In a centre of literature such as London, where books come out by the half-dozen almost every day, the advent of a slender volume of poems is commonly of little moment. But circumstances combined to make the appearance of The Leopard, and other Poems a ‘literary event.’ It was Wilfrid’s first production for four years. He was a lonely figure, marked out by the rarity of literary talent among the old aristocracy, by the bitter, lively quality of his earlier poems, by his Eastern sojourn and isolation from literary circles, and finally by the report that he had embraced Islam. Someone, on the appearance of his third volume four years ago, had dubbed him ‘a sucking Byron’; the phrase had caught the ear. Finally, he had a young publisher who understood the art of what he called ‘putting it over.’ During the few weeks since he received Wilfrid’s manuscript, he had been engaged in lunching, dining, and telling people to look out for ‘The Leopard,’ the most sensation-making poem since ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ To the query “Why?” he replied in nods and becks and wreathed smiles. Was it true that young Desert had become a Mussulman? Oh! Yes. Was he in London? Oh! yes, but, of course, the shyest and rarest bird in the literary flock.
He who was Compson Grice Ltd. had from the first perceived that in ‘The Leopard’ he had ‘a winner’— people would not enjoy it, but they would talk about it. He had only to start the snowball rolling down the slope, and when moved by real conviction no one could do this better than he. Three days before the book came out he met Telfourd Yule by a sort of accidental prescience.
“Hallo, Yule, back from Araby?”
“As you see.”
“I say, I’ve got a most amazing book of poems coming out on Monday. The Leopard, by Wilfrid Desert. Like a copy? The first poem’s a corker.”
“Takes the wind clean out of that poem in Alfred Lyall’s Verses written in India, about the man who died sooner than change his faith. Remember?”
“What’s the truth about Desert taking to Islam?”
“That poem’s so personal in feeling — it might be about himself.”
And Compson Grice thought, suddenly: ‘If it were! What a stunt!’
“Do you know him, Yule?”
“You must read the thing; I couldn’t put it down.”
“But would a man publish such a thing about his own experience?”
And, still more suddenly, Compson Grice thought: ‘If it were, I could sell a hundred thousand!’
He returned to his office, thinking: ‘Yule was deuced close. I believe I was right, and he knows it. He’s only just back; everything’s known in the bazaars, they say. Now, let’s see, where am I?’
Published at five shillings, on a large sale there would, after royalty paid, be a clear profit of sixpence a copy. A hundred thousand copies would be two thousand five hundred pounds, and about the same in royalties to Desert! By George! But, of course, loyalty to client first! And there came to him one of those inspirations which so often come to loyal people who see money ahead of them.
‘I must draw his attention to the risk of people saying that it’s his own case. I’d better do it the day after publication. In the meantime I’ll put a second big edition in hand.’
On the day before publication, a prominent critic, Mark Hanna, who ran a weekly bell in the Carillon, informed him that he had gone all out for the poem. A younger man, well known for a certain buccaneering spirit, said no word, but wrote a criticism. Both critiques appeared on the day of publication. Compson Grice cut them out and took them with him to the ‘Jessamine’ restaurant, where he had bidden Wilfrid to lunch.
They met at the entrance and passed to a little table at the far end. The room was crowded with people who knew everybody in the literary, dramatic and artistic world. And Compson Grice waited, with the experience of one who had entertained many authors, until a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1870 had been drunk to its dregs. Then, producing from his pocket the two reviews, he placed that of Mark Hanna before his guest, with the words: “Have you seen this? It’s rather good.”
Wilfrid read it.
The reviewer had indeed gone ‘all out.’ It was almost all confined to The Leopard, which it praised as the most intimate revelation of the human soul in verse since Shelley.
“Bunk! Shelley doesn’t reveal except in his lyrics.”
“Ah! well,” said Compson Grice, “they have to work in Shelley.”
The review acclaimed the poem as “tearing away the last shreds of the hypocritical veil which throughout our literature has shrouded the muse in relation to religion.” It concluded with these words: “This poem, indeed, in its unflinching record of a soul tortured by cruel dilemma, is the most amazing piece of imaginative psychology which has come our way in the twentieth century.”
Watching his guest lay down the cutting, Compson Grice said softly:
“Pretty good! It’s the personal fervour of the thing that gets them.”
Wilfrid gave his queer shiver.
“Got a cigar-cutter?”
Compson Grice pushed one forward with the other review.
“I think you ought to read this in the Daily Phase.”
The review was headed: ‘Defiance: Bolshevism and the Empire.’
Wilfrid took it up.
“Geoffrey Coltham?” he said. “Who’s he?”
The review began with some fairly accurate personal details of the poet’s antecedents, early work and life, ending with the mention of his conversion to Islam. Then, after some favourable remarks about the other poems, it fastened on The Leopard, sprang, as it were, at the creature’s throat, and shook it as a bulldog might. Then, quoting these lines:
‘Into foul ditch each dogma leads.
Cursed be superstitious creeds,
In every driven mind the weeds!
There’s but one liquor for the sane —
Drink deep! Let scepticism reign
And its astringence clear the brain!’
it went on with calculated brutality:
‘The thin disguise assumed by the narrative covers a personal disruptive bitterness which one is tempted to connect with the wounded and overweening pride of one who has failed himself and the British world. Whether Mr. Desert intended in this poem to reveal his own experience and feelings in connection with his conversion to Islam — a faith, by the way, of which, judging from the poor and bitter lines quoted above, he is totally unworthy — we cannot of course say, but we advise him to come into the open and let us know. Since we have in our midst a poet who, with all his undoubted thrust, drives at our entrails, and cuts deep into our religion and our prestige, we have the right to know whether or not he — like his hero — is a renegade.’
“That, I think,” said Compson Grice, quietly, “is libellous.”
Wilfrid looked up at him, so that he said afterwards: “I never knew Desert had such eyes.”
“I AM a renegade. I took conversion at the pistol’s point, and you can let everybody know it.”
Smothering the words: ‘Thank God!’ Compson Grice reached out his hand. But Wilfrid had leaned back and veiled his face in the smoke of his cigar. His publisher moved forward on to the edge of his chair.
“You mean that you want me to send a letter to the Daily Phase to say that The Leopard is practically your own experience?”
“My dear fellow, I think it’s wonderful of you. That is courage, if you like.”
The smile on Wilfrid’s face caused Compson Grice to sit back, swallow the words: “The effect on the sales will be enormous,” and substitute:
“It will strengthen your position enormously. But I wish we could get back on that fellow.”
“Let him stew!”
“Quite!” said Compson Grice. He was by no means anxious to be embroiled, and have all his authors slated in the important Daily Phase.
Wilfrid rose. “Thanks very much. I must be going.”
Compson Grice watched him leave, his head high and his step slow. ‘Poor devil!’ he thought. ‘It IS a scoop!’
Back in his office, he spent some time finding a line in Colthan’s review which he could isolate from its context and use as advertisement. He finally extracted this: “Daily Phase: ‘No poem in recent years has had such power’” (the remaining words of the sentence he omitted because they were ‘to cut the ground from under the feet of all we stand for’). He then composed a letter to the editor. He was writing — he said — at the request of Mr. Desert, who, far from needing any challenge to come into the open, was only too anxious that everyone should know that The Leopard was indeed founded on his personal experience. For his own part — he went on — he considered that this frank avowal was a more striking instance of courage than could be met with in a long day’s march. He was proud to have been privileged to publish a poem which, in psychological content, quality of workmanship, and direct human interest, was by far the most striking of this generation.
He signed himself “Your obedient servant, Compson Grice.” He then increased the size of the order for the second edition, directed that the words “First edition exhausted; second large impression,” should be ready for use immediately, and went to his club to play bridge.
His club was the Polyglot, and in the hall he ran on Michael. The hair of his erstwhile colleague in the publishing world was ruffled, the ears stood out from his head, and he spoke at once:
“Grice, what are you doing about that young brute Coltham?”
Compson Grice smiled blandly and replied:
“Don’t worry! I showed the review to Desert, and he told me to draw its sting by complete avowal.”
“Why? Didn’t you know?”
“Yes, I knew, but —”
These words were balm to the ears of Compson Grice, who had been visited by misgiving as to the truth of Wilfrid’s admission. Would a man really publish that poem if it were his own case; could he really want it known? But this was conclusive: Mont had been Desert’s discoverer and closest friend.
“So I’ve written to the Phase and dealt with it.”
“Did Wilfrid tell you to do that?”
“To publish that poem was crazy. ‘Quem deus —’” He suddenly caught sight of the expression on Compson Grice’s face. “Yes,” he added, bitterly, “you think you’ve got a scoop!”
Compson Grice said coldly:
“Whether it will do us harm or good remains to be seen.”
“Bosh!” said Michael. “Everybody will read the thing now, blast them! Have you seen Wilfrid today?”
“He lunched with me.”
“How’s he looking?”
Tempted to say ‘Like Asrael!’ Compson Grice substituted: “Oh! all right — quite calm.”
“Calm as hell! Look here, Grice! If you don’t stand by him and help him all you can through this, I’ll never speak to you again.”
“My dear fellow,” said Compson Grice, with some dignity, “what do you suppose?” And, straightening his waistcoat, he passed into the card room.
Michael, muttering, “Cold-blooded fish!” hurried in the direction of Cork Street. ‘I wonder if the old chap would like to see me,’ he thought.
But at the very mouth of the street he recoiled and made for Mount Street instead. He was informed that both his father and mother were out, but that Miss Dinny had come up that morning from Condaford.
“All right, Blore. If she’s in I’ll find her.”
He went up and opened the drawing-room door quietly. In the alcove, under the cage of her aunt’s parakeet, Dinny was sitting perfectly still and upright, like a little girl at a lesson, with her hands crossed on her lap and her eyes fixed on space. She did not see him till his hand was on her shoulder.
“How does one learn not to commit murder, Michael?”
“Ah! Poisonous young brute! Have your people seen The Phase?”
“What was the reaction?”
“Silence, pinched lips.”
“Poor dear! So you came up?”
“Yes, I’m going to the theatre with Wilfrid.”
“Give him my love, and tell him that if he wants to see me I’ll come at any moment. Oh! and, Dinny, try to make him feel that we admire him for spilling the milk.”
Dinny looked up, and he was moved by the expression on her face.
“It wasn’t all pride that made him, Michael. There’s something egging him on, and I’m afraid of it. Deep down he isn’t sure that it wasn’t just cowardice that made him renounce. I know he can’t get that thought out of his mind. He feels he’s got to prove, not to others so much as to himself, that he isn’t a coward. Oh! I know he isn’t. But so long as he hasn’t proved it to himself and everybody, I don’t know what he might do.”
Michael nodded. From his one interview with Wilfrid he had formed something of the same impression.
“Did you know that he’s told his publisher to make a public admission?”
“Oh!” said Dinny blankly. “What then?”
“Michael, will anyone grasp the situation Wilfrid was in?”
“The imaginative type is rare. I don’t pretend I can grasp it. Can you?”
“Only because it happened to Wilfrid.”
Michael gripped her arm.
“I’m glad you’ve got the old-fashioned complaint, Dinny, not just this modern ‘physiological urge.’”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54