Dedicated to John Huntley by Elizabeth Robins
Printed in The New Review Vol. X (Jan. to July, 1894). Pages 746-758.
by the author of "A Lucky Sixpence"
Hypertext edition is copyrighted Joanne E. Gates
John Huntley had been an acknowledged master of English fiction for more than twenty years, and I counted myself happy beyond all other young aspirants in owning his intimate acquaintance--his friendship, I might say. For though I was barely twenty, and more than common callow, if his kindness to me ever faltered for a moment, I was unconscious of the failure. I firmly believed that I was the only boy he had so distinguished.
He lived alone in a dark old house in Bedford Square. My mother said "he knew everybody, and one met him everywhere"; but I never heard of his giving his friendship so unreservedly to any other of the legion of young men who would have been glad, I thought, to attach themselves to so distinguished a leader and so agreeable a human being.
How pleased and flattered I was when he fell into the habit of speaking to me of literature, without reminding me that I was pitiably young. It was about this time that I determined, come what might, I would throw prudence to the winds and set myself to learn to write. I buried my resolution in my old bosom, and my initial efforts in a drawer, of which I kept the key. I was horribly shy about my work, and conscious of the "awful cheek" I must have--especially after a walk and talk with John Huntley. As for playing Maupassant to his Flaubert and showing him my maiden efforts, I shrank appalled from the very thought.
My college work was of the shadowiest, for I had cultivated none but the twin accomplishments of indiscriminate reading and discriminating idleness. I had heard much of "methods," of old and new criticism, of the tyranny of the circulating libraries, of the decline of literature, and of the rise of the cocksure young man. From John Huntley I gathered that this personage was the peculiar curse of the age. Looking back over that not yet distant time, I begin to see that it was the suppression of my own cocksureness that won me John Huntley's
confidence. By the hour he has talked to me of the unspeakable idiot on the Censor "who writes feeble little tales of his own, and criticises his betters with a rancour worthy a reformer." I did not feel called upon to mention that I understood "his betters" to mean John Huntley, nor did I betray any recollection of the Censor's announcement that Huntley's day was declining, and that his latest volume of short stories was "a lamentable witness to the failure of his real but never very robust ability." I had read with indignation that the Censor and the Herald were both "a little weary of this elegant trifling," and I felt a sense of personal injury against the critic who said that there were more interesting considerations in life than why "the new woman" takes no sugar in her tea, and why men, bent on afternoon visits, no longer leave their umbrellas in the hall. Another reviewer admitted Huntley's polish and grace, but accused him of incompetence to deal with the larger issues of existence and pronounced his recent work "thin and attenuate to the vanishing point." That utterance furnished the unspoken text of many Huntleyan homilies, and I began to feel that newspaper men were a sorry lot. Huntley pointed out the vulgarity and feebleness of the things they wrote and the things they praised; and I, without conscious effort, kept to myself my surprise at some of my friend's own judgments: not, I believe out of hypocrisy, but out of deference, mingled with astonishment; for the awful truth was that I sometimes agreed with "that fellow on the Censor"! I was glad this did not happen too often; and I wished John Huntley would write another novel like his beautiful and masterly "Leila O'Neill." That would show those fellows! For, unlike Huntley, I could not but believe, after all, that the criticisms were fairly honest, and the critics far from contemptible. I often wondered what they would say of my things; and I went back to Oxford determined to work out the idea I had for a novel.
Unconsciously I found myself disregarding the standards Huntley had so plainly and eloquently placed before me, thinking afterwards, as I re-read my pages, "Huntley might have hinted that; he would never have said it!" Now and again I would shift my legs under my table and think, "Huntley would squirm at this!" and always with an unaccountable, irrational joy.
A great painter had once said to an artist friend of mine, "The only way to learn to paint is to paint, young man--paint, paint, paint!" If this applied to letters I would write, write, write, I told myself; and
I, who had been the idlest fellow who ever got through exams, by the skirt of his teeth, now developed a capacity for work little short of amazing.
The vacation following I went abroad with Parsons the coach. In Paris I met Huntley, and we went about together; he, as usual, railing a good deal at books and men, but in spite of that, a charming companion--if only one hadn't a novel on the stocks! I smiled to myself as I pictured his surprise and horror if I were to admit the audacious enterprise. No fear of my doing that! But I must shake him off and get on with my work. I told Parsons--an easy-going fellow, if ever there was one--that I should certainly be able to do more reading in the country, so we arranged to go to a little place I knew of in the Black Forest. To my consternation, Huntley, who seemed to be at a loose end, followed us after a few days. I was in despair. I could manage to read with Parsons, and still do several hours' work a day on the book, but how to do both, and potter about with Huntley into the bargain-- "old Huntley," as I found myself calling him, though he was not yet fifty when he died--was a problem I could not solve. It soon became plain that, for the moment, the novel must go to the wall; but if I did not write, I thought without ceasing of my book.
One night, as we sat smoking in the little garden behind the hotel, Huntley began to talk of his youth, his first stories, his early hopes and fears, and his first success. I felt my heart beat, and my sympathies with old Huntley warm and quicken. He was not such a dragon after all. Why not--why not tell him my plot, and then, if he was already grasping my hand and bidding me godspeed, in a voice touched with emotion. There had been a time when he himself was not "master of style," when he was very young, very inexperienced, very hopeful. I would try my story on him, and see the result.
"Fellow told me a rattling good 'situation' the other day," I began, lighting another cigarette. "Wonder how it would strike you!"-- and with that I launched into my plot. By the time I was fairly in, I was sorry I had begun. Huntley sat sunk in melancholy, and contemplated the moonlight on the little lake among the pines. I plodded on with a growing sense that the story was less original and fetching than I had hoped, and cursed old Huntley's wooden and unresponsive countenance. I cut the narrative rather short toward the close, and
Huntley opened his large mouth and yawned. My feelings were too deep for words. I left the dénouement hanging in the air, with a mere hint as to the final issue. Huntley seemed disposed to mediation; he looked absent, and gave me the feeling that he hadn't been listening to a word I'd been saying. I was too dejected to try to win him out of his silence, and we parted for the night.
The next morning at breakfast my friend announced his intention of going back to London.
"Not at once!" I said, greatly surprised.
"To-day," said Huntley. "I find I can work better in London."
In vain I begged him not to go. I no longer pined for solitude and a pen. To be alone now would be unbearable. But Huntley was deaf to my entreaties. I saw him off with a dreary sense that he had found me rich and happy and was leaving me beggared and forlorn. I didn't get over his unspoken condemnation of my plot. I threw the manuscript into my portmanteau and astonished Parsons by my attention to Aristotle and Thucydides. The Vogelsee turned out an unhealthy hole, and I was down with typhoid before the vacation was over.
Convalescence proved a long and weary business. I was advised to try a sea voyage, and it was ultimately decided that Parsons should accompany me, and that we should go to the West Indies. My people had interests in Jamaica, and I was to combine the search for health with personal inspection of a coffee plantation. I liked Jamaica, and stayed rather longer than business required; and just at the last, as we were on the point of returning to England, Parsons suddenly developed an intense interest in the Panama Canal project. He wanted specially to see Culabra--"the hill that shifts"-- and which, as fast as they tunnelled and excavated, caved in and obliterated the works, and sometimes, we were told, the workmen as well. I had no wish to hurry home, and was very willing to please Parsons and myself by going to the isthmus.
But Panama turned out rather a sell, I thought; and after the first day or two I let Parsons go bothering about alone, or with one of the resident engineers. I stayed behind in the Colon and tried to kill time till steamer-day, while Parsons went across the isthmus to see if he couldn't catch the yellow fever.
There is not much to do in Colon, as everybody knows who has been there. In desperation one morning, after Parsons had gone, I dived into one of my boxes to find something to read. I came
across a thickish brown paper packet towards the bottom of the box. I opened it, wondering what the deuce it could be. Behold, the beginning of my novel!
I smiled with the superior pity that one lavishes at twenty-one on the ambitions of nineteen; but I began to read. I grew interested--I grew excited--I read on and on for hours. When the last sheet fluttered down on the pile at my side, "By Jove!" I said aloud, and then sat for a munite staring at the wall. I went over to the mantel-piece and filled a pipe.
"By Jove!" I said again, when I had lighted up.
I walked up and down the narrow room of the hotel with the story seething in my brain, seeing the details of the unwritten part start out before me till I could stand it no longer. I picked up the last sheet to see where I had left off. I carried it to the writing-table and found a pen. . . . I had no luncheon that day, but I smoked like a chimney, and wrote like one possessed.
Parsons wired next morning from the Pacific side: "Sure you mean to sail Tuesday." As he was not an Irishman, I did not find the message ambiguous. I wired back: "Stay another fortnight." I was glad to work on the novel in the Colon as long as I could, and I would finish it on the voyage home. I would think of nothing else till the last word was written--and I didn't.
When Parsons got back he could make nothing of me, and blamed the beastly, enervating climate of the tropics. I informed him I was working for the first time in my life, and if he didn't like the climate, he had better get out of it. He did take himself off somewhere in search of another Canal--Nicaragua, I believe--but I didn't affect any interest in his dull concerns. I think Parsons was rather glad, on the whole, to see me interested in any work once more, and he considerately left me to my own devices.
Well, to cut a long story short, I worked at my novel in a fury of concentration and finished it before we sighted land on our return voyage. I was feeling very fit, too, and Parsons regarded my appetite and energy with frank surprise. But it was all nonsense for Parsons to say it was the sea voyage that pulled me round. It was nothing more nor less than the discovery at Colon that the story Huntley had yawned at was a fine and stirring theme. Huntley should read it and be convinced. I was no longer afraid of his melancholy carping. After all, the man had fine literary instincts,
and he would see--he would admit the splendid directness and power of my story, even if he objected here and there to the treatment. I wrote him as we steamed up the Solent:--
"My dear Huntley, --I shall be in London to-morrow, at Brown's. Will you dine with me? I have news for you.--Yours ever."
By 7.45 on the evening appointed I had written a couple of notes since dressing for dinner, and had glanced at the evening papers. Nothing in particular seemed to have been happening in London-- nothing half so interesting as what had been going on at Colon. I rang, and sent for the Censor. I turned the pages with a thrill. Before long I would be reading what the Censor fellow thought of my story. I glanced at the pile of manuscript on the small table in the corner, for I had placed my work "on view" as it were. It should be there in full sight when Huntley came in. No more shrinking behind brown-paper wrappers! No; there it was, naked and unashamed--a solid white block, confronting destiny, standing "four-square to all the winds that blew." Huntley might shrug and the Censor might storm --it was no use now: the thing was done! I felt a glow of satisfaction as I said, with Pilate: σ *** γεγραφα γεγραφα[in Greek]. They could damn my book, but they couldn't undo it.
I scanned the pages of the Censor meditatively, with inattentive eye, till I caught sight of Huntley's name. Hullo! Why, men could write, it seemed, without going to Colon! Here was a review of Huntley's last novel. Hey? What was this? Praise, praise, praise of Huntley, and from one of the cocksure young men! Dear me! I read on with an amiable sense of being glad that someone else had been doing a good thing too. The reviewer gave no definite account of the story, but described it as "singularly fresh and vigorous . . . A new departure for Mr. Huntley . . . The best thing he has ever done . . . He has happily very nearly discarded hair-splitting and wire-drawn characterization . . . He has told a human story with some feeling and a great deal of literary distinction."
"Bravo!" I said out loud. My man opened the door, and Huntley stood there an instant, looking at me with keen, melancholy eyes. I jumped up, repeating "Bravo!"
"Well, and how are you?"
We shook hands, and Huntley gave up his coat and hat. He seemed glad to see me again, and overwhelmed me with questions--my health?-- my voyage? --my immediate plans?
"Oh, I'm all right--capital passage--smooth as a mill-pond. But you've been writing another novel!" I picked up the Censor, glancing surreptitiously towards my pile of manuscript, with a sense that it was obtrusively white and staring. Huntley was warming his hands.
"Yes, oh yes!" he said, and gave a short laugh.
I thought he looked careworn, and a good deal older.
"Big success, I see, even from the Censor's point of view, which says much."
"Yes," said Huntley, with a shrug. "It argues that I've sailed very near the wind, and hampered myself with an exceedingly risqué subject. If it hadn't been handled with superhuman discretion it would have been impossible--disgusting. It's the weak side of the story--the taint of animalism in it--that appeals to the gentleman on the Censor--naturally."
"Oh!" I said, wondering a little to hear Huntley admit a weak side, or own to animalism.
We sat down to dinner. I had much to hear. Modern English literature, I soon learned, was in a worse way than before I left; the papers more than every a daily disgrace to our country; the books periodic insults to taste and intelligence. Sensation, sensation was all that it paid to publish! When men sat down to write, they cudgelled their brains to go the last book one better in point of realistic vileness, and even if they couldn't keep pace with the horrid ingenuity of the women.
Huntley sat sideways with his napkin over one knee, his elbow on the table, his head in his hand, looking weary with the weight of his contempt--haggard, unsatisfied, hopeless.
"But come! you've just had a great victory with quite other weapons. You're the last man that ought to despair."
"It's this victory, as you call it, that makes me despair. This last book is called the best thing I've ever done--better than "Leila O'Neill," better than "The Student," better than "The Quality of Mercy" --better than them all put together! Why? Because in it I descend, for the first time in my life, to the sensational--not in treatment, mind you--in theme. I have handled an ugly subject with amazing dexterity; I have draped and glorified it. There it is"-- he apostrophised an imaginary three-volume novel riding on the air-- "there it is, a monument of skill, a miracle of delicacy--but no victory, my friend! It is my defeat."
He leaned back and glowered at the chandelier with tragic eyes.
"How can you say defeat?" I broke in, as Morton appeared with the coffee and cigars. "Surely art can justify any conceivable theme? If you have sufficient art you can lift up any subject in heaven or on earth!" His non-committal look was a little irritating. "What an amazing survival," I said with some heat, "among men who are called artists, is this dividing of the sheep from the goats, and refusing to see that a goat may be as good to paint as a sheep. There's no real question of anything but the strength with which the subject appeals to the artist. If I understand and can render the goat more clearly and convincingly than the sheep, I'm merely a fool if I consider that most people are more tenderly predisposed to the serviceable sheep. My business is to do what I can do best."
Huntley merely sighted and turned the whites--I mean the yellows--of his eyes up to the light; but I was not to be discouraged.
"Here's a case in point," I went on. "I am convinced I can write a certain story--" Huntley turned his yellows down with a start, and I caught the gloom stare full in my face. "Yes, when I was nineteen I planned it. I knew it was--risky, but I meant to do it fearlessly. I told you the plot at the Vogelsee, and you were bored and disgusted." Huntley was sitting back, rather sunken together in his chair, his jaw a little dropped, his eyes fixed, and his face disagreeably suggestive of a man I had once seen in an apoplectic fit. I turned my eyes away from him to my pile of manuscript and went on:
"When I told you the story that night in the garden, I had already written more than half of it."
"My God!" whispered Huntley, with a sound like choking in his throat.
"What's the matter?" I jumped up with my napkin in my hand and came round to him. "What is it?"
He had struggled to his feet and was clinging to the chair.
"You--were writing--that story?" he said hoarsely.
"Yes," I answered, bewildered and a little angry at the way he was taking my news; "and I was right in doing it. You hated it, of course. It wasn't your way. These things are matters of temperament. I invented it, I understood it, I could justify it. I was the man to write it."
"And I've written it! My God!"
Huntley dropped back in his chair, and the lights danced between us.
"You've written it!" I seemed to be crying to him across a gulf.
"I didn't--know--you were going to write--anybody was going to write--" He dropped his head between his hands.
I stepped back and struck the little corner table with my foot. My manuscript shone white like a cube of marble--like a footstone, it occurred to me. I carried my clenched hand to my head--I was still grasping the napkin. I looked at the pile of paper, and I looked back at my friend. He still sat motionless, with his head in his hands. I opened out the napkin and spread it over the manuscript. I came back to the table and poured out a glass of fine champagne. I drank it off, and another to follow. I poured out a third.
"Take this," I said, holding it out to Huntley, "and let me explain."
I was a good deal alarmed at the look in his face when he lifted his had and drank the brandy.
"Another?" I said holding up the carafe.
"No, no." He set down the empty glass.
I walked over to the fireplace and lit my cigar.
"You mustn't take it like this," I said. "It was the most natural thing in the world, and luckily there's no harm done."
"No harm!" said Huntley, with a look of indignation. "No harm done! When I'm in the position of having taken and used your property, in a way that makes restitution impossible! No harm! Why, your story is the groundwork of my last book!"
"Well, what then?"
"And your version of it is half written," Huntley groaned.
"Well," I said, "that's a better state of things than if I'd finished it." I forced a laugh.
"It's a horrible state of things," said Huntley, in an uncertain voice.
"I assure you, no!" I adopted as commonplace a tone as I could command, and sat down again opposite my guest. "You may not like to be indebted to me for anything, but, as a matter of fact, are you not indebted more or less to everybody you know? Aren't your novels full of the foibles and excellences of your friends--suggested by them, if not practised by them? Surely we must submit to borrowing of each other all our lives long. Our opinions, if not echoes, are little more than modifications of those we've heard. The picture of life we
have in our minds is a direct gift from our fellows. and all that is left for the artist is a new treatment of the old universal theme. I don't need to point out to you that the treatment--the only possible originality in the novel--is your own."
"It was your story--your story," said Huntley sharply, getting up and walking back and forth.
"No, it wasn't mine."
"Half of it was the story of my cousin, Mary Hampden, and the end was suggested by the Conover case. So if you owe your groundwork to anybody, you owe it to those two women."
I laughed. He came and leaned his elbow on the low mantelpiece. He looked at me hard.
"All that is sheer sophistry, and you know it. Where is the part you've written?"
"I've disposed of it."
"Oh, I chucked it. It was no good. I had sense enough to see that."
'But you spoke of it very confidently only this evening!"
"Ye--ye--yes--of the plot. Even you admit some merit in that." I could not keep a trace of bitterness out of my voice.
"The plot has grave defects, even in the modified form I have given it," said Huntley, with an air of embarrassment. "But I can't tell you how sorry--how pained--"
"Oh, it's all right. I'll have plenty of time to think of new subjects before I'm able to work again. I'm awfully flattered that you liked my plot after all. You see I thought you hated it that night at the Vogelsee."
"Yes--no--of course not. "What's the time?" Huntley drew out his watch. "Yes, I must be getting back." I rang for Morton.
"If I walk home with you, could you lend me a copy of your new book?" I said, while Huntley was getting into his overcoat.
"Yes--er--yes, if you like."
Morton went for my hat and coat, and Huntley, who had his hat in his hand, turned to put it down on the corner table while he waited. I intercepted him nervously.
"Sure that's your hat?" I said, striking wild at any excuse for
keeping him away from the small sheeted corpse in the corner. "Looks remarkably like mine." I stood in front of the table staring stupidly into Huntley's hat.
"No, it's mine," he said, and Morton re-appeared.
We had a dreary enough walk to Bedford Square, and I didn't stay, after he put the new book in my hand, longer than to say "Good night--and don't give another thought to the matter we've been discussing"; but my friend looked drearier than ever as he shook my hand and said good night.
I took a hansom back to the hotel and went up at once to my sitting-room. The first thing I noticed, even before I turned up the gas, was that the napkin had not been taken off the manuscript; but I felt that a dead, white face was staring at me through the gloom. I rang for Morton and sent him to bed. I pulled the corner table out to the side of the fire, and drew up a chair. My hands were cold and full of a nervous trembling.
I opened Huntley's book. I read the first pages through a haze; but I saw--yes, yes, he had my heroine, described almost in the very words I had used that evening in the Schwarzwald garden. It was the same woman who lay under the white cloth dead at my side. I stopped reading a moment and laid my head down on the napkin. When I picked up Huntley's book to go on, I found the blur had deepened; but it passed.
I read hungrily, greedily, crying out now and then at a mannerism or a littleness, where I conceived the treatment should have simple, direct, strong. On and on through the night I read, following the familiar story with tortured senses. For here were my people, my children, looking at me with strange eyes and altered faces, denying their real names, grimacing, grotesque and distorted, in the mirror of another mind; perjuring themselves, repudiating their birthright, attitudinising, masquerading--ay, it was horrible! I laid my head down more than once on the little white-covered table and groaned aloud. How had he succeeded in squeezing the story so dry? It was like dust in the mouth. How, with such materials as I had given him, had he found it possible to build this house of cards? He had, to be sure, turned his back on the two great moments in the story, and deliberately, openly, shirked the real problem. He would dance up to it again and again, pirouette round it, hint, suggest, and glide gracefully away again, never forgetting his company
manners, always keeping in view the canons of British taste, and the nice feelings of his fastidious friends--at least, so it seemed to me.
I sat before the dying fire and pondered. I remembered Huntley's disappointments, his age, his sensitiveness, his past goodness to me, his bare and lonely life, until this last failure (which the critics, ignorant of the real story, were mildly praising), seemed to call loudest for the completion of my sacrifice. I got up to mend the fire--no, it was too far gone. I poked among the ashes; how cold it had grown. I got up shivering and stood by the little table, and looked down on the outlines, showing sharp beneath the cloth. I took the napkin off, lifted up the manuscript and sat down with it in my lap.
I sat there holding it and staring into the ashes for I know not how long. After a time I found myself thinking: "Matches--they're behind the bronze." I got up, still pressing the manuscript against me, and found the match-box. I crouched down before the black grate, and put the manuscript on the hearth. I struck a match. It flared viciously in my face. I took up four or five manuscript leaves and held them over the light. They flamed and curled, shrivelled and burned down so close to my fingers that I was scorched. Before I let the charred fragments drop, I caught upt he dying flame with more leaves--and with more, and more, and more, I kept the fire alight. I sat there feeding my story, leaf by leaf, to the flame, my interest curiously centred in the determination to burn my book all with one little match. It had taken two years, and all that I had in me, to write it, and I would wipe it out of existence in an hour, with a single match.
At first it was even a cross to that part of me that was intent upon the work of destruction, that bits and corners of the manuscript sometimes escaped the flame, and here and there stared whitely at me from the growing heap of calcined paper. Laboriously I would pick these fragments out, scanning each curiously to see if, by phrase or word or syllable left legible, I could recall its former circumstance and setting. . . . While my fingers were mechanically employed in feeding my little bonfire, I would pore over these remains with a Cuvier-like devotion, as if from these meagre traces, these bare bones saved out of oblivion, I would reconstruct the creature who had lived and died, and left no "fond record" nor likeness in all the world, to tell the people such a thing had been. I took up the last sheaf of half-a-dozen sheets.
The under ones contained the list of chapters, for I had everything ready for the press; but the top leaf bore, in bold characters--
They were the last words I had written.
I held the sheet to the flame; it ate its way slowly down the blank top of the leaf and threatened to die out before it reached the words of dedication. I tilted the paper a little and the flame revived, licking the legend into smoke and blackness. The for one moment the letters glowed out again, running in a rapid crinkle of gold over the dusky background; and even when the words had finally faded out, I found myself repeating again and again, "Dedicated to John Huntley!" "Dedicated to John Huntley!" From that moment till the task was wholly finished, while I held a burning leaf in one hand, with the other I groped among the ashes for the fragments the fire forgot. I sought them out, as a castaway might look among the sea-drift and the sand for bits of wreck, moving and terrible reminders of the death-struggle in the storm, and the home he might not see again.
When the last leaf with the last flame clinging to it had fluttered down softly on the bed of ashes, I got up off my knees. I was stiff and weak; I put out my hands and caught at the mantelpiece. I stood there a long time looking out into the future. I knew I might find courage some day to write again, but I knew, too, that the strongest and vitalest thing I could do was written on the charred fragments in the grate and on the hearth. I turned away sick. What did the world look like? Was there anything left in the universe besides a heap of blackened paper?
I stumbled over to the window and drew up the blind. It was dawn, and a grey rain was falling over a grey world.