t was a long time now since Lady Carbury's great historical work on the Criminal Queens of the World had been completed and given to the world. Any reader careful as to dates will remember that it was as far back as in February that she had solicited the assistance of certain of her literary friends who were connected with the daily and weekly press. These gentlemen had responded to her call with more or less zealous aid, so that the "Criminal Queens" had been regarded in the trade as one of the successful books of the season. Messrs. Leadham and Loiter had published a second, and then, very quickly, a fourth and fifth edition; and had been able in their advertisements to give testimony from various criticisms showing that Lady Carbury's book was about the greatest historical work which had emanated from the press in the present century. With this object a passage was extracted even from the columns of the "Evening Pulpit,"—which showed very great ingenuity on the part of some young man connected with the establishment of Messrs. Leadham and Loiter. Lady Carbury had suffered something in the struggle. What efforts can mortals make as to which there will not be some disappointment? Paper and print cannot be had for nothing, and advertisements are very costly. An edition may be sold with startling rapidity, but it may have been but a scanty edition. When Lady Carbury received from Messrs. Leadham and Loiter their second very moderate cheque, with the expression of a fear on their part that there would not probably be a third,—unless some unforeseen demand should arise,—she repeated to herself those well-known lines from the satirist,—
"Oh, Amos Cottle, for a moment think
What meagre profits spread from pen and ink."
But not on that account did she for a moment hesitate as to further attempts. Indeed she had hardly completed the last chapter of her "Criminal Queens" before she was busy on another work; and although the last six months had been to her a period of incessant trouble, and sometimes of torture, though the conduct of her son had more than once forced her to declare to herself that her mind would fail her, still she had persevered. From day to day, with all her cares heavy upon her, she had sat at her work, with a firm resolve that so many lines should be always forthcoming, let the difficulty of making them be what it might. Messrs. Leadham and Loiter had thought that they might be justified in offering her certain terms for a novel,—terms not very high indeed, and those contingent on the approval of the manuscript by their reader. The smallness of the sum offered, and the want of certainty, and the pain of the work in her present circumstances, had all been felt by her to be very hard. But she had persevered, and the novel was now complete.
It cannot with truth be said of her that she had had any special tale to tell. She had taken to the writing of a novel because Mr. Loiter had told her that upon the whole novels did better than anything else. She would have written a volume of sermons on the same encouragement, and have gone about the work exactly after the same fashion. The length of her novel had been her first question. It must be in three volumes, and each volume must have three hundred pages. But what fewest number of words might be supposed sufficient to fill a page? The money offered was too trifling to allow of very liberal measure on her part. She had to live, and if possible to write another novel,—and, as she hoped, upon better terms,—when this should be finished. Then what should be the name of her novel; what the name of her hero; and above all what the name of her heroine? It must be a love story of course; but she thought that she would leave the complications of the plot to come by chance,—and they did come. "Don't let it end unhappily, Lady Carbury," Mr. Loiter had said, "because though people like it in a play, they hate it in a book. And whatever you do, Lady Carbury, don't be historical. Your historical novel, Lady Carbury, isn't worth a—" Mr. Loiter stopping himself suddenly, and remembering that he was addressing himself to a lady, satisfied his energy at last by the use of the word "straw." Lady Carbury had followed these instructions with accuracy.
The name for the story had been the great thing. It did not occur to the authoress that, as the plot was to be allowed to develop itself and was, at this moment when she was perplexed as to the title, altogether uncreated, she might as well wait to see what appellation might best suit her work when its purpose should have declared itself. A novel, she knew well, was most unlike a rose, which by any other name will smell as sweet. "The Faultless Father," "The Mysterious Mother," "The Lame Lover,"—such names as that she was aware would be useless now. "Mary Jane Walker," if she could be very simple, would do, or "Blanche De Veau," if she were able to maintain throughout a somewhat high-stilted style of feminine rapture. But as she considered that she could best deal with rapid action and strange coincidences, she thought that something more startling and descriptive would better suit her purpose. After an hour's thought a name did occur to her, and she wrote it down, and with considerable energy of purpose framed her work in accordance with her chosen title, "The Wheel of Fortune!" She had no particular fortune in her mind when she chose it, and no particular wheel;—but the very idea conveyed by the words gave her the plot which she wanted. A young lady was blessed with great wealth, and lost it all by an uncle, and got it all back by an honest lawyer, and gave it all up to a distressed lover, and found it all again in the third volume. And the lady's name was Cordinga, selected by Lady Carbury as never having been heard before either in the world of fact or in that of fiction.
And now with all her troubles thick about her,—while her son was still hanging about the house in a condition that would break any mother's heart, while her daughter was so wretched and sore that she regarded all those around her as her enemies, Lady Carbury finished her work, and having just written the last words in which the final glow of enduring happiness was given to the young married heroine whose wheel had now come full round, sat with the sheets piled at her right hand. She had allowed herself a certain number of weeks for the task, and had completed it exactly in the time fixed. As she sat with her hand near the pile, she did give herself credit for her diligence. Whether the work might have been better done she never asked herself. I do not think that she prided herself much on the literary merit of the tale. But if she could bring the papers to praise it, if she could induce Mudie to circulate it, if she could manage that the air for a month should be so loaded with "The Wheel of Fortune," as to make it necessary for the reading world to have read or to have said that it had read the book,—then she would pride herself very much upon her work.
As she was so sitting on a Sunday afternoon, in her own room, Mr. Alf was announced. According to her habit, she expressed warm delight at seeing him. Nothing could be kinder than such a visit just at such a time,—when there was so very much to occupy such a one as Mr. Alf! Mr. Alf, in his usual mildly satirical way, declared that he was not peculiarly occupied just at present. "The Emperor has left Europe at last," he said. "Poor Melmotte poisoned himself on Friday, and the inquest sat yesterday. I don't know that there is anything of interest to-day." Of course Lady Carbury was intent upon her book, rather even than on the exciting death of a man whom she had herself known. Oh, if she could only get Mr. Alf! She had tried it before, and had failed lamentably. She was well aware of that; and she had a deep-seated conviction that it would be almost impossible to get Mr. Alf. But then she had another deep-seated conviction, that that which is almost impossible may possibly be done. How great would be the glory, how infinite the service! And did it not seem as though Providence had blessed her with this special opportunity, sending Mr. Alf to her just at the one moment at which she might introduce the subject of her novel without seeming premeditation?
"I am so tired," she said, affecting to throw herself back as though stretching her arms out for ease.
"I hope I am not adding to your fatigue," said Mr. Alf.
"Oh dear no. It is not the fatigue of the moment, but of the last six months. Just as you knocked at the door, I had finished the novel at which I have been working, oh, with such diligence!"
"Oh,—a novel! When is it to appear, Lady Carbury?"
"You must ask Leadham and Loiter that question. I have done my part of the work. I suppose you never wrote a novel, Mr. Alf?"
"I? Oh dear no; I never write anything."
"I have sometimes wondered whether I have hated or loved it the most. One becomes so absorbed in one's plot and one's characters! One loves the loveable so intensely, and hates with such fixed aversion those who are intended to be hated. When the mind is attuned to it, one is tempted to think that it is all so good. One cries at one's own pathos, laughs at one's own humour, and is lost in admiration at one's own sagacity and knowledge."
"How very nice!"
"But then there comes the reversed picture, the other side of the coin. On a sudden everything becomes flat, tedious, and unnatural. The heroine who was yesterday alive with the celestial spark is found to-day to be a lump of motionless clay. The dialogue that was so cheery on the first perusal is utterly uninteresting at a second reading. Yesterday I was sure that there was my monument," and she put her hand upon the manuscript; "to-day I feel it to be only too heavy for a gravestone!"
"One's judgment about one's-self always does vacillate," said Mr. Alf in a tone as phlegmatic as were the words.
"And yet it is so important that one should be able to judge correctly of one's own work! I can at any rate trust myself to be honest, which is more perhaps than can be said of all the critics."
"Dishonesty is not the general fault of the critics, Lady Carbury,—at least not as far as I have observed the business. It is incapacity. In what little I have done in the matter, that is the sin which I have striven to conquer. When we want shoes we go to a professed shoemaker; but for criticism we have certainly not gone to professed critics. I think that when I gave up the 'Evening Pulpit,' I left upon it a staff of writers who are entitled to be regarded as knowing their business."
"You given up the 'Pulpit'? asked Lady Carbury with astonishment, readjusting her mind at once, so that she might perceive whether any and if so what advantage might be taken of Mr. Alf's new position. He was no longer editor, and therefore his heavy sense of responsibility would no longer exist;—but he must still have influence. Might he not be persuaded to do one act of real friendship? Might she not succeed if she would come down from her high seat, sink on the ground before him, tell him the plain truth, and beg for a favour as a poor struggling woman?
"Yes, Lady Carbury, I have given it up. It was a matter of course that I should do so when I stood for Parliament. Now that the new member has so suddenly vacated his seat, I shall probably stand again."
"And you are no longer an editor?"
"I have given it up, and I suppose I have now satisfied the scruples of those gentlemen who seemed to think that I was committing a crime against the Constitution in attempting to get into Parliament while I was managing a newspaper. I never heard such nonsense. Of course I know where it came from."
"Where did it come from?"
"Where should it come from but the 'Breakfast Table'? Broune and I have been very good friends, but I do think that of all the men I know he is the most jealous."
"That is so little," said Lady Carbury. She was really very fond of Mr. Broune, but at the present moment she was obliged to humour Mr. Alf.
"It seems to me that no man can be better qualified to sit in Parliament than an editor of a newspaper,—that is if he is capable as an editor."
"No one, I think, has ever doubted that of you."
"The only question is whether he be strong enough for the double work. I have doubted about myself, and have therefore given up the paper. I almost regret it."
"I dare say you do," said Lady Carbury, feeling intensely anxious to talk about her own affairs instead of his. "I suppose you still retain an interest in the paper?"
"Some pecuniary interest;—nothing more."
"Oh, Mr. Alf,—you could do me such a favour!"
"Can I? If I can, you may be sure I will." False-hearted, false-tongued man! Of course he knew at the moment what was the favour Lady Carbury intended to ask, and of course he had made up his mind that he would not do as he was asked.
"Will you?" And Lady Carbury clasped her hands together as she poured forth the words of her prayer. "I never asked you to do anything for me as long as you were editing the paper. Did I? I did not think it right, and I would not do it. I took my chance like others, and I am sure you must own that I bore what was said of me with a good grace. I never complained. Did I?"
"But now that you have left it yourself,—if you would have the 'Wheel of Fortune' done for me,—really well done!"
"The 'Wheel of Fortune'!"
"That is the name of my novel," said Lady Carbury, putting her hand softly upon the manuscript. "Just at this moment it would be the making of a fortune for me! And, oh, Mr. Alf, if you could but know how I want such assistance!"
"I have nothing further to do with the editorial management, Lady Carbury."
"Of course you could get it done. A word from you would make it certain. A novel is different from an historical work, you know. I have taken so much pains with it."
"Then no doubt it will be praised on its own merits."
"Don't say that, Mr. Alf. The 'Evening Pulpit' is like,—oh, it is like,—like,—like the throne of heaven! Who can be justified before it? Don't talk about its own merits, but say that you will have it done. It couldn't do any man any harm, and it would sell five hundred copies at once,—that is if it were done really con amore." Mr. Alf looked at her almost piteously, and shook his head. "The paper stands so high, it can't hurt it to do that kind of thing once. A woman is asking you, Mr. Alf. It is for my children that I am struggling. The thing is done every day of the week, with much less noble motives."
"I do not think that it has ever been done by the 'Evening Pulpit.'"
"I have seen books praised."
"Of course you have."
"I think I saw a novel spoken highly of."
Mr. Alf laughed. "Why not? You do not suppose that it is the object of the 'Pulpit' to cry down novels?"
"I thought it was; but I thought you might make an exception here. I would be so thankful;—so grateful."
"My dear Lady Carbury, pray believe me when I say that I have nothing to do with it. I need not preach to you sermons about literary virtue."
"Oh, no," she said, not quite understanding what he meant.
"The sceptre has passed from my hands, and I need not vindicate the justice of my successor."
"I shall never know your successor."
"But I must assure you that on no account should I think of meddling with the literary arrangement of the paper. I would not do it for my sister." Lady Carbury looked greatly pained. "Send the book out, and let it take its chance. How much prouder you will be to have it praised because it deserves praise, than to know that it has been eulogised as a mark of friendship."
“Of course you have been a dragon of virtue.” Lionel Grimston Fawkes. Wood-engraving. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
"No, I shan't," said Lady Carbury. "I don't believe that anything like real selling praise is ever given to anybody, except to friends. I don't know how they manage it, but they do." Mr. Alf shook his head. "Oh yes; that is all very well from you. Of course you have been a dragon of virtue; but they tell me that the authoress of the 'New Cleopatra' is a very handsome woman." Lady Carbury must have been worried much beyond her wont, when she allowed herself so far to lose her temper as to bring against Mr. Alf the double charge of being too fond of the authoress in question, and of having sacrificed the justice of his columns to that improper affection.
"At this moment I do not remember the name of the lady to whom you allude," said Mr. Alf, getting up to take his leave; "and I am quite sure that the gentleman who reviewed the book,—if there be any such lady and any such book,—had never seen her!" And so Mr. Alf departed.
Lady Carbury was very angry with herself, and very angry also with Mr. Alf. She had not only meant to be piteous, but had made the attempt and then had allowed herself to be carried away into anger. She had degraded herself to humility, and had then wasted any possible good result by a foolish fit of chagrin. The world in which she had to live was almost too hard for her. When left alone she sat weeping over her sorrows; but when from time to time she thought of Mr. Alf and his conduct, she could hardly repress her scorn. What lies he had told her! Of course he could have done it had he chosen. But the assumed honesty of the man was infinitely worse to her than his lies. No doubt the "Pulpit" had two objects in its criticisms. Other papers probably had but one. The object common to all papers, that of helping friends and destroying enemies, of course prevailed with the "Pulpit." There was the second purpose of enticing readers by crushing authors,—as crowds used to be enticed to see men hanged when executions were done in public. But neither the one object nor the other was compatible with that Aristidean justice which Mr. Alf arrogated to himself and to his paper. She hoped with all her heart that Mr. Alf would spend a great deal of money at Westminster, and then lose his seat.
On the following morning she herself took the manuscript to Messrs. Leadham and Loiter, and was hurt again by the small amount of respect which seemed to be paid to the collected sheets. There was the work of six months; her very blood and brains,—the concentrated essence of her mind,—as she would say herself when talking with energy of her own performances; and Mr. Leadham pitched it across to a clerk, apparently perhaps sixteen years of age, and the lad chucked the parcel unceremoniously under a counter. An author feels that his work should be taken from him with fast-clutching but reverential hands, and held thoughtfully, out of harm's way, till it be deposited within the very sanctum of an absolutely fireproof safe. Oh, heavens, if it should be lost!—or burned!—or stolen! Those scraps of paper, so easily destroyed, apparently so little respected, may hereafter be acknowledged to have had a value greater, so far greater, than their weight in gold! If "Robinson Crusoe" had been lost! If "Tom Jones" had been consumed by flames! And who knows but that this may be another "Robinson Crusoe,"—a better than "Tom Jones"? "Will it be safe there?" asked Lady Carbury.
"Quite safe,—quite safe," said Mr. Leadham, who was rather busy, and who perhaps saw Lady Carbury more frequently than the nature and amount of her authorship seemed to him to require.
"It seemed to be,—put down there,—under the counter!"
"That's quite right, Lady Carbury. They're left there till they're packed."
"There are two or three dozen going to our reader this week. He's down in Skye, and we keep them till there's enough to fill the sack."
"Do they go by post, Mr. Leadham?"
"Not by post, Lady Carbury. There are not many of them would pay the expense. We send them by long sea to Glasgow, because just at this time of the year there is not much hurry. We can't publish before the winter." Oh, heavens! If that ship should be lost on its journey by long sea to Glasgow!
That evening, as was now almost his daily habit, Mr. Broune came to her. There was something in the absolute friendship which now existed between Lady Carbury and the editor of the "Morning Breakfast Table," which almost made her scrupulous as to asking from him any further literary favour. She fully recognised,—no woman perhaps more fully,—the necessity of making use of all aid and furtherance which might come within reach. With such a son, with such need for struggling before her, would she not be wicked not to catch even at every straw? But this man had now become so true to her, that she hardly knew how to beg him to do that which she, with all her mistaken feelings, did in truth know that he ought not to do. He had asked her to marry him, for which,—though she had refused him,—she felt infinitely grateful. And though she had refused him, he had lent her money, and had supported her in her misery by his continued counsel. If he would offer to do this thing for her she would accept his kindness on her knees,—but even she could not bring herself to ask to have this added to his other favours. Her first word to him was about Mr. Alf. "So he has given up the paper?"
"Is that all?"
"I don't suppose he'll really let it go out of his own hands. Nobody likes to lose power. He'll share the work, and keep the authority. As for Westminster, I don't believe he has a chance. If that poor wretch Melmotte could beat him when everybody was already talking about the forgeries, how is it likely that he should stand against such a candidate as they'll get now?"
"He was here yesterday."
"And full of triumph, I suppose?"
"He never talks to me much of himself. We were speaking of my new book,—my novel. He assured me most positively that he had nothing further to do with the paper."
"He did not care to make you a promise, I dare say."
"That was just it. Of course I did not believe him."
"Neither will I make a promise, but we'll see what we can do. If we can't be good-natured, at any rate we will say nothing ill-natured. Let me see,—what is the name?"
"'The Wheel of Fortune.'" Lady Carbury as she told the title of her new book to her old friend seemed to be almost ashamed of it.
"Let them send it early,—a day or two before it's out, if they can. I can't answer, of course, for the opinion of the gentleman it will go to, but nothing shall go in that you would dislike. Good-bye. God bless you." And as he took her hand, he looked at her almost as though the old susceptibility were returning to him.
As she sat alone after he had gone, thinking over it all,—thinking of her own circumstances and of his kindness,—it did not occur to her to call him an old goose again. She felt now that she had mistaken her man when she had so regarded him. That first and only kiss which he had given her, which she had treated with so much derision, for which she had rebuked him so mildly and yet so haughtily, had now a somewhat sacred spot in her memory. Through it all the man must have really loved her! Was it not marvellous that such a thing should be? And how had it come to pass that she in all her tenderness had rejected him when he had given her the chance of becoming his wife?
Last modified 24 September 2014