The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 13

XIII
WITH A DISSERTATION ON ROUND
PEGS AND SQUARE HOLES

WORK on the wrecked villa of madame la marquise was progressing with a vim. The Engineer, called in consultation, had with a comprehensive grasp of the situation brushed aside the architect’s plan of shoring up one end of the structure at a time; had rigged a pair of skids made from some old abandoned timber found on the beach and with a common ship’s windlass, a heavy hawser, and a “Heave ho, my hearties!”—to which every loose fisherman within reach lent a hand—had dragged the ruin up the hill and landed it intact on level ground some twenty feet back from its former site. This done—and it was accomplished in a day—the porch was straightened and the lopsided walls forced into place. With the exception of the collapsed chimney, the former residence of the distinguished lady was not such a wreck as had been supposed.

Next followed the slicing off of the raw edge of the landslide, the building of a fence, and, later on, the preparation of a new garden. This last was to be madame’s very own, and neither care nor cost was to be considered in its making. She could sleep in a garage—she had slept there since the catastrophe—and take her meals from the top of a barrel (which was also true), but a garden meant the very breath of her life—flowers she must have—flowers all the time, from the first crocus to the last October blossoms. Marc, now her abject slave, was then at Rouen arranging for their shipment. The daily news—such as twenty or more men at work, the chimney half finished, the fence begun, etc., etc.—Le Blanc, who was constantly at the site, generally brought us at night, his report being received with the keenest zest, for the marquise was now counted as the most delightful of our coterie.

His very latest and most important bulletin set us all to speculating;—the old garage—here his voice rose in intensity—was to be moved back some fifty feet and a new wing added, with bedroom above and a kitchen below. “A new garage!” we had all exclaimed. Who then was to occupy it? Not madame, of course, nor her servants, for they, as heretofore, would be quartered in the reconstructed villa. Certainly not any of her visitors—and most assuredly not Marc!

“Take my advice and stop guessing,” laughed the Frenchman; “she’ll tell you when she gets ready, and not before. And she’ll have the wing completed on time, for nothing daunts her. To want a thing done is, with her, to have it finished. The new wing was an afterthought, and yet it did not delay the work an hour. She’ll be serving tea in that wreck next week.”

“It is because madame la marquise was born with a gift,” remarked Lemois dryly from his seat near the fire. “Her mind is constructive, and everything madame touches must have a definite beginning and lead up to a definite ending. Her sanity is shown in her never trying to do things for which she is not fitted. As a musician, or a painter, or even a sculptor, or in any occupation demanding a fine imagination, madame, it seems to me, would have been a pathetic failure.”

“How about an antiquary?” remarked Louis, blowing a ring of smoke across the table, a quizzical smile lighting up his face.

“As an antiquary, my dear Monsieur Louis, the eminent lady would have been a pronounced success. She is one now, for she insists on knowing that the thing she buys is genuine, and it saves her many absurdities. I can think of nothing in her collection that can be questioned—and I cannot say that of my own.”

“And so you don’t believe that a man or a woman can make what they please of themselves?” asked Herbert, who was always glad to hear from Lemois.

“Not any more than I believe that tulip bulbs will grow blackberries if I water them enough.”

“It’s all a question of blood,” essayed Le Blanc, snipping the end from his cigar with a gold cutter attached to his watch-chain. “Failures in life are almost always due to a scrap of gray tissue clogging up a gentleman’s brain, which, ten chances to one, he has inherited from some plebeian ancestor.”

“Failures in life come from nothing of the sort!” blurted out Louis. “It’s just dead laziness, and of the cheapest kind. All the painters I knew at Julien’s who waited for a mood are waiting yet.”

“The trouble with most unsuccessful men,” volunteered Brierley, “is the everlasting trimming up of a square peg to make it fit a round hole.”

“Then drive it in and make it fit,” answered Louis. “It will hug all the tighter for the raw edges it raises.”

“And if it splits the plank, Louis?” I asked.

“Let it split! A man, High-Muck, who can’t make a success of his life is better out of it, unless he’s a cripple, and then he can have my pocket-book every time. Look at Herbert!—he’s forged ahead; yet he’s been so hungry sometimes he could have gnawed off the soles of his shoes.”

“Only the imagination of the out-door painter, gentlemen,” answered Herbert with a laughing nod to the table at large. “The hungry part is, perhaps, correct, but I forget about the shoes.”

“I stick to my point!” exclaimed Le Blanc, facing Herbert as he spoke. “It’s blood as well as push that makes a man a success. When he lacks the combination he fails—that is, he does nine times out of ten, and that percentage, of course, is too small to trust to.”

“That reminds me of a story,” interrupted Brierley with one of his quiet laughs, “of some fellows who took chances on the percentage, as Le Blanc calls it, and yet, as we Americans say, ‘arrived.’ A well-born young Englishman, down on his luck, had been tramping the streets, too proud to go home to his father’s house, the spirit of the hobo still in him. One night he struck up an acquaintance with another young chap as poor and independent as himself. Naturally they affiliated. Both were sons of gentlemen and both vagabonds in the best sense. One became a reporter and the other a news-gatherer. The first had no dress suit and was debarred from state functions and smart receptions; the second boasted not only a dress suit useful at weddings, but a respectable morning frock-coat for afternoon teas. The two outfits brought them lodgings and three meals a day, for what the dress suit could pick up in the way of society news the man with the pen got into type. Things went on this way until August set in and the season closed; then both men lost their jobs. For some weeks they braved it out, badgering the landlady; then came the pawning of their clothes, and then one meal a day, and then a bench in St. James’s Park out of sight of the bobbies. This being rock bottom, a council of war was held. The news-gatherer shipped aboard an outgoing vessel and disappeared from civilization. The reporter kept on reporting. Both had courage and both had the best blood of England in their veins, according to my view. Twenty years later the two met at a drawing-room in Buckingham Palace. The reporter had risen to a peer and the news-gatherer to a merchant prince. There was a hearty handshake, a furtive glance down the long, gold-encrusted corridor, and then, with a common impulse, the two moved to an open window and looked out. Below them lay the bench on which the two had slept twenty years before.”

“Of course!” shouted Le Blanc; “that’s just what I said—a case of good blood—that’s what kept them going. They owed it to their ancestors.”

“Ancestors be hanged! It was a case of pure grit!” shouted Louis in return. “All the blood in the world wouldn’t have helped them if it hadn’t been for that. Neither of them expected, when they started out in life, to be shown up six flights of marble stairs by a hundred flunkeys in silk stockings, but, as Brierley puts it, ‘they arrived all the same.’ Blood alone would have landed them as clerks in government pay or obscure country gentlemen waiting for somebody to die. They kept on driving in the peg and before they got through all the chinks were filled. Keep your toes in your pumps, gentlemen. High-Muck is loaded for something; I see it in his eyes. Go on, High-Muck, and let us have it. How do you vote—blood or brains?”

“Neither,” I answered. “Lemois is nearest the truth. You can’t make a silk purse out of—you know the rest—neither can you force a man, nor can he force himself, to succeed in something for which he is not fitted. All you do is to split the plank and ruin his life. I’ll tell you a story which will perhaps give you and idea of what I mean.

“Perhaps five years ago—perhaps six—my memory is always bad for dates—I met a fellow in one of our small Western cities at home who, by all odds, was the most brilliant conversationalist I had run across for years. The acquaintance began as my audience—I was lecturing at the time—left the room and was continued under the sidewalk, where we had a porter-house steak and a mug apiece, the repast and talk lasting until two in the morning. Gradually I learned his history. He had started life as a reporter; developed into space writer, then editor, and was known as the most caustic and brilliant journalist on any of the Western papers. With the death of his wife, he had thrown up this position and was, when I met him, conducting a small country paper.

“What possessed me I don’t know, but after seeing him half a dozen times that winter—and I often passed through his town—I made up my mind that his brilliant talk, quaint philosophy, and mastery of English were wasted on what he was doing, and that if I could persuade him to write a novel he would not only drop into the hole his Maker had bored for him, but would make a name for himself. All that he had to do was to put himself into type and the rest would follow. Of course he protested; he was fifty years old, he said, had but little means, no experience in fiction, his work not being imaginative but concerned with the weightier and more practical things of the day.

“All this made me only the keener to do something to drag him out of the pit and start him in a new direction.

“The first thing was to make him believe in himself. I pooh-poohed the idea of his failure to succeed at fifty as being any reason for his not acquiring distinction at sixty, and counted on my fingers the men who had done their best work late in life. Taking up some of the editorials he had sent me (undeniable proofs, so he had maintained, of his inability to do anything better or, rather, different), I picked out a sentence here and there, reading it aloud and dilating on his choice of words; I showed him how his style would tell in an up-to-date novel, and how forceful his short, pithy epigrams would be scattered throughout its text.

“Little by little he began to enthuse: I had kindled his pride—something that had lain dormant for years—and the warmth of its revival soon sent the blood of a new hope tingling through his veins. He now confessed that he had always wanted to write sustained fiction without ever having had either the opportunity or the strength to begin. Inspired by my efforts, others of his friends at home joined in the bracing up, recognizing as I had done the charm and quality of the man—his wit and tenderness, his philosophy and knowledge of the life about him. They forgot, of course, as had I, that in fiction—and in all imaginative literature for that matter—something more is required than either a knowledge of men or the ability for turning out phrases. As an actor steps in between the dramatist and the audience—visualizing and vitalizing the text by deft gestures, telling emphases, and those silent pauses often more effective than the speech itself—so must the author with his pen: in other words, he must infuse into the written word something that presents to you in print that which the actor makes you see beyond the footlights. This, however, you men know all about, so I won’t dilate on it.

“Well, he started in and threw himself into the task with a grip and energy of which I had not thought him capable. It took him about six months to finish the novel; then he came East and laid the manuscript in my hands. We shut ourselves up in my study and went over it. When I suggested that a page dragged, he would snatch it from my hand, square himself on my hearth-rug with his back to the fire, and read it aloud, pumping his personality into every line. Conversations which, when I read them, had seemed long-winded and commonplace took on a new meaning. When he had gone to bed I reread the passages and again my heart sank.

“The publisher came next, I delivering the manuscript myself with all the good things I could say about it.

“At the end of the week that ominous-looking white coffin of an envelope in which so many of our hopes are buried, and which most of us know so well, was laid on my study table, and with it the short obituary notice: ‘Not adapted to our uses.’

“I was afraid to tell him, and didn’t. I arranged a dinner instead for the three of us—the editor, whom he had not yet met, being one. During the meal not a word was said about the rejected novel. I had cautioned the author—and, of course, the editor never brought his shop to a dinner-table.

“After the cigars I took up the manuscript and the discussion opened. The editor was very frank, very kind, and very helpful. He had wanted to publish it, but there were long passages—essays, really—in which the reader’s galloping interest would get stalled. Experience had taught him that it was slow-downs like these that mired so much of modern fiction.

“‘Which passages, for instance,’ I asked rather casually.

“‘Well, the part which— Hand me the manuscript and I will——

“‘No; suppose my friend reads it—you have enough of that to do all day.’

“Just as I expected, the reader’s personality again transformed everything. The long-winded descriptions under the magic of his voice seemed too short, while every conversation thought dull before appeared to be illumined by a hidden meaning tucked away between the lines.

“When the editor left at midnight the coffin was in his pocket. Two days later the book department forwarded a contract with a check for five hundred dollars as advance royalties.

“There was no holding my friend down to earth after that. His joy and pride in that shambling, God-forsaken, worthless plodder whom he had despised for years was overwhelming. He was like a boy out of school. Stories which he had forgotten were pulled out of the past and given with a humor and point that dazzled every one around my study fire. Personal reminiscences of politicians he had known, and campaigns he had directed from his editorial chair, were told in a way that made them live in our memories ever after. Never had any of my friends met so delightful and cultivated a man.

“The next day he went back to his home town carrying his enthusiasm with him.

“In two months the usual book notices began to crop out in the papers—all written in the publisher’s establishment—a fact which he must have known, but which, from his enthusiastic letters, I saw he had overlooked. His own village papers reprinted the notices with editorial comments of their own—‘Our distinguished fellow-citizen,’ etc.—that sort of thing.

“These were also forwarded to me by mail with renewed thanks for the service I had done him—he, the ‘modern Lazarus snatched from an early grave.’ When a bona fide reviewer noticed the book at all, it was in half a dozen lines, with allusions to the amateurishness of the effort—‘his first and, it is hoped, his last,’ one critic was brutal enough to add. When one of these reached him, it was dismissed with a smile. He knew what he had done, and so would the world once the book got out among the people.

“Then the first six months’ account was mailed him. The royalty sales had not reached one-half of the first payment!

“He sat—so his brother told me afterward—with the firm’s letter in his hand, and for an hour never opened his lips. That afternoon he went to bed; in three months he was dead! It had broken his heart.

“I, too, sat with a paper in my hand—his brother’s telegram. Had I done right or wrong? I am still wondering and I have not yet solved the question. Had I never crossed his path and had he kept on in his editor’s chair, giving out short, crisp comments on the life of the day, he would, no doubt, be alive and earning a fair support. I had attempted the impossible and failed. The square peg in the round hole had split the plank!”

“Better split it,” remarked Louis, “than stop all driving. Poor fellow, I’m sorry for him; nothing hurts like having your pride dragged in the mud, and nothing brings keener suffering—I’ve seen it and know. Why didn’t you brace him up again, High-Muck?”

“I did try, but it was too late. Just before he died he wrote me the old refrain: ‘At twenty-five I might have weathered it, but not at fifty.’”

Herbert drew his chair closer, assuming his favorite gesture, his hands on the edge of the table.

“I say ‘poor fellow’ too, Louis, but High-Muck has not put his finger on the right spot. It was not the man’s pride that was wounded; nor did he die of a broken heart. He died because he had not reached his pinnacle, and that is quite a different thing. What blinded him and destroyed his reason—for it cannot be thought very sensible for a man to abandon a certain fixed income for a rainbow—was not your reviving his belief in himself, but your giving him, for the first time, an opportunity to spread his wings. But for that you could not have persuaded him to write a line. The pitiful thing was that the wings were not large enough—still they were wings to be used in the air of romance, and not legs with which to tread the roads of the commonplace, and he knew it. He had felt them growing ever since he was a boy. It is only a question of the spread of one’s feathers, after all, whether one succeeds soaring over mountains with a view of the never-ending Valley of Content below, or whether one keeps on grovelling in the mud.”

As Herbert paused a tremulous silence fell upon the group. That he, of all men, should thus penetrate, if not espouse, the cause of failure—the hardest of all things for a man of phenomenal success to comprehend or excuse in his fellows—came as a new note.

“To illustrate this theory,” he continued, unconscious of the effect he had produced, “I will tell you about a man whom I once came across in one of the studios of Paris, back of the Pantheon. All his life he had determined to be a sculptor—and when I say ‘determined’ I mean he had thought of nothing else. By day he worked in the atelier, at night he drew from a cast—a custom then of the young sculptors. In the Louvre and in the Luxembourg—out in the gardens of the Tuileries—wherever there was something moulded or cut into form, there at odd hours you could always find this enthusiast. At night too, when the other students were trooping through the Quartier, breaking things or outrunning the gendarmes, this poor devil was working away, doing Ledas and Venuses and groups of nudes, with rearing horses and chariots,—all the trite subjects a young sculptor attempts whose imagination outruns his ability.

“Year after year his things would come up before the jury and be rejected; and they deserved it. Soon it began to dawn on his associates, but never on him, that, try as he might, there was something lacking in his artistic make-up. With the master standing over him advising a bit of clay put on here, or a slice taken off there, he had seemed to progress; when, however, he struck out for himself his results were most disheartening. It was during this part of his life that I came to know him. He was then a man of forty, ten years younger than your dead novelist, High-Muck, and, like him, a man of many sorrows. The difference was that all his life my man had been poor; at no time for more than a week had he ever been sure of his bread. As he was an expert moulder and often gratuitously helped his brother sculptors in taking casts of their clay figures, he had often been begged to accept employment at good wages with some of the stucco people, but he had refused and had fought on, preferring starvation to pâtisserie, as he called this kind of work.

“Nor had he, like your novelist, happiness to look back upon. He had married young, as they all do, and there had come a daughter who had grown to be eighteen, and who had been lost in the whirl—slipped in the mud, they said, and the city had rolled over her. And then the wife died and he was alone. The girl had crept up his stairs one night and lay shivering outside his door; he had taken her in, put her to bed, and fed her. Later on her last lover discovered by chance her hiding-place, and in the mould-maker’s absence the two had found the earthen pot with the few francs he owned and had spent them. After that he had shut his door in her face. And so the fight went on, his ideal still alive in his heart, his one purpose to give it flight—‘soaring over the heads of the millions,’ as he put it, ‘so that even dullards might take off their hats in recognition.’

“When I again met him he was living in an old, abandoned theatre on the outskirts of Paris, a weird, uncanny ruin—rats everywhere—the scenery hanging in tatters, the stage broken down, the pit filled to the level of the footlights with a mass of coal—for a dealer in fuels had leased it for this purpose, his carts going in and out of the main entrance. One of the dressing-rooms over the flies was his studio, reached by a staircase from the old stage entrance. A former tenant had cut a skylight under which my friend worked.

“In answer to his ‘Entrez’ I pushed open his door and found him in a sculptor’s blouse cowering over a small sheet-iron stove on which some food was being cooked. He raised his head, straightened his back, and came toward me—a small, shrunken man now, prematurely old, his two burning eyes looking out from under his ledge of a forehead like coals beneath a half-burnt log, a shock of iron-gray hair sticking straight up from his scalp as would a brush. About his nose, up his cheeks, around his mouth, and especially across his throat, which was free of a cravat, ran pasty wrinkles, like those on a piece of uncooked tripe. Only half-starved men who have lived on greasy soups and scraps from the kitchens have these complexions.

“I describe him thus carefully to you because that first glance of his scarred face had told me his life’s story. It is the same with every man who suffers.

“He talked of his work, of the conspiracies that had followed him all his career, shutting him out of his just rewards, while less brilliant men snatched the prizes which should have been his; of his hopes for the future; of the great competition soon to come off at Rheims, in which he would compete—not that he had yet put his idea into clay—that was always a mere question of detail with him. Then, as if by the merest accident—something he had quite forgotten, but which he thought might interest me—he told me, with a quickening of his glance and the first smile I had seen cross his pasty face, of a certain statue of his, ‘a Masterpiece,’ which a great connoisseur had bought for his garden, and which faced one of the open spaces of Paris. I could see it any day I walked that way—indeed, if I did not mind, he would go with me—he had been housed all the morning and needed the air.

“I pleaded an excuse and left him, for I knew all about this masterpiece which had been bought by a tradesman and planted in his garden among groups of cast-iron dogs and spouting dolphins, the hedge in front cut low enough for passers-by to see the entire collection. Hardly a day elapsed that the poor fellow did not walk by, drinking in the beauty of his work, comforting himself with the effect it produced on the plain people who stopped to admire. Sometimes he would accost them and bring the conversation round to the sculptor, and then abruptly take his leave, they staring at him as he bowed his thanks.

“The following year I again looked him up; his poverty and his courage appealed to me; besides, I intended to help him. When I knocked at his door he did not cry ‘Entrez’—he kept still, as if he had not heard me or was out. When I pushed the door open he turned, looked at me for an instant, and resumed his work. Again my eyes took him in—thinner, dryer, less nourished. He was casting the little images you buy from a board carried on a vendor’s back.

“Without heeding his silence I at once stated my errand. He should make a statue for my garden; furthermore, his name and address should be plainly cut in the pedestal.

“He thanked me for my order, but he made no more statues, he said. He was now engaged in commercial work. Art was dead. Nobody cared. Did I remember his great statue—the one in the garden?—his Apollo?—the Greek of modern times? Well, the place had changed hands, and the new owner had carted it away with the cast-iron dogs and the dolphins and ploughed up the lawn to make an artichoke-bed. The masterpiece was no more. ‘I found all that was left of my work,’ he added, ‘on a dirt heap in the rear of his out-house, the head gone and both arms broken short off.’

“His voice wavered and ceased, and it was with some difficulty that he straightened his back, moved his drying plaster casts one side, and offered me the free part of the bench for a seat.

“I remained standing and broke out in protest. I abused the ignorance and jealousy of the people and of the juries—did everything I could, in fact, to reassure him and pump some hope into him—precisely what you did to your own author, High-Muck. I even agreed to pay in advance for the new statue I had ordered. I told him, too, that if he would come back to the country with me, I would make a place for him in an empty greenhouse, where he could work undisturbed. He only shook his head.

“‘What for?’ he answered—‘for money? I am alone in the world, and it’s of no use to me. I am accustomed to being starved. For fame? I have given my life to express the thoughts of my heart and nobody would listen. Now it is finished. I will keep them for the good God—perhaps He will listen.’

“A week later I found him sitting bolt upright in his chair under the skylight, dead. Above in the dull gloom hung a row of plaster models, his own handiwork—fragments of arms and hands with fists clenched ready to strike; queer torsos writhing in pain; queerer masks with hollow eyes. In the grimy light these seemed to have come to life—the torsos leaning over, hunching their shoulders at him as if blaming him for their suffering; the masks mocking at his misery, leering at each other. It was a grewsome sight, and I did not shake off the memory of the scene for days.

“And so I hold,” added Herbert, with a sorrowful shake of his head “that it is neither pride nor suffering that kills men of this class. It is because they have failed to reach the pinnacle of their ideals—that goal for which some spirits risk both their lives and their hopes of heaven.”