On an evening of early summer, six months after the death of Edwin Reardon, Jasper of the facile pen was bending over his desk, writing rapidly by the warm western light which told that sunset was near. Not far from him sat his younger sister; she was reading, and the book in her hand bore the title, ‘Mr Bailey, Grocer.’
‘How will this do?’ Jasper exclaimed, suddenly throwing down his pen.
And he read aloud a critical notice of the book with which Dora was occupied; a notice of the frankly eulogistic species, beginning with: ‘It is seldom nowadays that the luckless reviewer of novels can draw the attention of the public to a new work which is at once powerful and original;’ and ending: ‘The word is a bold one, but we do not hesitate to pronounce this book a masterpiece.’
‘Is that for The Current?’ asked Dora, when he had finished.
‘No, for The West End. Fadge won’t allow anyone but himself to be lauded in that style. I may as well do the notice for The Current now, as I’ve got my hand in.’
He turned to his desk again, and before daylight failed him had produced a piece of more cautious writing, very favourable on the whole, but with reserves and slight censures. This also he read to Dora.
‘You wouldn’t suspect they were written by the same man, eh?’
‘No. You have changed the style very skilfully.’
‘I doubt if they’ll be much use. Most people will fling the book down with yawns before they’re half through the first volume. If I knew a doctor who had many cases of insomnia in hand, I would recommend "Mr Bailey" to him as a specific.’
‘Oh, but it is really clever, Jasper!’
‘Not a doubt of it. I half believe what I have written. And if only we could get it mentioned in a leader or two, and so on, old Biffen’s fame would be established with the better sort of readers. But he won’t sell three hundred copies. I wonder whether Robertson would let me do a notice for his paper?’
‘Biffen ought to be grateful to you, if he knew,’ said Dora, laughing.
‘Yet, now, there are people who would cry out that this kind of thing is disgraceful. It’s nothing of the kind. Speaking seriously, we know that a really good book will more likely than not receive fair treatment from two or three reviewers; yes, but also more likely than not it will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week, and won’t have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute. The struggle for existence among books is nowadays as severe as among men. If a writer has friends connected with the press, it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him. What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie? The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to, and it’s only by volume of shouting that the ear of the public is held. What use is it to Biffen if his work struggles to slow recognition ten years hence? Besides, as I say, the growing flood of literature swamps everything but works of primary genius. If a clever and conscientious book does not spring to success at once, there’s precious small chance that it will survive. Suppose it were possible for me to write a round dozen reviews of this book, in as many different papers, I would do it with satisfaction. Depend upon it, this kind of thing will be done on that scale before long. And it’s quite natural. A man’s friends must be helped, by whatever means, quocunque modo, as Biffen himself would say.’
‘I dare say he doesn’t even think of you as a friend now.’
‘Very likely not. It’s ages since I saw him. But there’s much magnanimity in my character, as I have often told you. It delights me to be generous, whenever I can afford it.’
Dusk was gathering about them. As they sat talking, there came a tap at the door, and the summons to enter was obeyed by Mr Whelpdale.
‘I was passing,’ he said in his respectful voice, ‘and couldn’t resist the temptation.’
Jasper struck a match and lit the lamp. In this clearer light Whelpdale was exhibited as a young man of greatly improved exterior; he wore a cream-coloured waistcoat, a necktie of subtle hue, and delicate gloves; prosperity breathed from his whole person. It was, in fact, only a moderate prosperity to which he had as yet attained, but the future beckoned to him flatteringly.
Early in this year, his enterprise as ‘literary adviser’ had brought him in contact with a man of some pecuniary resources, who proposed to establish an agency for the convenience of authors who were not skilled in disposing of their productions to the best advantage. Under the name of Fleet & Co., this business was shortly set on foot, and Whelpdale’s services were retained on satisfactory terms. The birth of the syndicate system had given new scope to literary agencies, and Mr Fleet was a man of keen eye for commercial opportunities.
‘Well, have you read Biffen’s book?’ asked Jasper.
‘Wonderful, isn’t it! A work of genius, I am convinced. Ha! you have it there, Miss Dora. But I’m afraid it is hardly for you.’
‘And why not, Mr Whelpdale?’
‘You should only read of beautiful things, of happy lives. This book must depress you.’
‘But why will you imagine me such a feeble-minded person?’ asked Dora. ‘You have so often spoken like this. I have really no ambition to be a doll of such superfine wax.’
The habitual flatterer looked deeply concerned.
‘Pray forgive me!’ he murmured humbly, leaning forwards towards the girl with eyes which deprecated her displeasure. ‘I am very far indeed from attributing weakness to you. It was only the natural, unreflecting impulse; one finds it so difficult to associate you, even as merely a reader, with such squalid scenes.
The ignobly decent, as poor Biffen calls it, is so very far from that sphere in which you are naturally at home.’
There was some slight affectation in his language, but the tone attested sincere feeling. Jasper was watching him with half an eye, and glancing occasionally at Dora.
‘No doubt,’ said the latter, ‘it’s my story in The English Girl that inclines you to think me a goody-goody sort of young woman.’
‘So far from that, Miss Dora, I was only waiting for an opportunity to tell you how exceedingly delighted I have been with the last two weeks’ instalments. In all seriousness, I consider that story of yours the best thing of the kind that ever came under my notice. You seem to me to have discovered a new genre; such writing as this has surely never been offered to girls, and all the readers of the paper must be immensely grateful to you. I run eagerly to buy the paper each week; I assure you I do. The stationer thinks I purchase it for a sister, I suppose. But each section of the story seems to be better than the last. Mark the prophecy which I now make: when this tale is published in a volume its success will be great. You will be recognised, Miss Dora, as the new writer for modern English girls.’
The subject of this panegyric coloured a little and laughed. Unmistakably she was pleased.
‘Look here, Whelpdale,’ said Jasper, ‘I can’t have this; Dora’s conceit, please to remember, is, to begin with, only a little less than my own, and you will make her unendurable. Her tale is well enough in its way, but then its way is a very humble one.’
‘I deny it!’ cried the other, excitedly. ‘How can it be called a humble line of work to provide reading, which is at once intellectual and moving and exquisitely pure, for the most important part of the population – the educated and refined young people who are just passing from girlhood to womanhood?’
‘The most important fiddlestick!’
‘You are grossly irreverent, my dear Milvain. I cannot appeal to your sister, for she’s too modest to rate her own sex at its true value, but the vast majority of thoughtful men would support me. You yourself do, though you affect this profane way of speaking. And we know,’ he looked at Dora, ‘that he wouldn’t talk like this if Miss Yule were present.’
Jasper changed the topic of conversation, and presently Whelpdale was able to talk with more calmness. The young man, since his association with Fleet & Co., had become fertile in suggestions of literary enterprise, and at present he was occupied with a project of special hopefulness.
‘I want to find a capitalist,’ he said, ‘who will get possession of that paper Chat, and transform it according to an idea I have in my head. The thing is doing very indifferently, but I am convinced it might be made splendid property, with a few changes in the way of conducting it.’
‘The paper is rubbish,’ remarked Jasper, ‘and the kind of rubbish – oddly enough – which doesn’t attract people.’
‘Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. I have talked to the people about it again and again, but I can’t get them to believe what I say. Now just listen to my notion. In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat I should call it Chit-Chat!’
Jasper exploded with mirth.
‘That’s brilliant!’ he cried. ‘A stroke of genius!’
‘Are you serious? Or are you making fun of me? I believe it is a stroke of genius. Chat doesn’t attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America. I know I am right; laugh as you will.’
‘On the same principle,’ cried Jasper, ‘if The Tatler were changed to Tittle-Tattle, its circulation would be trebled.’
Whelpdale smote his knee in delight.
‘An admirable idea! Many a true word uttered in joke, and this is an instance! Tittle-Tattle – a magnificent title; the very thing to catch the multitude.’
Dora was joining in the merriment, and for a minute or two nothing but bursts of laughter could be heard.
‘Now do let me go on,’ implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. ‘That’s only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this: – I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.’
‘But you are joking, Mr Whelpdale!’ exclaimed Dora.
‘No, I am perfectly serious. Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on ‘buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information – bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.’
Jasper had begun to listen seriously.
‘There’s something in this, Whelpdale,’ he remarked.
‘Ha! I have caught you?’ cried the other delightedly. ‘Of course there’s something in it?’
‘But – ’ began Dora, and checked herself.
‘You were going to say – ’ Whelpdale bent towards her with deference.
‘Surely these poor, silly people oughtn’t to be encouraged in their weakness.’
Whelpdale’s countenance fell. He looked ashamed of himself. But Jasper came speedily to the rescue.
‘That’s twaddle, Dora. Fools will be fools to the world’s end. Answer a fool according to his folly; supply a simpleton with the reading he craves, if it will put money in your pocket. You have discouraged poor Whelpdale in one of the most notable projects of modern times.’
‘I shall think no more of it,’ said Whelpdale, gravely. ‘You are right, Miss Dora.’
Again Jasper burst into merriment. His sister reddened, and looked uncomfortable. She began to speak timidly:
‘You said this was for reading in trains and ‘buses?’
Whelpdale caught at hope.
‘Yes. And really, you know, it may be better at such times to read chit-chat than to be altogether vacant, or to talk unprofitably. I am not sure; I bow to your opinion unreservedly.’
‘So long as they only read the paper at such times,’ said Dora, still hesitating. ‘One knows by experience that one really can’t fix one’s attention in travelling; even an article in a newspaper is often too long.’
‘Exactly! And if you find it so, what must be the case with the mass of untaught people, the quarter-educated? It might encourage in some of them a taste for reading – don’t you think?’
‘It might,’ assented Dora, musingly. ‘And in that case you would be doing good!’
They smiled joyfully at each other. Then Whelpdale turned to Jasper:
‘You are convinced that there is something in this?’
‘Seriously, I think there is. It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item – we won’t call it article. For instance, you might display on a placard: "What the Queen eats!" or "How Gladstone’s collars are made!" – things of that kind.’
‘To be sure, to be sure. And then, you know,’ added Whelpdale, glancing anxiously at Dora, ‘when people had been attracted by these devices, they would find a few things that were really profitable. We would give nicely written little accounts of exemplary careers, of heroic deeds, and so on. Of course nothing whatever that could be really demoralising – cela va sans dire. Well, what I was going to say was this: would you come with me to the office of Chat, and have a talk with my friend Lake, the sub-editor? I know your time is very valuable, but then you’re often running into the Will-o’-the-Wisp, and Chat is just upstairs, you know.’
‘What use should I be?’
‘Oh, all the use in the world. Lake would pay most respectful attention to your opinion, though he thinks so little of mine. You are a man of note, I am nobody. I feel convinced that you could persuade the Chat people to adopt my idea, and they might be willing to give me a contingent share of contingent profits, if I had really shown them the way to a good thing.’
Jasper promised to think the matter over. Whilst their talk still ran on this subject, a packet that had come by post was brought into the room. Opening it, Milvain exclaimed:
‘Ha! this is lucky. There’s something here that may interest you, Whelpdale.’
‘Yes. A paper I have written for The Wayside.’ He looked at Dora, who smiled. ‘How do you like the title? – "The Novels of Edwin Reardon!"’
‘You don’t say so!’ cried the other. ‘What a good-hearted fellow you are, Milvain! Now that’s really a kind thing to have done. By Jove! I must shake hands with you; I must indeed! Poor Reardon! Poor old fellow!’
His eyes gleamed with moisture. Dora, observing this, looked at him so gently and sweetly that it was perhaps well he did not meet her eyes; the experience would have been altogether too much for him.
‘It has been written for three months,’ said Jasper, ‘but we have held it over for a practical reason. When I was engaged upon it, I went to see Mortimer, and asked him if there was any chance of a new edition of Reardon’s books. He had no idea the poor fellow was dead, and the news seemed really to affect him. He promised to consider whether it would be worth while trying a new issue, and before long I heard from him that he would bring out the two best books with a decent cover and so on, provided I could get my article on Reardon into one of the monthlies. This was soon settled. The editor of The Wayside answered at once, when I wrote to him, that he should be very glad to print what I proposed, as he had a real respect for Reardon. Next month the books will be out – "Neutral Ground," and "Hubert Reed." Mortimer said he was sure these were the only ones that would pay for themselves. But we shall see. He may alter his opinion when my article has been read.’
‘Read it to us now, Jasper, will you?’ asked Dora.
The request was supported by Whelpdale, and Jasper needed no pressing. He seated himself so that the lamplight fell upon the pages, and read the article through. It was an excellent piece of writing (see The Wayside, June 1884), and in places touched with true emotion. Any intelligent reader would divine that the author had been personally acquainted with the man of whom he wrote, though the fact was nowhere stated. The praise was not exaggerated, yet all the best points of Reardon’s work were admirably brought out. One who knew Jasper might reasonably have doubted, before reading this, whether he was capable of so worthily appreciating the nobler man.
‘I never understood Reardon so well before,’ declared Whelpdale, at the close. ‘This is a good thing well done. It’s something to be proud of, Miss Dora.’
‘Yes, I feel that it is,’ she replied.
‘Mrs Reardon ought to be very grateful to you, Milvain. By-the-by, do you ever see her?’
‘I have met her only once since his death – by chance.’
‘Of course she will marry again. I wonder who’ll be the fortunate man?’
‘Fortunate, do you think?’ asked Dora quietly, without looking at him.
‘Oh, I spoke rather cynically, I’m afraid,’ Whelpdale hastened to reply. ‘I was thinking of her money. Indeed, I knew Mrs Reardon only very slightly.’
‘I don’t think you need regret it,’ Dora remarked.
‘Oh, well, come, come!’ put in her brother. ‘We know very well that there was little enough blame on her side.’
‘There was great blame!’ Dora exclaimed. ‘She behaved shamefully!
I wouldn’t speak to her; I wouldn’t sit down in her company!’
‘Bosh! What do you know about it? Wait till you are married to a man like Reardon, and reduced to utter penury.’
‘Whoever my husband was, I would stand by him, if I starved to death.’
‘If he ill-used you?’
‘I am not talking of such cases. Mrs Reardon had never anything of the kind to fear. It was impossible for a man such as her husband to behave harshly. Her conduct was cowardly, faithless, unwomanly!’
‘Trust one woman for thinking the worst of another,’ observed Jasper with something like a sneer.
Dora gave him a look of strong disapproval; one might have suspected that brother and sister had before this fallen into disagreement on the delicate topic. Whelpdale felt obliged to interpose, and had of course no choice but to support the girl.
‘I can only say,’ he remarked with a smile, ‘that Miss Dora takes a very noble point of view. One feels that a wife ought to be staunch. But it’s so very unsafe to discuss matters in which one cannot know all the facts.’
‘We know quite enough of the facts,’ said Dora, with delightful pertinacity.
‘Indeed, perhaps we do,’ assented her slave. Then, turning to her brother, ‘Well, once more I congratulate you. I shall talk of your article incessantly, as soon as it appears. And I shall pester every one of my acquaintances to buy Reardon’s books – though it’s no use to him, poor fellow. Still, he would have died more contentedly if he could have foreseen this. By-the-by, Biffen will be profoundly grateful to you, I’m sure.’
‘I’m doing what I can for him, too. Run your eye over these slips.’
Whelpdale exhausted himself in terms of satisfaction.
‘You deserve to get on, my dear fellow. In a few years you will be the Aristarchus of our literary world.’
When the visitor rose to depart, Jasper said he would walk a short distance with him. As soon as they had left the house, the future Aristarchus made a confidential communication.
‘It may interest you to know that my sister Maud is shortly to be married.’
‘Indeed! May I ask to whom?’
‘A man you don’t know. His name is Dolomore – a fellow in society.’
‘Rich, then, I hope?’
‘Tolerably well-to-do. I dare say he has three or four thousand a year!’
‘Gracious heavens! Why, that’s magnificent.’
But Whelpdale did not look quite so much satisfaction as his words expressed.
‘Is it to be soon?’ he inquired.
‘At the end of the season. Make no difference to Dora and me, of course.’
‘Oh? Really? No difference at all? You will let me come and see you – both – just in the old way, Milvain?’
‘Why the deuce shouldn’t you?’
‘To be sure, to be sure. By Jove! I really don’t know how I should get on if I couldn’t look in of an evening now and then. I have got so much into the habit of it. And – I’m a lonely beggar, you know. I don’t go into society, and really – ’
He broke off, and Jasper began to speak of other things.
When Milvain re-entered the house, Dora had gone to her own sitting-room. It was not quite ten o’clock. Taking one set of the proofs of his ‘Reardon’ article, he put it into a large envelope; then he wrote a short letter, which began ‘Dear Mrs Reardon,’ and ended ‘Very sincerely yours,’ the communication itself being as follows:
‘I venture to send you the proofs of a paper which is to appear in next month’s Wayside, in the hope that it may seem to you not badly done, and that the reading of it may give you pleasure. If anything occurs to you which you would like me to add, or if you desire any omission, will you do me the kindness to let me know of it as soon as possible, and your suggestion shall at once be adopted. I am informed that the new edition of "On Neutral Ground" and "Hubert Reed" will be ready next month. Need I say how glad I am that my friend’s work is not to be forgotten?’
This note he also put into the envelope, which he made ready for posting. Then he sat for a long time in profound thought.
Shortly after eleven his door opened, and Maud came in. She had been dining at Mrs Lane’s. Her attire was still simple, but of quality which would have signified recklessness, but for the outlook whereof Jasper spoke to Whelpdale. The girl looked very beautiful. There was a flush of health and happiness on her cheek, and when she spoke it was in a voice that rang quite differently from her tones of a year ago; the pride which was natural to her had now a firm support; she moved and uttered herself in queenly fashion.
‘Has anyone been?’ she asked.
‘Oh! I wanted to ask you, Jasper: do you think it wise to let him come quite so often?’
‘There’s a difficulty, you see. I can hardly tell him to sheer off. And he’s really a decent fellow.’
‘That may be. But – I think it’s rather unwise. Things are changed. In a few months, Dora will be a good deal at my house, and will see all sorts of people.’
‘Yes; but what if they are the kind of people she doesn’t care anything about? You must remember, old girl, that her tastes are quite different from yours. I say nothing, but – perhaps it’s as well they should be.’
‘You say nothing, but you add an insult,’ returned Maud, with a smile of superb disregard. ‘We won’t reopen the question.’
‘Oh dear no! And, by-the-by, I have a letter from Dolomore. It came just after you left.’
‘He is quite willing to settle upon you a third of his income from the collieries; he tells me it will represent between seven and eight hundred a year. I think it rather little, you know; but I congratulate myself on having got this out of him.’
‘Don’t speak in that unpleasant way! It was only your abruptness that made any kind of difficulty.’
‘I have my own opinion on that point, and I shall beg leave to keep it. Probably he will think me still more abrupt when I request, as I am now going to do, an interview with his solicitors.’
‘Is that allowable?’ asked Maud, anxiously. ‘Can you do that with any decency?’
‘If not, then I must do it with indecency. You will have the goodness to remember that if I don’t look after your interests, no one else will. It’s perhaps fortunate for you that I have a good deal of the man of business about me. Dolomore thought I was a dreamy, literary fellow. I don’t say that he isn’t entirely honest, but he shows something of a disposition to play the autocrat, and I by no means intend to let him. If you had a father, Dolomore would have to submit his affairs to examination.
I stand to you in loco parentis, and I shall bate no jot of my rights.’
‘But you can’t say that his behaviour hasn’t been perfectly straightforward.’
‘I don’t wish to. I think, on the whole, he has behaved more honourably than was to be expected of a man of his kind. But he must treat me with respect. My position in the world is greatly superior to his. And, by the gods! I will be treated respectfully! It wouldn’t be amiss, Maud, if you just gave him a hint to that effect.’
‘All I have to say is, Jasper, don’t do me an irreparable injury. You might, without meaning it.’
‘No fear whatever of it. I can behave as a gentleman, and I only expect Dolomore to do the same.’
Their conversation lasted for a long time, and when he was again left alone Jasper again fell into a mood of thoughtfulness.
By a late post on the following day he received this letter:
‘DEAR MR MILVAIN, – I have received the proofs, and have just read them; I hasten to thank you with all my heart. No suggestion of mine could possibly improve this article; it seems to me perfect in taste, in style, in matter. No one but you could have written this, for no one else understood Edwin so well, or had given such thought to his work. If he could but have known that such justice would be done to his memory! But he died believing that already he was utterly forgotten, that his books would never again be publicly spoken of. This was a cruel fate. I have shed tears over what you have written, but they were not only tears of bitterness; it cannot but be a consolation to me to think that, when the magazine appears, so many people will talk of Edwin and his books. I am deeply grateful to Mr Mortimer for having undertaken to republish those two novels; if you have an opportunity, will you do me the great kindness to thank him on my behalf? At the same time, I must remember that it was you who first spoke to him on this subject. You say that it gladdens you to think Edwin will not be forgotten, and I am very sure that the friendly office you have so admirably performed will in itself reward you more than any poor expression of gratitude from me. I write hurriedly, anxious to let you hear as soon as possible.
‘Believe me, dear Mr Milvain,