After that evening I became a regular and welcome visitor at Lord Elton's house, and was soon on terms of the most friendly intimacy with all the members of his family, including even the severely pious Miss Charlotte Fitzroy. It was not difficult for me to see that my matrimonial aspirations were suspected,—and though the encouragement I received from Lady Sibyl herself was so slight as to make me doubtful whether, after all, my hopes of winning her would ever be realized, the Earl made no secret of his delight at the idea of securing me as a son-in-law. Such wealth as mine was not to be met with every day,—and even had I been a blackleg of the turf, or a retired jockey, instead of an 'author,' I should, "with five millions at my back, have been considered quite as desirable a suitor for the Lady Sibyl's hand. Rimanez scarcely ever went with me to the Eltons' now, pleading as excuse much pressing business and many social engagements. I was not altogether sorry for this. Greatly as I admired and honoured him, his extraordinary physical beauty and fascination of manner were in dangerous contrast to my merely 'ordinary goodlooking' personality, and it seemed to me impossible that any woman, seeing much of him, could be expected to give me the preference. All the same I had no fear that he would ever voluntarily become my rival,—his antipathy to women was too deep-rooted and sincere for that. On this point indeed his feelings were so strong and passionate, that I often wondered why the society sirens who eagerly courted his attention remained so blind and unconscious to the chill cynicism that lurked beneath his seeming courtesy,—the cutting satire that was coupled with apparent compliment, and the intensity of hatred that flamed under the assumed expression of admiring homage in his flashing eyes. However, it was not my business to point out to those who could not or would not see, the endless peculiarities of my friend's variable disposition. I did not pay much heed to them even so far as I myself was concerned, for I had grown accustomed to the quick changes he was wont to ring on all the gamut of human feeling, and absorbed in my own life-schemes I did not trouble myself to intimately study the man who had in a couple of months become my fidus Achates. I was engrossed at the moment in doing all I could to increase the Earl of Elton's appreciative sense of my value as a man and a millionaire, and to this end I paid some of his pressing debts, lent him a large sum of money without demanding interest or promise of repayment, and stocked his cellar with presents of such rare old wines as he had not been able to afford to purchase for himself for many years. Thus was confidence easily engendered between us, even to that point of affection which displayed itself in his lordship's readiness to thrust his arm through mine when we sauntered together down Piccadilly, and his calling me 'my dear boy' in public. Never shall I forget the bewildered amazement of the scrubby little editor of a sixpenny magazine who met me face to face thus accompanied in the Park one morning! That he knew the Earl of Elton by sight was evident, and that he also knew me, his apoplectic stare confessed. He had pompously refused to even read any of my offered contributions on the ground that I had'no name,'—and now!—he would have given a month's salary if I had but condescended to recognize him. I did not so condescend,— but passed him by, listening to, and laughing with my intended future father-in-law, who was retailing an extremely ancient joke for my benefit. The incident was slight, even trumpery, —yet it put me in a good humour, for one of the chiefest pleasures I had out of my wealth was the ability to repay with vengeful interest all the contempt and insult that had beaten me back from every chance of earning a livelihood while I was poor.
In all my visits to the Eltons, I never saw the paralyzed Countess again. Since the last terrible visitation of her dread disease, she had not moved. She merely lived and breathed —no more. Lord Elton told me that the worst part of her illness at present, so far as it affected those who had to attend upon her, was the particularly hideous alteration of her face.
"The fact is," he said, not without a shudder, "she's dreadful to look at,—positively dreadful!—no longer human, you know. She used to be a lovely woman,—now she is literally frightful. Her eyes especially;—they are as scared and wild as if she had seen the devil. Quite an awful expression I assure you !—and it never alters. The doctors can do nothing—and of course it's very trying for Sibyl, and for everybody.''
I assented sympathetically; and realizing that a house holding such a figure of living death within it must of necessity be more or less gloomy and depressing to a young and vigorous nature, I lost no opportunity of giving Lady Sibyl whatever slight pleasures were in my power to procure for her distraction and entertainment. Costly flowers, boxes for the opera and 'first nights' at the play,—every sort of attention that a man can pay to a woman without being considered officious or intrusive I offered, and was not repulsed. Everything progressed well and favourably towards the easy attainment of my wishes,—I had no difficulties, no troubles of any kind, and I voluntarily led a life of selfishly absorbed personal gratification, being commended and encouraged therein by a whole host of flatterers and interested acquaintances. Willowsmere Court was mine; and every newspaper in the kingdom had commented on the purchase, in either servile or spiteful paragraphs. My lawyers had warmly congratulated me on the possession of so admirable a property which they, in strict accordance with what they conceived to be their duty, had personally inspected and approved. The place was now in the hands of a firm of decorators and furnishers, recommended by Rimanez, and it was expected to be in perfect order for my habitation in early summer, at which time I purposed entertaining a large house-party of more or less distinguished people.
Meantime, what I had once considered would be the great event of my life, took place,—namely the publication of my book. Trumpeted forth by the most heraldic advertisements, it was at last launched on the uncertain and fluctuating tide of public favour, and special 'advance' copies were sent to the office of every magazine and journal in London. The day after this was done, Lucio, as I now familiarly called him, came into my room with a mysterious and mischievous air.
"Geoffrey," he said, "I'm going to lend you five hundred pounds!''
I looked up with a smile.
He held out a cheque towards me. Glancing at it I saw that the sum he mentioned was filled in and endorsed with his signature, but that the name of the person to whom the money was to be made payable, had not yet been written.
"Well ?—What does it mean?"
"It means," replied he, "that I am going to see Mr McWhing this morning. I have an appointment with him at twelve. You, as Geoffrey Tempest, the author of the book Mr McWhing is going to criticise and make a 'boom' of, could not possibly put your name to such a cheque. It would not be 'good form'—it might crop up afterwards and so betray 'the secrets of the prison-house.' But for me it is another affair. I am going to 'pose' as your businessman—your 'literary agent' who pockets ten per cent of the profits, and wants to make a 'big thing' out of you, and I'm going to talk the matter over with the perfectly practical McWhing who has, like every true Scot, a keen eye for the main chance. Of course it will be in confidence,—strict confidence!" and he laughed. "It's a'l a question of business you know,—in these commercial days, literature has become a trade like everything else, and even critics only work for what pays them. As indeed why should they not?"
"Do you mean to tell me McWhing will take that five hundred?" I asked dubiously.
"I mean to tell you nothing of the kind. I would not put the matter so coarsely for the world! This money is not for McWhing,—it is for a literarv charity."
"Indeed! I thought you had an idea perhaps of offering a bribe … "
"Bribe! Good Heavens! Bribe a critic! Impossible, my good Geoffrey !—such a thing was never heard of— never, never, never!" and he shook his head and rolled up his eyes with infinite solemnity. "No, no! Press people never take money for anything,—not even for 'booming' a new gold-mining company,—not even for putting a notice of a fashionable concert into the Morning Post. Everything in the English press is the just expression of pure and lofty sentiment, believe me! This little cheque is for a charity of which Mr McWhing is chief patron,—you see the Civil List pensions all go by favour to the wrong persons now-adays; to the keeping of lunatic versifiers, and retired actresses who never could act—the actual bona-fide 'genius' never gets anything out of Government, and moreover would scorn to take a farthing from that penurious body, which grudges him anything higher than a money-recognition. It is as great an insult to offer a beggarly pension of fifty or a hundred pounds a year to a really great writer, as to give him a knighthood,—and we cannot fall much lower than to be a knight, as knights go. The present five hundred pounds will help to relieve certain 'poor and proud' but pressing literary cases known to McWhing alone!'' His expression at this moment was so extraordinary, that I entirely failed to fathom it. "I have no doubt I shall be able to represent the benevolent and respectable literary agent to perfection—of course I shall insist on my ten per cent!"—and he began laughing again. "But I can't stop to discuss the matter now with you —I'm off. I promised McWhing to be with him at twelve o'clock precisely, and it's now half-past-eleven. I shall probably lunch with him, so don't wait for me. And concerning the five hundred, you needn't be in my debt an hour longer than you like—I'll take a cheque for the money back from you this evening.''
"All right," I said. "But perhaps the great oracle of the cliques will reject your proposals with scorn."
"If he does, then is Utopia realized!'' replied Lucio, carefully drawing on his gloves as he spoke. "Where's a copy of your book? Ah, here's one, smelling newly of the press," and he slipped the volume into his overcoat pocket. "Allow me, before departure, to express the opinion that you are a singularly ungrateful fellow Geoffrey! Here am I, perfectly devoted to your interests,—and despite my 'princedom' actually prepared to 'pose' to McWing as your 'acting manager' pro tern, and you haven't so much as a 'thank-you' to throw at me!"
He stood before me smiling, the personification of kindness and good humour. I laughed a little.
"McWhing will never take you for an acting manager or literary agent," I said. "You don't look it. If I seem churlish, I'm sorry—but the fact is I am disgusted … "
"At what?" he inquired, still smiling.
"Oh, at the humbug of everything," I answered impatiently; "the stupid farce of it all. Why shouldn't a book get noticed on its own merits without any appeal to cliquism and influential wire-pulling on the press?"
"Exactly!" and he delicately flicked a grain of dust off" his coat while speaking. "And why shouldn't a man get received in society on his own merits, without any money to recommend him, or any influential friend to back him up?"
I was silent.
"The world is as it is made," he went on, regarding me fixedly. "It is moved by the lowest and pettiest motives,—it works for the most trivial, ridiculous, and perishable aims. It is not a paradise. It is not a happy family of united and affectionate brethren. It is an over-populated colony of jabbering and quarrelsome monkeys, who fancy they are men. Philosophers in old days tried to teach it that the monkeytype should be exterminated for the growth and encouragement of a nobler race,but they preached in vain,—there never were enough real men alive to overcome the swarming majority of the beasts. God Himself, they say, came down from Heaven to try and set wrong things right, and to restore if possible His own defaced image to the general aspect of humanity,— and even He failed."
"There is very little of God in this world,y I said bitterly. "There is much more Devil!"
He smiled,—a musing, dreamy smile that transfigured his countenance and made him look like a fine Apollo absorbed in the thought of some new and glorious song.
"No doubt!" he said, after a little pause. "Mankind certainly prefer the devil to any other deity,—therefore if they elect him as their representative, it is scarcely to be wondered at that he governs, where he is asked to govern. And yet— do you know, Geoffrey—this devil,—if there is one,—can hardly, I think, be quite so bad as his detractors say. I myself don't believe he is a whit worse than a nineteenth-century financier!"
I laughed aloud at the comparison.
"After that," I said, "you had better go to McWhing. I hope you will tell him that I am the triple essence of all the newest 'discoveries' rolled into one."
"Never fear!" returned Lucio. "I've learned all my stockphrases by heart,—a 'star of the first magnitude,' etc.,—I've read the Athenaum till I've got the lingo of the literary auctioneer well-nigh perfect, and I believe I shall acquit myself admirably. Aurevoir!"
He was gone; and I, after a little desultory looking over my papers, went out to lunch at Arthur's, of which club I was now a member. On my way I stopped to look in at a bookseller's window to see if my 'immortal' production was yet on show. It was not,—and the volume put most conspicuously to the front among all the 'newest books' was one entitled 'Differences. By Mavis Clare.' Acting on a sudden impulse I went in to purchase it.
"Has this a good sale !" I asked, as the volume was handed to me.
The clerk at the counter opened his eyes wide.
"Sale?" he echoed. "Well, I should think so—rather! Why, everybody's reading it!"
"Indeed;" and I turned over the uncut pages carelessly. "I see no allusion whatever to it in the papers."
The clerk smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"No—and you're not likely to, sir," he said. "Miss Clare is too popular to need reviews. Besides, a large number of the critics, the 'log-rollers' especially, are mad against her for her success, and the public know it. Only the other day a man came in here from one of the big newspaper offices aud told me he was taking a few notes on the books which had the largest sales,—would I tell him which author's works were most in demand? I said Miss Clare took the lead,— as she does,—and he got into a regular rage. Said he, 'That's the answer I've had all along the line, and however true it is, it's no use to me, because I dare not mention it. My editor would instantly scratch it out—he hates Miss Clare.' 'A precious editor you've got!' I said, and he looked rather queer. There's nothing like journalism, sir, for the suppression of truth !''
I smiled, and went away with my purchase, convinced that I had wasted a few shillings on a mere piece of woman's trash. If this Mavis Clare was indeed so 'popular,' then her work must naturally be of the 'penny dreadful' order, for I, like many another literary man, laboured under the ludicrous inconsistency of considering the public an 'ass' while I myself desired nothing so much as the said 'ass's' applause and approval!—and therefore I could not imagine it capable of voluntarily selecting for itself any good work of literature without guidance from the critics. Of course I was wrong; the great masses of the public in all nations are always led by some instinctive sense of right, that moves them to reject the false and unworthy, and select the true. Completely prepared, like most men of my type, to sneer and cavil at the book, chiefly because it was written by a feminine hand, I sat down in a retired corner of the club reading-room, and began to cut and skim the pages. I had not read many sentences before my heart sank with a heavy sense of fear and,— jealousy!—the slow fire of an insidious envy began to smoulder in my mind. What power had so gifted this author—this mere woman—that she should dare to write better than I! And that she should force me, by the magic of her pen to mentally acknowledge, albeit with wrath and shame, my own inferiority! Clearness of thought, brilliancy of style, beauty of diction, all these were hers, united to consummate ease of expression and artistic skill,—and all at once, in the very midst of reading, such a violent impulse of insensate rage possessed me that I flung the book down, dreading to go on with it. The potent, resistless, unpurchasable quality of Genius!—ah, I was not yet so blinded by my own conceit as to be unable to recognise that divine fire when I saw it flashing up from every page, as I saw it now; but, to be compelled to give that recognition to a woman's work, galled and irritated me almost beyond endurance. Women, I considered, should be kept in their places as men's drudges or toys,—as wives, mothers, nurses, cooks, menders of socks and shirts, and housekeepers generally,—what right had they to intrude into the realms of art and snatch the laurels from their masters' brows? If I could but get the chance of reviewing this book, I thought to myself savagely! I would misquote, misrepresent, and cut it to shreds with a joy too great for words! This Mavis Clare—'unsexed,' as I at once called her in my own mind, simply because she had the power I lacked—wrote what she had to say with a gracious charm, freedom, and innate consciousness of strength, —a strength which forced me back upon myself and filled me with the bitterest humiliation. Without knowing her I hated her,—this woman who could win fame without the aid of money, and who was crowned so brightly and visibly to the world that she was beyond criticism. I took up her book again, and tried to cavil at it,—over one or two dainty bits of poetic simile and sentiment I laughed,—enviously. When I left the club later in the day, I took the book with me, divided between a curious desire to read it honestly through, with justice to it and its author, and an impulse to tear it asunder and fling it into the road to be crushed in the mud under rolling cab and cart wheels. In this strange humour Rimanez found me, when at about four o'clock he returned from his mission to David McWhing, smiling and—triumphant.
"Congratulate me, Geoffrey!" he exclaimed as he entered my room. "Congratulate me, and yourself! I am minus the five hundred pound cheque I showed you this morning!"
"McWhing has pocketed it then," I said sullenly. "All right! Much good may it do him, and his 'charity'!"
Rimanez gave me a quick observant glance.
"Why, what has happened to you since we parted?" he inquired, throwing off his overcoat and sitting down opposite to me. "You seem out of temper! Yet you ought to be a perfectly happy man—for your highest ambition is about to be gratified. You said you wished to make your book and yourself ' the talk of London,'—well, within the next two or three weeks you will see yourself praised in a very large number of influential newspapers as the newest discovered 'genius' of the day, only a little way removed from Shakespeare himself (three of the big leading magazines are guaranteed to say that), and all this through the affability of Mr McWhing and the trifling sum of five hundred pounds! And are you not satisfied? Really, my friend, you are becoming difficult!—I warned you that too much good fortune spoils a man."
With a sudden movement I flung down Mavis Clare's book before him.
"Look at this," I said. "Does she pay five hundred pounds to David McWhing's charity?"
He took up the volume and glanced at it.
"Certainly not. But then,—she gets slandered, not criticised!"
"What does that matter!" I retorted. "The man from whom I bought this book says that everybody is reading it."
"Exactly!" and Rimanez surveyed me with a curious expression, half of pity, half of amusement. "But you know the old axiom, my dear Geoffrey?—'you may lead a horse to the water but you cannot make him drink.' Which statement, interpreted for the present occasion, means that though certain log-rollers, headed by our estimable friend McWhing, may drag the horse—i.e. the public—up to their own particularly prepared literary trough, they cannot force it to swallow the mixture. The horse frequently turns tail and runs away in search of its own provender,—it has done so in the case of Miss Clare. When the public choose an author for themselves, it is a dreadful thing of course for other authors,—but it really can't be helped!"
"Why should they choose Mavis Clare?" I demanded gloomily.
"Ah, why indeed!" he echoed smiling. "McWhing would tell you they do it out of sheer idiotcy;—the public would answer that they choose her because she has genius."
"Genius!" I repeated scornfully. "The public are perfectly incapable of recognising such a quality!"
"You think so!" he said still smiling—"you really think so? In that case it's very odd isn't it, how everything that is truly great in art and literature becomes so widely known and honoured, not only in this country, but in every civilized land where people think or study? You must remember that all the very famous men and women have been steadily 'written down' in their day, even to the late English Laureate, Tennyson, who was 'criticised' for the most part in the purest 'Billingsgate';—it is only the mediocrities who are ever 'written up.' It seems as if the stupid public really had a hand in selecting these 'great,' for the reviewers would never stand them at any price, till driven to acknowledge them by the popular force majeure. But considering the barbarous want of culture and utter foolishness of the public, Geoffrey, what /wonder at, is that you should care to appeal to it at all!"
I sat silent,—inwardly chafing under his remarks.
"I am afraid," he resumed, rising and taking a white flower from one of the vases on the table to pin in his buttonhole, "that Miss Clare is going to be a thorn in your side, my friend! A man rival in literature is bad enough,—but a woman rival is too much to endure with any amount of patience! However, you may console yourself with the certainty that she will never get 'boomed,'—while you—thanks to my tender fostering of the sensitive and high-principled McWhing, will be the one delightful and unique 'discovery' of the press for at least one month, perhaps two, which is about as long as any 'new star of the first magnitude' lasts in the latter-day literary skies. Shooting-stars, all of them!— such as poor old forgotten Beranger sang of—
"les e^oiles qui filent, 'Qui filent,—qui filent—et disparaissent!'"
"Except—Mavis Clare!" I said.
"True! Except Mavis Clare!" and he laughed aloud,— a laugh that jarred upon me because there was a note of mockery in it. "She is a small fixture in the vast heavens,— or so it seems,—revolving very contentedly and smoothly in her own appointed orbit,—but she is not, and never will be attended by the brilliant meteor-flames that will burst round you, my excellent fellow, at the signal of McWhing! Fie, Geoffrey!—get over your sulks! Jealous of a woman! Be ashamed,—is not woman the inferior creature! and shall the mere spectre of a feminine fame cause a five-fold millionaire to abase his lofty spirit in the dust? Conquer your strange fit of the spleen, Geoffrey, and join me at dinner!"
He laughed again as he left the room,—and again his laughter irritated me. When he had gone, I gave way to the base and unworthy impulse that had for some minutes been rankling within me, and sitting down at my writing table, penned a hasty note to the editor of a rather powerful magazine, a man whom I had formerly known and worked for. He was aware of my altered fortunes, and the influential position I now occupied, and I felt confident he would be glad to oblige me in any matter if he could. My letter, marked 'private and confidential,' contained the request that I might be permitted to write for his next number, an anonymous 'slashing' review of the new novel entitled 'Differences' by Mavis Clare.