GEOFFREY BETTON woke rather late — so late that the winter sunlight sliding across his warm red carpet struck his eyes as he turned on the pillow.
Strett, the valet, had been in, drawn the bath in the adjoining dressing-room, placed the crystal and silver cigarette-box at his side, put a match to the fire, and thrown open the windows to the bright morning air. It brought in, on the glitter of sun, all the shrill crisp morning noises — those piercing notes of the American thoroughfare that seem to take a sharper vibration from the clearness of the medium through which they pass.
Betton raised himself languidly. That was the voice of Fifth Avenue below his windows. He remembered that when he moved into his rooms eighteen months before, the sound had been like music to him: the complex orchestration to which the tune of his new life was set. Now it filled him with horror and weariness, since it had become the symbol of the hurry and noise of that new life. He had been far less hurried in the old days when he had to be up by seven, and down at the office sharp at nine. Now that he got up when he chose, and his life had no fixed framework of duties, the hours hunted him like a pack of blood-hounds.
He dropped back on his pillows with a groan. Yes — not a year ago there had been a positively sensuous joy in getting out of bed, feeling under his bare feet the softness of the sunlit carpet, and entering the shining tiled sanctuary where his great porcelain bath proffered its renovating flood. But then a year ago he could still call up the horror of the communal plunge at his earlier lodgings: the listening for other bathers, the dodging of shrouded ladies in “crimping”-pins, the cold wait on the landing, the reluctant descent into a blotchy tin bath, and the effort to identify one’s soap and nail-brush among the promiscuous implements of ablution. That memory had faded now, and Betton saw only the dark hours to which his blue and white temple of refreshment formed a kind of glittering antechamber. For after his bath came his breakfast, and on the breakfast-tray his letters. His letters!
He remembered — and that memory had not faded! — the thrill with which he had opened the first missive in a strange feminine hand: the letter beginning: “I wonder if you’ll mind an unknown reader’s telling you all that your book has been to her?”
Mind? Ye gods, he minded now! For more than a year after the publication of “Diadems and Faggots” the letters, the inane indiscriminate letters of condemnation, of criticism, of interrogation, had poured in on him by every post. Hundreds of unknown readers had told him with unsparing detail all that his book had been to them. And the wonder of it was, when all was said and done, that it had really been so little — that when their thick broth of praise was strained through the author’s anxious vanity there remained to him so small a sediment of definite specific understanding! No — it was always the same thing, over and over and over again — the same vague gush of adjectives, the same incorrigible tendency to estimate his effort according to each writer’s personal preferences, instead of regarding it as a work of art, a thing to be measured by objective standards!
He smiled to think how little, at first, he had felt the vanity of it all. He had found a savour even in the grosser evidences of popularity: the advertisements of his book, the daily shower of “clippings,” the sense that, when he entered a restaurant or a theatre, people nudged each other and said “That’s Betton.” Yes, the publicity had been sweet to him — at first. He had been touched by the sympathy of his fellow-men: had thought indulgently of the world, as a better place than the failures and the dyspeptics would acknowledge. And then his success began to submerge him: he gasped under the thickening shower of letters. His admirers were really unappeasable. And they wanted him to do such preposterous things — to give lectures, to head movements, to be tendered receptions, to speak at banquets, to address mothers, to plead for orphans, to go up in balloons, to lead the struggle for sterilized milk. They wanted his photograph for literary supplements, his autograph for charity bazaars, his name on committees, literary, educational, and social; above all, they wanted his opinion on everything: on Christianity, Buddhism, tight lacing, the drug-habit, democratic government, female suffrage and love. Perhaps the chief benefit of this demand was his incidentally learning from it how few opinions he really had: the only one that remained with him was a rooted horror of all forms of correspondence. He had been unutterably thankful when the letters began to fall off.
“Diadems and Faggots” was now two years old, and the moment was at hand when its author might have counted on regaining the blessed shelter of oblivion — if only he had not written another book! For it was the worst part of his plight that his first success had goaded him to the perpetration of this particular folly — that one of the incentives (hideous thought!) to his new work had been the desire to extend and perpetuate his popularity. And this very week the book was to come out, and the letters, the cursed letters, would begin again!
Wistfully, almost plaintively, he contemplated the breakfast-tray with which Strett presently appeared. It bore only two notes and the morning journals, but he knew that within the week it would groan under its epistolary burden. The very newspapers flung the fact at him as he opened them.
READY ON MONDAY.
GEOFFREY BETTON’S NEW NOVEL
BY THE AUTHOR OF “DIADEMS AND FAGGOTS.”
FIRST EDITION OF ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND ALREADY SOLD OUT.
A hundred and fifty thousand volumes! And an average of three readers to each! Half a million of people would be reading him within a week, and every one of them would write to him, and their friends and relations would write too. He laid down the paper with a shudder.
The two notes looked harmless enough, and the calligraphy of one was vaguely familiar. He opened the envelope and looked at the signature: Duncan Vyse. He had not seen the name in years — what on earth could Duncan Vyse have to say? He ran over the page and dropped it with a wondering exclamation, which the watchful Strett, re-entering, met by a tentative “Yes, sir?”
“Nothing. Yes — that is — ” Betton picked up the note. “There’s a gentleman, a Mr. Vyse, coming to see me at ten.”
Strett glanced at the clock. “Yes, sir. You’ll remember that ten was the hour you appointed for the secretaries to call, sir.”
Betton nodded. “I’ll see Mr. Vyse first. My clothes, please.”
As he got into them, in the state of irritable hurry that had become almost chronic with him, he continued to think about Duncan Vyse. They had seen a lot of each other for the few years after both had left Harvard: the hard happy years when Betton had been grinding at his business and Vyse — poor devil! — trying to write. The novelist recalled his friend’s attempts with a smile; then the memory of one small volume came back to him. It was a novel: “The Lifted Lamp.” There was stuff in that, certainly. He remembered Vyse’s tossing it down on his table with a gesture of despair when it came back from the last publisher. Betton, taking it up indifferently, had sat riveted till daylight. When he ended, the impression was so strong that he said to himself: “I’ll tell Apthorn about it — I’ll go and see him to-morrow.” His own secret literary yearnings gave him a passionate desire to champion Vyse, to see him triumph over the ignorance and timidity of the publishers. Apthorn was the youngest of the guild, still capable of opinions and the courage of them, a personal friend of Betton’s, and, as it happened, the man afterward to become known as the privileged publisher of “Diadems and Faggots.” Unluckily the next day something unexpected turned up, and Betton forgot about Vyse and his manuscript. He continued to forget for a month, and then came a note from Vyse, who was ill, and wrote to ask what his friend had done. Betton did not like to say “I’ve done nothing,” so he left the note unanswered, and vowed again: “I’ll see Apthorn.”
The following day he was called to the West on business, and was gone a month. When he came back, there was another note from Vyse, who was still ill, and desperately hard up. “I’ll take anything for the book, if they’ll advance me two hundred dollars.” Betton, full of compunction, would gladly have advanced the sum himself; but he was hard up too, and could only swear inwardly: “I’ll write to Apthorn.” Then he glanced again at the manuscript, and reflected: “No — there are things in it that need explaining. I’d better see him.”
Once he went so far as to telephone Apthorn, but the publisher was out. Then he finally and completely forgot.
One Sunday he went out of town, and on his return, rummaging among the papers on his desk, he missed “The Lifted Lamp,” which had been gathering dust there for half a year. What the deuce could have become of it? Betton spent a feverish hour in vainly increasing the disorder of his documents, and then bethought himself of calling the maid-servant, who first indignantly denied having touched anything (“I can see that’s true from the dust,” Betton scathingly interjected), and then mentioned with hauteur that a young lady had called in his absence and asked to be allowed to get a book.
“A lady? Did you let her come up?”
“She said somebody’d sent her.”
Vyse, of course — Vyse had sent her for his manuscript! He was always mixed up with some woman, and it was just like him to send the girl of the moment to Betton’s lodgings, with instructions to force the door in his absence. Vyse had never been remarkable for delicacy. Betton, furious, glanced over his table to see if any of his own effects were missing — one couldn’t tell, with the company Vyse kept! — and then dismissed the matter from his mind, with a vague sense of magnanimity in doing so. He felt himself exonerated by Vyse’s conduct.
The sense of magnanimity was still uppermost when the valet opened the door to announce “Mr. Vyse,” and Betton, a moment later, crossed the threshold of his pleasant library.
His first thought was that the man facing him from the hearth-rug was the very Duncan Vyse of old: small, starved, bleached-looking, with the same sidelong movements, the same queer air of anaemic truculence. Only he had grown shabbier, and bald.
Betton held out a hospitable hand.
“This is a good surprise! Glad you looked me up, my dear fellow.”
Vyse’s palm was damp and bony: he had always had a disagreeable hand.
“You got my note? You know what I’ve come for?” he said.
“About the secretaryship? (Sit down.) Is that really serious?”
Betton lowered himself luxuriously into one of his vast Maple arm-chairs. He had grown stouter in the last year, and the cushion behind him fitted comfortably into the crease of his nape. As he leaned back he caught sight of his image in the mirror between the windows, and reflected uneasily that Vyse would not find him unchanged.
“Serious?” Vyse rejoined. “Why not? Aren’t you?”
“Oh, perfectly.” Betton laughed apologetically. “Only — well, the fact is, you may not understand what rubbish a secretary of mine would have to deal with. In advertising for one I never imagined — I didn’t aspire to any one above the ordinary hack.”
“I’m the ordinary hack,” said Vyse drily.
Betton’s affable gesture protested. “My dear fellow — . You see it’s not business — what I’m in now,” he continued with a laugh.
Vyse’s thin lips seemed to form a noiseless “ Isn’t it?” which they instantly transposed into the audibly reply: “I inferred from your advertisement that you want some one to relieve you in your literary work. Dictation, short-hand — that kind of thing?”
“Well, no: not that either. I type my own things. What I’m looking for is somebody who won’t be above tackling my correspondence.”
Vyse looked slightly surprised. “I should be glad of the job,” he then said.
Betton began to feel a vague embarrassment. He had supposed that such a proposal would be instantly rejected. “It would be only for an hour or two a day — if you’re doing any writing of your own?” he threw out interrogatively.
“No. I’ve given all that up. I’m in an office now — business. But it doesn’t take all my time, or pay enough to keep me alive.”
“In that case, my dear fellow — if you could come every morning; but it’s mostly awful bosh, you know,” Betton again broke off, with growing awkwardness.
Vyse glanced at him humorously. “What you want me to write?”
“Well, that depends — ” Betton sketched the obligatory smile. “But I was thinking of the letters you’ll have to answer. Letters about my books, you know — I’ve another one appearing next week. And I want to be beforehand now — dam the flood before it swamps me. Have you any idea of the deluge of stuff that people write to a successful novelist?”
As Betton spoke, he saw a tinge of red on Vyse’s thin cheek, and his own reflected it in a richer glow of shame. “I mean — I mean — ” he stammered helplessly.
“No, I haven’t,” said Vyse; “but it will be awfully jolly finding out.”
There was a pause, groping and desperate on Betton’s part, sardonically calm on his visitor’s.
“You — you’ve given up writing altogether?” Betton continued.
“Yes; we’ve changed places, as it were.” Vyse paused. “But about these letters — you dictate the answers?”
“Lord, no! That’s the reason why I said I wanted somebody — er — well used to writing. I don’t want to have anything to do with them — not a thing! You’ll have to answer them as if they were written to you — ” Betton pulled himself up again, and rising in confusion jerked open one of the drawers of his writing-table.
“Here — this kind of rubbish,” he said, tossing a packet of letters onto Vyse’s knee.
“Oh — you keep them, do you?” said Vyse simply.
“I— well — some of them; a few of the funniest only.”
Vyse slipped off the band and began to open the letters. While he was glancing over them Betton again caught his own reflection in the glass, and asked himself what impression he had made on his visitor. It occurred to him for the first time that his high-coloured well-fed person presented the image of commercial rather than of intellectual achievement. He did not look like his own idea of the author of “Diadems and Faggots” — and he wondered why.
Vyse laid the letters aside. “I think I can do it — if you’ll give me a notion of the tone I’m to take.”
“Yes — that is, if I’m to sign your name.”
“Oh, of course: I expect you to sign for me. As for the tone, say just what you’d — well, say all you can without encouraging them to answer.”
Vyse rose from his seat. “I could submit a few specimens,” he suggested.
“Oh, as to that — you always wrote better than I do,” said Betton handsomely.
“I’ve never had this kind of thing to write. When do you wish me to begin?” Vyse enquired, ignoring the tribute.
“The book’s out on Monday. The deluge will begin about three days after. Will you turn up on Thursday at this hour?” Betton held his hand out with real heartiness. “It was great luck for me, your striking that advertisement. Don’t be too harsh with my correspondents — I owe them something for having brought us together.”
THE deluge began punctually on the Thursday, and Vyse, arriving as punctually, had an impressive pile of letters to attack. Betton, on his way to the Park for a ride, came into the library, smoking the cigarette of indolence, to look over his secretary’s shoulder.
“How many of ’em? Twenty? Good Lord! It’s going to be worse than ‘Diadems.’ I’ve just had my first quiet breakfast in two years — time to read the papers and loaf. How I used to dread the sight of my letter-box! Now I sha’n’t know I have one.”
He leaned over Vyse’s chair, and the secretary handed him a letter.
“Here’s rather an exceptional one — lady, evidently. I thought you might want to answer it yourself — ”
“Exceptional?” Betton ran over the mauve pages and tossed them down. “Why, my dear man, I get hundreds like that. You’ll have to be pretty short with her, or she’ll send her photograph.”
He clapped Vyse on the shoulder and turned away, humming a tune. “Stay to luncheon,” he called back gaily from the threshold.
After luncheon Vyse insisted on showing a few of his answers to the first batch of letters. “If I’ve struck the note I won’t bother you again,” he urged; and Betton groaningly consented.
“My dear fellow, they’re beautiful — too beautiful. I’ll be let in for a correspondence with every one of these people.”
Vyse, at this, meditated for a while above a blank sheet. “All right — how’s this?” he said, after another interval of rapid writing.
Betton glanced over the page. “By George — by George! Won’t she see it?” he exulted, between fear and rapture.
“It’s wonderful how little people see,” said Vyse reassuringly.
The letters continued to pour in for several weeks after the appearance of “Abundance.” For five or six blissful days Betton did not even have his mail brought to him, trusting to Vyse to single out his personal correspondence, and to deal with the rest according to their agreement. During those days he luxuriated in a sense of wild and lawless freedom; then, gradually, he began to feel the need of fresh restraints to break, and learned that the zest of liberty lies in the escape from specific obligations. At first he was conscious only of a vague hunger, but in time the craving resolved into a shame-faced desire to see his letters.
“After all, I hated them only because I had to answer them”; and he told Vyse carelessly that he wished all his letters submitted to him before the secretary answered them.
At first he pushed aside those beginning: “I have just laid down ‘Abundance’ after a third reading,” or: “Every day for the last month I have been telephoning my bookseller to know when your novel would be out.” But little by little the freshness of his interest revived, and even this stereotyped homage began to arrest his eye. At last a day came when he read all the letters, from the first word to the last, as he had done when “Diadems and Faggots” appeared. It was really a pleasure to read them, now that he was relieved of the burden of replying: his new relation to his correspondents had the glow of a love-affair unchilled by the contingency of marriage.
One day it struck him that the letters were coming in more slowly and in smaller numbers. Certainly there had been more of a rush when “Diadems and Faggots” came out. Betton began to wonder if Vyse were exercising an unauthorized discrimination, and keeping back the communications he deemed least important. This sudden conjecture carried the novelist straight to his library, where he found Vyse bending over the writing-table with his usual inscrutable pale smile. But once there, Betton hardly knew how to frame his question, and blundered into an enquiry for a missing invitation.
“There’s a note — a personal note — I ought to have had this morning. Sure you haven’t kept it back by mistake among the others?”
Vyse laid down his pen. “The others? But I never keep back any.”
Betton had foreseen the answer. “Not even the worst twaddle about my book?” he suggested lightly, pushing the papers about.
“Nothing. I understood you wanted to go over them all first.”
“Well, perhaps it’s safer,” Betton conceded, as if the idea were new to him. With an embarrassed hand he continued to turn over the letters at Vyse’s elbow.
“Those are yesterday’s,” said the secretary; “here are to-day’s,” he added, pointing to a meagre trio.
“H’m — only these?” Betton took them and looked them over lingeringly. “I don’t see what the deuce that chap means about the first part of ‘Abundance’ ‘certainly justifying the title’ — do you?”
Vyse was silent, and the novelist continued irritably: “Damned cheek, his writing, if he doesn’t like the book. Who cares what he thinks about it, anyhow?”
And his morning ride was embittered by the discovery that it was unexpectedly disagreeable to have Vyse read any letters which did not express unqualified praise of his books. He began to fancy there was a latent rancour, a kind of baffled sneer, under Vyse’s manner; and he decided to return to the practice of having his mail brought straight to his room. In that way he could edit the letters before his secretary saw them.
Vyse made no comment on the change, and Betton was reduced to wondering whether his imperturbable composure were the mask of complete indifference or of a watchful jealousy. The latter view being more agreeable to his employer’s self-esteem, the next step was to conclude that Vyse had not forgotten the episode of “The Lifted Lamp,” and would naturally take a vindictive joy in any unfavourable judgments passed on his rival’s work. This did not simplify the situation, for there was no denying that unfavourable criticisms preponderated in Betton’s correspondence. “Abundance” was neither meeting with the unrestricted welcome of “Diadems and Faggots,” nor enjoying the alternative of an animated controversy: it was simply found dull, and its readers said so in language not too tactfully tempered by regretful comparisons with its predecessor. To withhold unfavourable comments from Vyse was, therefore, to make it appear that correspondence about the book had died out; and its author, mindful of his unguarded predictions, found this even more embarrassing. The simplest solution would be to get rid of Vyse; and to this end Betton began to address his energies.
One evening, finding himself unexpectedly disengaged, he asked Vyse to dine; it had occurred to him that, in the course of an after-dinner chat, he might delicately hint his feeling that the work he had offered his friend was unworthy so accomplished a hand.
Vyse surprised him by a momentary hesitation. “I may not have time to dress.”
Betton stared. “What’s the odds? We’ll dine here — and as late as you like.”
Vyse thanked him, and appeared, punctually at eight, in all the shabbiness of his daily wear. He looked paler and more shyly truculent than usual, and Betton, from the height of his florid stature, said to himself, with the sudden professional instinct for “type”: “He might be an agent of something — a chap who carries deadly secrets.”
Vyse, it was to appear, did carry a deadly secret; but one less perilous to society than to himself. He was simply poor — inexcusably, irremediably poor. Everything failed him, had always failed him: whatever he put his hand to went to bits.
This was the confession that, reluctantly, yet with a kind of white-lipped bravado, he flung at Betton in answer to the latter’s tentative suggestion that, really, the letter-answering job wasn’t worth bothering him with — a thing that any type-writer could do.
“If you mean you’re paying me more than it’s worth, I’ll take less,” Vyse rushed out after a pause.
“Oh, my dear fellow — ” Betton protested, flushing.
“What do you mean, then? Don’t I answer the letters as you want them answered?”
Betton anxiously stroked his silken ankle. “You do it beautifully, too beautifully. I mean what I say: the work’s not worthy of you. I’m ashamed to ask you — ”
“Oh, hang shame,” Vyse interrupted. “Do you know why I said I shouldn’t have time to dress to-night? Because I haven’t any evening clothes. As a matter of fact, I haven’t much but the clothes I stand in. One thing after another’s gone against me; all the infernal ingenuities of chance. It’s been a slow Chinese torture, the kind where they keep you alive to have more fun killing you.” He straightened himself with a sudden blush. “Oh, I’m all right now — getting on capitally. But I’m still walking rather a narrow plank; and if I do your work well enough — if I take your idea — ”
Betton stared into the fire without answering. He knew next to nothing of Vyse’s history, of the mischance or mis-management that had brought him, with his brains and his training, to so unlikely a pass. But a pang of compunction shot through him as he remembered the manuscript of “The Lifted Lamp” gathering dust on his table for half a year.
“Not that it would have made any earthly difference — since he’s evidently never been able to get the thing published.” But this reflection did not wholly console Betton, and he found it impossible, at the moment, to tell Vyse that his services were not needed.
DURING the ensuing weeks the letters grew fewer and fewer, and Betton foresaw the approach of the fatal day when his secretary, in common decency, would have to say: “I can’t draw my pay for doing nothing.”
What a triumph for Vyse!
The thought was intolerable, and Betton cursed his weakness in not having dismissed the fellow before such a possibility arose.
“If I tell him I’ve no use for him now, he’ll see straight through it, of course; — and then, hang it, he looks so poor!”
This consideration came after the other, but Betton, in rearranging them, put it first, because he thought it looked better there, and also because he immediately perceived its value in justifying a plan of action that was beginning to take shape in his mind.
“Poor devil, I’m damned if I don’t do it for him!” said Betton, sitting down at his desk.
Three or four days later he sent word to Vyse that he didn’t care to go over the letters any longer, and that they would once more be carried directly to the library.
The next time he lounged in, on his way to his morning ride, he found his secretary’s pen in active motion.
“A lot to-day,” Vyse told him cheerfully.
His tone irritated Betton: it had the inane optimism of the physician reassuring a discouraged patient.
“Oh, Lord — I thought it was almost over,” groaned the novelist.
“No: they’ve just got their second wind. Here’s one from a Chicago publisher — never heard the name — offering you thirty per cent. on your next novel, with an advance royalty of twenty thousand. And here’s a chap who wants to syndicate it for a bunch of Sunday papers: big offer, too. That’s from Ann Arbor. And this — oh, this one’s funny!”
He held up a small scented sheet to Betton, who made no movement to receive it.
“Funny? Why’s it funny?” he growled.
“Well, it’s from a girl — a lady — and she thinks she’s the only person who understands ‘Abundance’ — has the clue to it. Says she’s never seen a book so misrepresented by the critics — ”
“Ha, ha! That is good!” Betton agreed with too loud a laugh.
“This one’s from a lady, too — married woman. Says she’s misunderstood, and would like to correspond.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Betton. — “What are you looking at?” he added sharply, as Vyse continued to bend his blinking gaze on the letters.
“I was only thinking I’d never seen such short letters from women. Neither one fills the first page.”
“Well, what of that?” queried Betton.
Vyse reflected. “I’d like to meet a woman like that,” he said wearily; and Betton laughed again.
The letters continued to pour in, and there could be no farther question of dispensing with Vyse’s services. But one morning, about three weeks later, the latter asked for a word with his employer, and Betton, on entering the library, found his secretary with half a dozen documents spread out before him.
“What’s up?” queried Betton, with a touch of impatience.
Vyse was attentively scanning the outspread letters.
“I don’t know: can’t make out.” His voice had a faint note of embarrassment. “Do you remember a note signed Hester Macklin that came three or four weeks ago? Married — misunderstood — Western army post — wanted to correspond?”
Betton seemed to grope among his memories; then he assented vaguely.
“A short note,” Vyse went on: “the whole story in half a page. The shortness struck me so much — and the directness — that I wrote her: wrote in my own name, I mean.”
“In your own name?” Betton stood amazed; then he broke into a groan.
“Good Lord, Vyse — you’re incorrigible!”
The secretary pulled his thin moustache with a nervous laugh. “If you mean I’m an ass, you’re right. Look here.” He held out an envelope stamped with the words: “Dead Letter Office.” “My effusion has come back to me marked ‘unknown.’ There’s no such person at the address she gave you.”
Betton seemed for an instant to share his secretary’s embarrassment; then he burst into an uproarious laugh.
“Hoax, was it? That’s rough on you, old fellow!”
Vyse shrugged his shoulders. “Yes; but the interesting question is — why on earth didn’t your answer come back, too?”
“The official one — the one I wrote in your name. If she’s unknown, what’s become of that?”
Betton stared at him with eyes wrinkled by amusement. “Perhaps she hadn’t disappeared then.”
Vyse disregarded the conjecture. “Look here — I believe all these letters are a hoax,” he broke out.
Betton stared at him with a face that turned slowly red and angry. “What are you talking about? All what letters?”
“These I’ve spread out here: I’ve been comparing them. And I believe they’re all written by one man.”
Burton’s redness turned to a purple that made his ruddy moustache seem pale. “What the devil are you driving at?” he asked.
“Well, just look at it,” Vyse persisted, still bent above the letters. “I’ve been studying them carefully — those that have come within the last two or three weeks — and there’s a queer likeness in the writing of some of them. The g’s are all like corkscrews. And the same phrases keep recurring — the Ann Arbor news-agent uses the same expressions as the President of the Girls’ College at Euphorbia, Maine.”
Betton laughed. “Aren’t the critics always groaning over the shrinkage of the national vocabulary? Of course we all use the same expressions.”
“Yes,” said Vyse obstinately. “But how about using the same g’s?”
Betton laughed again, but Vyse continued without heeding him: “Look here, Betton — could Strett have written them?”
“Strett?” Betton roared. “ Strett?” He threw himself into his arm-chair to shake out his mirth at greater ease.
“I’ll tell you why. Strett always posts all my answers. He comes in for them every day before I leave. He posted the letter to the misunderstood party — the letter from you that the Dead Letter Office didn’t return. I posted my own letter to her; and that came back.”
A measurable silence followed the emission of this ingenious conjecture; then Betton observed with gentle irony: “Extremely neat. And of course it’s no business of yours to supply any valid motive for this remarkable attention on my valet’s part.”
Vyse cast on him a slanting glance.
“If you’ve found that human conduct’s generally based on valid motives —!”
“Well, outside of mad-houses it’s supposed to be not quite incalculable.”
Vyse had an odd smile under his thin moustache. “Every house is a mad-house at some time or another.”
Betton rose with a careless shake of the shoulders. “This one will be if I talk to you much longer,” he said, moving away with a laugh.
BETTON did not for a moment believe that Vyse suspected the valet of having written the letters.
“Why the devil don’t he say out what he thinks? He was always a tortuous chap,” he grumbled inwardly.
The sense of being held under the lens of Vyse’s mute scrutiny became more and more exasperating. Betton, by this time, had squared his shoulders to the fact that “Abundance” was a failure with the public: a confessed and glaring failure. The press told him so openly, and his friends emphasized the fact by their circumlocutions and evasions. Betton minded it a good deal more than he had expected, but not nearly as much as he minded Vyse’s knowing it. That remained the central twinge in his diffused discomfort. And the problem of getting rid of his secretary once more engaged him.
He had set aside all sentimental pretexts for retaining Vyse; but a practical argument replaced them. “If I ship him now he’ll think it’s because I’m ashamed to have him see that I’m not getting any more letters.”
For the letters had ceased again, almost abruptly, since Vyse had hazarded the conjecture that they were the product of Strett’s devoted pen. Betton had reverted only once to the subject — to ask ironically, a day or two later: “Is Strett writing to me as much as ever?” — and, on Vyse’s replying with a neutral head-shake, had added with a laugh: “If you suspect him you might as well think I write the letters myself!”
“There are very few to-day,” said Vyse, with his irritating evasiveness; and Betton rejoined squarely: “Oh, they’ll stop soon. The book’s a failure.”
A few mornings later he felt a rush of shame at his own tergiversations, and stalked into the library with Vyse’s sentence on his tongue.
Vyse started back with one of his anaemic blushes. “I was hoping you’d be in. I wanted to speak to you. There’ve been no letters the last day or two,” he explained.
Betton drew a quick breath of relief. The man had some sense of decency, then! He meant to dismiss himself.
“I told you so, my dear fellow; the book’s a flat failure,” he said, almost gaily.
Vyse made a deprecating gesture. “I don’t know that I should regard the absence of letters as the ultimate test. But I wanted to ask you if there isn’t something else I can do on the days when there’s no writing.” He turned his glance toward the book-lined walls. “Don’t you want your library catalogued?” he asked insidiously.
“Had it done last year, thanks.” Betton glanced away from Vyse’s face. It was piteous, how he needed the job!
“I see. . . . Of course this is just a temporary lull in the letters. They’ll begin again — as they did before. The people who read carefully read slowly — you haven’t heard yet what they think.”
Betton felt a rush of puerile joy at the suggestion. Actually, he hadn’t thought of that!
“There was a big second crop after ‘Diadems and Faggots,’” he mused aloud.
“Of course. Wait and see,” said Vyse confidently.
The letters in fact began again — more gradually and in smaller numbers. But their quality was different, as Vyse had predicted. And in two cases Betton’s correspondents, not content to compress into one rapid communication the thoughts inspired by his work, developed their views in a succession of really remarkable letters. One of the writers was a professor in a Western college; the other was a girl in Florida. In their language, their point of view, their reasons for appreciating “Abundance,” they differed almost diametrically; but this only made the unanimity of their approval the more striking. The rush of correspondence evoked by Betton’s earlier novel had produced nothing so personal, so exceptional as these communications. He had gulped the praise of “Diadems and Faggots” as undiscriminatingly as it was offered; now he knew for the first time the subtler pleasures of the palate. He tried to feign indifference, even to himself; and to Vyse he made no sign. But gradually he felt a desire to know what his secretary thought of the letters, and, above all, what he was saying in reply to them. And he resented acutely the possibility of Vyse’s starting one of his clandestine correspondences with the girl in Florida. Vyse’s notorious lack of delicacy had never been more vividly present to Betton’s imagination; and he made up his mind to answer the letters himself.
He would keep Vyse on, of course: there were other communications that the secretary could attend to. And, if necessary, Betton would invent an occupation: he cursed his stupidity in having betrayed the fact that his books were already catalogued.
Vyse showed no surprise when Betton announced his intention of dealing personally with the two correspondents who showed so flattering a reluctance to take their leave. But Betton immediately read a criticism in his lack of comment, and put forth, on a note of challenge: “After all, one must be decent!”
Vyse looked at him with an evanescent smile. “You’ll have to explain that you didn’t write the first answers.”
Betton halted. “Well — I— I more or less dictated them, didn’t I?”
“Oh, virtually, they’re yours, of course.”
“You think I can put it that way?”
“Why not?” The secretary absently drew an arabesque on the blotting-pad. “Of course they’ll keep it up longer if you write yourself,” he suggested.
Betton blushed, but faced the issue. “Hang it all, I sha’n’t be sorry. They interest me. They’re remarkable letters.” And Vyse, without observation, returned to his writings.
The spring, that year, was delicious to Betton. His college professor continued to address him tersely but cogently at fixed intervals, and twice a week eight serried pages came from Florida. There were other letters, too; he had the solace of feeling that at last “Abundance” was making its way, was reaching the people who, as Vyse said, read slowly because they read intelligently. But welcome as were all these proofs of his restored authority they were but the background of his happiness. His life revolved for the moment about the personality of his two chief correspondents. The professor’s letters satisfied his craving for intellectual recognition, and the satisfaction he felt in them proved how completely he had lost faith in himself. He blushed to think that his opinion of his work had been swayed by the shallow judgments of a public whose taste he despised. Was it possible that he had allowed himself to think less well of “Abundance” because it was not to the taste of the average novel-reader? Such false humility was less excusable than the crudest appetite for praise: it was ridiculous to try to do conscientious work if one’s self-esteem were at the mercy of popular judgments. All this the professor’s letters delicately and indirectly conveyed to Betton, with the result that the author of “Abundance” began to recognize in it the ripest flower of his genius.
But if the professor understood his book, the girl in Florida understood him; and Betton was fully alive to the superior qualities of discernment which this process implied. For his lovely correspondent his novel was but the starting-point, the pretext of her discourse: he himself was her real object, and he had the delicious sense, as their exchange of thoughts proceeded, that she was interested in “Abundance” because of its author, rather than in the author because of his book. Of course she laid stress on the fact that his ideas were the object of her contemplation; but Betton’s agreeable person had permitted him some insight into the incorrigible subjectiveness of female judgments, and he was pleasantly aware, from the lady’s tone, that she guessed him to be neither old nor ridiculous. And suddenly he wrote to ask if he might see her. . . .
The answer was long in coming. Betton fumed at the delay, watched, wondered, fretted; then he received the one word “Impossible.”
He wrote back more urgently, and awaited the reply with increasing eagerness. A certain shyness had kept him from once more modifying the instructions regarding his mail, and Strett still carried the letters directly to Vyse. The hour when he knew they were passing under the latter’s eyes was now becoming intolerable to Betton, and it was a profound relief when the secretary, suddenly advised of his father’s illness, asked permission to absent himself for a fortnight.
Vyse departed just after Betton had despatched to Florida his second missive of entreaty, and for ten days he tasted the furtive joy of a first perusal of his letters. The answer from Florida was not among them; but Betton said to himself “She’s thinking it over,” and delay, in that light, seemed favourable. So charming, in fact, was this phase of sentimental suspense that he felt a start of resentment when a telegram apprised him one morning that Vyse would return to his post that day.
Betton had slept later than usual, and, springing out of bed with the telegram in his hand, he learned from the clock that his secretary was due in half an hour. He reflected that the morning’s mail must long since be in; and, too impatient to wait for its appearance with his breakfast-tray, he threw on a dressing-gown and went to the library. There lay the letters, half a dozen of them: but his eye flew to one envelope, and as he tore it open a warm wave rocked his heart.
The letter was dated a few days after its writer must have received his own: it had all the qualities of grace and insight to which his unknown friend had accustomed him, but it contained no allusion, however indirect, to the special purport of his appeal. Even a vanity less ingenious than Betton’s might have read in the lady’s silence one of the most familiar motions of consent; but the smile provoked by this inference faded as he turned to his other letters. For the uppermost bore the superscription “Dead Letter Office,” and the document that fell from it was his own last letter from Florida.
Betton studied the ironic “Unknown” for an appreciable space of time; then he broke into a laugh. He had suddenly recalled Vyse’s similar experience with “Hester Macklin,” and the light he was able to throw on that obscure episode was searching enough to penetrate all the dark corners of his own adventure. He felt a rush of heat to the ears; catching sight of himself in the glass, he saw a red ridiculous congested countenance, and dropped into a chair to hide it between flushed fists. He was roused by the opening of the door, and Vyse appeared on the threshold.
“Oh, I beg pardon — you’re ill?” said the secretary.
Betton’s only answer was an inarticulate murmur of derision; then he pushed forward the letter with the imprint of the Dead Letter Office.
“Look at that,” he jeered.
Vyse peered at the envelope, and turned it over slowly in his hands. Betton’s eyes, fixed on him, saw his face decompose like a substance touched by some powerful acid. He clung to the envelope as if to gain time.
“It’s from the young lady you’ve been writing to at Swazee Springs?” he asked at length.
“It’s from the young lady I’ve been writing to at Swazee Springs.”
“Well — I suppose she’s gone away,” continued Vyse, rebuilding his countenance rapidly.
“Yes; and in a community numbering perhaps a hundred and seventy-five souls, including the dogs and chickens, the local post-office is so ignorant of her movements that my letter has to be sent to the Dead Letter Office.”
Vyse meditated on this; then he laughed in turn. “After all, the same thing happened to me — with ‘Hester Macklin,’ I mean,” he recalled sheepishly.
“Just so,” said Betton, bringing down his clenched fist on the table. “ Just so,” he repeated, in italics.
He caught his secretary’s glance, and held it with his own for a moment. Then he dropped it as, in pity, one releases something scared and squirming.
“The very day my letter was returned from Swazee Springs she wrote me this from there,” he said, holding up the last Florida missive.
“Ha! That’s funny,” said Vyse, with a damp forehead.
“Yes, it’s funny; it’s funny,” said Betton. He leaned back, his hands in his pockets, staring up at the ceiling, and noticing a crack in the cornice. Vyse, at the corner of the writing-table, waited.
“Shall I get to work?” he began, after a silence measurable by minutes. Betton’s gaze descended from the cornice.
“I’ve got your seat, haven’t I?” he said, rising and moving away from the table.
Vyse, with a quick gleam of relief, slipped into the vacant chair, and began to stir about vaguely among the papers.
“How’s your father?” Betton asked from the hearth.
“Oh, better — better, thank you. He’ll pull out of it.”
“But you had a sharp scare for a day or two?”
“Yes — it was touch and go when I got there.”
Another pause, while Vyse began to classify the letters.
“And I suppose,” Betton continued in a steady tone, “your anxiety made you forget your usual precautions — whatever they were — about this Florida correspondence, and before you’d had time to prevent it the Swazee post-office blundered?”
Vyse lifted his head with a quick movement. “What do you mean?” he asked, pushing his chair back.
“I mean that you saw I couldn’t live without flattery, and that you’ve been ladling it out to me to earn your keep.”
Vyse sat motionless and shrunken, digging the blotting-pad with his pen. “What on earth are you driving at?” he repeated.
“Though why the deuce,” Betton continued in the same steady tone, “you should need to do this kind of work when you’ve got such faculties at your service — those letters were magnificent, my dear fellow! Why in the world don’t you write novels, instead of writing to other people about them?”
Vyse straightened himself with an effort. “What are you talking about, Betton? Why the devil do you think I wrote those letters?”
Betton held back his answer, with a brooding face. “Because I wrote ‘Hester Macklin’s’ — to myself!”
Vyse sat stock-still, without the least outcry of wonder. “Well —?” he finally said, in a low tone.
“And because you found me out (you see, you can’t even feign surprise!) — because you saw through it at a glance, knew at once that the letters were faked. And when you’d foolishly put me on my guard by pointing out to me that they were a clumsy forgery, and had then suddenly guessed that I was the forger, you drew the natural inference that I had to have popular approval, or at least had to make you think I had it. You saw that, to me, the worst thing about the failure of the book was having you know it was a failure. And so you applied your superior — your immeasurably superior — abilities to carrying on the humbug, and deceiving me as I’d tried to deceive you. And you did it so successfully that I don’t see why the devil you haven’t made your fortune writing novels!”
Vyse remained silent, his head slightly bent under the mounting tide of Betton’s denunciation.
“The way you differentiated your people — characterised them — avoided my stupid mistake of making the women’s letters too short and logical, of letting my different correspondents use the same expressions: the amount of ingenuity and art you wasted on it! I swear, Vyse, I’m sorry that damned post-office went back on you,” Betton went on, piling up the waves of his irony.
But at this height they suddenly paused, drew back on themselves, and began to recede before the spectacle of Vyse’s pale distress. Something warm and emotional in Betton’s nature — a lurking kindliness, perhaps, for any one who tried to soothe and smooth his writhing ego — softened his eye as it rested on the drooping figure of his secretary.
“Look here, Vyse — I’m not sorry — not altogether sorry this has happened!” He moved slowly across the room, and laid a friendly palm on Vyse’s shoulder. “In a queer illogical way it evens up things, as it were. I did you a shabby turn once, years ago — oh, out of sheer carelessness, of course — about that novel of yours I promised to give to Apthorn. If I had given it, it might not have made any difference — I’m not sure it wasn’t too good for success — but anyhow, I dare say you thought my personal influence might have helped you, might at least have got you a quicker hearing. Perhaps you thought it was because the thing was so good that I kept it back, that I felt some nasty jealousy of your superiority. I swear to you it wasn’t that — I clean forgot it. And one day when I came home it was gone: you’d sent and taken it. And I’ve always thought since you might have owed me a grudge — and not unjustly; so this . . . this business of the letters . . . the sympathy you’ve shown . . . for I suppose it is sympathy . . .?”
Vyse startled and checked him by a queer crackling laugh.
“It’s not sympathy?” broke in Betton, the moisture drying out of his voice. He withdrew his hand from Vyse’s shoulder. “What is it, then? The joy of uncovering my nakedness? An eye for an eye? Is it that?”
Vyse rose from his seat, and with a mechanical gesture swept into a heap all the letters he had sorted.
“I’m stone broke, and wanted to keep my job — that’s what it is,” he said wearily . . .
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02