his box he peeped down and counted the critics who edged their way down the stalls. Harding stood in the third row talking to a young man. He said, 'You mean the woman with the black hair piled into a point, and fastened with a steel circlet. A face of sheep-like sensuality. Red lips and a round receding chin. A large bosom, and two thin arms showing beneath the opera cloak, which she has not yet thrown from her shoulders. I do not know her—une laideur attirante. Many a man might be interested in her. But do you see the woman in the stage-box? You would not believe it, but she is sixty, and has only just begun to speak of herself as an old woman. She kept her figure, and had an admirer when she was fifty-eight.'
'What has become of him?'
'They quarrelled; two years ago he told her he hoped never to see her ugly old face again. And that delicate little creature in the box next to her—that pale diaphanous face?'
'With a young man hanging over her whispering in her ear?'
'Yes. She hates the theatre; it gives her neuralgia; but she attends all the first nights because her one passion is to be made love to in public. If her admirer did not hang over her in front of the box just as that man is doing, she would not tolerate him for a week.'
At that moment the conversation was interrupted by a new-comer, who asked if he had seen the play when it was first produced.
'Yes,' said Harding; 'I did.' And he continued his search for acquaintances amid white rows of female backs, necks, and half-seen profiles—amid the black cloth shoulders cut sharply upon the illumined curtain.
'And what do you think of it? Do you think it will succeed this time?'
'Ford will create an impression in the part; but I don't think the piece will run.'
'And why? Because the public is too stupid?'
'Partly, and partly because Price is only an intentionist. He cannot carry an idea quite through.'
'Are you going to write about it?'
'And what will you say?'
'Oh, most interesting things to be said. Let's take the case of Hubert Price ... Ah, there, the curtain is going up.'
The curtain rolled slowly up, and in a small country drawing-room, in very simple but very pointedly written dialogue, the story of Mrs. Holmes' domestic misfortunes was gradually unfolded. It appeared that she had flirted with Captain Grey; he had written her some compromising letters, and she had once been to his rooms alone. So the Court had pronounced a decree nisi. But Mrs. Holmes had not been unfaithful to her husband. She had flirted with Captain Grey because her husband's attentions to a certain Mrs. Barrington had maddened her, and in her jealous rage had written foolish letters, and been to see Captain Grey.
Hubert noticed that folk were still asking for their seats, and pushing down the very rows in which the most influential critics were sitting. They exchanged a salutation with their friends in the dress-circle, and, when they were seated, looked around, making observations regarding the appearance of the house; and all the while the actors were speaking. Hubert trembled with fear and rage. Would these people never give their attention to the stage? If they had been sitting by him, he could have struck them. Then a line turned into nonsense by the actress who played Mrs. Holmes was a lancinating pain; and the actor who played Captain Grey, played so slowly that Hubert could hardly refrain from calling from his box. He looked round the theatre, noticing the indifferent faces of the critics, and the women's shoulders seemed to him especially vacuous and imbecile.
The principal scene of the second act was between Mrs. Holmes and the man who had divorced her. He has-been driven to drink by the vile behaviour of his second wife; he is ruined in health and in pocket, and has come to the woman he wronged to beg forgiveness; he knows she has learnt to love Captain Grey, but will not marry him, because she believes that once married always married. There is only one thing he can do to repair the wrong he has done—he will commit suicide, and so enable her to marry the man she loves. He tells her that he has bought the pistol to do it with, and the words, 'Not here! not here!' escape from her; and he answers, 'No, not here, but in a cab. I've got one at the door.' He goes out; Captain Grey enters, and Mrs. Holmes begs him to save her husband. While they are discussing how this is to be done, he re-enters, saying that his conscience smote him as he was going to pull the trigger. Will she forgive him? If she won't, he must make an end of himself. She says she will.
In the third act Hubert had attempted to paint Mr. Holmes' vain efforts to reform his life. But the constant presence of Captain Grey in the household, his attempts to win Mrs. Holmes from her husband, and the drunken husband's amours with the servant-maid disgusted rather than horrified. In the fourth act the wretched husband admits that his reformation is impossible, and that, although he has no courage to commit suicide and set his wife free, he will return to his evil courses; they will sooner or later make an end of him. The slowness and deadly gravity with which Ford took this scene rendered it intolerable; and, notwithstanding the beauty of the conclusion, when the deserted wife, in the silence of her drawing-room, reads again Captain Grey's letter, telling her that he has left England for ever, and with another, the success of the play was left in doubt, and the audience filed out, talking, chattering, arguing, wondering what the public verdict would be.
To avoid commiseration of heartless friends and the triumphant glances of literary enemies, Hubert passed through the door leading on to the stage. Scene-shifters were brutally pushing away what remained of his play; and the presence of Hamilton Brown, the dramatic author, talking to Ford, was at that moment particularly disagreeable. On catching sight of Hubert, Brown ran to him, shook him by the hand, and murmured some discreet congratulations. He preferred the piece, however, as it had been originally written, and suggested to Ford the advisability of returning to the first text. Then Ford went upstairs to take his paint off, and Hubert walked about the stage with Brown. Brown's insincerity was sufficiently transparent; but men in Hubert's position catch at straws, and he soon began to believe that the attitude of the public towards his play was not so unfavourable as he had imagined.
Hubert tried to summon up a smile for the stage-door keeper, who, he feared, had heard that the piece had failed, and then the moment they got outside he begged Rose to tell him the exact truth. She assured him that Ford had said that he had always counted on a certain amount of opposition; but that he believed that the general public, being more free of prejudice and less sophisticated, would be impressed by the simple humanity of the play. The conversation paused, and at the end of an irritating silence he said, 'You were excellent, as good as any one could be in a part that did not suit them. Ah, if he had cast you for the adventuress, how you would have played it!...'
'I'm so glad you are pleased. I hope my notices will be good. Do you think they will?'
'Yes, your notices will be all right,' he answered, with a sigh.
'And your notices will be all right too. No one can say what is going to succeed. There was a call after each of the last three acts.... I don't see how a piece could go better. It is the suspense....'
'Ah, yes, the suspense!'
They lingered on the landing, and Hubert said, 'Won't you come in for a moment?' She followed him into the room. His calm face, usually a perfect picture of repose and self-possession, betrayed his emotion by a certain blankness in the eyes, certain contractions in the skin of the forehead. 'I'm afraid,' he said, 'there's no hope.'
'Oh, you mustn't say that!' she replied. 'I think it went very well indeed.... I know I did nothing with the young girl. I oughtn't to have undertaken the part.'
'You were excellent. If we only get some good notices. If we don't, I shall never get another play of mine acted.' He looked at her imploringly, thirsting for a woman's sympathy. But the little girl was thinking of certain effects which she would have made, and which the actress who had played the adventuress had failed to make.
'I watched her all the time,' she said, 'following every line, saying all the time, "Oh yes, that's all very nice and very proper, my young woman; but it's not it; no, not at all—not within a hundred miles of it." I don't think she ever really touched the part—do you?' Hubert did not answer, and a quiver of distraction ran through the muscles of her face.
'Why don't you answer me?'
'I can't answer you,' he said abruptly. Then remembering, he added, 'Forgive me; I can think of nothing now.' He hid his face in his hands, and sobbed twice—two heavy, choking sobs, pregnant with the weight of anguish lying on his heart.
Seeing how much he suffered, she laid her hand on his shoulder. 'I am very sorry; I wish I could help you. I know how it tears the heart when one cannot get out what one has in one's brain.'
Her artistic appreciation of his suffering only jarred him the more. What he longed for was some kind, simple-hearted woman who would say, 'Never mind, dear; the play was perfectly right, only they did not understand it; I love you better than ever.' But Rose could not give him the sympathy he wanted; and to be alone was almost a relief. He dared not go to bed; he sat looking into space. The roar of London hushed till it was no more than a faint murmur, the hissing of the gas grew louder, and still Hubert sat thinking, the same thoughts battling in his brain. He looked into the future, but could see nothing but suicide. His uncle? He had applied to him before for help; there was no hope there. Then he tramped up and down, maddened by the infernal hissing of the gas; and then threw himself into his arm-chair. And so a terrible night wore away; and it was not until long after the early carts had begun to rattle in the streets that exhaustion brought an end to his sufferings, and he rolled into bed.
'What will ye 'ave to eat? Eggs and bacon?'
'Well, then, 'ave a chop?'
'Ye must 'ave something.'
'A cup of tea, a slice of toast. I'm not hungry.'
'Well, ye are worse than a young lady for a happetite. Miss Massey 'as sent you down these 'ere papers.'
The servant-girl laid the papers on the bed, and Hubert lay back on his pillow, so that he might collect his thoughts. Stretching forth his hands, he selected the inevitable paper.
'For those who do not believe that our English home life is composed mainly, if not entirely, of lying, drunkenness, and conjugal infidelity, and its sequel divorce, yester evening at the Queen's Theatre must have been a sad and dismal experience. That men and women who have vowed to love each other do sometimes prove false to their troth no reasonable man will deny. With the divorce court before our eyes, even the most enthusiastic believer in the natural goodness and ultimate perfectibility of human nature must admit that men and women are frail. But drunkenness and infidelity are happily not characteristic of our English homes. Then why, we ask, should a dramatist select such a theme, and by every artifice of dialogue force into prominence all that is mean and painful in an unfortunate woman's life? Always the same relentless method; the cold, passionless curiosity of the vivisector; the scalpel is placed under the nerve, and we are called upon to watch the quivering flesh. Never the kind word, the tears, the effusion, which is man's highest prerogative, and which separates him from the brute and signifies the immortal end for which he was created. We hold that it is a pity to see so much talent wasted, and it was indeed a melancholy sight to see so many capable actors and actresses labouring to——'
'This is even worse than usual,' said Hubert; and glancing through half a column of hysterical commonplace, he came upon the following:—
'But if this woman had succeeded in reclaiming from vice the man who unjustly divorced her, and who in his misery goes back to ask her forgiveness for pity's sake, what a lesson we should have had! And, with lightened and not with heavier hearts, we should have left the theatre comforted, better and happier men and women. But turning his back on the goodness, truth, and love whither he had induced us to believe he was leading us, the author flagrantly makes the woman contradict her whole nature in the last act; and, because her husband falls again, she, instead of raising him with all the tender mercies and humanities of wifehood, declares that her life has been one long mistake, and that she accepts the divorce which the Court had unjustly granted. The moral, if such a word may be applied to such a piece is this: "The law may be bad, but human nature is worse."'
The other morning papers took the same view,—a great deal of talent wasted on a subject that could please no one. Hubert threw the papers aside, lay back, and in the lucid idleness of the bed his thoughts grew darker. It was hardly possible that the piece could survive such notices; and if it did not? Well, he would have to go. But until the piece was taken out of the bills it would be a weakness to harbour the ugly thought.
There were, however, the evening papers to look forward to, and soon after midday Annie was sent to buy all that had appeared. Hubert expected to find in these papers a more delicate appreciation of his work. Many of the critics of the evening press were his personal friends, and nearly all were young men in full sympathy with the new school of dramatic thought. He read paper after paper with avidity; and Annie was sent in a cab to buy one that had not yet found its way so far north as Fitzroy Street. The opinion of this paper was of all importance, and Hubert tore it open with trembling fingers. Although more temperately written than the others, it was clearly favourable, and Hubert sighed a sweet sigh of relief. A weight was lifted from him; the world suddenly seemed to grow brighter; and he went to the theatre that evening, and, half doubting and half confidently, presented himself at the door of Montague Ford's dressing-room. The actor had not yet begun to dress, and was busy writing letters. He stretched his hand hurriedly to Hubert.
'Excuse me, my dear fellow; I have a couple of letters to finish.'
Hubert sat down, glancing nervously from the actor to the morning papers with which the table was strewn. There was not an evening paper there. Had he not seen them? At the end of about ten minutes the actor said,—
'Well, this is a bad business; they are terribly down on us—aren't they? What do you think?'
'Have you seen the evening papers—The Telephone, for instance?'
'Oh yes, I've seen them all; but the evening papers don't amount to much. Stiggins's article was terrible. I am afraid he has killed the piece.'
'Don't you think it will run, then?'
'Well, that depends upon the public, of course. If they like it, I'll keep it on.'
'How's the booking?'
'Not good.' Montague Ford moved his papers absent-mindedly. At the end of a long silence he said, 'Even if the piece did catch on, it would take a lot of working up to undo the mischief of those articles. Of course you can rely on me to give it every chance. I shan't take it out of the bills if I can possibly help.'
'There is my Gipsy.'
'I have another piece ready to put into rehearsal; it was arranged for six months ago. I only consented to produce your play because—well, because there has been such an outcry lately about art.... Tremendous part for me in the new piece... I'm sure you'll like it.'
The business did improve, but so very slowly that Hubert was afraid Ford would lose patience and take the play out of the bills. But while the fate of the play hung in the balance, Hubert's life was being rendered unbearable by duns. They had found him out, one and all; to escape being served was an impossibility; and now his table was covered with summonses to appear at the County Court. This would not matter if the piece once took the public taste. Then he would be able to pay every one, and have some time to rest and think. And there seemed every prospect of its catching on. Discussions regarding the morality of the play had arisen in the newspapers, and the eternal question whether men and women are happier married or unmarried had reached its height. Hubert spent the afternoon addressing letters to the papers, striving to fan the flame of controversy. Every evening he listened for Rose's footstep on the stairs.—How did the piece go?—Was there a better house? Money or paper?—Have you seen the notice in the ——?—First-rate, wasn't it?—That ought to do some good.—I've heard there was a notice in the ——, but I haven't seen it. Have you?—No; but So-and-so saw the paper, and said there was nothing in it. And, do you know, I hear there's going to be a notice in The Modern Review, and that So-and-so is writing it.
Every post brought newspapers; the room was filled with newspapers—all kinds of newspapers—papers one has never heard of,—French papers, Welsh papers, North of England papers, Scotch and Irish papers. Hubert read columns about himself, anecdotes of all kinds,—where he was born, who were his parents, and what first induced him to attempt writing for the stage; his personal appearance, mode of life, the cut of his clothes; his religious, moral, and political views. Had he been the plaintiff in an action for criminal libel, greater industry in the collection and the fabrication of personal details could hardly have been displayed.
But at these articles Hubert only glanced; he was interested in his piece, not in himself, and when Annie brought up The Modern Review he tore it open, knowing he would find there criticism more fundamental, more searching. But as he read, the expression of hope which his face wore changed to one of pain pitiful to look upon. The article began with a sketch of the general situation, and in a tone of commiseration, of benevolent malice, the writer pointed out how inevitable it was that the critics should have taken Mr. Price, when Divorce was first produced, for the new dramatic genius they were waiting for. 'There comes a moment,' said this caustic writer, 'in the affairs of men when the new is not only eagerly accepted, but when it is confounded with the original. Wearied by the old stereotyped form of drama, the critics had been astonished by a novelty of subject, more apparent than real, and by certain surface qualities in the execution; they had hailed the work as being original both in form and in matter, whereas all that was good in the play had been borrowed from France and Scandinavia. Divorce was the inevitable product of the time. It had been written by Mr. Price, but it might have been written by a dozen other young men—granting intelligence, youth, leisure, a university education, and three or four years of London life—any one of a dozen clever young men who frequent West End drawing-rooms and dabble in literature might have written it. All that could be said was that the play was, or rather had been, dans le mouvement; and original work never is dans le mouvement. Divorce was nothing more than the product of certain surroundings, and remembering Mr. Price's other plays, there seemed to be no reason to believe that he would do better. Mr. Price had tried his hand at criticism, and that was a sure sign that the creative faculty had begun to wither. His critical essays were not rich nor abundant in thought, they were not the skirmishing of a man fighting for his ideas, they were not preliminary to a great battle; they were at once vague and pedantic, somewhat futile, les bats d'un esprit en peine, and seemed to announce a talent in progress of disintegration rather than of reconstruction.
'Sometimes the critic's phrases seemed wet with tears; sometimes, abandoning his tone of commiseration, he would assume one of scientific indifference. The phenomenon was the commonest. There were dozens of Hubert Prices in London. The universities and the newspapers, working singly and in collaboration, turned them out by the dozen. And the mission of these men of intelligent culture seemed to be to poser des lapins sur la jeune presse. Each one came in turn with his little volume of poems, his little play, his little picture; all were men of "advanced ideas"; in other words, they were all dans le mouvement. There was the rough Hubert Price, who made mild consternation in the drawing-room, and there was the sophisticated Hubert Price, who cajoled the drawing-room; there was the sincere and the insincere, and the Price that suffered and the Price that didn't. Each one brought a different nuance, a thousand infinitesimal variations of the type, but, considered merely in its relation to art, the species may be said to be divided into two distinct categories. In the first category are those who rise almost at the first bound to a certain level, who produce quickly, never reaching again the original standard, dropping a little lower at each successive effort until their work becomes indistinguishable from the ordinary artistic commercialism of the time. The fate of those in the second category is more pathetic; they gradually wither and die away like flowers planted in a thin soil. Among these men many noble souls are to be found, men who have surrendered all things for love of their art, and who seemed at starting to be the best equipped to win, but who failed, impossible to tell how or why. Sometimes their failure turns to comedy, sometimes to tragedy. They may become refined, delicate, elderly bachelors, the ornaments of drawing-rooms, professional diners-out—men with brilliant careers behind them. But if fate has not willed that they should retire into brilliant shells; if chance does not allow them to retreat, to separate themselves from their kind, but arbitrarily joins them to others, linking their fate to the fate of others' unhappiness, disaster may and must accrue from the alliance; honesty of purpose, trueness of heart, deep love, every great, good, and gracious quality to be found in nature, will not suffice to save them.'
The paper dropped from his hands, and he recollected all his failures.
'Once I could do good work; now I can do neither good work nor bad. Were I a rich man, I should collect my scattered papers and write songs to be sung in drawing-rooms; but being a poor one, I must—I suppose I must get out. Positively, there is no hope,—debts on every side. Fate has willed me to go as went Haydon, Gerard de Nerval, and Marchal. The first cut his throat, the second hanged himself, and the third blew out his brains. Clearly the time has come to consider how I shall make my exit. It is a little startling to be called upon so peremptorily to go.'
In this moment of extreme dejection it seemed to Hubert that the writer of the article had told him the exact truth. He refused to admit the plea of poverty. It was of course hard to write when one is being harassed by creditors. But if he had had it in him, it would have come out. The critic had very probably told him the truth. He could not hope to make a living out of literature. He had not the strength to write the masterpiece which the perverse cruelty of nature had permitted him only to see, and he was hopelessly unfit for journalism. But in his simple, wholesome mind there was no bent towards suicide; and he scanned every horizon. Once again he thought of his uncle. Five years ago he had written, asking him for the loan of a hundred pounds. He had received ten. And how vain it would be to write a second time! A few pounds would only serve to prolong his misery. No; he would not drift from degradation to degradation.
He only glanced at the letter which Annie had brought up with the copy of The Modern Review. It was clearly a lawyer's letter. Should he open it? Why not spare himself the pain? He could alter nothing; and in these last days—— Leaving the thought unfinished, he sought for his keys; he went to his box, unlocked it, and took out a small paper package. Of the fifty pounds he had received from Ford about twenty remained: he had been poorer before, but hardly quite so hopeless. He scanned every horizon—all were barred. The thought of suicide, and with it the instinctive shrinking from it, came into his mind again. Suppose he took, that very night, an overdose of chloral? He tried to put the thought from him, and returned, a little dazed and helpless, to his chair. Had the critic in The Modern Review told him the truth? Was he incapable of earning a living? It seemed so. Above all, was he incapable of finishing The Gipsy as he intended? No; that he felt was a lie. Give him six months' quiet, free from worry and all anxiety, and he would do it. Many a year had passed since he had enjoyed a month of quiet; and glancing again at the letter on the table, he thought that perhaps at that very moment a score of gallery boys were hissing his play. Perhaps at that very moment Ford was making up his mind to announce the last six nights of Divorce. At a quarter to twelve he heard Rose's foot on the stairs. He opened the door.
'How did the piece go to-night?'
'Only pretty well? Won't you come in for a few minutes?... So the piece didn't go very well to-night?'
'Oh yes, it did. I've seen it go better; but——'
'Did you get a call?'
'Yes, after the second act.'
'Not after the third?'
'No. That act never goes well. Harding came behind; I was speaking to him, and he said something which struck me as being very true. Ford, he said, plays the part a great deal too seriously. When the piece was first produced, it was played more good-humouredly by indifferent actors, who let the thing run without trying to bring out every point. Ford makes it as hard as nails. I think those were his exact words.'
Hubert did not answer. At the end of a long silence he said,—
'Did you hear anything about the last night's?'
'No,' she said; 'I heard nothing of that.'
'Ford appeared quite satisfied then?'
'Yes, quite,' she answered, with difficulty; for his eyes were fixed on her, and she felt he knew she was not telling the truth. The conversation paused again, and to turn it into another channel she said, 'Why, you have not opened your letter!'
'I can see it is a lawyer's letter, on account of some unpaid bill. If I could pay it, I would; but as I can't——'
'You are afraid to open it,' said Rose.
Ashamed of his weakness, Hubert opened the letter, and began to read. Rose saw that the letter was not such an one as he had expected, and a moment after his face told her that fortunate news had come to him. The signs of the tumult within were represented by the passing of the hand across the brow, as if to brush aside some strange hallucination, and the sudden coming of a vague look of surprise and fear into the eyes. He said,—
'Read it! Read it!'
Relieved of much detail and much cumbersome legal circumlocution, it was to the following effect:—That about three months ago Mr. Burnett had come up from his place in Sussex, and at the offices of Messrs. Grandly & Co. had made a will, in which he had disinherited his adopted daughter, Miss Emily Watson, and left everything to Mr. Hubert Price. There was no question as to the validity of the will; but Messrs. Grandly deemed it their duty to inform Mr. Hubert Price of the circumstances under which it had been made, and also of the fact that a few weeks before his death Mr. Burnett had told Mr. John Grandly, who was then staying with Mr. Burnett at Ashwood, that he intended adding a codicil, leaving some two or three hundred a year to Miss Watson. It was unfortunate that Mr. Burnett had not had time to do this; for Miss Watson was an orphan, eighteen years of age, and entirely unprovided for. Messrs. Grandly begged to submit these facts to the consideration of Mr. Hubert Price. Miss Watson was now residing at Ashwood. She was there with a friend of hers, Mrs. Bentley; and should Mr. Hubert Price feel inclined to do what Mr. Burnett had left undone, Messrs. Grandly would have very great pleasure in carrying his wishes into effect.
'I'm not dreaming, am I?'
'No, you are not. It is quite true. Your uncle has left his money to you. I am so glad; indeed I am. You will be able to finish your play, and take a theatre and produce it yourself if you like. I hope you won't forget me. I do want to play that part. You can't quite know what I shall do with it. One can't explain oneself in a scene here and there.... What are you thinking of?'
'I'm thinking of that poor girl, Emily Watson. It comes very hard upon her.'
'Who is she?'
'The girl my uncle disinherited.'
'Oh, she! Well, you can marry her if you like. That would not be a bad notion. But if you do, you'll forget all about me and Lady Hayward.'
'No; I shall never forget you, Rose.' He stretched his hand to her; but, irrespective of his will, the gesture seemed full of farewell.
'I'm so much obliged to you,' he said; 'had it not been for you, I might never have opened that letter.'
'Even if you hadn't, it wouldn't have mattered; you would have heard of your good fortune some other way. But it is getting very late. I must say good-night. I hope you will have a pleasant time in the country, and will finish your play. Good-night.'
Returning from the door, he stopped to think. 'We have been very good friends—that is all. How strangely determined she is!... More so than I am. She is bound to succeed. There is in her just that note of individual passion.... Perhaps some one will find her out before I have finished,—that would be a pity. I wonder which of us will succeed first?'
Then the madness of good fortune came upon him suddenly; he could think no more of Rose, and had to go for a long walk in the streets.
'Dearest Emily, you must prepare yourself for the worst.'
'Is he dead?'
'Yes; he passed away quite quietly. To look at him one would say he was asleep; he does not appear to have suffered at all.'
'Oh, Julia, Julia, do you think he forgave me? I could not do what he asked me.... I loved him very dearly as a father, but I could not have married him.'
'No, dear, you could not. Such a marriage would have been most unnatural; he was more than forty years older than you.'
'I do not think he ever thought of such a thing until about a month or six weeks ago. You remember how I ran to you? I was as white as a ghost, and I trembled like a leaf. I could hardly speak.... You remember?'
'Yes, I remember; and some hours after, when I came into this room, he was standing there, just there, on the hearth-rug; there was a fearful look of pain and despair on his face—he looked as if he was going mad. I never saw such a look before, and I never wish to see such a look again. And the effort he made to appear unconcerned when he saw me was perhaps the worst part of it. I pretended to see nothing, and walked away towards the window and looked out. But all the while I could feel that some terrible drama was passing behind me. At last I had to look round. He was sitting in that chair, his elbows on his knees, clasping his head with both hands, the old, gnarled fingers twined in the iron-grey hair. Then, unable to contain himself any longer, he rushed out of the room, out of the house, and across the park.'