Richard Middleton.

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thought her forgetful had I not seen an instant of patent pain in her
wide eyes.

"I'm sorry," I said at length "very, very, sorry indeed. I had
brought down my car to take you for a drive, as I promised."

"Oh! Edward _would_ have liked that," she answered thoughtfully; "he
was so fond of motors." She swung round suddenly and looked at the
sands behind her with staring eyes.

"I thought I heard - " she broke off in confusion.

I, too, had believed for an instant that I had heard something
that was not the wind or the distant children or the smooth sea
hissing along the beach. During that golden summer which linked
me with the dead, Edward had been wont, in moments of elation,
to puff up and down the sands, in artistic representation of a
nobby, noisy motor-car. But the dead may play no more, and there
was nothing there but the sands and the hot sky and Dorothy.

"You had better let me take you for a run, Dorothy," I said. "The man
will drive, and we can talk as we go along."

She nodded gravely, and began pulling on her sandy stockings.

"It did not hurt him," she said inconsequently.

The restraint in her voice pained me like a blow.

"Oh, don't, dear, don't!" I cried, "There is nothing to do but
forget."

"I have forgotten, quite," she answered, pulling at her shoe-laces
with calm fingers. "It was ten months ago."

We walked up to the front, where the car was waiting, and Dorothy
settled herself among the cushions with a little sigh of contentment,
the human quality of which brought me a certain relief. If only she
would laugh or cry! I sat down by her side, but the man waited by the
open door.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I'm sorry, sir," he answered, looking about him in confusion, "I
thought I saw a young gentleman with you."

He shut the door with a bang, and in a minute we were running through
the town. I knew that Dorothy was watching my face with her wounded
eyes; but I did not look at her until the green fields leapt up on
either side of the white road.

"It is only for a little while that we may not see him," I said; "all
this is nothing."

"I have forgotten," she repeated. "I think this is a very nice
motor."

I had not previously complained of the motor, but I was wishing then
that it would cease its poignant imitation of a little dead boy, a
boy who would play no more. By the touch of Dorothy's sleeve against
mine I knew that she could hear it too. And the miles flew by, green
and brown and golden, while I wondered what use I might be in the
world, who could not help a child to forget, Possibly there was
another way, I thought.

"Tell me how it happened," I said.

Dorothy looked at me with inscrutable eyes, and spoke in a voice
without emotion.

"He caught a cold, and was very ill in bed. I went in to see him,
and he was all white and faded. I said to him, `How are you Edward?'
and he said, `I shall get up early in the morning to catch beetles.'
I didn't see him any more."

"Poor little chap!" I murmured.

"I went to the funeral," she continued monotonously, "It was very
rainy, and I threw a little bunch of flowers down into the hole.
There was a whole lot of flowers there; but I think Edward liked
apples better than flowers."

"Did you cry?" I said cruelly.

She paused. "I don't know. I suppose so. It was a long time ago; I
think I have forgotten."

Even while she spoke I heard Edward puffing along the sands: Edward
who had been so fond of apples.

"I cannot stand this any longer," I said aloud. "Let's get out and
walk in the woods for a change."

She agreed, with a depth of comprehension that terrified me; and the
motor pulled up with a jerk at a spot where hardly a post served to
mark where the woods commenced and the wayside grass stopped. We took
one of the dim paths which the rabbits had made and forced our way
through the undergrowth into the peaceful twilight of the trees.

"You haven't got very sunburnt this year," I said as we walked.

"I don't know why. I've been out on the beach all the days.
Sometimes I've played, too."

I did not ask her what games she had played, or who had been her
play-friend. Yet even there in the quiet woods I knew that Edward was
holding her back from me. It is true that, in his boy's way, he had
been fond of me; but I should not have dared to take her out without
him in the days when his live lips had filled the beach with song,
and his small brown body had danced among the surf. Now it seemed
that I had been disloyal to him.

And presently we came to a clearing where the leaves of forgotten
years lay brown and rotten beneath our feet, and the air was full of
the dryness of death.

"Let's be going back. What do you think, Dorothy?" I said.

"I think," she said slowly, - "I think that this would be a very good
place to catch beetles."

A wood is full of secret noises, and that is why, I suppose, we
heard a pair of small quick feet come with a dance of triumph
through the rustling bracken. For a minute we listened deeply, and
then Dorothy broke from my side with a piercing call on her lips.

"Oh, Edward, Edward!" she cried; "Edward!"

But the dead may play no more, and presently she came back to me with
the tears that are the riches of childhood streaming down her face.

"I can hear him, I can hear him," she sobbed; "but I cannot see him.
Never, never again."

And so I led her back to the motor. But in her tears I seemed to
find a promise of peace that she had not known before.

Now Edward was no very wonderful little boy; it may be that he was
jealous and vain and greedy; yet now, it seemed as he lay in his
small grave with the memory of Dorothy's flowers about him, he had
wrought this kindness for his sister. Yes, even though we heard no
more than the birds in the branches and the wind swaying the scented
bracken; even though he had passed with another summer, and the dead
and the love of the dead may rise no more from the grave.




The Story Of A Book

I. THE WRITER

The history of a book must necessarily begin with the history of its
author, for surely in these enlightened days neither the youngest nor
the oldest of critics can believe that works of art are found under
gooseberry-bushes or in the nests of storks. In truth, I am by no
means sure that everybody knew this before the publication of "The
Man Shakespeare," and for the sake of a mystified posterity it may be
well to explain that there was once a school of criticism that
thought it indecent to pry into that treasure-house of individuality
from which, if we reject the nursery hypotheses mentioned above, it
is clearly obvious that authors derive their works. That the drama
must needs be closely related to the dramatist is just one of those
simple discoveries that invariably elude the subtle professional
mind; but in this wiser hour I may be permitted to assume that the
author was the conscious father of his novel, and that he did not
find it surprisingly in his pocket one morning, like a bad shilling
taken in change from the cabman overnight.

Before he published his novel at the ripe age of thirty-seven the
author had lived an irreproachable and gentlemanly life. Born with at
least a German-silver spoon in his mouth, he passed, after a normally
eventful childhood, through a respectable public school, and spent
several agreeable years at Cambridge without taking a degree. He then
went into his uncle's office in the City, where he idled daily from
ten to four, till in due course he was admitted to a partnership,
which enabled him to reduce his hours of idleness to eleven to three.
These details become important when we reflect that from his
childhood on the author had a great deal of time at his disposal. If
he had been entirely normal, he would have accepted the conventions
of the society to which he belonged, and devoted himself to motoring,
bridge, and the encouragement of the lighter drama. But some
deep-rooted habit of his childhood, or even perhaps some remote
hereditary taint, led him to spend an appreciable fraction of his
leisure time in the reading of works of fiction. Unlike most lovers
of light literature, he read with a certain mental concentration, and
was broad-minded enough to read good novels as well as bad ones.

It is a pleasant fact that it is impossible to concentrate one's mind
on anything without in time becoming wiser, and in the course of
years the author became quite a skilful critic of novels. From the
first he had allowed his reading to colour his impressions of life,
and had obediently lived in a world of blacks and whites, of heroes
and heroines, of villains and adventuresses, until the grateful
discovery of the realistic school of fiction permitted him to believe
that men and women were for the most part neither good nor bad, but
tabby. Moreover, the leisurely reading of many sentences had given
him some understanding of the elements of style. He perceived that
some combinations of words were illogical, and that others were
unlovely to the ear; and at the same time he acquired a vocabulary
and a knowledge of grammar and punctuation that his earlier education
had failed to give him. He read new novels at his writing-table, and
took pleasure in correcting the mistakes of their authors in ink.
When he had done this, he would hand them to his wife, who always
read the end first, and, indeed, rarely pursued her investigation of
a book beyond the last chapter.

We buy knowledge with illusions, and pay a high price for it, for the
acquirement of quite a small degree of wisdom will deprive us of a
large number of pleasant fancies. So it was with the author, who
found his joy in novel-reading diminishing rapidly as his critical
knowledge increased. He was no longer able to lose himself between
the covers of a romance, but slid his paper-knife between the pages
of a book with an unwholesome readiness to be irritated by the
ignorance and folly of the novelist. His destructive criticism of
works of fiction became so acute that it was natural that his
unlettered friends should suggest that he himself ought to write a
novel. For a long while he was content to receive the flattering
suggestion with a reticent smile that masked his conviction that
there was a difference between criticism and creation. But as he grew
older the imperfections in the books he read ceased to give him the
thrill of the successful explorer in sight of the expected, and time
began to trickle too slowly through his idle fingers. One day he sat
down and wrote "Chapter I." at the head of a sheet of quarto paper.

It seemed to him that the difficulty was only one of selection, and
he wrote two-thirds of a novel with a breathless ease of creation
that made him marvel at himself and the pitiful struggles of less
gifted novelists. Then in a moment of insight he picked up his
manuscript and realised that what he had written was childishly
crude. He had felt his story while he wrote it, but somehow or other
he had failed to get his emotions on paper, and he saw quite clearly
that it was worse and not better than the majority of the books which
he had held up to ridicule.

There was a certain doggedness in his character that might have made
him a useful citizen but for that unfortunate hereditary spoon, and
he wrote "Chapter I." at the head of a new sheet of quarto paper long
before the library fire had reached the heart of his first luckless
manuscript. This time he wrote more slowly, and with a waning
confidence that failed him altogether when he was about half-way
through. Reading the fragment dispassionately he thought there were
good pages in it, but, taken as a whole, it was unequal, and moved
forward only by fits and starts. He began again with his late
manuscript spread about him on the table for reference. At the fifth
attempt he succeeded in writing a whole novel.

In the course of his struggles he had acquired a philosophy of
composition. Especially he had learned to shun those enchanted hours
when the labour of creation became suspiciously easy, for he had
found by experience that the work he did in these moments of
inspiration was either bad in itself or out of key with the preceding
chapters. He thought that inspiration might be useful to poets or
writers of short stories, but personally as a novelist he found it a
nuisance. By dint of hard work, however, he succeeded in eliminating
its evil influence from his final draft. He told himself that he had
no illusions as to the merits of his book. He knew he was not a man
of genius, but he knew also that the grammar and the punctuation of
his novel were far above the average of such works, and although he
could not read Sir Thomas Browne or Walter Pater with pleasure, he
felt sure that his book was written in a straightforward and
gentlemanly style. He was prepared to be told that his use of the
colon was audacious, and looked forward with pleasure to an agreeable
controversy on the question.

He read his book to his friends, who made suggestions that would have
involved its rewriting from one end to the other. He read it to his
enemies, who told him that it was nearly good enough to publish; he
read it to his wife, who said that it was very nice, and that it was
time to dress for dinner. No one seemed to realise that it was the
most important thing he had ever done in his life. This quickened his
eagerness to get it published - an eagerness only tempered by a very
real fear of those knowing dogs, the critics. He could not forget
that he had criticised a good many books himself in terms that would
have made the authors abandon their profession if they had but heard
his strictures; and he had read notices in the papers that would have
made him droop with shame if they had referred to any work of his.
When these sombre thoughts came to him he would pick up his book and
read it again, and in common fairness he had to admit to himself that
he found it uncommonly good.

One day, after a whole batch of ungrammatical novels had reached him
from the library, he posted his manuscript to his favourite
publisher. He had heard stories of masterpieces many times rejected,
so he did not tell his wife what he had done.

II. The Sleepy Publisher

The publisher to whom our author had confided his manuscript stood,
like all publishers, at the very head of his profession. His business
was conducted on sound conservative lines, which means that though he
had regretfully abandoned the three-volume novel for the novel
published at six shillings, he was not among the intrepid
revolutionaries who were beginning to produce new fiction at a still
lower price. Besides novels he published solid works of biography at
thirty-one and six, art books at a guinea, travel books at fifteen
shillings, flighty historical works at twelve-and-sixpence, and cheap
editions of Montaigne's Essays and "Robinson Crusoe" at a shilling.
Some idea of his business methods may be derived from the fact that
it pleased him to reflect that all the other publishers were
producing exactly the same books as he was. And though he would admit
that the trade had been ruined by competition and the outrageous
royalties demanded by successful authors, and, further, that he made
a loss on every separate department of his business, in some
mysterious fashion the business as a whole continued to pay him very
well. He left the active part of the management to a confidential
clerk, and contented himself with signing cheques and interviewing
authors.

With such a publisher the fate of our author's book was never in
doubt. If it was lacking in those qualities that might be expected to
commend it to the reading public, it was conspicuously rich in those
merits that determine the favourable judgment of publishers' readers.
It was above all things a gentlemanly book, without violence and
without eccentricities. It was carefully and grammatically written;
but it had not that exotic literary flavour which is so tiresome on a
long railway journey. It could be put into the hands of any
schoolgirl, and at most would merely send her to sleep. The only
thing that could be said against it was that the author's dread of
inspiration had made it grievously dull, but it was the publisher's
opinion that after a glut of sensational fiction the six-shilling
public had come to regard dullness as the hall-mark of literary
merit. He had no illusions as to its possible success, but, on the
other hand, he knew that he could not lose any money on it, so he
wrote a letter to the author inviting him to an interview.

As soon as he had read the letter the author told himself that he
had been certain all along that his book would be accepted.
Nevertheless, he went to the interview moved by certain emotional
flutterings against which circumstance had guarded him ever since
his boyhood. He found this mild excitation of the nervous system by
no means unpleasant. It was like digesting a new and subtle liqueur
that made him light-footed and tingled in the tips of his fingers.
He recalled a phrase that had greatly pleased him in the early days
of his novel. "As the sun colours flowers, so Art colours life." It
seemed to him that this was beginning to come true, and that life
was already presenting itself to him in a gayer, brighter dress. He
reached the publisher's office, therefore, in an unwontedly
receptive mood, and was tremendously impressed by the rudeness of
the clerks, who treated authors as mendicants and expressed their
opinion of literature by handling books as if they were bundles of
firewood.

The publisher looked at him under heavy eyelids, recognised his
position in the social scale, and reflected with satisfaction that
his acquaintances could be relied on to purchase at least a hundred
copies. The interview did not at all take the lines that the author
in his innocence had expected, and in a surprisingly short space of
time he found himself bowed out, with the duplicate of a contract in
the pocket of his overcoat. In the outer office the confidential
clerk took him in hand and led him to the door of an enormous cellar,
lit by electricity and filled from one end to the other with bales
and heaps of books. "Books!" said the confidential clerk, with the
smile of a gamekeeper displaying his hand-reared pheasants. "There
are a great many," the author said timidly.

"Of course, we do not keep our stock here," the clerk explained.
"These are just samples." It was sometimes necessary to remind
inexperienced writers that the publication of their first book was
only a trivial incident in the history of a great publishing house.
The author had a sad vision of his novel as a little brick in a
monstrous pyramid built of books, and the clerk mentally decided that
he was not the kind of man to turn up every day at the office to ask
them how they were getting on.

The author was a little dazed when he emerged into the street and the
sunshine. His book, which an hour before had seemed the most
important thing in the world, had, become almost insignificant in the
light of that vast collection of printed matter, and in some subtle
way he felt that he had dwindled with it. The publisher had praised
it without enthusiasm and had not specified any of its merits; he had
not even commented on his fantastic use of the colon. The author had
lived with it now for many months - it had become a part of his
personality, and he felt that he had betrayed himself in delivering
it into the hands of strangers who could not understand it. He had
the reticence of the well-bred Englishman, and though he told himself
reassuringly that his novel in no way reflected his private life, he
could not quite overcome the sentiment that it was a little vulgar to
allow alien eyes to read the product of his most intimate thoughts.
He had really been shocked at the matter-of-fact way in which every
one at the office had spoken of his book, and the sight of all the
other books with which it would soon be inextricably confused had
emphasised the painful impression. This all seemed to rob the
author's calling of its presumed distinction, and he looked at the
men and women who passed him on the pavement, and wondered whether
they too had written books.

This mood lasted for some weeks, at the end of which time he received
the proofs, which he read and re-read with real pleasure before
setting himself to correcting them with meticulous care. He performed
this task with such conscientiousness, and made so many minor
alterations - he changed most of those flighty colons to more
conventional semicolons - that the confidential clerk swore terribly
when he glanced at the proofs before handing them to a boy, with
instructions to remove three-quarters of the offending emendations.
A week or two later there happened one of those strange little
incidents that make modern literary history. It was a bright, sunny
afternoon; the publisher had been lunching with the star author of
the firm, a novelist whose books were read wherever the British flag
waved and there was a circulating library to distribute them, and
now, in the warm twilight of the lowered blinds he was enjoying
profound thoughts, delicately tinted by burgundy and old port. The
shrewdest men make mistakes, and certainly it was hardly wise of the
confidential clerk to choose this peaceful moment to speak about our
author's book. "I suppose we shall print a thousand?" he said. "Five
thousand!" ejaculated the publisher. What was he thinking about? Was
he filling up an imaginary income-tax statement, or was he trying to
estimate the number of butterflies that seemed to float in the amber
shadows of the room? The clerk did not know. "I suppose you mean one
thousand, sir?" he said gently. The publisher was now wide awake. He
had lost all his butterflies, and he was not the man to allow himself
to be sleepy in the afternoon. "I said five thousand!" The clerk bit
his lip and left the room.

The author never heard of this brief dialogue; probably if he had
been present he would have missed its significance. He would never
have connected it with the flood of paragraphs that appeared in the
Press announcing that the acumen of the publisher had discovered a
new author of genius - paragraphs wherein he was compared with
Dickens, Thackeray, Flaubert, Richardson, Sir Walter Besant, Thomas
Browne, and the author of "An Englishwoman's Love-letters." As it
was, it did not occur to him to wonder why the publisher should spend
so much money on advertising a book of which he had seemed to have
but a half-hearted appreciation. After all it was his book, and the
author felt that it was only natural that as the hour of publication
drew near the world of letters should show signs of a dignified
excitement.

III. The Critic Errant

There are some emotions so intimate that the most intrepid writer
hesitates to chronicle them lest it should be inferred that he
himself is in the confessional. We have endeavoured to show our
author as a level-headed English-man with his nerves well under
control and an honest contempt for emotionalism in the stronger sex;
but his feelings in the face of the first little bundle of reviews
sent him by the press-cutting agency would prove this portrait
incomplete. He noticed with a vague astonishment that the flimsy
scraps of paper were trembling in his fingers like banknotes in the
hands of a gambler, and he laid them down on the breakfast-table in
disgust of the feminine weakness. This unmistakable proof that he had
written a book, a real book, made him at once happy and uneasy. These
fragments of smudged prints were his passport into a new and
delightful world; they were, it might be said, the name of his
destination in the great republic of letters, and yet he hesitated to
look at them. He heard of the curious blindness of authors that made
it impossible for them to detect the most egregious failings in their
own work, and it occurred to him that this might be his malady. Why:
had he published his book? He felt at that moment that he had taken
too great a risk. It would have been so easy to have had it privately
printed and contented himself with distributing it among his friends.
But these people were paid for writing about books, these critics who
had sent Keats to his gallipots and Swinburne to his fig-tree, might
well have failed to have recognised that his book was sacred, because
it was his own.

When he had at last achieved a fatalistic tranquillity, he once more
picked up the notices, and this time he read them through carefully.
The _Rutlandshire Gazette_ quoted Shakespeare, the _Thrums Times_


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Online LibraryRichard MiddletonThe Ghost Ship → online text (page 6 of 12)