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   Chapter 11 SATIN

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13248

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Yes, there had been something wrong with the interview. It had entirely failed to tally with his expectations of it. The fact was that he, Henry, had counted for very little in it. He had sat still and listened, and, after answering Mr. Mark Snyder's questions, he had made no original remark except 'A thousand pounds!' And if he was disappointed with Mr. Snyder, and puzzled by him, too, he was also disappointed with himself. He felt that he had displayed none of those business qualities which he knew he possessed. He was a man of affairs, with a sure belief in his own capacity to handle any matter requiring tact and discretion; and yet he had lolled like a simpleton in the Chippendale chair of Mr. Snyder, and contributed naught to the interview save 'A thousand pounds!'

Nevertheless, he sincerely thought Mr. Snyder's terms exorbitant. He was not of the race of literary aspirants who are eager to be published at any price. Literature had no fatal fascination for him. His wholly sensible idea now was that, having written a book, he might as well get it printed and make an honest penny out of it, if possible. However, the effect of the visit to Kenilworth Mansions was to persuade him to resolve to abandon the enterprise; Mr. Mark Snyder had indeed discouraged him. And in the evening, when he reached Dawes Road, he gave his mother and aunt a truthful account of the episode, and stated, pleasantly but plainly, that he should burn Love in Babylon. And his mother and aunt, perceiving that he was in earnest, refrained from comment.

And after they had gone to bed he took Love in Babylon out of the brown paper in which he had wrapped it, and folded the brown paper and tied up the string; and he was in the very act of putting Love in Babylon bodily on the fire, when he paused.

'Suppose I give it one more chance?' he reflected.

He had suddenly thought of the name of Mr. Onions Winter, and of Mr. Snyder's interrupted observations upon that publisher. He decided to send Love in Babylon to Mr. Winter. He untied the string, unfolded the brown paper, indited a brief letter, and made the parcel anew.

A week later, only a week, Mr. Onions Winter wrote asking Henry to call upon him without delay, and Henry called. The establishment of Mr. Onions Winter was in Leicester Square, between the Ottoman Music Hall and a milliner's shop. Architecturally it presented rather a peculiar appearance. The leading feature of the ground-floor was a vast arch, extending across the entire frontage in something more than a semicircle. Projecting from the keystone of the arch was a wrought-iron sign bearing a portrait in copper, and under the portrait the words 'Ye Shakspere Head.' Away beneath the arch was concealed the shop-window, an affair of small square panes, and in the middle of every small pane was stuck a small card, 'The Satin Library-Onions Winter.' This mystic phrase was repeated a hundred and sixty-five times. To the right of the window was a low green door with a copper handle in the shape of a sow's tail, and the legend 'Ye Office of Onions Winter.'

'Is Mr. Winter in?' Henry demanded of a young man in a very high collar, after he had mastered the mechanism of the sow's tail.

'Yes, he's in,' said the young man rudely, as Henry thought. (How different from Goldenhair was this high collar!)

'Do you want to see him?' asked the young man, when he had hummed an air and stared out of the window.

'No,' said Henry placidly. 'But he wants to see me. My name is Knight.'

Henry had these flashes of brilliance from time to time. They came of themselves, as Love in Babylon came. He felt that he was beginning better with Mr. Onions Winter than he had begun with Mr. Mark Snyder.

In another moment he was seated opposite Mr. Winter in a charming but littered apartment on the first-floor. He came to the conclusion that all literary offices must be drawing-rooms.

'And so you are the author of Love in Babylon?' began Mr. Winter. He was a tall man, with burning eyes, grey hair, a grey beard which stuck out like the sun's rays, but no moustache. The naked grey upper lip was very deep, and somehow gave him a formidable appearance. He wore a silk hat at the back of his head, and a Melton overcoat rather like Henry's own, but much longer.

'You like it?' said Henry boldly.

'I think-- The fact is, I will be frank with you, Mr. Knight.' Here Mr. Onions Winter picked up Love in Babylon, which lay before him, and sniffed at it exactly as Mr. Snyder had done. 'The fact is, I shouldn't have thought twice about it if it hadn't been for this peculiar odour--'

Here Henry explained the odour.

'Ah yes. Very interesting!' observed Mr. Winter without a smile. 'Very curious! We might make a par out of that. Onions-onions. The public likes these coincidences. Well, as I tell you, I shouldn't have thought twice about it if it hadn't been for this--' (Sniff, sniff.) 'Then I happened to glance at the title, and the title attracted me. I must admit that the title attracted me. You have hit on a very pretty title, Mr. Knight, a very pretty title indeed. I took your book home and read it myself, Mr. Knight. I didn't send it to any of my readers. Not a soul in this office has read it except me. I'm a bit superstitious, you know. We all are-everyone is, when it comes to the point. And that Onions-onions! And then the pretty title! I like your book, Mr. Knight. I tell you candidly, I like it. It's graceful and touching, and original. It's got atmosphere. It's got that indefinable something-je ne sais quoi-that we publishers are always searching for. Of course it's crude-very crude in places. It might be improved. What do you want for it, Mr. Knight? What are you asking?'

Mr. Onions Winter rose and walked to the window in order, apparently, to drink his fill of the statue of Shakspere in the middle of the square.

'I don't know,' said Henry, overjoyed but none the less perplexed. 'I have not considered the question of price.'

'Will you take twenty-five pounds cash down for it-lock, stock, and barrel? You know it's very short. In fact, I'm just about the only publisher in London who would be likely to deal with it.'

Henry kept silence.

'Eh?' demanded Mr. Onions Winter, still perusing the Shaksperean forehead. 'Cash down. Will you take it?'

'No, I won't, thank you,' said Henry.

'Then what will you take?'

'I'll take a hundred.'

'My dear young man!' Mr. Onions Winter turned suddenly to reason blandly with Henry. 'Are you aware that that means five pounds a thousand words? Many authors of established reputa

tion would be glad to receive as much. No, I should like to publish your book, but I am neither a philanthropist nor a millionaire.'

'What I should really prefer,' said Henry, 'would be so much on every copy sold.'

'Ah! A royalty?'

'Yes. A royalty. I think that is fairer to both parties,' said Henry judicially.

'So you'd prefer a royalty,' Mr. Onions Winter addressed Shakspere again. 'Well. Let me begin by telling you that first books by new authors never pay expenses. Never! Never! I always lose money on them. But you believe in your book? You believe in it, don't you?' He faced Henry once more.

'Yes,' said Henry.

'Then, you must have the courage of your convictions. I will give you a royalty of three halfpence in the shilling on every copy after the first five thousand. Thus, if it succeeds, you will share in the profit. If it fails, my loss will be the less. That's fair, isn't it?'

It seemed fair to Henry. But he was not Sir George's private secretary for nothing.

'You must make it twopence in the shilling,' he said in an urbane but ultimatory tone.

'Very well,' Mr. Onions Winter surrendered at once. 'We'll say twopence, and end it.'

'And what will the price of the book be?' Henry inquired.

'Two shillings, naturally. I intend it for the Satin Library. You know about the Satin Library? You don't know about the Satin Library? My dear sir, I hope it's going to be the hit of the day. Here's a dummy copy.' Mr. Winter picked up an orange-tinted object from a side-table. 'Feel that cover! Look at it! Doesn't it feel like satin? Doesn't it look like satin? But it isn't satin. It's paper-a new invention, the latest thing. You notice the book-marker is of satin-real satin. Now observe the shape-isn't that original? And yet quite simple-it's exactly square! And that faint design of sunflowers! These books will be perfect bibelots; that's what they'll be-bibelots. Of course, between you and me, there isn't going to be very much for the money-a hundred and fifty quite small pages. But that's between you and me. And the satin will carry it off. You'll see these charming bijou volumes in every West End drawing-room, Mr. Knight, in a few weeks. Take my word for it. By the way, will you sign our form of agreement now?'

So Henry perpended legally on the form of agreement, and, finding nothing in it seriously to offend the legal sense, signed it with due ceremony.

'Can you correct the proofs instantly, if I send them?' Mr. Winter asked at parting.

'Yes,' said Henry, who had never corrected a proof in his life. 'Are you in a hurry?'

'Well,' Mr. Winter replied, 'I had meant to inaugurate the Satin Library with another book. In fact, I have already bought five books for it. But I have a fancy to begin it with yours. I have a fancy, and when I have a fancy, I-I generally act on it. I like the title. It's a very pretty title. I'm taking the book on the title. And, really, in these days a pretty, attractive title is half the battle.'

Within two months, Love in Babylon, by Henry S. Knight, was published as the first volume of Mr. Onions Winter's Satin Library, and Henry saw his name in the papers under the heading 'Books Received.' The sight gave him a passing thrill, but it was impossible for him not to observe that in all essential respects he remained the same person as before. The presence of six author's copies of Love in Babylon at Dawes Road alone indicated the great step in his development. One of these copies he inscribed to his mother, another to his aunt, and another to Sir George. Sir George accepted the book with a preoccupied air, and made no remark on it for a week or more. Then one morning he said: 'By the way, Knight, I ran through that little thing of yours last night. Capital! Capital! I congratulate you. Take down this letter.'

Henry deemed that Sir George's perspective was somewhat awry, but he said nothing. Worse was in store for him. On the evening of that same day he bought the Whitehall Gazette as usual to read in the train, and he encountered the following sentences:

'Twaddle in Satin.

'Mr. Onions Winter's new venture, the Satin Library, is a pretty enough thing in its satinesque way. The format is pleasant, the book-marker voluptuous, the binding Arty-and-Crafty. We cannot, however, congratulate Mr. Winter on the literary quality of the first volume. Mr. Henry S. Knight, the author of Love in Babylon (2s.), is evidently a beginner, but he is a beginner from whom nothing is to be expected. That he has a certain gross facility in the management of sentimental narrative we will not deny. It is possible that he is destined to be the delight of "the great public." It is possible-but improbable. He has no knowledge of life, no feeling for style, no real sense of the dramatic. Throughout, from the first line to the last, his story moves on the plane of tawdriness, theatricality, and ballad pathos. There are some authors of whom it may be said that they will never better themselves. They are born with a certain rhapsodic gift of commonness, a gift which neither improves nor deteriorates. Richly dowered with crass mediocrity, they proceed from the cradle to the grave at one low dead level. We suspect that Mr. Knight is of these. In saying that it is a pity that he ever took up a pen, we have no desire to seem severe. He is doubtless a quite excellent and harmless person. But he has mistaken his vocation, and that is always a pity. We do not care so see the admirable grocery trade robbed by the literary trade of a talent which was clearly intended by Providence to adorn it. As for the Satin Library, we hope superior things from the second volume.'

Henry had the fortitude to read this pronouncement aloud to his mother and Aunt Annie at the tea-table.

'The cowards!' exclaimed Mrs. Knight.

Aunt Annie flushed. 'Let me look,' she whispered; she could scarcely control her voice. Having looked, she cast the paper with a magnificent gesture to the ground. It lay on the hearth-rug, open at a page to which Henry had not previously turned. From his arm-chair he could read in the large displayed type of one of Mr. Onions Winter's advertisements: 'Onions Winter. The Satin Library. The success of the year. Love in Babylon. By Henry S. Knight. Two shillings. Eighteenth thousand.-Onions Winter. The Satin Library. The success of the year. Love in Babylon. By Henry S. Knight. Two shillings. Eighteenth thousand.'

And so it went on, repeated and repeated, down the whole length of the twenty inches which constitute a column of the Whitehall Gazette.

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