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 AND HOW CAME BACK AGAIN. I left London, the drums beating in my heart, the flags waving in my brain. Somewhat more than a year later, one foggy wet December evening, I back to it defeated—ah, that is a small thing, capable of redress—disgraced. I returned to it as to a hiding-place where, lost in the crowd, I might waste my days unnoticed until such time as I could summon up sufficient resolution to put an end to my dead life. I had been ambitious—dwelling again amid the bitterness of the months that followed my return, I write in the past tense. I had been eager to make a name, a position for myself. But were I to claim no higher aim, I should be doing to my blood—to the great-souled gentleman whose whole life had been an ode to honour, to her of simple faith who had known no other prayer to teach me than the childish cry, “God help me to be good!” I had wished to be a great man, but it was to have been a great good man. The world was to have admired me, but to have respected me also. I was to have been the without fear, but, rarer yet, without reproach—Galahad, not Launcelot. I had learnt myself to be a feeble, backboneless fighter, conquered by the first serious assault of evil, a creature of mean fears, slave to every crack of the devil's whip, a feeder with swine.
Urban Vane I had discovered to be a common swindler. His play he had stolen from the desk of a well-known dramatist whose acquaintance he had made in Deleglise's kitchen. The man had fallen ill, and Vane had been constant in his visits. Partly recovering, the man had gone abroad to Italy. Had he died there, as at the time was expected, the robbery might never have come to light. News reached us in a small northern town that he had taken a fresh lease of life and was on his way back to England. Then it was that Vane with calm , smoking his cigar over a bottle of wine to which he had invited me, told me the bald truth, it with some touches of wit. Had the come upon me sooner, I might have acted differently; but six months' companionship with Urban Vane, if it had not, by grace of the Lord, destroyed the roots of whatever flower of manhood might have been implanted in me, had most certainly its leaves.
The man was clever. That he was not clever enough to perceive from the beginning what he has learnt since: that honesty is the best policy—at least, for men with brains—remains somewhat of a mystery to me. Where once he made his hundreds among shady ways, he now, I suppose, makes his thousands in the broad daylight of enterprise. in the blood, one might imagine, has to be worked out. Urban Vanes are to be found in all callings. They commence as scamps; years later, to one's , one finds them to their profession. Wild oats are of various quality, according to the soil from which they are preserved. We sow them in our various ways.
At first I stormed. Vane sat with an amused smile upon his lips and listened.
“Your language, my dear Kelver,” he replied, my vocabulary , “might wound me were I able to accept you as an authority upon this question of morals. With the rest of the world you preach one thing and practise another. I have noticed it so often. It is perhaps sad, but the preaching has ceased to interest me. You to be very indignant with me for making use of another man's ideas. It is done every day. You yourself were quite ready to take credit not due to you. For months we have been travelling with this play: 'Drama, in five acts, by Mr. Horace Moncrieff.' Not more than two hundred lines of it are your own—excellent lines, I admit, but they do not constitute the play.”
This aspect of the affair had not occurred to me. “But you asked me to put my name to it,” I . “You said you did not want your own to appear—for private reasons. You made a point of it.”
He waved away the smoke from his cigar. “The man you are posing as would never have put his name to work not his own. You never hesitated; on the contrary, you jumped at the chance of so easy an opening to your career as . My need, as you imagined it, was your opportunity.”
“But you said it was from the French,” I argued; “you had merely translated it, I adapted it. I don't defend the custom, but it is the custom: the man who adapts a play calls himself the author. They all do it.”
“I know,” he answered. “It has always amused me. Our sick friend himself, whom I am sure we are both delighted to welcome back to life, has done it more than once, and made a very fair profit on the transaction. Indeed, from internal evidence, I am strongly of opinion that this present play is a case in point. Well, chickens come home to roost: I adapt from him. What is the difference?”
“Simply this,” he continued, pouring himself out another glass of wine, “that whereas, owing to the state of the copyright laws, stealing from the foreign author is legal and , against stealing from the living English author there is a certain prejudice.”
“And the consequences, I am afraid, you will find somewhat unpleasant,” I suggested.
He laughed: it was not a to which he was . “You mean, my dear Kelver that you will.”
“Don't look so dumbfounded,” he went on. “You cannot be so stupid as you are pretending to be. The original manuscript at the Lord Chamberlain's office is in your handwriting. You knew our friend as well as I did, and visited him. Why, the whole tour has been under your management. You have arranged everything—most excellently; I have been quite surprised.”
My anger came later. For the moment, the sudden light blinded me to everything but fear.
“But you told me,” I cried, “it was only a matter of form, that you wanted to keep your name out of it because—”
He was looking at me with an expression of genuine astonishment. My words began to appear humorous even to myself. I found it difficult to believe I had been the fool I was now seeing myself to have been.
“I am sorry,” he said, “I am really sorry. I took you for a man of the world. I thought you merely did not wish to know anything.”
Still, to my shame, fear was the thing uppermost in my heart. “You are not going to put it all on to me?” I pleaded.
He had risen. He laid his hand upon my shoulder. Instead of flinging it off, I was glad of its pressure. He was the only man to whom I could look for help.
“Don't take it so seriously,” he said. “He will merely think the manuscript has been lost. As likely as not, he will be unable to remember whether he wrote it or merely thought of writing it. No one in the company will say anything: it isn't their business. We must set to work. I had altered it a good deal before you saw it, and changed all the names of the characters. We will retain the third act: it is the only thing of real value in the play. The situation is not original; you have as much right to dish it up as he had. In a fortnight we will have the whole thing so different that if he saw it himself he would only imagine we had got hold of the idea and had him.”
There were moments during the next few weeks when I listened to the voice of my good angel, when I saw clearly that even from the lowest point of view he was giving me sound advice. I would go to the man, tell him the whole truth.
But Vane never left my elbow. Suspecting, I suppose, he gave me clearly to understand that if I did so, I must expect no mercy from him. My story, denounced by him as an lie, would be regarded as the funk-inspired of a young . At the best I should handicap myself with suspicion that would last me throughout my career. On the other hand, what harm had we done? Presented in some twenty or so small towns, where it would soon be forgotten, a play something like. Most plays were something like. Our friend would produce his version and reap a rich harvest; ours would disappear. If by any unlikely chance discussion should arise, the advertisement would be to his advantage. So soon as possible we would replace it by a new piece altogether. A young man of my genius could surely write something better than hotch-potch such as this; experience was all that I had lacked. As regarded one's own conscience, was not the world's honesty a question of convention? Had he been a young man, and had we diddled him out of his play for a ten-pound note, we should have been applauded as sharp men of business. The one commandment of the world was: Don't get found out. The whole trouble, left alone, would sink and fade. Later, we should tell it as a good joke—and be laughed with.
So I fell from mine own . Vane me—and he had brains—I set to work. I am glad to remember that every line I wrote was born in . I tried to persuade Vane to let me make a new play altogether, which I offered to give him for nothing. He expressed himself as grateful, but his frequently declared belief in my dramatic talent failed to induce his acceptance.
“Later on, my dear Kelver,” was his reply. “For the present this is doing very well. Going on as we are, we shall soon improve it out of all recognition, while at the same time losing nothing that is essential. All your ideas are excellent.”
By the end of about three weeks we had got together a that, so far as dialogue and characters were concerned, might be said to be our own. There was good work in it, here and there. Under other conditions I might have been proud of much that I had written. As it was, I experienced only the terror of the thief the : my cleverness might save me; it afforded me no further satisfaction. My humour, when I heard the people laughing at it, I remembered I had forged listening in vague fear to every creak upon the stairs, wondering in what form discovery might come upon me. There was one speech, addressed by the hero to the : “Yes, I admit it; I do love her. But there is that which I love better—my self-respect!” Stepping down to the footlights and slapping his chest (which according to stage convention would appear to be a sort of moral jewel-box bursting with virtues), our lead—a gentleman who led a somewhat rabbit-like existence, perpetually diving down openings to avoid service of , at the instance of his wife, for alimony—would invariably bring down the house upon this sentiment. Every night, listening to the applause, I would , recalling how I had written it with burning cheeks.
There was a character in the piece, a vicious old man, that from the beginning Vane had wanted me to play. I had disliked the part and had refused, choosing instead to act a high-souled countryman, in the of whose emotions I had taken pleasure. Vane now renewed his arguments, and my power of resistance seeming to have departed from me, I accepted the exchange. Certainly the old gentleman's scenes went with more snap, but at a cost of further to myself. Upon an older actor the effect might have been harmless, but the growing tree springs back less surely; I found myself taking pleasure in the coarse laughter that rewarded my suggestive leers, calling up all the evil in my nature to help me in the development of fresh “business.” Vane was enthusiastic in his praises, generous with his assistance. Under his tuition I succeeded in making the part as unpleasant as we dared. I had genius, so Vane told me; I understood so much of human nature. One proof of the moral creeping over me was that I was beginning to like Vane.
Looking back at the man as I see him plainly now, a very ordinary scamp, his not even amusing, I find it difficult to present him as he appeared to my boyish eyes. He was well educated and well read. He gave himself the airs of a superior being by freak of fate compelled to in a world of inferior creatures. To live among them in comfort it was necessary for him to outwardly conform to their conventions but to respect their reasoning would have been beneath him. To accept their laws as on one's own conscience was, using the common expression, to give oneself away, to confess oneself commonplace. Every decent instinct a man might own to was proof in Vane's eyes of his being “suburban,” “bourgeois”—everything that was unintellectual. It was the first time I had heard this sort of talk. Vane was one of the pioneers of the movement, which has since become somewhat . To laugh at it is easy to a man of the world; boys are impressed by it. From him I first heard the now familiar advocacy of pure Hedonism. Pan, from his dark , was to sit upon Olympus.
My lower nature rose within me to proclaim the foolish chatterer as a prophet. So life was not as I had been taught—a painful struggle between good and evil. There was no such thing as evil; the senseless was a libel upon Nature. Not through wearisome , but rather through expression of the animal lay .
Villains—workers in wrong for pleasure of the art—are useful characters in fiction; in real life they do not exist. I am convinced the man believed most of the rubbish he talked. Since the time of which I write he has done some service to the world. I understand he is an excellent husband and father, a considerate master, a host. He intended, I have no doubt, to improve me, to enlarge my understanding, to free me from soul-stifling of convention. Not to credit him with this well-meaning intention would be to assume him something quite , to upon him a dignity beyond his deserts. I find it easier to regard him merely as a fool.
Our leading lady was a handsome but coarse woman, somewhat over-developed. Starting life as a music-hall singer, she had married a small tradesman in the south of London. Some three or four years previous, her Juno-like charms had turned the head of a youthful novelist—a refined, sensitive man, of whom great things in literature had been expected, and, judging from his earlier work, not . He had run away with her, and eventually married her; the scandal was still fresh. Already she had of her bargain. These women regard their infatuated lovers merely as steps in the social ladder, and he had failed to advance her. Under her demoralising spell his ambition had died in him. He no longer wrote, no longer took interest in anything beyond his own debasement. He was with us in the company, playing small parts, and playing them badly; he would have remained with us as bill-poster rather than have been sent away.
Vane planned to bring this woman and myself together. To her he pictured me a young gentleman of means, a coming author, who would soon be earning an income sufficient to keep her in every luxury. To me he hinted that she had fallen in love with me. I was never attracted to her by any feeling stronger than the with which one views a handsome animal. It was my vanity upon which he worked. He envied me; any man would envy me; experience of life was what I needed to complete my genius. The great intellects of this earth must learn all lessons, even at the cost of suffering to themselves and others.
As years before I had laboured to acquire a for cigars and whiskey, deeming it an necessary to a literary career, so I now myself to the of a pretty taste in passion. According to the literature, and historical, Vane was kind enough to supply me with, men of note were invariably sad dogs. That my was not that of the s............
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