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   Chapter 19 A CANDID OPINION

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 19937

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Youth in the London lodging-house! Youth quite poor-youth ambitious-youth with a possible future-youth meditating great things! Walk along the streets of Lodging-land-there are miles of such streets-and consider with trembling that the dingy houses contain thousands of young people-boys and girls-who have come to the city of golden pavements to make-not a fortune, unless that happens as well-but their name. In the long struggle before the lowest rung of the ladder is reached they endure hardness, but they complain not. Everything is going to be made up to them in the splendid time to come.

Something more than a year ago two such young people came up from the country, and found shelter in a London lodging-house, where they could work and study until success should arrive. They were boy and girl, brother and sister-twins. They had very little money, and could afford no more than one sitting-room. Therefore, one worked in the sitting-room and the other in a bedroom, because their occupations demanded solitude. The one in the sitting-room was the girl. She was engaged in the pursuit of poetry: she made verses continually, every day. Unless she was reading verse, she was either making, or polishing, or devising verses. Of all pursuits in the world this is at once the most absorbing and the most delightful. It is also, with the greater part of these who follow it, the most useless. Thomas the Rhymer sits down and takes his pen: it is nine of the clock. He considers: he writes: he scratches out: he writes again: he corrects again: after ten minutes or so, he looks up. It is three in the afternoon: the luncheon hour is past: the morning is gone: all he has to show for the six golden hours, when an account of them is demanded, will be a single stanza of a ballade. And perhaps not a single editor will look at it. To Effie Wilmot, the girl-twin, thus engaged morning after morning, the hours become moments and the days minutes. The result and outcome of her labours you have already learned. But she was young, and she lived in hope. A few more weeks, and the great man, her patron, would have satisfied that whim of wishing to be thought a poet of society. Strange that one who painted pictures of such wonderful beauty, who wrote such charming stories in such endless variety-stories quaint and bizarre, stories pathetic, stories humorous-should so condescend! What could a few simple verses-such as hers-do to increase his fame? However, that was nearly over. She felt quite happy and light-hearted: as happy as if, like other poets, she was writing things that would appear with her own name: she pursued the light and airy fancies of her brain, capturing one or two, chaining them in the prison of her rhymes, which, of course, were set to the old-new tunes affected by the little poets of the day. If they have got no message to deliver, they can at least come on the stage and repeat over again the old things clad in dress revived. We can keep on dressing up in the poet's habit until the poet himself shall come along.

Effie worked on, sitting at the window. Poets can work anywhere, though, of course, they ought to sit habitually on the sides of hills, with hanging woods and mountain-streams and waterfalls. But they can work just as well in a mean London lodging, such as this where Effie sat, looking out, if she looked through the curtain, upon a most commonplace street. We can all-common spirits as well as poets-rise above our streets and houses and our dingy setting-otherwise there would be no work done at all. Nay, if we were all cockered up, and daintily surrounded with things ?sthetic and artistic and beautiful, I believe we should be so happy that nobody would ever do anything. The poet would murmur his thoughts in indolent rhyme by the fireside: the musician would drop his fingers among the notes, echoing faintly and imperfectly the music in his soul-all for his own enjoyment: the story-teller would tell his stories to his wife: the dramatist would make plots without words for his children to act: the painter would half sketch his visions and leave them unfinished. Art would die.

No such temptations were offered to Effie. The ?sthetic movement had not touched that ground-floor front. The shaky round table stood under the flaring gas which every night made her head ache; the chiffonier contained in its recesses the tea and sugar and bread and butter, and, when the money ran to such luxuries, her jam or her honey or her oranges. There was one easy-chair and one arm-chair; and before the window a small square table, which had, at least, the merit of being firm; and at this she wrote. Everybody knows this kind of room perfectly.

The poetic workshop is always kept locked. No poet ever tells of the terrific struggles he has to encounter before he finally subdues his thought and compels it to walk or run in double harness of rhythm and rhyme. No poet ever confesses how he sometimes has to let that thought go because he cannot subdue it-nay, the same discomfiture has been reported of those who, like M. Jourdain, speak in prose. And no poet ever shows, as a painter will readily show us, the first sketch, the first rough draft of a poem, the unfinished lines, the first feeble attempts at the rhythmic expression of a great thought. Let us respect the mystery of the craft-have we not all dabbled in verse and essayed to play upon the scrannel-pipe?

It was towards noon, however, that Effie was disturbed by the arrival of a visitor. The event was so unusual-so unprecedented even-that no instructions had ever been given to the lodging-house servant in the art of introducing callers. She therefore opened the door, and put in her head-'A gentleman, Miss'-and went downstairs, leaving the gentleman to walk in if he pleased.

'You, Mr. Feilding?' Effie cried, springing to her feet. 'Oh! This is, indeed--'

The great man took her hand. 'My dear child,' he said, 'I have been thinking over our conversation of the other day. I am, of course, only anxious to be of service to you and to your brother, and so I thought I would call.' He was quite magnificent in his fur-lined coat, and he was very tall and big, so that he seemed to fill up the whole room. But he had an unusual air of hesitation. 'I thought,' he repeated, 'that I would call. Yes--'

The girl sat with her hands in her lap, waiting.

'You remember what I told you about-the-the verses which you sometimes bring me--'

'Oh! Yes. I remember. It is so kind of you, Mr. Feilding, so very kind and noble--' For the moment the dazzling prospect of seeing her verses acknowledged as her own in place of seeing them adopted by the Editor, made her believe that none but a truly noble person could do such a thing.

'I mean to begin even sooner than I had intended. It is true that when I took your verses I made them my own by those little touches and corrections which, as you know very well, distinguish true poetry from its imitation'-It was not until he was gone that Effie remembered that not a single alteration had ever been made. So great is the power of the human voice that for the moment she listened and acquiesced, subdued and ashamed of herself-'At last, my young friend, the time for alteration and improvement is past. You can now stand alone-your verses signed-if, of course, we remain, as I hope, on the same friendly relations.'

'Oh!' she murmured.

'Enough. We understand each other. Your brother, you told me, is at work on a play-a romantic drama.'

'Yes. He has finished it. He has been at work upon it for two years, thinking of nothing else all day.'

Mr. Feilding nodded approval.

'That is the way,' he said heartily, 'to produce good work. Perfect-absolute-devotion-regardless of any earthly consideration. Art-Art-before all else. And now it is done?'

'Yes; he is copying it out.'

'Effie'-he suddenly changed the subject-'you have never told me of your resources. Tell me! I do not ask out of idle curiosity. That you are not rich I know--'

'No, we are not rich. We have a little-a thousand pounds apiece-and we have resolved to live on that, and on what we can get besides, until we have made our way. We have no rich relations to help us. My father is a country clergyman with a small living. We came to town so that Archie could get treatment for his hip. He is better now, and we shall stay altogether if we can only hold on.'

'A thousand pounds each. That is seventy pounds a year, I suppose?'

'Yes. But during the last twelve months you have given me a hundred pounds for my verses-three pounds for every poem, and there were thirty-three altogether in the volume-"Voices and Echoes," you know.'

The poet who had published these verses did not change colour or show any sign of emotion in the presence of the poet who had written them. He nodded his head. 'Yes,' he said, 'on a hundred and seventy pounds a year you can live-on seventy you would starve. Where is your brother?'

'He works in his bedroom. It is the room behind, on the same floor. My room is upstairs.'

'He requires, I suppose, good food, wine, and certain luxuries?'

'When we can afford them. Since you took my verses we have been able to buy things.'

'Your money is well expended. I should like to see your brother, Effie.'

'I will take you to him,' she said. But she hesitated and blushed. 'Oh! Mr. Feilding, Archie knows nothing about the-the volumes, you know! He sees only the verses in the paper. And he only knows that you have been so kind as to take them. Don't tell him anything else.'

'Your secret, Effie,' he replied generously, 'is safe with me. He shall not know it from my lips.'

She thanked him. Again, it was not until he was gone that Effie remembered that he could not possibly reveal that fact to her brother.

She led him into the room, at the back of which was her brother's study and bedroom as well.

Her brother might have been hers

elf, save for a slight manly growth upon the upper lip, and for the pale cheek of ill health. The same large forehead overhanging the face, eyes sunken but as bright as his sister's, the same sensitive lips were his. A finer face than his sister's, and stronger, but not so sweet. Beside his chair a pair of crutches proclaimed that he was a cripple. Before him was a table, at which he was writing. There were on the table, besides his writing materials, a number of little dolls, some of which were arranged in groups, while others were lying about unused. He was copying his finished play: as he copied it he played the scenes with the dolls and spoke the dialogue. The dolls were his characters: there was not a single scene or change of the grouping which this conscientious young dramatist had not rehearsed over and over again, until every line of the dialogue had its own stage picture, clear and distinct in his mind.

'You are Mr. Feilding?' he asked, rising with some difficulty. 'I have heard so much of you from Effie. It is a great honour to have a call from you.'

'I take a deep interest,' the great man replied, 'in anything that concerns Miss Effie Wilmot. I have been able-I believe you know-to give her some assistance and advice in her work. Oh!'-he waved his hand to deprecate any expressions of gratitude-'I have done very little-very little indeed. Now, about yourself. I learn from your sister that you have ambitions-you would become a dramatist?'

'I have no other ambition. It is my only dream.'

'A very good dream indeed. And you have made, I am told, a start-a maiden effort-a preliminary flight to try your wings. You have written your first attempt at a play?'

'Yes. It is here. It is finished.'

'Tell me, briefly, the plot.'

Some young dramatists mar their plot in getting it out. This young man had taken the trouble to write out first a rough outline of his piece and next a complete scenario with every situation detailed. These he read to his visitor one after the other.

'Yes,' said Mr. Feilding, when he had finished; 'there is something in the idea of the play. Perhaps not a completely novel motif. A good deal might be said as to the arrangement of the scenes. And one or two of the characters might-but these are details. Remains to find out how the dialogue goes. Will you read me a scene or two?'

The dramatist read. As he read he might have observed in the eyes of his listener a growing eagerness, as of one who vehemently yearns to get possession of something-his neighbour's vineyard, for example, or his solitary ewe lamb. But the reader did not observe this. He was wholly wrapped in his piece: he threw his soul into the reading: he was anxious only that his words and his situations should produce the best effect upon his hearer.

'Yes, yes; your dialogue, unhappily, shows the want of skill common to the beginner,' said Mr. Feilding, when he had finished. 'It will have to be completely rewritten. As it stands now, the play would be simply killed by it, in spite of the situations, which, with some alterations, are really pretty good-pretty good for a first effort.'

'You don't think, then-that--' the dramatist's voice broke down. Consider: for two long years he had done nothing but cast, recast, write, rewrite this play. He had dreamed all this time of success with this play. And now-now-the very first critic-and that the most accomplished man of the day-no less than Mr. Alec Feilding-told him that the play would not be received unless the dialogue was entirely rewritten. He could not rewrite the dialogue. It was a part of himself. As well ask him to remake his own face or to reconstruct his legs. His face fell: his cheeks grew pale: his eyes filled with unmanly tears.

'I am truly sorry, believe me,' said the critic, 'to throw cold water on your hopes. I have been myself an aspirant. Yet'-he hesitated in his kindliness-'why encourage illusive expectations? The play as it is-I say, as it is only-must be pronounced totally unfit for the stage. No manager would think of it for a moment.'

'Then I may as well throw it on the fire? And all my work wasted!'

'Nay-not wasted. Good work-true work-is never wasted. You ought to have learned much-very much-from this two years' labour. And, as for putting it into the fire'-he laughed genially-'I believe I can show you a better way than that. Look here, Archie-I call you by your Christian name because I have so often talked about you: we are old friends-I should be really sorry to think that you had actually lost all your time. Give me this play: I will take it-skeleton, scenario, dialogue-all, just as it is-the mere rough, crude, shapeless thing that it is. I will buy it of you-useless as it is. I will give you fifty pounds down for it, and it shall become my property-my own, absolutely. I shall then, perhaps, recast and rewrite the play from beginning to end. When I have made a play out of it worth putting on the stage-when, in short, I have made it my own play-I may possibly bring it out-possibly. Most likely, however, not. There's a chance for you, Archie, such as you will never get again! Fifty pounds down-think of that! Fifty pounds!'

The dramatist laid his hand, for reply, upon his papers.

'If it should ever be brought out,' this good Samaritan went on, 'you will come and see it acted. What a splendid lesson it will be for you in the art of writing drama!'

The dramatist's fingers tightened on his manuscript.

'Of course you must consider your sister,' the considerate critic continued. 'She has been able to make a few pounds of late, having been so fortunate as to attract the interest of... one who is not wholly without influence. Should that interest fail or be withdrawn you might have-both of you-to suffer much privation. The luxuries which you now enjoy would be impossible-and--'

'Oh, you kill me!' cried the unfortunate youth.

'Shall I leave you for the present? My offer is always open-on the condition of secrecy-one is bound to keep business transactions secret. I will leave you now. There is no hurry. Think it over carefully and send me an answer.'

He went out and shut the door. The young dramatist, I am ashamed to say, fell to tears and weeping over the destruction of his hopes.

'Effie,' said Mr. Feilding, 'I have talked with your brother. He has read some of the play to me--'

'And you think?' she asked him eagerly.

He shook his head mournfully. 'The boy has much to learn-very much. Meantime, the play itself is worthless-quite worthless.'

'Oh! Poor boy! And he has built so much upon it.'

'Yes-they all do at the outset. Mind, Effie, he is a clever boy: he will do. Meantime, he must study.'

'Oh! Poor Archie! Poor boy!'

'It seems hard, doesn't it, not to succeed all at once? Yet Browning and Tennyson and Thackeray were all well on for forty before they succeeded. Why should he despair? Meantime I have made him a little offer.'

'Oh! Mr. Feilding, you are always so good.'

'I have offered to give him fifty pounds-down-and to take this rough unlicked thing he calls a Play. If I find time I shall, perhaps, rewrite the whole, and put it on the stage. It will then, of course, be my own-my own, Effie. Good-bye, child. I have not forgotten our talk-or my promise-if we remain on friendly relations.'

He went away. Effie sank into a chair. What she had done with her own work had never seemed to her half so terrible as what was now proposed to be done with her brother's work.

She crept into his room. He sat with his head in his hands, most mournful of bards since the world began.

'Archie, I know-I know; he has told me. Oh! Archie-do you think it is true?'

'Archie, I know-I know.'

'He says so, Effie. He says it is worthless.'

'Yet he will give you fifty pounds.'

'That is to please you-for your sake. The thing is worthless-no manager would look at it.'

'Yet-fifty pounds! Why should Mr. Feilding give fifty pounds-a whole fifty pounds-for a worthless play? Archie, don't do it-don't let him have it; wait a little-we will ask somebody else. Oh! I could tell you something. Wait-tell him, if you must say anything, that you will think it over.'

When Effie turned over the pages of the next number of The Muses Nine, she found, first of all, her own verses in the Editor's column with his name at the bottom. This sight, which had formerly made her so proud, now filled her with shame. The generous promise of the future failed to awaken in her any glow of hope. For the very words with which her only editor had beguiled her of her verses-the plea that they were worthless, and must be rewritten-he had used to her brother. And as her poems had never been rewritten, so would Archie's play, she felt sure, be presented without a single alteration, with the name of Mr. Alec Feilding as author. That week she took no verses to the studio-study.

And a certain paragraph in the same columns perused by this suspicious young woman brought rage-nothing short of rage-into her heart. No! not her brother, as well as herself! It ran thus: 'I have always been under the impression that the dearth of good plays is due to nothing else in the world than the fact that the good men who ought to be writing them all run off into the domain of fiction. It is a pleasant country-that of Fable Land. I have been there, and I hope to go there again and make a long stay. But Play Land-that is also a pleasant country. I have been there lately, and I hope to demonstrate that a good play may still be produced in the English tongue-a good and original play. In short, I have written a romantic drama, of which all I can say at present is that it lies finished, in my fireproof safe, and that a certain actor-manager will probably play the title-r?le before many moons have waxed and waned.'

'No,' said Effie, crumpling up the paper. 'You have not got Archie's romantic drama yet.'

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