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Mrs. Highmore’s errand this morning was odd enough to deserve commemoration: she came to ask me to write a notice of her great forthcoming work. Her great works have come forth so frequently without my assistance that I was sufficiently entitled on this occasion to open my eyes; but what really made me stare was the ground on which her request reposed, and what leads me to record the incident is the train of memory lighted by that explanation. Poor Ray Limbert, while we talked, seemed to sit there between us: she reminded me that my acquaintance with him had begun, eighteen years ago, with her having come in precisely as she came in this morning to bespeak my charity for him. If she didn’t know then how little my charity was worth she is at least enlightened about it to-day, and this is just the circumstance that makes the drollery of her visit. As I hold up the torch to the dusky years — by which I mean as I cipher up with a pen that stumbles and stops the figured column of my reminiscences — I see that Lim-bert’s public hour, or at least my small apprehension of it, is rounded by those two occasions. It was finis, with a little moralising flourish, that Mrs. Highmore seemed to trace to-day at the bottom of the page. “One of the most voluminous writers of the time,” she has often repeated this sign; but never, I daresay, in spite of her professional command of appropriate emotion, with an equal sense of that mystery and that sadness of things which to people of imagination generally hover over the close of human histories. This romance at any rate is bracketed by her early and her late appeal; and when its melancholy protrusions had caught the declining light again from my half-hour’s talk with her I took a private vow to recover while that light still lingers something of the delicate flush, to pick out with a brief patience the perplexing lesson.
It was wonderful to observe how for herself Mrs. Highmore had already done so: she wouldn’t have hesitated to announce to me what was the matter with Ralph Limbert, or at all events to give me a glimpse of the high admonition she had read in his career. There could have been no better proof of the vividness of this parable, which we were really in our pleasant sympathy quite at one about, than that Mrs. Highmore, of all hardened sinners, should have been converted. This indeed was not news to me: she impressed upon me that for the last ten years she had wanted to do something artistic, something as to which she was prepared not to care a rap whether or no it should sell. She brought home to me further that it had been mainly seeing what her brother-in-law did and how he did it that had wedded her to this perversity. As he didn’t sell, dear soul, and as several persons, of whom I was one, thought highly of that, the fancy had taken her — taken her even quite early in her prolific course — of reaching, if only once, the same heroic eminence. She yearned to be, like Lim-bert, but of course only once, an exquisite failure. There was something a failure was, a failure in the market, that a success somehow wasn’t. A success was as prosaic as a good dinner: there was nothing more to be said about it than that you had had it. Who but vulgar people, in such a case, made gloating remarks about the courses? It was often by such vulgar people that a success was attested. It made if you came to look at it nothing but money; that is it made so much that any other result showed small in comparison. A failure now could make — oh, with the aid of immense talent of course, for there were failures and failures — such a reputation! She did me the honour — she had often done it — to intimate that what she meant by reputation was seeing me toss a flower. If it took a failure to catch a failure I was by my own admission well qualified to place the laurel. It was because she had made so much money and Mr. Highmore had taken such care of it that she could treat herself to an hour of pure glory. She perfectly remembered that as often as I had heard her heave that sigh I had been prompt with my declaration that a book sold might easily be as glorious as a book unsold. Of course she knew this, but she knew also that it was the age of trash triumphant and that she had never heard me speak of anything that had “done well” exactly as she had sometimes heard me speak of something that hadn’t — with just two or three words of respect which, when I used them, seemed to convey more than they commonly stood for, seemed to hush up the discussion a little, as if for the very beauty of the secret.
I may declare in regard to these allusions that, whatever I then thought of myself as a holder of the scales I had never scrupled to laugh out at the humour of Mrs. Highmore’s pursuit of quality at any price. It had never rescued her even for a day from the hard doom of popularity, and though I never gave her my word for it there was no reason at all why it should. The public would have her, as her husband used roguishly to remark; not indeed that, making her bargains, standing up to her publishers and even, in his higher flights, to her reviewers, he ever had a glimpse of her attempted conspiracy against her genius, or rather as I may say against mine. It was not that when she tried to be what she called subtle (for wasn’t Limbert subtle, and wasn’t I?) her fond consumers, bless them, didn’t suspect the trick nor show what they thought of it: they straightway rose on the contrary to the morsel she had hoped to hold too high, and, making but a big, cheerful bite of it, wagged their great collective tail artlessly for more. It was not given to her not to please, nor granted even to her best refinements to affright. I have always respected the mystery of those humiliations, but I was fully aware this morning that they were practically the reason why she had come to me. Therefore when she said with the flush of a bold joke in her kind, coarse face “What I feel is, you know, that you could settle me if you only would.” I knew quite well what she meant. She meant that of old it had always appeared to be the fine blade, as some one had hyperbolically called it, of my particular opinion that snapped the silken thread by which Limbert’s chance in the market was wont to hang. She meant that my favour was compromising, that my praise indeed was fatal. I had made myself a little specialty of seeing nothing in certain celebrities, of seeing overmuch in an occasional nobody, and of judging from a point of view that, say what I would for it (and I had a monstrous deal to say) remained perverse and obscure. Mine was in short the love that killed, for my subtlety, unlike Mrs. Highmore’s, produced no tremor of the public tail. She had not forgotten how, toward the end, when his case was worst, Limbert would absolutely come to me with a funny, shy pathos in his eyes and say: “My dear fellow, I think I’ve done it this time, if you’ll only keep quiet.” If my keeping quiet in those days was to help him to appear to have hit the usual taste, for the want of which he was starving, so now my breaking out was to help Mrs. Highmore to appear to have hit the unusual.
The moral of all this was that I had frightened the public too much for our late friend, but that as she was not starving this was exactly what her grosser reputation required. And then, she good-naturedly and delicately intimated, there would always be, if further reasons were wanting, the price of my clever little article. I think she gave that hint with a flattering impression — spoiled child of the booksellers as she is — that the price of my clever little articles is high. Whatever it is, at any rate, she had evidently reflected that poor Limbert’s anxiety for his own profit used to involve my sacrificing mine. Any inconvenience that my obliging her might entail would not in fine be pecuniary. Her appeal, her motive, her fantastic thirst for quality and her ingenious theory of my influence struck me all as excellent comedy, and when I consented contingently to oblige her she left me the sheets of her new novel. I could plead no inconvenience and have been looking them over; but I am frankly appalled at what she expects of me. What is she thinking of, poor dear, and what has put it into her head that “quality” has descended upon her? Why does she suppose that she has been “artistic”? She hasn’t been anything whatever, I surmise, that she has not inveterately been. What does she imagine she has left out? What does she conceive she has put in? She has neither left out nor put in anything. I shall have to write her an embarrassed note. The book doesn’t exist, and there’s nothing in life to say about it. How can there be anything but the same old faithful rush for it?
This rush had already begun when, early in the seventies, in the interest of her prospective brother-in-law, she approached me on the singular ground of the unencouraged sentiment I had entertained for her sister. Pretty pink Maud had cast me out, but I appear to have passed in the flurried little circle for a magnanimous youth. Pretty pink Maud, so lovely then, before her troubles, that dusky Jane was gratefully conscious of all she made up for, Maud Stannace, very literary too, very languishing and extremely bullied by her mother, had yielded, invidiously as it might have struck me, to Ray Limbert’s suit, which Mrs. Stannace was not the woman to stomach. Mrs. Stannace was seldom the woman to do anything: she had been shocked at the way her children, with the grubby taint of their father’s blood (he had published pale Remains or flat Conversations of his father) breathed the alien air of authorship. If not the daughter, nor even the niece, she was, if I am not mistaken, the second cousin of a hundred earls and a great stickler for relationship, so that she had other views for her brilliant child, especially after her quiet one (such had been her original discreet forecast of the producer of eighty volumes) became the second wife of an ex-army-surgeon, already the father of four children. Mrs. Stannace had too manifestly dreamed it would be given to pretty pink Maud to detach some one of the hundred, who wouldn’t be missed, from the cluster. It was because she cared only for cousins that I unlearnt the way to her house, which she had once reminded me was one of the few paths of gentility I could hope to tread. Ralph Limbert, who belonged to nobody and had done nothing — nothing even at Cambridge — had only the uncanny spell he had cast upon her younger daughter to recommend him; but if her younger daughter had a spark of filial feeling she wouldn’t commit the indecency of deserting for his sake a deeply dependent and intensely aggravated mother.
These things I learned from Jane Highmore, who, as if her books had been babies (they remained her only ones) had waited till after marriage to show what she could do and now bade fair to surround her satisfied spouse (he took for some mysterious reason, a part of the credit) with a little family, in sets of triplets, which properly handled would be the support of his declining years. The young couple, neither of whom had a penny, were now virtually engaged: the thing was subject to Ralph’s putting his hand on some regular employment. People more enamoured couldn’t be conceived, and Mrs. Highmore, honest woman, who had moreover a professional sense for a love-story, was eager to take them under her wing. What was wanted was a decent opening for Limbert, which it had occurred to her I might assist her to find, though indeed I had not yet found any such matter for myself. But it was well known that I was too particular, whereas poor Ralph, with the easy manners of genius, was ready to accept almost anything to which a salary, even a small one, was attached. If he could only for instance get a place on a newspaper the rest of his maintenance would come freely enough. It was true that his two novels, one of which she had brought to leave with me, had passed unperceived and that to her, Mrs. Highmore personally, they didn’t irresistibly appeal; but she could all the same assure me that I should have only to spend ten minutes with him (and our encounter must speedily take place) to receive an impression of latent power.
Our encounter took place soon after I had read the volumes Mrs. Highmore had left with me, in which I recognised an intention of a sort that I had then pretty well given up the hope of meeting. I daresay that without knowing it I had been looking out rather hungrily for an altar of sacrifice: however that may be I submitted when I came across Ralph Limbert to one of the rarest emotions of my literary life, the sense of an activity in which I could critically rest. The rest was deep and salutary, and it has not been disturbed to this hour. It has been a long, large surrender, the luxury of dropped discriminations. He couldn’t trouble me, whatever he did, for I practically enjoyed him as much when he was worse as when he was better. It was a case, I suppose, of natural prearrangement, in which, I hasten to add, I keep excellent company. We are a numerous band, partakers of the same repose, who sit together in the shade of the tree, by the plash of the fountain, with the glare of the desert around us and no great vice that I know of but the habit perhaps of estimating people a little too much by what they think of a certain style. If it had been laid upon these few pages, none the less, to be the history of an enthusiasm, I should not have undertaken them: they are concerned with Ralph Limbert in relations to which I was a stranger or in which I participated only by sympathy. I used to talk about his work, but I seldom talk now: the brotherhood of the faith have become, like the Trappists, a silent order. If to the day of his death, after mortal disenchantments, the impression he first produced always evoked the word “ingenuous,” those to whom his face was familiar can easily imagine what it must have been when it still had the light of youth. I had never seen a man of genius look so passive, a man of experience so off his guard. At the period I made his acquaintance this freshness was all un-brushed. His foot had begun to stumble, but he was full of big intentions and of sweet Maud Stannace. Black-haired and pale, deceptively languid, he had the eyes of a clever child and the voice of a bronze bell. He saw more even than I had done in the girl he was engaged to; as time went on I became conscious that we had both, properly enough, seen rather more than there was. Our odd situation, that of the three of us, became perfectly possible from the moment I observed that he had more patience with her than I should have had. I was happy at not having to supply this quantity, and she, on her side, found pleasure in being able to be impertinent to me without incurring the reproach of a bad wife.
Limbert’s novels appeared to have brought him no money: they had only brought him, so far as I could then make out, tributes that took up his time. These indeed brought him from several quarters some other things, and on my part at the end of three months The Blackport Beacon. I don’t to-day remember how I obtained for him the London correspondence of the great northern organ, unless it was through somebody’s having obtained it for myself. I seem to recall that I got rid of it in Limbert’s interest, persuaded the editor that he was much the better man. The better man was naturally the man who had pledged himself to support a charming wife. We were neither of us good, as the event proved, but he had a finer sort of badness. The Blackport Beacon had two London correspondents — one a supposed haunter of political circles, the other a votary of questions sketchily classified as literary. They were both expected to be lively, and what was held out to each was that it was honourably open to him to be livelier than the other. I recollect the political correspondent of that period and how the problem offered to Ray Limbert was to try to be livelier than Pat Moyle. He had not yet seemed to me so candid as when he undertook this exploit, which brought matters to a head with Mrs. Stannace, inasmuch as her opposition to the marriage now logically fell to the ground. It’s all tears and laughter as I look back upon that admirable time, in which nothing was so romantic as our intense vision of the real. No fool’s paradise ever rustled such a cradle-song. It was anything but Bohemia — it was the very temple of Mrs. Grundy. We knew we were too critical, and that made us sublimely indulgent; we believed we did our duty or wanted to, and that made us free to dream. But we dreamed over the multiplication-table; we were nothing if not practical. Oh, the long smokes and sudden ideas, the knowing hints and banished scruples! The great thing was for Limbert to bring out his next book, which was just what his delightful engagement with the Beacon would give him leisure and liberty to do. The kind of work, all human and elastic and suggestive, was capital experience: in picking up things for his bi-weekly letter he would pick up life as well, he would pick up literature. The new publications, the new pictures, the new people — there would be nothing too novel for us and nobody too sacred. We introduced everything and everybody into Mrs. Stannace’s drawing-room, of which I again became a familiar.
Mrs. Stannace, it was true, thought herself in strange company; she didn’t particularly mind the new books, though some of them seemed queer enough, but to the new people she had decided objections. It was notorious however that poor Lady Robeck secretly wrote for one of the papers, and the thing had certainly, in its glance at the doings of the great world, a side that might be made attractive. But we were going to make every side attractive, and we had everything to say about the sort of thing a paper like the Beacon would want. To give it what it would want and to give it nothing else was not doubtless an inspiring, but it was a perfectly respectable task, especially for a man with an appealing bride and a contentious mother-in-law. I thought Lambert’s first letters as charming as the type allowed, though I won’t deny that in spite of my sense of the importance of concessions I was just a trifle disconcerted at the way he had caught the tone. The tone was of course to be caught, but need it have been caught so in the act? The creature was even cleverer, as Maud Stannace said, than she had ventured to hope. Verily it was a good thing to have a dose of the wisdom of the serpent. If it had to be journalism — well, it was journalism. If he had to be “chatty “ — well, he was chatty. Now and then he made a hit that — it was stupid of me — brought the blood to my face. I hated him to be so personal; but still, if it would make his fortune —! It wouldn’t of course directly, but the book would, practically and in the sense to which our pure ideas of fortune were confined; and these things were all for the book. The daily balm meanwhile was in what one knew of the book — there were exquisite things to know; in the quiet monthly cheques from Blackport and in the deeper rose of Maud’s little preparations, which were as dainty, on their tiny scale, as if she had been a humming-bird building a nest. When at the end of three months her betrothed had fairly settled down to his correspondence — in which Mrs. Highmore was the only person, so far as we could discover, disappointed, even she moreover being in this particular tortuous and possibly jealous; when the situation had assumed such a comfortable shape it was quite time to prepare. I published at that moment my first volume, mere faded ink to-day, a little collection of literary impressions, odds and ends of criticism contributed to a journal less remunerative but also less chatty than the Beacon, small ironies and ecstasies, great phrases and mistakes; and the very week it came out poor Limbert devoted half of one of his letters to it, with the happy sense this time of gratifying both himself and me as well as the Blackport breakfast-tables. I remember his saying it wasn’t literature, the stuff, superficial stuff, he had to write about me; but what did that matter if it came back, as we knew, to the making for literature in the roundabout way? I sold the thing, I remember, for ten pounds, and with the money I bought in Vigo Street a quaint piece of old silver for Maud Stannace, which I carried to her with my own hand as a wedding-gift. In her mother’s small drawing-room, a faded bower of photography fenced in and bedimmed by folding screens out of which sallow persons of fashion with dashing signatures looked at you from retouched eyes and little windows of plush, I was left to wait long enough to feel in the air of the house a hushed vibration of disaster. When our young lady came in she was very pale and her eyes too had been retouched.
“Something horrid has happened,” I immediately said; and having really all along but half believed in her mother’s meagre permission I risked with an unguarded groan the introduction of Mrs. Stannace’s name.
“Yes, she has made a dreadful scene; she insists on our putting it off again. We’re very unhappy: poor Ray has been turned off.” Her tears began to flow again.
I had such a good conscience that I stared. “Turned off what?”
“Why, his paper of course. The Beacon has given him what he calls the sack. They don’t like his letters: they’re not the style of thing they want.”
My blankness could only deepen. “Then what style of thing do they want?”
“Something more chatty.”
“More?” I cried, aghast.
“More gossipy, more personal. They want ‘journalism.’ They want tremendous trash.”
“Why, that’s just what his letters have been!” I broke out.
This was strong, and I caught myself up, but the girl offered me the pardon of a beautiful wan smile. “So Ray himself declares. He says he has stooped so low.”
“Very well — he must stoop lower. He must keep the place.”
“He can’t!” poor Maud wailed. “He says he has tried all he knows, has been abject, has gone on all fours, and that if they don’t like that — ”
“He accepts his dismissal?” I interposed in dismay.
She gave a tragic shrug. “What other course is open to him? He wrote to them that such work as he has done is the very worst he can do for the money.”
“Therefore,” I inquired with a flash of hope, “they’ll offer him more for worse?”
“No indeed,” she answered, “they haven’t even offered him to go on at a reduction. He isn’t funny enough.”
I reflected a moment. “But surely such a thing as his notice of my book —!”
“It was your wretched book that was the last straw! He should have treated it superficially.”
“Well, if he didn’t —!” I began. Then I
checked myself. “Je vous porte malheur.”
She didn’t deny this; she only went, on: “What on earth is he to do?”
“He’s to do better than the monkeys! He’s to write!”
“But what on earth are we to marry on?”
I considered once more. “You’re to marry on The Major Key.”
The Major Key was the new novel, and the great thing accordingly was to finish it; a consummation for which three months of the Beacon had in some degree prepared the way. The action of that journal was indeed a shock, but I didn’t know then the worst, didn’t know that in addition to being a shock it was also a symptom. It was the first hint of the difficulty to which poor Limbert was eventually to succumb. His state was the happier of a truth for his not immediately seeing all that it meant. Difficulty was the law of life, but one could thank heaven it was exceptionally present in that horrid quarter. There was the difficulty that inspired, the difficulty of The Major Key to wit, which it was after all base to sacrifice to the turning of somersaults for pennies. These convictions Ray Limbert beguiled his fresh wait by blandly entertaining: not indeed, I think, that the failure of his attempt to be chatty didn’t leave him slightly humiliated. If it was bad enough to have grinned through a horse-collar it was very bad indeed to have grinned in vain. Well, he would try no more grinning or at least no more horse-collars. The only success worth one’s powder was success in the line of one’s idiosyncrasy. Consistency was in itself distinction, and what was talent but the art of being completely whatever it was that one happened to be? One’s things were characteristic or they were nothing. I look back rather fondly on our having exchanged in those days these admirable remarks and many others; on our having been very happy too, in spite of postponements and obscurities, in spite also of such occasional hauntings as could spring from our lurid glimpse of the fact that even twaddle cunningly calculated was far above people’s heads. It was easy to wave away spectres by the reflection that all one had to do was not to write for people; it was certainly not for people that Limbert wrote while he hammered at The Major Key. The taint of literature was fatal only in a certain kind of air, which was precisely the kind against which we had now closed our window. Mrs. Stannace rose from her crumpled cushions as soon as she had obtained an adjournment, and Maud looked pale and proud, quite victorious and superior, at her having obtained nothing more. Maud behaved well, I thought, to her mother, and well indeed for a girl who had mainly been taught to be flowerlike to every one. What she gave Ray Limbert her fine, abundant needs made him then and ever pay for; but the gift was liberal, almost wonderful — an assertion I make even while remembering to how many clever women, early and late, his work has been dear. It was not only that the woman he was to marry was in love with him, but that (this was the strangeness) she had really seen almost better than any one what he could do. The greatest strangeness was that she didn’t want him to do something different. This boundless belief was indeed the main way of her devotion; and as an act of faith it naturally asked for miracles. She was a rare wife for a poet if she was not perhaps the best who could have been picked out for a poor man.
Well, we were to have the miracles at all events and we were in a perfect state of mind to receive them. There were more of us every day, and we thought highly even of our friend’s odd jobs and pot-boilers. The Beacon had had no successor, but he found some quiet comers and stray chances. Perpetually poking the fire and looking out of the window, he was certainly not a monster of facility, but he was, thanks perhaps to a certain method in that madness, a monster of certainty. It wasn’t every one however who knew him for this: many editors printed him but once. He was getting a small reputation as a man it was well to have the first time; he created obscure apprehensions as to what might happen the second. He was good for making an impression, but no one seemed exactly to know what the impression was good for when made. The reason was simply that they had not seen yet The Major Key that fiery-hearted rose as to which we watched in private the formation of petal after petal and flame after flame. Nothing mattered but this, for it had already elicited a splendid bid, much talked about in Mrs. High-more’s drawing-room, where at this point my reminiscences grow particularly thick. Her roses bloomed all the year and her sociability increased with her row of prizes. We had an idea that we “met every one” there — so we naturally thought when we met each other. Between our hostess and Ray Limbert flourished the happiest relation, the only cloud on which was that her husband eyed him rather askance. When he was called clever this personage wanted to know what he had to “show;” and it was certain that he showed nothing that could compare with Jane Highmore. Mr. Highmore took his stand on accomplished work and, turning up his coat-tails, warmed his rear with a good conscience at the neat bookcase in which the generations of triplets were chronologically arranged. The harmony between his companions rested on the fact that, as I have already hinted, each would have liked so much to be the other. Limbert couldn’t but have a feeling about a woman who in addition to being the best creature and her sister’s backer would have made, could she have condescended, such a success with the Beacon. On the other hand Mrs. Highmore used freely to say: “Do you know, he’ll do exactly the thing that I want to do? I shall never do it myself, but he’ll do it instead. Yes, he’ll do my thing, and I shall hate him for it — the wretch.” Hating him was her pleasant humour, for the wretch was personally to her taste.
She prevailed on her own publisher to promise to take The Major Key and to engage to pay a considerable sum down, as the phrase is, on the presumption of its attracting attention. This was good news for the evening’s end at Mrs. Highmore’s when there were only four or five left and cigarettes ran low; but there was better news to come, and I have never forgotten how, as it was I who had the good fortune to bring it, I kept it back on one of those occasions, for the sake of my effect, till only the right people remained. The right people were now more and more numerous, but this was a revelation addressed only to a choice residuum — a residuum including of course Limbert himself, with whom I haggled for another cigarette before I announced that as a consequence of an interview I had had with him that afternoon, and of a subtle argument I had brought to bear, Mrs. Highmore’s pearl of publishers had agreed to put forth the new book as a serial. He was to “run” it in his magazine and he was to pay ever so much more for the privilege. I produced a fine gasp which presently found a more articulate relief, but poor Limbert’s voice failed him once for all (he knew he was to walk away with me) and it was some one else who asked me in what my subtle argument had resided. I forget what florid description I then gave of it: to-day I have no reason not to confess that it had resided in the simple plea that the book was exquisite. I had said: “Come, my dear friend, be original; just risk it for that!” My dear friend seemed to rise to the chance, and I followed up my advantage, permitting him honestly no illusion as to the quality of the work. He clutched interrogatively at two or three attenuations, but I dashed them aside, leaving him face to face with the formidable truth. It was just a pure gem: was he the man not to flinch? His danger appeared to have acted upon him as the anaconda acts upon the rabbit; fascinated and paralysed, he had been engulfed in the long pink throat. When a week before, at my request, Limbert had let me possess for a day the complete manuscript, beautifully copied out by Maud Stannace, I had flushed with indignation at its having to be said of the author of such pages that he hadn’t the common means to marry. I had taken the field in a great glow to repair this scandal, and it was therefore quite directly my fault if three months later, when The Major Key began to run, Mrs. Stannace was driven to the wall. She had made a condition of a fixed income; and at last a fixed income was achieved.
She had to recognise it, and after much prostration among the photographs she recognised it to the extent of accepting some of the convenience of it in the form of a project for a common household, to the expenses of which each party should proportionately contribute. Jane Highmore made a great point of her not being left alone, but Mrs. Stannace herself determined the proportion, which on Limbert’s side at least and in spite of many other fluctuations was never altered. His income had been “fixed” with a vengeance: having painfully stooped to the comprehension of it Mrs. Stannace rested on this effort to the end and asked no further question on the subject. The Major Key in other words ran ever so long, and before it was half out Limbert and Maud had been married and the common household set up. These first months were probably the happiest in the family annals, with wedding-bells and budding laurels, the quiet, assured course of the book and the friendly, familiar note, round the corner, of Mrs. Highmore’s big guns. They gave Ralph time to block in another picture as well as to let me know after a while that he had the happy prospect of becoming a father. We had at times some dispute as to whether The Major Key was making an impression, but our contention could only be futile so long as we were not agreed as to what an impression consisted of. Several persons wrote to the author and several others asked to be introduced to him: wasn’t that an impression? One of the lively “weeklies,” snapping at the deadly “monthlies,” said the whole thing was “grossly inartistic” — wasn’t that? It was somewhere else proclaimed “a wonderfully subtle character-study” — wasn’t that too? The strongest effect doubtless was produced on the publisher when, in its lemon-coloured volumes, like a little dish of three custards, the book was at last served cold: he never got his money back and so far as I know has never got it back to this day. The Major Key was rather a great performance than a great success. It converted readers into friends and friends into lovers; it placed the author, as the phrase is — placed him all too definitely; but it shrank to obscurity in the account of sales eventually rendered. It was in short an exquisite thing, but it was scarcely a thing to have published and certainly not a thing to have married on. I heard all about the matter, for my intervention had much exposed me. Mrs. Highmore said the second volume had given her ideas, and the ideas are probably to be found in some of her works, to the circulation of which they have even perhaps contributed. This was not absolutely yet the very thing she wanted to do, but it was on the way to it. So much, she informed me, she particularly perceived in the light of a critical study which I put forth in a little magazine; which the publisher in his advertisements quoted from profusely; and as to which there sprang up some absurd story that Limbert himself had written it. I remember that on my asking some one why such an idiotic thing had been said my interlocutor replied: “Oh, because, you know, it’s just the way he would have written!” My spirit sank a little perhaps as I reflected that with such analogies in our manner there might prove to be some in our fate.
It was during the next four or five years that our eyes were open to what, unless something could be done, that fate, at least on Limbert’s part, might be. The thing to be done was of course to write the book, the book that would make the difference, really justify the burden he had accepted and consummately express his power. For the works that followed upon The Major Key he had inevitably to accept conditions the reverse of brilliant, at a time too when the strain upon his resources had begun to show sharpness. With three babies in due course, an ailing wife and a complication still greater than these, it became highly important that a man should do only his best. Whatever Limbert did was his best; so at least each time I thought and so I unfailingly said somewhere, though it was not my saying it, heaven knows, that made the desired difference. Every one else indeed said it, and there was among multiplied worries always the comfort that his position was quite assured. The two books that followed The Major Key did more than anything else to assure it, and Jane Highmore was always crying out: “You stand alone, dear Ray; you stand absolutely alone!” Dear Ray used to tell me that he felt the truth of this in feebly attempted discussions with his bookseller. His sister-in-law gave him good advice into the bargain; she was a repository of knowing hints, of esoteric learning. These things were doubtless not the less valuable to him for bearing wholly on the question of how a reputation might be with a little gumption, as Mrs. Highmore said, “worked.” Save when she occasionally bore testimony to her desire to do, as Limbert did, something some day for her own very self, I never heard her speak of the literary motive as if it were distinguishable from the pecuniary. She cocked up his hat, she pricked up his prudence for him, reminding him that as one seemed to take one’s self so the silly world was ready to take one. It was a fatal mistake to be too candid even with those who were all right — not to look and to talk prosperous, not at least to pretend that one had beautiful sales. To listen to her you would have thought the profession of letters a wonderful game of bluff. Wherever one’s idea began it ended somehow in inspired paragraphs in the newspapers. “I pretend, I assure you, that you are going off like wildfire — I can at least do that for you!” she often declared, prevented as she was from doing much else by Mr. Highmore’s insurmountable objection to their taking Mrs. Stannace.
I couldn’t help regarding the presence of this latter lady in Limbert’s life as the major complication: whatever he attempted it appeared given to him to achieve as best he could in the mere margin of the space in which she swung her petticoats. I may err in the belief that she practically lived on him, for though it was not in him to follow adequately Mrs. Highmore’s counsel there were exasperated confessions he never made, scanty domestic curtains he rattled on their rings. I may exaggerate in the retrospect his apparent anxieties, for these after all were the years when his talent was freshest and when as a writer he most laid down his line. It wasn’t of Mrs. Stannace nor even as time went on of Mrs. Limbert that we mainly talked when I got at longer intervals a smokier hour in the little grey den from which we could step out, as we used to say, to the lawn. The lawn was the back-garden, and Limbert’s study was behind the dining-room, with folding doors not impervious to the clatter of the children’s tea. We sometimes took refuge from it in the depths — a bush and a half deep — of the shrubbery, where was a bench that gave us a view while we gossiped of Mrs. Stannace’s tiara-like headdress nodding at an upper window. Within doors and without Limbert’s life was overhung by an awful region that figured in his conversation, comprehensively and with unpremeditated art, as Upstairs. It was Upstairs that the thunder gathered, that Mrs. Stannace kept her accounts and her state, that Mrs. Limbert had her babies and her headaches, that the bells for ever jangled at the maids, that everything imperative in short took place — everything that he had somehow, pen in hand, to meet and dispose of in the little room on the garden-level. I don’t think he liked to go Upstairs, but no special burst of confidence was needed to make me feel that a terrible deal of service went. It was the habit of the ladies of the Stannace family to be extremely waited on, and I’ve never been in a house where three maids and a nursery-governess gave such an impression of a retinue. “Oh, they’re so deucedly, so hereditarily fine!” — I remember how that dropped from him in some worried hour. Well, it was because Maud was so universally fine that we had both been in love with her. It was not an air moreover for the plaintive note: no private inconvenience could long outweigh for him the great happiness of these years — the happiness that sat with us when we talked and that made it always amusing to talk, the sense of his being on the heels of success, coming closer and closer, touching it at last, knowing that he should touch it again and hold it fast and hold it high. Of course when we said success we didn’t mean exactly what Mrs. Highmore for instance meant. He used to quote at me as a definition something from a nameless page of my own, some stray dictum to the effect that the man of his craft had achieved it when of a beautiful subject his expression was complete. Well, wasn’t Limbert’s in all conscience complete?
It was bang upon this completeness all the same that the turn arrived, the turn I can’t say of his fortune — for what was that? — but of his confidence, of his spirits and, what was more to the point, of his system. The whole occasion on which the first symptom flared out is before me as I write. I had met them both at dinner: they were diners who had reached the penultimate stage — the stage which in theory is a rigid selection and in practice a wan submission. It was late in the season and stronger spirits than theirs were broken; the night was close and the air of the banquet such as to restrict conversation to the refusal of dishes and consumption to the sniffing of a flower. It struck me all the more that Mrs. Limbert was flying her flag. As vivid as a page of her husband’s prose, she had one of those flickers of freshness that are the miracle of her sex and one of those expensive dresses that are the miracle of ours. She had also a neat brougham in which she had offered to rescue an old lady from the possibilities of a queer cab-horse; so that when she had rolled away with her charge I proposed a walk home with her husband, whom I had overtaken on the doorstep. Before I had gone far with him he told me he had news for me — he had accepted, of all people and of all things, an “editorial position.” It had come to pass that very day, from one hour to another, without time for appeals or ponderations: Mr. Bousefield, the proprietor of a “high-class monthly,” making, as they said, a sudden change, had dropped on him heavily out of the blue. It was all right — there was a salary and an idea, and both of them, as such things went, rather high. We took our way slowly through the vacant streets, and in the explanations and revelations that as we lingered under lamp-posts I drew from him I found with an apprehension that I tried to gulp down a foretaste of the bitter end. He told me more than he had ever told me yet. He couldn’t balance accounts — that was the trouble: his expenses were too rising a tide. It was absolutely necessary that he should at last make money, and now he must work only for that. The need this last year had gathered the force of a crusher: it had rolled over him and laid him on his back. He had his scheme; this time he knew what he was about; on some good occasion, with leisure to talk it over, he would tell me the blessed whole. His editorship would help him, and for the rest he must help himself. If he couldn’t they would have to do something fundamental — change their life altogether, give up London, move into the country, take a house at thirty pounds a year, send their children to the Board-school. I saw that he was excited, and he admitted that he was: he had waked out of a trance. He had been on the wrong tack; he had piled mistake on mistake. It was the vision of his remedy that now excited him: ineffably, grotesquely simple, it had yet come to him only within a day or two. No, he wouldn’t tell me what it was; he would give me the night to guess, and if I shouldn’t guess it would be because I was as big an ass as himself. However, a lone man might be an ass: he had room in his life for his ears. Ray had a burden that demanded a back: the back must therefore now be properly instituted. As to the editorship, it was simply heaven-sent, being not at all another case of The Blackport Beacon but a case of the very opposite. The proprietor, the great Mr. Bousefield, had approached him precisely because his name, which was to be on the cover, didn’t represent the chatty. The whole thing was to be — oh, on fiddling little lines of course — a protest against the chatty. Bousefield wanted him to be himself; it was for himself Bousefield had picked him out. Wasn’t it beautiful and brave of Bousefield? He wanted literature, he saw the great reaction coming, the way the cat was going to jump. “Where will you get literature?” I wofully asked; to which he replied with a laugh that what he had to get was not literature but only what Bousefield would take for it.
In that single phrase without more ado I discovered his famous remedy. What was before him for the future was not to do his work but to do what somebody else would take for it. I had the question out with him on the next opportunity, and of all the lively discussions into which we had been destined to drift it lingers in my mind as the liveliest. This was not, I hasten to add, because I disputed his conclusions: it was an effect of the very force with which, when I had fathomed his wretched premises, I took them to my soul. It was very well to talk with Jane Highmore about his standing alone: the eminent relief of this position had brought him to the verge of ruin. Several persons admired his books — nothing was less contestable; but they appeared to have a mortal objection to acquiring them by subscription or by purchase: they begged or borrowed or stole, they delegated one of the party perhaps to commit the volumes to memory and repeat them, like the bards of old, to listening multitudes. Some ingenious theory was required at any rate to account for the inexorable limits of his circulation. It wasn’t a thing for five people to live on; therefore either the objects circulated must change their nature or the organisms to be nourished must. The former change was perhaps the easier to consider first. Limbert considered it with extraordinary ingenuity from that time on, and the ingenuity, greater even than any I had yet had occasion to admire in him, made the whole next stage of his career rich in curiosity and suspense.
“I have been butting my skull against a wall,” he had said in those hours of confidence; “and, to be as sublime a blockhead, if you’ll allow me the word, you, my dear fellow, have kept sounding the charge. We’ve sat prating here of ‘success,’ heaven help us, like chanting monks in a cloister, hugging the sweet delusion that it lies somewhere in the work itself, in the expression, as you said, of one’s subject or the intensification, as somebody else somewhere says, of one’s note. One has been going on in short as if the only thing to do were to accept the law of one’s talent and thinking that if certain consequences didn’t follow it was only because one wasn’t logical enough. My disaster has served me right — I mean for using that ignoble word at all. It’s a mere distributor’s, a mere hawker’s word. What is ‘success’ anyhow? When a book’s right, it’s right — shame to it surely if it isn’t. When it sells it sells — it brings money like potatoes or beer. If there’s dishonour one way and inconvenience the other, it certainly is comfortable, but it as certainly isn’t glorious to have escaped them. People of delicacy don’t brag either about their probity or about their luck. Success be hanged! — I want to sell. It’s a question of life and death. I must study the way. I’ve studied too much the other way — I know the other way now, every inch of it. I must cultivate the market — it’s a science like another. I must go in for an infernal cunning. It will be very amusing, I foresee that; I shall lead a dashing life and drive a roaring trade. I haven’t been obvious — I must be obvious. I haven’t been popular — I must be popular. It’s another art — or perhaps it isn’t an art at all. It’s something else; one must find out what it is. Is it something awfully queer? — you blush! — something barely decent? All the greater incentive to curiosity! Curiosity’s an immense motive; we shall have tremendous sport. They all do it; it’s only a question of how. Of course I’ve everything to unlearn; but what is life, as Jane Highmore says, but a lesson? I must get all I can, all she can give me, from Jane. She can’t explain herself much; she’s all intuition; her processes are obscure; it’s the spirit that swoops down and catches her up. But I must study her reverently in her works. Yes, you’ve defied me before, but now my loins are girded: I declare I’ll read one of them — I really will: I’ll put it through if I perish!”
I won’t pretend that he made all these remarks at once; but there wasn’t one that he didn’t make at one time or another, for suggestion and occasion were plentiful enough, his life being now given up altogether to his new necessity. It wasn’t a question of his having or not having, as they say, my intellectual sympathy: the brute force of the pressure left no room for judgment; it made all emotion a mere recourse to the spyglass. I watched him as I should have watched a long race or a long chase, irresistibly siding with him but much occupied with the calculation of odds. I confess indeed that my heart, for the endless stretch that he covered so fast, was often in my throat. I saw him peg away over the sun-dappled plain, I saw him double and wind and gain and lose; and all the while I secretly entertained a conviction. I wanted him to feed his many mouths, but at the bottom of all things was my sense that if he should succeed in doing so in this particular way I should think less well of him. Now I had an absolute terror of that. Meanwhile so far as I could I backed him up, I helped him: all the more that I had warned him immensely at first, smiled with a compassion it was very good of him not to have found exasperating over the complacency of his assumption that a man could escape from himself. Ray Limbert at all events would certainly never escape; but one could make believe for him, make believe very hard — an undertaking in which at first Mr. Bousefield was visibly a blessing. Limbert was delightful on the business of this being at last my chance too — my chance, so miraculously vouchsafed, to appear with a certain luxuriance. He didn’t care how often he printed me, for wasn’t it exactly in my direction Mr. Bousefield held that the cat was going to jump? This was the least he could do for me. I might write on anything I liked — on anything at least but Mr. Limbert’s second manner. He didn’t wish attention strikingly called to his second manner; it was to operate insidiously; people were to be left to believe they had discovered it long ago. “Ralph Limbert? Why, when did we ever live without him?” — that’s what he wanted them to say. Besides, they hated manners — let sleeping dogs lie. His understanding with Mr. Bousefield — on which he had had not at all to insist; it was the excellent man who insisted — was that he should run one of his beautiful stories in the magazine. As to the beauty of his story however Limbert was going to be less admirably straight than as to the beauty of everything else. That was another reason why I mustn’t write about his new line: Mr. Bousefield was not to be too definitely warned that such a periodical was exposed to prostitution. By the time he should find it out for himself the public — le gros public — would have bitten, and then perhaps he would be conciliated and forgive. Everything else would be literary in short, and above all I would be; only Ralph Limbert wouldn’t — he’d chuck up the whole thing sooner. He’d be vulgar, he’d be rudimentary, he’d be atrocious: he’d be elaborately what he hadn’t been before. I duly noticed that he had more trouble in making “everything else” literary than he had at first allowed for; but this was largely counteracted by the ease with which he was able to obtain that his mark should not be overshot. He had taken well to heart the old lesson of the Beacon; he remembered that he was after all there to keep his contributors down much rather than to keep them up. I thought at times that he kept them down a trifle too far, but he assured me that I needn’t be nervous: he had his limit — his limit was inexorable. He would reserve pure vulgarity for his serial, over which he was sweating blood and water; elsewhere it should be qualified by the prime qualification, the mediocrity that attaches, that endears. Bousefield, he allowed, was proud, was difficult: nothing was really good enough for him but the middling good; but he himself was prepared for adverse comment, resolute for his noble course. Hadn’t Limbert moreover in the event of a charge of laxity from headquarters the great strength of being able to point to my contributions? Therefore I must let myself go, I must abound in my peculiar sense, I must be a resource in case of accidents. Lim-bert’s vision of accidents hovered mainly over the sudden awakening of Mr. Bousefield to the stuff that in the department of fiction his editor was palming off. He would then have to confess in all humility that this was not what the good old man wanted, but I should be all the more there as a salutary specimen. I would cross the scent with something showily impossible, splendidly unpopular — I must be sure to have something on hand. I always had plenty on hand — poor Limbert needn’t have worried: the magazine was forearmed each month by my care with a retort to any possible accusation of trifling with Mr. Bousefield’s standard. He had admitted to Limbert, after much consideration indeed, that he was prepared to be perfectly human; but he had added that he was not prepared for an abuse of this admission. The thing in the world I think I least felt myself was an abuse, even though (as I had never mentioned to my friendly editor) I too had my project for a bigger reverberation. I daresay I trusted mine more than I trusted Limbert’s; at all events the golden mean in which in the special case he saw his salvation as an editor was something I should be most sure of if I were to exhibit it myself. I exhibited it month after month in the form of a monstrous levity, only praying heaven that my editor might now not tell me, as he had so often told me, that my result was awfully good. I knew what that would signify — it would signify, sketchily speaking, disaster. What he did tell me heartily was that it was just what his game required: his new line had brought with it an earnest assumption — earnest save when we privately laughed about it — of the locutions proper to real bold enterprise. If I tried to keep him in the dark even as he kept Mr. Bousefield there was nothing to show that I was not tolerably successful: each case therefore presented a promising analogy for the other. He never noticed my descent, and it was accordingly possible that Mr. Bousefield would never notice his.
But would nobody notice it at all? — that was a question that added a prospective zest to one’s possession of a critical sense. So much depended upon it that I was rather relieved than otherwise not to know the answer too soon. I waited in fact a year — the year for which Limbert had cannily engaged on trial with Mr. Bousefield; the year as to which through the same sharpened shrewdness it had been conveyed in the agreement between them that Mr. Bousefield was not to intermeddle. It had been Limbert’s general prayer that we would during this period let him quite alone. His terror of my direct rays was a droll, dreadful force that always operated: he explained it by the fact that I understood him too well, expressed too much of his intention, saved him too little from himself. The less he was saved the more he didn’t sell: I literally interpreted, and that was simply fatal.
I held my breath accordingly; I did more — I closed my eyes, I guarded my treacherous ears. He induced several of us to do that (of such devotions we were capable) so that not even glancing at the thing from month to month, and having nothing but his shamed, anxious silence to go by, I participated only vaguely in the little hum that surrounded his act of sacrifice. It was blown about the town that the public would be surprised; it was hinted, it was printed that he was making a desperate bid. His new work was spoken of as “more calculated for general acceptance.” These tidings produced in some quarters much reprobation, and nowhere more, I think, than on the part of certain persons who had never read a word of him, or assuredly had never spent a shilling on him, and who hung for hours over the other attractions of the newspaper that announced his abasement. So much asperity cheered me a little — seemed to signify that he might really be doing something. On the other hand I had a distinct alarm; some one sent me for some alien reason an American journal (containing frankly more than that source of affliction) in which was quoted a passage from our friend’s last instalment. The passage — I couldn’t for my life help reading it — was simply superb. Ah, he would have to move to the country if that was the worst he could do! It gave me a pang to see how little after all he had improved since the days of his competition with Pat Moyle. There was nothing in the passage quoted in the American paper that Pat would for a moment have owned. During the last weeks, as the opportunity of reading the complete thing drew near, one’s suspense was barely endurable, and I shall never forget the July evening on which I put it to rout. Coming home to dinner I found the two volumes on my table, and I sat up with them half the night, dazed, bewildered, rubbing my eyes, wondering at the monstrous joke. Was it a monstrous joke, his second manner — was this the new line, the desperate bid, the scheme for more general acceptance and the remedy for material failure? Had he made a fool of all his following, or had he most injuriously made a still bigger fool of himself? Obvious? — where the deuce was it obvious? Popular? — how on earth could it be popular? The thing was charming with all his charm and powerful with all his power: it was an unscrupulous, an unsparing, a shameless, merciless masterpiece. It was, no doubt, like the old letters to the Beacon, the worst he could do; but the perversity of the effort, even though heroic, had been frustrated by the purity of the gift. Under what illusion had he laboured, with what wavering, treacherous compass had he steered? His honour was inviolable, his measurements were all wrong. I was thrilled with the whole impression and with all that came crowding in its train. It was too grand a collapse — it was too hideous a triumph; I exalted almost with tears — I lamented with a strange delight. Indeed as the short night waned and, threshing about in my emotion, I fidgeted to my high-perched window for a glimpse of the summer dawn, I became at last aware that I was staring at it out of eyes that had compassionately and admiringly filled. The eastern sky, over the London housetops, had a wonderful tragic crimson. That was the colour of his magnificent mistake.
If something less had depended on my impression I daresay I should have communicated it as soon as I had swallowed my breakfast; but the case was so embarrassing that I spent the first half of the day in reconsidering it, dipping into the book again, almost feverishly turning its leaves and trying to extract from them, for my friend’s benefit, some symptom of reassurance, some ground for felicitation. This rash challenge had consequences merely dreadful; the wretched volumes, imperturbable and impeccable, with their shyer secrets and their second line of defence, were like a beautiful woman more denuded or a great symphony on a new hearing. There was something quite sinister in the way they stood up to me. I couldn’t however be dumb — that was to give the wrong tinge to my disappointment; so that later in the afternoon, taking my courage in both hands, I approached with a vain tortuosity poor Limbert’s door. A smart victoria waited before it in which from the bottom of the street I saw that a lady who had apparently just issued from the house was settling herself. I recognised Jane Highmore and instantly paused till she should drive down to me. She presently met me half-way and as soon as she saw me stopped her carriage in agitation. This was a relief — it postponed a moment the sight of that pale, fine face of our friend’s fronting me for the right verdict. I gathered from the flushed eagerness with which Mrs. Highmore asked me if I had heard the news that a verdict of some sort had already been rendered.
“What news? — about the book?”
“About that horrid magazine. They’re shockingly upset. He has lost his position — he has had a fearful flare-up with Mr. Bousefield.”
I stood there blank, but not unaware in my blankness of how history repeats itself. There came to me across the years Maud’s announcement of their ejection from the Beacon, and dimly, confusedly the same explanation was in the air. This time however I had been on my guard; I had had my suspicion. “He has made it too flippant?” I found breath after an instant to inquire.
Mrs. Highmore’s vacuity exceeded my own. “Too ‘flippant’? He has made it too oracular. Mr. Bousefield says he has killed it.” Then perceiving my stupefaction: “Don’t you know what has happened?” she pursued; “isn’t it because in his trouble, poor love, he has sent for you that you’ve come? You’ve heard nothing at all? Then you had better know before you see them. Get in here with me — I’ll take you a turn and tell you.” We were close to the Park, the Regent’s, and when with extreme alacrity I had placed myself beside her and the carriage had begun to enter it she went on: “It was what I feared, you know. It reeked with culture. He keyed it up too high.”
I felt myself sinking in the general collapse. “What are you talking about?”
“Why, about that beastly magazine. They’re all on the streets. I shall have to take mamma.”
I pulled myself together. “What on earth then did Bousefield want? He said he wanted intellectual power.”
“Yes, but Ray overdid it.”
“Why, Bousefield said it was a thing he couldn’t overdo.”
“Well, Ray managed: he took Mr. Bousefield too literally. It appears the thing has been doing dreadfully, but the proprietor couldn’t say anything, because he had covenanted to leave the editor quite free. He describes himself as having stood there in a fever and seen his ship go down. A day or two ago the year was up, so he could at last break out. Maud says he did break out quite fearfully; he came to the house and let poor Ray have it. Ray gave it to him back; he reminded him of his own idea of the way the cat was going to jump.”
I gasped with dismay. “Has Bousefield abandoned that idea? Isn’t the cat going to jump?”
Mrs. Highmore hesitated. “It appears that she doesn’t seem in a hurry. Ray at any rate has jumped too far ahead of her. He should have temporised a little, Mr. Bousefield says; but I’m beginning to think, you know,” said my companion, “that Ray can’t temporise.” Fresh from my emotions of the previous twenty-four hours I was scarcely in a position to disagree with her. “He published too much pure thought.”
“Pure thought?” I cried. “Why, it struck me so often — certainly in a due proportion of cases — as pure drivel!”
“Oh, you’re more keyed up than he! Mr. Bousefield says that of course he wanted things that were suggestive and clever, things that he could point to with pride. But he contends that Ray didn’t allow for human weakness. He gave everything in too stiff doses.”
Sensibly, I fear, to my neighbour I winced at her words; I felt a prick that made me meditate. Then I said: “Is that, by chance, the way he gave me?” Mrs. Highmore remained silent so long that I had somehow the sense of a fresh pang; and after a minute, turning in my seat, I laid my hand on her arm, fixed my eyes upon her face and pursued pressingly: “Do you suppose it to be to my ‘Occasional Remarks’ that Mr. Bousefield refers?”
At last she met my look. “Can you bear to hear it?”
“I think I can bear anything now.”
“Well then, it was really what I wanted to give you an inkling of. It’s largely over you that they’ve quarrelled. Mr. Bousefield wants him to chuck you.”
I grabbed her arm again. “And Limbert won’t?”
“He seems to cling to you. Mr. Bousefield says no magazine can afford you.”
I gave a laugh that agitated the very coachman. “Why, my dear lady, has he any idea of my price?”
“It isn’t your price — he says you’re dear at any price; you do so much to sink the ship. Your ‘Remarks’ are called ‘Occasional,’ but nothing could be more deadly regular: you’re there month after month and you’re never anywhere else. And you supply no public want.”
“I supply the most delicious irony.”
“So Ray appears to have declared. Mr. Bousefield says that’s not in the least a public want. No one can make out what you’re talking about and no one would care if he could. I’m only quoting him, mind.”
“Quote, quote — if Limbert holds out. I think I must leave you now, please: I must rush back to express to him what I feel.”
“I’ll drive you to his door. That isn’t all,” said Mrs. Highmore. And on the way, when the carriage had turned, she communicated the rest. “Mr. Bousefield really arrived with an ultimatum: it had the form of something or other by Minnie Meadows.”
“Minnie Meadows?” I was stupefied.
“The new lady-humourist every one is talking about. It’s the first of a series of screaming sketches for which poor Ray was to find a place.” “Is that Mr. Bousefield’s idea of literature?” “No, but he says it’s the public’s, and you’ve got to take some account of the public. Aux grands maux les grands remèdes. They had a tremendous lot of ground to make up, and no one would make it up like Minnie. She would be the best concession they could make to human weakness; she would strike at least this note of showing that it was not going to be quite all — well, all you. Now Ray draws the line at Minnie; he won’t stoop to Minnie; he declines to touch, to look at Minnie. When Mr. Bousefield — rather imperiously, I believe — made Minnie a sine quâ non of his retention of his post he said something rather violent, told him to go to some unmentionable place and take Minnie with him. That of course put the fat on the fire. They had really a considerable scene.”
“So had he with the Beacon man,” I musingly replied. “Poor dear, he seems born for considerable scenes! It’s on Minnie, then, that they’ve really split?” Mrs. Highmore exhaled her despair in a sound which I took for an assent, and when we had rolled a little further I rather in-consequently and to her visible surprise broke out of my reverie. “It will never do in the world — he must stoop to Minnie!”
“It’s too late — and what I’ve told you still isn’t all. Mr. Bousefield raises another objection.”
“What other, pray?”
“Can’t you guess?”
I wondered. “No more of Ray’s fiction?”
“Not a line. That’s something else no magazine can stand. Now that his novel has run its course Mr. Bousefield is distinctly disappointed.”
I fairly bounded in my place. “Then it may do?”
Mrs. Highmore looked bewildered. “Why so, if he finds it too dull?”
“Dull? Ralph Limbert? He’s as fine as a needle!”
“It comes to the same thing — he won’t penetrate leather. Mr. Bousefield had counted on something that would, on something that would have a wider acceptance. Ray says he wants iron pegs.” I collapsed again; my flicker of elation dropped to a throb of quieter comfort; and after a moment’s silence I asked my neighbour if she had herself read the work our friend had just put forth. “No,” she replied, “I gave him my word at the beginning, on his urgent request, that I wouldn’t.”
“Not even as a book?”
“He begged me never to look at it at all. He said he was trying a low experiment. Of course I knew what he meant and I entreated him to let me just for curiosity take a peep. But he was firm, he declared he couldn’t bear the thought that a woman like me should see him in the depths.”
“He’s only, thank God, in the depths of distress,” I replied. “His experiment’s nothing worse than a failure.”
“Then Bousefield is right — his circulation won’t budge?”
“It won’t move one, as they say in Fleet Street. The book has extraordinary beauty.”
“Poor duck — after trying so hard!” Jane Highmore sighed with real tenderness. “What will then become of them?”
I was silent an instant. “You must take your mother.”
She was silent too. “I must speak of it to Cecil!” she presently said. Cecil is Mr. Highmore, who then entertained, I knew, strong views on the inadjustability of circumstances in general to the idiosyncrasies of Mrs. Stannace. He held it supremely happy that in an important relation she should have met her match. Her match was Ray Limbert — not much of a writer but a practical man. “The dear things still think, you know,” my companion continued, “that the book will be the beginning of their fortune. Their illusion, if you’re right, will be rudely dispelled.”
“That’s what makes me dread to face them. I’ve just spent with his volumes an unforgettable night. His illusion has lasted because so many of us have been pledged till this moment to turn our faces the other way. We haven’t known the truth and have therefore had nothing to say. Now that we do know it indeed we have practically quite as little. I hang back from the threshold. How can I follow up with a burst of enthusiasm such a catastrophe as Mr. Bousefield’s visit?”
As I turned uneasily about my neighbour more comfortably snuggled. “Well, I’m glad then I haven’t read him and have nothing unpleasant to say!” We had come back to Limbert’s door, and I made the coachman stop short of it. “But he’ll try again, with that determination of his: he’ll build his hopes on the next time.”
“On what else has he built them from the very first? It’s never the present for him that bears the fruit; that’s always postponed and for somebody else: there has always to be another try. I admit that his idea of a ‘new line’ has made him try harder than ever. It makes no difference,” I brooded, still timorously lingering; “his achievement of his necessity, his hope of a market will continue to attach themselves to the future. But the next time will disappoint him as each last time has done — and then the next and the next and the next!”
I found myself seeing it all with a clearness almost inspired: it evidently cast a chill on Mrs. Highmore. “Then what on earth will become of him?” she plaintively asked.
“I don’t think I particularly care what may become of him,” I returned with a conscious, reckless increase of my exaltation; “I feel it almost enough to be concerned with what may become of one’s enjoyment of him. I don’t know in short what will become of his circulation; I am only quite at my ease as to what will become of his work. It will simply keep all its quality. He’ll try again for the common with what he’ll believe to be a still more infernal cunning, and again the common will fatally elude him, for his infernal cunning will have been only his genius in an ineffectual disguise.” We sat drawn up by the pavement, facing poor Limbert’s future as I saw it. It relieved me in a manner to know the worst, and I prophesied with an assurance which as I look back upon it strikes me as rather remarkable. “Que voulez-vous?” I went on; “you can’t make a sow’s ear of a silk purse! It’s grievous indeed if you like — there are people who can’t be vulgar for trying. He can’t — it wouldn’t come off, I promise you, even once. It takes more than trying — it comes by grace. It happens not to be given to Limbert to fall. He belongs to the heights — he breathes there, he lives there, and it’s accordingly to the heights I must ascend,” I said as I took leave of my conductress, “to carry him this wretched news from where we move!”
A few months were sufficient to show how right I had been about his circulation. It didn’t move one, as I had said; it stopped short in the same place, fell off in a sheer descent, like some precipice gaped up at by tourists. The public in other words drew the line for him as sharply as he had drawn it for Minnie Meadows. Minnie has skipped with a flouncing caper over his line, however; whereas the mark traced by a lustier cudgel has been a barrier insurmountable to Limbert. Those next times I had spoken of to Jane Highmore, I see them simplified by retrocession. Again and again he made his desperate bid — again and again he tried to. His rupture with Mr. Bousefield caused him, I fear, in professional circles to be thought impracticable, and I am perfectly aware, to speak candidly, that no sordid advantage ever accrued to him from such public patronage of my performances as he had occasionally been in a position to offer. I reflect for my comfort that any injury I may have done him by untimely application of a faculty of analysis which could point to no converts gained by honourable exercise was at least equalled by the injury he did himself. More than once, as I have hinted, I held my tongue at his request, but my frequent plea that such favours weren’t politic never found him, when in other connections there was an opportunity to give me a lift, anything but indifferent to the danger of the association. He let them have me in a word whenever he could; sometimes in periodicals in which he had credit, sometimes only at dinner. He talked about me when he couldn’t get me in, but it was always part of the bargain that I shouldn’t make him a topic. “How can I successfully serve you if you do?” he used to ask: he was more afraid than I thought he ought to have been of the charge of tit for tat. I didn’t care, for I never could distinguish tat from tit; but as I have intimated I dropped into silence really more than anything else because there was a certain fascinated observation of his course which was quite testimony enough and to which in this huddled conclusion of it he practically reduced me.
I see it all foreshortened, his wonderful remainder — see it from the end backward, with the direction widening toward me as if on a level with the eye. The migration to the country promised him at first great things — smaller expenses, larger leisure, conditions eminently conducive on each occasion to the possible triumph of the next time. Mrs. Stannace, who altogether disapproved of it, gave as one of her reasons that her son-in-law, living mainly in a village on the edge of a goose-green, would be deprived of that contact with the great world which was indispensable to the painter of manners. She had the showiest arguments for keeping him in touch, as she called it, with good society; wishing to know with some force where, from the moment he ceased to represent it from observation, the novelist could be said to be. In London fortunately a clever man was just a clever man; there were charming houses in which a person of Ray’s undoubted ability, even though without the knack of making the best use of it, could always be sure of a quiet corner for watching decorously the social kaleidoscope. But the kaleidoscope of the goose-green, what in the world was that, and what such delusive thrift as drives about the land (with a fearful account for flys from the inn) to leave cards on the country magnates? This solicitude for Limbert’s subject-matter was the specious colour with which, deeply determined not to affront mere tolerance in a cottage, Mrs. Stannace overlaid her indisposition to place herself under the heel of Cecil Highmore. She knew that he ruled Upstairs as well as down, and she clung to the fable of the association of interests in the north of London. The Highmores had a better address — they lived now in Stanhope Gardens; but Cecil was fearfully artful — he wouldn’t hear of an association of interests nor treat with his mother-in-law save as a visitor. She didn’t like false positions; but on the other hand she didn’t like the sacrifice of everything she was accustomed to. Her universe at all events was a universe full of card-leavings and charming houses, and it was fortunate that she couldn’t Upstairs catch the sound of the doom to which, in his little grey den, describing to me his diplomacy, Limbert consigned alike the country magnates and the opportunities of London. Despoiled of every guarantee she went to Stanhope Gardens like a mere maidservant, with restrictions on her very luggage, while during the year that followed this upheaval Limbert, strolling with me on the goose-green, to which I often ran down, played extravagantly over the theme that with what he was now going in for it was a positive comfort not to have the social kaleidoscope. With a cold-blooded trick in view what had life or manners or the best society or flys from the inn to say to the question? It was as good a place as another to play his new game. He had found a quieter corner than any corner of the great world, and a damp old house at sixpence a year, which, beside leaving him all his margin to educate his children, would allow of the supreme luxury of his frankly presenting himself as a poor man. This was a convenience that ces dames, as he called them, had never yet fully permitted him.
It rankled in me at first to see his reward so meagre, his conquest so mean; but the simplification effected had a charm that I finally felt; it was a forcing-house for the three or four other fine miscarriages to which his scheme was evidently condemned. I limited him to three or four, having had my sharp impression, in spite of the perpetual broad joke of the thing, that a spring had really snapped in him on the occasion of that deeply disconcerting sequel to the episode of his editorship. He never lost his sense of the grotesque want, in the difference made, of adequate relation to the effort that had been the intensest of his life. He had from that moment a charge of shot in him, and it slowly worked its way to a vital part. As he met his embarrassments each year with his punctual false remedy I wondered periodically where he found the energy to return to the attack. He did it every time with a rage more blanched, but it was clear to me that the tension must finally snap the cord. We got again and again the irrepressible work of art, but what did he get, poor man, who wanted something so different? There were likewise odder questions than this in the matter, phenomena more curious and mysteries more puzzling, which often for sympathy if not for illumination I intimately discussed with Mrs. Limbert. She had her burdens, dear lady: after the removal from London and a considerable interval she twice again became a mother. Mrs. Stannace too, in a more restricted sense, exhibited afresh, in relation to the home she had abandoned, the same exemplary character. In her poverty of guarantees at Stanhope Gardens there had been least of all, it appeared, a proviso that she shouldn’t resentfully revert again from Goneril to Regan. She came down to the goose-green like Lear himself, with fewer knights, or at least baronets, and the joint household was at last patched up. It fell to pieces and was put together on various occasions before Ray Limbert died. He was ridden to the end by the superstition that he had broken up Mrs. Stannace’s original home on pretences that had proved hollow and that if he hadn’t given Maud what she might have had he could at least give her back her mother. I was always sure that a sense of the compensations he owed was half the motive of the dogged pride with which he tried to wake up the libraries. I believed Mrs. Stan-nace still had money, though she pretended that, called upon at every turn to retrieve deficits, she had long since poured it into the general fund. This conviction haunted me; I suspected her of secret hoards, and I said to myself that she couldn’t be so infamous as not some day on her deathbed to leave everything to her less opulent daughter. My compassion for the Limberts led me to hover perhaps indiscreetly round that closing scene, to dream of some happy time when such an accession of means would make up a little for their present penury.
This however was crude comfort, as in the first place I had nothing definite to go by and in the second I held it for more and more indicated that Ray wouldn’t outlive her. I never ventured to sound him as to what in this particular he hoped or feared, for after the crisis marked by his leaving London I had new scruples about suffering him to be reminded of where he fell short. The poor man was in truth humiliated, and there were things as to which that kept us both silent. In proportion as he tried more fiercely for the market the old plaintiff arithmetic, fertile in jokes, dropped from our conversation. We joked immensely still about the process, but our treatment of the results became sparing and superficial. He talked as much as ever, with monstrous arts and borrowed hints, of the traps he kept setting, but we all agreed to take merely for granted that the animal was caught. This propriety had really dawned upon me the day that after Mr. Bousefield’s visit Mrs. Highmore put me down at his door. Mr. Bousefield in that juncture had been served up to me anew, but after we had disposed of him we came to the book, which I was obliged to confess I had already rushed through. It was from this moment — the moment at which my terrible impression of it had blinked out at his anxious query — that the image of his scared face was to abide with me. I couldn’t attenuate then — the cat was out of the bag; but later, each of the next times, I did, I acknowledge, attenuate. We all did religiously, so far as was possible; we cast ingenious ambiguities over the strong places, the beauties that betrayed him most, and found ourselves in the queer position of admirers banded to mislead a confiding artist. If we stifled our cheers however and dissimulated our joy our fond hypocrisy accomplished little, for Limbert’s finger was on a pulse that told a plainer story. It was a satisfaction to have secured a greater freedom with his wife, who at last, much to her honour, entered into the conspiracy and whose sense of responsibility was flattered by the frequency of our united appeal to her for some answer to the marvellous riddle. We had all turned it over till we were tired of it, threshing out the question why the note he strained every chord to pitch for common ears should invariably insist on addressing itself to the angels. Being, as it were, ourselves the angels we had only a limited quarrel in each case with the event; but its inconsequent character, given the forces set in motion, was peculiarly baffling. It was like an interminable sum that wouldn’t come straight; nobody had the time to handle so many figures. Limbert gathered, to make his pudding, dry bones and dead husks; how then was one to formulate the law that made the dish prove a feast? What was the cerebral treachery that defied his own vigilance? There was some obscure interference of taste, some obsession of the exquisite. All one could say was that genius was a fatal disturber or that the unhappy man had no effectual flair. When he went abroad to gather garlic he came home with heliotrope.
I hasten to add that if Mrs. Limbert was not directly illuminating she was yet rich in anecdote and example, having found a refuge from mystification exactly where the rest of us had found it, in a more devoted embrace and the sense of a finer glory. Her disappointments and eventually her privations had been many, her discipline severe; but she had ended by accepting the long grind of life and was now quite willing to take her turn at the mill. She was essentially one of us — she always understood. Touching and admirable at the last, when through the unmistakable change in Limbert’s health her troubles were thickest, was the spectacle of the particular pride that she wouldn’t have exchanged for prosperity. She had said to me once — only once, in a gloomy hour in London days when things were not going at all — that one really had to think him a very great man because if one didn’t one would be rather ashamed of him. She had distinctly felt it at first — and in a very tender place — that almost every one passed him on the road; but I believe that in these final years she would almost have been ashamed of him if he had suddenly gone into editions. It is certain indeed that her complacency was not subjected to that shock. She would have liked the money immensely, but she would have missed something she had taught herself to regard as rather rare. There is another remark I remember her making, a remark to the effect that of course if she could have chosen she would have liked him to be Shakespeare or Scott, but that failing this she was very glad he wasn’t — well, she named the two gentlemen, but I won’t. I daresay she sometimes laughed out to escape an alternative. She contributed passionately to the capture of the second manner, foraging for him further afield than he could conveniently go, gleaning in the barest stubble, picking up shreds to build the nest and in particular in the study of the great secret of how, as we always said, they all did it laying waste the circulating libraries. If Limbert had a weakness he rather broke down in his reading. It was fortunately not till after the appearance of The Hidden Heart that he broke down in everything else. He had had rheumatic fever in the spring, when the book was but half finished, and this ordeal in addition to interrupting his work had enfeebled his powers of resistance and greatly reduced his vitality. He recovered from the fever and was able to take up the book again, but the organ of life was pronounced ominously weak and it was enjoined upon him with some sharpness that he should lend himself to no worries. It might have struck me as on the cards that his worries would now be surmountable, for when he began to mend he expressed to me a conviction almost contagious that he had never yet made so adroit a bid as in the idea of The Hidden Heart. It is grimly droll to reflect that this superb little composition, the shortest of his novels but perhaps the loveliest, was planned from the first as an “adventure-story” on approved lines. It was the way they all did the adventure-story that he tried most dauntlessly to emulate. I wonder how many readers ever divined to which of their book-shelves The Hidden Heart was so exclusively addressed. High medical advice early in the summer had been quite viciously clear as to the inconvenience that might ensue to him should he neglect to spend the winter in Egypt. He was not a man to neglect anything; but Egypt seemed to us all then as unattainable as a second edition. He finished The Hidden Heart with the energy of apprehension and desire, for if the book should happen to do what “books of that class,” as the publisher said, sometimes did he might well have a fund to draw on. As soon as I read the deep and delicate thing I knew, as I had known in each case before, exactly how well it would do. Poor Limbert in this long business always figured to me an undiscourageable parent to whom only girls kept being born. A bouncing boy, a son and heir was devoutly prayed for and almanacks and old wives consulted; but the spell was inveterate, incurable, and The Hidden Heart proved, so to speak, but another female child. When the winter arrived accordingly Egypt was out of the question. Jane Highmore, to my knowledge, wanted to lend him money, and there were even greater devotees who did their best to induce him to lean on them. There was so marked a “movement” among his friends that a very considerable sum would have been at his disposal; but his stiffness was invincible: it had its root, I think, in his sense, on his own side, of sacrifices already made. He had sacrificed honour and pride, and he had sacrificed them precisely to the question of money. He would evidently, should he be able to go on, have to continue to sacrifice them, but it must be all in the way to which he had now, as he considered, hardened himself. He had spent years in plotting for favour, and since on favour he must live it could only be as a bargain and a price.
He got through the early part of the season better than we feared, and I went down in great elation to spend Christmas on the goose-green.
He told me late on Christmas eve, after our simple domestic revels had sunk to rest and we sat together by the fire, that he had been visited the night before in wakeful hours by the finest fancy for a really good thing that he had ever felt descend in the darkness. “It’s just the vision of a situation that contains, upon my honour, everything,” he said, “and I wonder that I’ve never thought of it before.” He didn’t describe it further, contrary to his common practice, and I only knew later, by Mrs. Limbert, that he had begun Derogation and that he was completely full of his subject. It was a subject however that he was not to live to treat. The work went on for a couple of months in happy mystery, without revelations even to his wife. He had not invited her to help him to get up his case — she had not taken the field with him as on his previous campaigns. We only knew he was at it again but that less even than ever had been said about the impression to be made on the market. I saw him in February and thought him sufficiently at ease. The great thing was that he was immensely interested and was pleased with the omens. I got a strange, stirring sense that he had not consulted the usual ones and indeed that he had floated away into a grand indifference, into a reckless consciousness of art. The voice of the market had suddenly grown faint and far: he had come back at the last, as people so often do, to one of the moods, the sincerities of his prime. Was he really with a blurred sense of the urgent doing something now only for himself? We wondered and waited — we felt that he was a little confused. What had happened, I was afterwards satisfied, was that he had quite forgotten whether he generally sold or not. He had merely waked up one morning again in the country of the blue and had stayed there with a good conscience and a great idea. He stayed till death knocked at the gate, for the pen dropped from his hand only at the moment when from sudden failure of the heart his eyes, as he sank back in his chair, closed for ever. Derogation is a splendid fragment; it evidently would have been one of his high successes. I am not prepared to say it would have waked up the libraries.
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