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The Birth of A Masterpiece by Lucas Malet

(From The Story-Teller)


Looking back on it from this distance of time—it began in the early and ended in the middle eighties—I see the charm of ingenuous youth stamped on the episode, the touching glamour of limitless faith and expectation. We were, the whole little band of us, so deliciously self-sufficient, so magnificently critical of established reputations in contemporary letters and art. We sniffed and snorted, noses in air, at popular idols, while ourselves weighted down with a cargo of guileless enthusiasm only asking opportunity to dump itself at an idol's feet. We ached to burn incense before the altar of some divinity; but it must be a divinity of our own discovering, our own choosing. We scorned to acclaim ready-made, second-hand goods. Then we encountered Pogson—Heber Pogson. Our fate, and even more, perhaps, his fate, was henceforth sealed.

He was a large, sleek, pink creature, slow and rare of movement, from much sitting bulky, not to say squashy, in figure, mild-eyed, slyly jovial and—for no other word, to my mind, so closely fits his attitude—resigned. A positive glutton of books, he read as instinctively, almost as unconsciously, as other men breathe. But he not only absorbed. He gave forth and that copiously, with taste, with discrimination, now and again with startlingly eloquent flights and witty sallies. His memory was prodigious. The variety and vivacity of his conversation, the immense range of subjects he brilliantly laboured, when in the vein, remain with me as simply marvellous. With us he mostly was in the vein. And, vanity apart, we must have composed a delightful audience, generously censer-swinging. No man of even average feeling but would be moved by such fresh, such spontaneous admiration! Thus, if our divinity melodiously piped, we did very radiantly dance to his piping.

Oh! Heber Pogson enjoyed it. Never tell me he didn't revel in those highly articulate evenings of monologue, gasconade, heated yet brotherly argument, lasting on to midnight and after, every bit as much as we did! Anyhow at first. Later he may have had twinges, been sensible of strain; though never, I still believe, a very severe one. In any case, Nature showed herself his friend—his saviour, if also, in some sort, his executioner. When the strain tended to become distressing, for him personally, very simply and cleverly, she found a way out.

A background of dark legend only brought the steady glow of his—and our—present felicity into richer relief. We gathered hints of, caught in passing smiling allusion to, straitened and impecunious early years. He had endured a harsh enough apprenticeship to the profession of letters in its least satisfactory, because most ephemeral, form—namely journalism, and provincial journalism at that. This must have painfully cribbed and confined his free-ranging spirit. We were filled by reverent sympathy for the trials and deprivations of his past. But at the period when the members—numbering a dozen, more or less—of our devoted band trooped up from Chelsea and down from the Hampstead heights to worship in the studio-library of the Church Street, Kensington, house, Pogson was lapped in a material well-being altogether sufficient. He treated us, his youthful friends and disciples, to very excellent food and drink; partaking of these himself, moreover, with evident readiness and relish. Those little “help-yourselves,” stand-up suppers in the big, quiet, comfortably warmed and shaded room revealed in him no ascetic tendency, though, I hasten to add, no tendency to unbecoming excess. Such hospitality testified to the soundness of Pogson's existing financial position; as did his repeated assertions that now, at last—praise heaven—he had leisure to do worthy and abiding work, work through which he could freely express his personality, express in terms of art his judgments upon, and appreciations of, the human scene.

We listened breathless, nodding exuberant approval. For weren't we ourselves, each and all of us, mightily in love with art and with the human scene? And hadn't we, listening thus breathlessly to our amazing master, the enchanting assurance that we were on the track of a masterpiece? Not impossibly a whole gallery of masterpieces, since Heber Pogson had barely touched middle age as yet. For him there still was time. Fiction, we gathered to be the selected medium. He not only meant to write, but was actually now engaged in writing, a novel during those withdrawn and sacred morning hours when we were denied admittance to his presence. We previsaged something tremendous, poetic yet fearlessly modern, fixed on the bedrock of realism, a drama and a vision wide, high, deep, spectacular yet subtle as life itself. Let his confreres, French and Russian—not to mention those merely British born—look to their laurels, when Heber Pogson blossomed into print! And—preciously inspiring thought—he was our Pogson. He inalienably belonged to us; since hadn't we detected the quality of his genius when the veil was still upon its face? Oh! we knew, bless you; we knew. We'd the right to sniff and snort, noses in air, at contemporary reputations because we were snugly awaiting the disclosure of a talent which would prick them into nothingness like so many bubbles, pop them like so many inflated paper bags, knock them one and all into the proverbial cocked hat!

Unfortunately youth, with a fine illogic, though having all the time there is before it, easily waxes impatient. In our eagerness for his public recognition, his apotheosis, we did, I am afraid, hustle our great man a little. Instead of being satisfied with his nocturnal coruscations—they brilliant as ever, let it be noted—we just a fraction resented the slowness of his progress, began ever so gently to shove that honoured bulky form behind and pull at it in front. We wanted the tangible result of those many sacred and secret morning hours during which his novel was in process of being formed and fashioned, gloriously built up. Wouldn't he tell us the title, enlighten us as to the theme, the scheme, thus allaying the hunger pangs of our pious curiosity by crumbs—ever so small and few—dropped from his richly furnished table? With exquisite good-humour, he fenced and feinted. Almost roguishly he would laugh us off and launch the conversation into other channels, holding us—after the first few vexatiously outwitted seconds—at once enthralled and delicately rebuked.

But at last—in the late spring, as far as I remember, of the second year of our devotion—there came a meeting at which things got pressed somehow to a head. Contrary to custom feminine influence made itself felt.

And here I pause and blush. For it strikes me as so intimately characteristic of our whole relation—in that earlier stage, at least—that I should have written all this on the subject of Heber Pogson without making one solitary mention of his wife. She existed. Was permanently in evidences—or wasn't it, rather, in eclipse?—as a shadowy parasitic entity perambulating the hinterland of his domestic life. She must have been by some years his junior—a tall, thin, flat-chested woman, having heavy, yellowish brown hair, a complexion to match, and pale, nervous eyes. Her clothes hung on her as on a clothes-peg. She affected vivid greens—as was the mistaken habit of Victorian ladies possessing the colouring falsely called “auburn”—but clouded their excessive verdure to neutrality by semi-transparent over-draperies of black. Harry Lessingham, in a crudely unchivalrous mood, once described her as “without form and void,” adding that she “had a mouth like a fish.” These statements I considered unduly harsh, yet admitted her almost miraculously negative. She mattered less, when one was in the room with her, than anything human and feminine which I, so far, had ever run across. And I was at least normally susceptible, I'm very sure of that.

As a matter of course, on our arrival at the blest house in Church Street, we one and all respectfully greeted her, passed, to put it vulgarly, the time of day with her. But there intercourse ceased. At some subsequent instant she faded out—whether into space or into some adjacent connubial chamber, I had no notion. I only realized, when the act was accomplished, that we now were without her, that she had vanished, leaving behind her no faintest moral or emotional trace.

But, on the occasion in question, she did not vanish. We fed her at supper. And still she remained—in the interests of social propriety, as we imagined, since for once the Pogson symposium included a stranger, an eminently attractive lady guest.

Harry Lessingham had begged to bring his sister with him. He told me of this beforehand, and I rejoiced. Lessingham had long been dear to me as a brother; while that Arabella should only be dear to me as a sister was, just then, I own, among the things I wished least. I craved, therefore, to have her share our happy worship. She had a pretty turn for literature herself. I coveted to see her dazzled, exalted, impressed—it would be a fascinating spectacle. Before I slept that night, or rather next morning, I recognized her coming as a disastrous mistake. For she had received insufficient instruction in ritual, in the suitable forms of approach to so august a presence as that of our host. She played round him, flickering, darting, like lightning round a cathedral tower, metal tipped. Where we, in our young male modesty, had but gently drawn or furtively shoved, she tickled the soft, sedentary creature's ribs as with a rapier point. And—to us agitated watchers—the amazing thing was, that Pogson didn't seem to mind. He neither rebuked her nor laughed her off; but purred, veritably purred, under her alternate teasing and petting like some big, sleek cat.

At last, with a cajoling but really alarming audacity, she went for him straight.

“Of course, dear Mr. Pogson, Harry has told me all about your wonderful novel,” she said. “I am so interested, so thrilled—and so grateful to you for letting me join your audience to-night. But I want quite frightfully to know more. Speaking not only for myself, but for all who are present, may I implore a further revelation? Pray don't send us empty away in respect of the wonderful book. It would be so lovely while we sit here at your feet.”...

She, in fact, sat by his side, her chair placed decidedly close to his.

“If you would read us a chapter.... A chapter is impossible?”...

Her charming, pliant mouth; her charming dancing eyes; her caressing voice—I won't swear even her caressing hands didn't, for a brief space, take part—all wooed him to surrender.

“Well, a page then, a paragraph? Ah! don't be obdurate. The merest sentence? Surely we may claim as much as that? Picture our pride, our happiness.”

She enclosed us all in a circular and sympathetic glance, which ended, as it had started, by meeting his mild eyes, lingering appealingly upon his large, pink countenance.

Pogson succumbed. No, he wouldn't read; but, since she so amiably desired it....

“More than anything in all my life!” with the most convincing and virginal sincerity.

... He thought he might rehearse a passage, which wasn't—as he gladly believed—altogether devoid of merit. He did rehearse it. And we broke into applause the more tempestuous because suspicion of a chill queerly lay upon us. A chill insidious as it was vague, disturbing as it was—wasn't it? we silently, quite violently, hoped so—ridiculously uncalled for.

“After all, that passage is thundering good, you know,” Harry Lessingham announced, as though arguing with himself, arguing himself out of that same invidious chill, an hour later.

Arabella had refused a hansom, declaring herself excited, still under the spell, and so wanting to walk. Leaving the Church Street house, the three of us crossed into Campden Grove, with a view to turning down Campden House Road, thus reaching Kensington High Street.

“It was out of sight of the average—packed with epigram; worthy of all we've ever believed or asked of him. It takes a master of technique, of style, to write like that.”

“Beloved brother, which of us ever said it didn't?” Arabella took him up sweetly.

Slender, light-footed, the train of her evening gown switched over her arm, beneath her flowing orange and white-flowered satin cloak, she walked between us.

“Why, it was good to the point of being inevitable. One seemed—I certainly did—to know every phrase, every word which was coming. None could have been other, or been placed otherwise than it was—and that's the highest praise one can give to anybody's prose, isn't it? One jumped to the perfect rightness of the whole—a rightness so perfect as to make the sentences sound quite extraordinarily familiar.”

This last assertion dropped as a bomb between Lessingham and myself.

“By the way,” the girl presently said, as our awkward silence continued, “has either of you happened to read, or re-read, Meredith's 'Egoist' just lately?”

Lessingham stopped short, and in the light of a neighbouring gas-lamp I saw his handsome, boyish face look troubled to the point of physical pain.

“What on earth are you driving at? What do you mean, Arabella—that Pogson is a plagiarist?”

“Don't eat me, Harry dearest, if I incline to use a shorter, commoner expression.”

“A thief?”

“An unconscious one, no doubt,” she threw off quickly, fearful of explosions, possibly, in her turn. “He may have been betrayed by his own extraordinary memory.”

“But this is horrible, horrible,” Lessingham cried. “All the names, though, were different.”

Arabella appeared to have overcome her fear of explosions. Her charming eyes again danced.

“Exactly,” she said. “That was the peculiar part of it, the thing which riveted my attention. He had—I mean the names of the characters and places were different—were altered, changed.”

Lessingham stood bare-headed in the light of a gas-lamp. He ran the fingers of his left hand through his crisp fair hair, rumpling it up into a distracted crest. I could see, could almost hear, the travail of his honest soul. Loyalty, faith and honour worked at high pressure to hit on a satisfactory explanation.

Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed.

“Why, of course,” he cried, “it's as clear as mud. Pogson wasn't betrayed by anything. He did it on purpose. Don't you understand, you dear goose, you very-much-too-clever-by-half dear goose? It was simply his kindly joke, his good-natured little game. And we, like the pack of idiots which—compared with him—we are, never scented it. You pestered—yes, Arabella, most unconscionably pestered him to read an excerpt from his novel; and to pacify you he quoted a page from Meredith instead.”

Harry Lessingham tucked his hand under the folds of the orange and white-flowered cloak, and taking the girl affectionately by the elbow, trotted her down the sloping pavement towards Kensington High Street.

“All the honours of war rest with Pogson,” he joyfully assured her. “You made an importunate, impertinent demand for bread. He didn't mean to be drawn; but was too civil, too tender-hearted to put you off with a stone, so slyly cut you a slice from another man's loaf. Does it occur to you, my sweet sister, you've been had—very neatly had?”

“If it comes to that, Miss Lessingham by no means stands alone,” I interrupted. “We've all been had, as you so gracefully put it, very neatly and very extensively had.”

For though I trusted Lessingham's view was the correct one—trusted so most devoutly—I could not but regret the discomfiture of Arabella. Her approach to our chosen idol may have slightly lacked in reverence; she may, indeed, in plain English, have cheeked him. But she had done so in the prettiest, airiest manner. Pogson's punishment of her indiscretion, if highly ingenious, still struck me as not in the best taste. For was it not at once rather mean and rather cheap to make so charming a person the subject, and that before witnesses, of a practical joke?

If, after all, it really was a joke. That insidious, odious chill which earlier prompted my tempestuous applause, as I woefully registered, hung about me yet. Unquestionably Arabella Lessingham's visit to Church Street showed more and more, when I considered it, as a radical mistake! From it I date the waning of the moon of my delight in respect of both Pogson and herself. I had bowed in worship, equally sincere, though diverse in sentiment, before each; and to each had pledged my allegiance. To have them thus discredit one another represented the most trying turn of events.

For a full month I cold-shouldered the band, abjured the shrine, and avoided the lady. Then, while still morose and brooding, my trouble at its height, a cousin—in the third degree—rich, middle-aged, and conveniently restless, invited me to be his travelling companion. We had taken trips together before. This one promised fields of wider adventure—nothing less than the quartering of southern Europe, along with nibblings at African and Asiatic Mediterranean coasts. It was the chance of a life-time. I embraced it. I also called at the house in Church Street to make my farewells. I could do no less.

I have used the word “resigned” in describing Pogson. To-day that word notably covered him. Our friend appeared depressed; yet bland in his depression, anxious to mollify and placate rather than reproach. His attitude touched me. I hardly deserved it after my neglect—to which, by the way, he made no smallest reference. But as I unfolded my plans, he increasingly threw off his depression and generously entered into them. Would have me fetch an atlas and trace out my proposed itinerary upon the map. It included names to conjure with. These set wide the flood-gates of his speech. He at once enchanted and confounded me by his knowledge of the literature, art, history, of Syria, Egypt, Italy, Greece, and the Levant.

For the next three-quarters of an hour I had Pogson at his best. And oh! how vastly good that same best was! Under the flashing, multi-coloured light of it, he routed my suspicions; put my annoyance and distrust to flight. As he leaned back in the roomy library chair, filled to veritable overflowing by his big, squashy, brown-velvet jacketted person—Pogson had put on flesh of late; put it on sensibly, as I remarked, even during the few weeks of my absence—he reconquered all my admiration and belief.

As I rose to depart:

“Ah! you fortunate youth,” he thus genially addressed me; “thrice fortunate youth, in your freedom, your enterprise, your happy elasticity of flesh and spirit! What won't you have to tell me of things actually seen, of lands, cities, civilizations, past and present, and the storied wonder of them, when you come back!”

“And what won't you have to read to me in return, dear Master,” I echoed, eager to testify to my recovered faith. “By then the book will be finished on which all our hopes and affections are set. Ten times more precious, more illuminating than anything I have seen, will be what I hear from you when I come back!”

But, as I spoke, surely I wasn't mistaken in thinking that for an agitating minute the pinkness of Pogson's large countenance sickly ebbed and blanched. And while my attention was still engaged by this disquieting phenomenon, I became aware that Mrs. Pogson had joined us. Silently, mysteriously, she faded—the term holds good—into evidence, as on so many former occasions she had silently, mysteriously faded out.

Dressed in one of those verdant gowns, so dolorously veiled in semi-transparent black, she stood behind her husband's chair. Her eyes met mine. They were no longer nervous or in expression vague; but oddly aggressive, challenging, defiantly alight.

“Oh, yes,” she declared, “by then Heber will have completed his great novel, without doubt.”

When uttering his name, she laid a thin, long-fingered hand upon his rounded shoulder, and to my—little short of—stupefaction, I saw Pogson's fat, pink hand move up to seek and clasp it.

On me this action—hers soothing, protective; his appealing, welcoming—produced the most bewildering effect. I felt embarrassed and abashed; an indecently impertinent intruder upon the secret places of two human hearts. That any such intimate and tender correspondence existed between this so strangely ill-assorted couple I never dreamed.

I uttered what must have sounded wildly incoherent farewells and fled.

Of the ensuing eighteen months of foreign travel it is irrelevant here to speak. Suffice it that on my return to England and to Chelsea, the earliest news which greeted me was that Arabella Lessingham had been now five weeks married and Heber Pogson a fortnight dead. Lessingham, dear, good fellow, was my informant, and minded acquainting me, so I fancied, only a degree less with the first item than with the second.

For some considerable time, he told me, Pogson had been ailing. He grew inordinately stout, unwieldy to the extent of all exertion, all movement causing him distress. Suffocation threatened if he attempted to lie down; so that, latterly, he spent not only all day, but all night sitting in the big library chair we knew so well. If not actually in pain, he must still have suffered intolerable discomfort. But he never complained, and to the last his passion for books never failed.

“We took him any new ones we happened to run across, as you'd take a sick woman flowers. To the end he read.”

“And wrote?” I asked.

“That I can't say,” Lessingham replied. “There were things I could not make out. And I couldn't question him. It didn't seem to be my place, though I had an idea he'd something on his mind to speak of which would be a relief. It worried me badly. I felt sure he wanted to tell us, but couldn't bring himself to the point. He talked of you. He cared for you more than for any of us; yet—I may be all wrong—it seemed to me he was glad you weren't here. Once or twice, I thought, he felt almost afraid you might come back before—before it was all over, you know. It sounds rather horrible, but I had a feeling he longed to slink off quietly out of sight—for he did not dread death, I'm certain of that. What he dreaded was that life had some trick up her sleeve which, if he delayed too long, might give him away; put him to shame somehow at the last.”

“And Mrs. Pogson?”

Lessingham looked at me absently.

“Oh! Mrs. Pogson? She's never interested me. She's too invertebrate; but I believe she took care of Pogson all right.”

Next day I called at the house in Church Street. After some parley I was admitted into the studio-library. Neither in Mrs. Pogson nor in the familiar room did I find any alteration, save that the green had disappeared from her dress. She wore hanging, trailing, unrelieved black. And that a piece of red woollen cord was tied across, from arm to arm, of Pogson's large library chair, forbidding occupation of it. This pleased me. It struck the positive, the, in a way, aggressive note, which Mrs. Pogson had once before so strangely, unexpectedly, sounded in my presence.

I said the things common to such occasions as that of our present meeting; said them with more than merely conventional feeling and emphasis. I praised her husband's great gifts, his amazing learning, his eloquence, the magnetic charm by which he captivated and held us.

Finally I dared the question I had come here to ask, which had burned upon my tongue, indeed, from the moment I heard of Pogson's death.

“What about the novel? Might we hope for speedy, though posthumous, publication? We were greedy; the world should know how great a literary genius it had lost. Was it ready for press, as—did she remember?—she'd assured me it would certainly be by the time I came back?”

Mrs. Pogson did not betray any sign of emotion. Her thin hands remained perfectly still in her crape-covered lap.

“There is no novel,” she calmly told me. “There never has been any novel. Heber did not finish it because he never began it. He did not possess the creative faculty. You were not content with what he gave. You asked of him that which he could not give. At first he played with you—it amused him. You were so gullible, so absurdly ignorant. Then he hesitated to undeceive you—in that, I admit, he was weak. But he suffered for his weakness. It made him unhappy. Oh I how I have hated—how I still hate you!—for I saved him from poverty, from hard work. I secured him a peaceful, beautiful life, till you came and spoilt it.... All the money was mine,” she said.


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