A Book of Ghosts/A Professional Secret
A Professional Secret
Mr. Leveridge was in a solicitor's office at Swanton. Mr. Leveridge had been brought up well by a sensible father and an excellent mother. His principles left nothing to be desired. His father was now dead, and his mother did not reside at Swanton, but near her own relations in another part of England. Joseph Leveridge was a mild, inoffensive man, with fair hair and a full head. He was so shy that he did not move in Society as he might have done had he been self-assertive. But he was fairly happy—not so happy as he might have been, for reasons to be shortly given.
Swanton was a small market-town, that woke into life every Friday, which was market-day, burst into boisterous levity at the Michaelmas fair, and then lapsed back into decorum; it was, except on Fridays, somnolent during the day and asleep at night.
Swanton was not a manufacturing town. It possessed one iron foundry and a brewery, so that it afforded little employment for the labouring classes, yet the labouring classes crowded into it, although cottage rents were high, because the farmers could not afford, owing to the hard times, to employ many hands on the land, and because their wives and daughters desired the distractions and dissipations of a town, and supposed that both were to be found in superfluity at Swanton.
There was a large town hall with a magistrates' court, where the bench sat every month once. The church, in the centre of the town, was an imposing structure of stone, very cold within. The presentation was in the bands of the Simeonite Trustees, so that the vicar was of the theological school—if that can be called a school where nothing is taught—called Evangelical. The services ever long and dismal. The Vicar slowly and impressively declaimed the prayers, preached lengthy sermons, and condemned the congregation to sing out of the Mitre hymnal.
The principal solicitor, Mr. Stork, was clerk of the petty sessions and registrar. He did a limited amount of legal work for the landed gentry round, was trustee to some widows and orphans, and was consulted by tottering yeomen as to their financial difficulties, lent them some money to relieve their immediate embarrassments, on the security of their land, which ultimately passed into his possession.
To this gentleman Mr. Leveridge had been articled. He had been induced to adopt the legal profession, not from any true vocation, but at the instigation of his mother, who had urged him to follow in the professional footsteps of his revered father. But the occupation was not one that accorded with the tastes of the young man, who, notwithstanding his apparent mildness and softness, was not deficient in brains. He was a shrewd observer, and was endowed with a redundant imagination.
From a child he had scribbled stories, and with his pencil had illustrated them; but this had brought upon him severe rebukes from his mother, who looked with disfavour on works of imagination, and his father had taken him across his knee, of course before he was adult, and had castigated him with the flat of the hairbrush for surreptitiously reading the Arabian Nights.
Mr. Leveridge's days passed evenly enough; there was some business coming into the office on Fridays, and none at all on Sundays, on which day he wrote a long and affectionate letter to his widowed mother.
He would have been a happy man, happy in a mild, lotus-eating way, but for three things. In the first place, he became conscious that he was not working in his proper vocation. He took no
pleasure in engrossing deeds; indentures his soul abhorred. He knew himself to be capable of better things, and feared lest the higher faculties of his mind should become atrophied by lack of exercise. In the second place, he was not satisfied that his superior was a man of strict integrity. He had no reason whatever for supposing that anything dishonest went on in the office, but he had discovered that his “boss" was a daring and venturesome speculator, and he feared lest temptation should induce him to speculate with the funds of those to whom he acted as trustee. And Joseph, with his high sense of rectitude, was apprehensive lest some day something might there be done, which would cause a crash. Lastly, Joseph Leveridge had lost his heart. He was consumed by a hopeless passion for Miss Asphodel Vincent, a young lady with a small fortune of about £400 per annum, to whom Mr. Stork was guardian and trustee.
This young lady was tall, slender, willowy, had a sweet, Madonna-like face, and like Joseph himself was constitutionally shy; and she was unconscious of her personal and pecuniary attractions. She moved in the best society, she was taken up by the county people. No doubt she would be secured by the son of some squire, and settle down as Lady Bountiful in some parish; or else some wily curate with a moustache would step in and carry her off. But her bashfulness and her indifference to men's society had so far protected her. She loved her garden, cultivated herbaceous plants, and was specially addicted to a rockery in which she acclimatised flowers from the Alps.
As Mr. Stork was her guardian, she often visited the office, when Joseph flew, with heightened colour, to offer her a chair till Mr. Stork was disengaged. But conversation between them had never passed beyond generalities. Mr. Leveridge occasionally met her in his country walks, but never advanced in intimacy beyond raising his hat and remarking on the weather.
Probably it was the stimulus of this devouring and despairing passion which drove Mr. Leveridge to writing a novel, in which he could paint Asphodel, under another name, in all her perfections. She should move through his story diffusing an atmosphere of sweetness and saintliness, but he could not bring himself to provide her with a lover, and to conclude his romance with her union to a being of the male sex.
Impressed as he had been in early youth by the admonitions of his mother, and the applications of the hairbrush by his father, that the imagination was a dangerous and delusive gift, to be restrained, not indulged, he resolved that he would create no characters for his story, but make direct studies from life. Consequently, when the work was completed, it presented the most close portraits of a certain number of the residents in Swanton, and the town in which the scene was laid was very much like Swanton, though he called it Buzbury.
But to find a publisher was a more difficult work than to write the novel. Mr. Leveridge sent his MS. typewritten to several firms, and it was declined by one after another. At last, however, it fell into the hands of an unusually discerning reader, who saw in it distinct tokens of ability. It was not one to appeal to the general public. It contained no blood-curdling episodes, no hair- breadth escapes, no risky situations; it was simply a transcript of life in a little English country town. Though not high-spiced to suit the vulgar taste, still the reader and the publisher considered that there was a discerning public, small and select, that relished good, honest work of the Jane Austen kind, and the latter resolved on risking the production. Accordingly he offered the author fifty pounds for the work, he buying all rights. Joseph Leveridge was overwhelmed at the munificence of the offer, and accepted it gratefully and with alacrity.
The next stage in the proceedings consisted in the revision of the proofs. And who that has not experienced it can judge of the sensation of exquisite delight afforded by this to the young author? After the correction of his romance—if romance such a prosaic tale can be called—in
print, with characteristic modesty Leveridge insisted that his story should appear under an assumed name. What the name adopted was it does not concern the reader of this narrative to know. Some time now elapsed before the book appeared, at the usual publishing time, in October.
Eventually it came out, and Mr. Leveridge received his six copies, neatly and quietly bound in cloth. He cut and read one with avidity, and at once perceived that he had overlooked several typographical errors, and wrote to the publisher to beg that these might be corrected in the event of a second edition being called for.
On the morning following the publication and dissemination of the book, Joseph Leveridge lay in bed a little longer than usual, smiling in happy self-gratification at the thought that he had become an author. On the table by his bed stood his extinguished candle, his watch, and the book. He had looked at it the last thing before he closed his eyes in sleep. It was moreover the first thing that his eyes rested on when they opened. A fond mother could not have gazed on her new-born babe with greater pride and affection.
Whilst he thus lay and said to himself, “I really must—I positively must get up and dress!” he heard a stumping on the stairs, and a few moments later his door was burst open, and in came Major Dolgelly Jones, a retired officer, resident in Swanton, who had never before done him the honour of a call—and now he actually penetrated to Joseph's bedroom.
The major was hot in the face. He panted for breath, his cheeks quivered. The major was a man who, judging by what could be perceived of his intellectual gifts, could not have been a great acquisition to the Army. He was a man who never could have been trusted to act a brilliant part. He was a creature of routine, a martinet; and since his retirement to Swanton had been a passionate golf-player and nothing else.
“What do you mean, sir? What do you mean?” spluttered he, “by putting me into your book?”
“My book!” echoed Joseph, “What book do you refer to?”
“Oh! it's all very well your assuming that air of injured innocence, your trying to evade my question. Your sheepish expression does not deceive me. Why—there is the book in question by your bedside.”
“I have, I admit, been reading that novel, which has recently appeared.”
“You wrote it. Everyone in Swanton knows it. I don't object to your writing a book; any fool can do that— especially a novel. What I do object to is your putting me into it.”
“If I remember rightly,” said Joseph, quaking under the bedclothes, and then wiping his upper lip on which a dew was forming, “If I remember aright, there is in it a major who plays golf and does nothing else; but his name is Piper.”
“What do I care about a name? It is I—I. You have put me in.”
“Really, Major Jones, you have no justification in thus accusing me. The book does not bear my name on the back and title-page.”
“Neither does the golfing retired military officer bear my name, but that does not matter. It is I myself. I am in your book. I would horsewhip you had I any energy left in me, but all is gone, gone with my personality into your book. Nothing is left of me—nothing but a body and a light tweed suit. I—I—have been taken out of myself and transferred to that—” he used a naughty word, “that book. How can I golf any more? Walk the links any more with any heart? How can I putt a ball and follow it up with any feeling of interest? I am but a carcass. My soul, my character, my individuality have been burgled. You have broken into my inside, and have despoiled me of my personality.” And he began to cry.
“Possibly,” suggested Mr. Leveridge, “the author might——”
“The author can do nothing. I have been robbed—my fine ethereal self has been purloined. I— Dolgelly Jones—am only an outside husk. You have despoiled me of my richest jewel—myself.”
“I really can do nothing, major.”
“I know you can do nothing, that is the pity of it. You have sucked all my spiritual being with its concomitants out of me, and cannot put it back again. You have used me up.”
Then, wringing his hands, the major left the room, stumped slowly downstairs, and quitted the house.
Joseph Leveridge rose from his bed and dressed in great perturbation of mind. Here was a condition of affairs on which he had not reckoned. He was so distracted in mind that he forgot to brush his teeth.
When he reached his little sitting-room he found that the table was laid for his breakfast, and that his landlady had just brought up the usual rashers of bacon and two boiled eggs. She was sobbing.
“What is the matter, Mrs. Baker?” asked Joseph. “Has Lasinia”—that was the name of the servant—“broken any more dishes?”
“Everything has happened,” replied the woman; “you have taken away my character.”
“I—I never did such a thing.”
“Oh, yes, sir, you have. All the time you've been writing, I've felt it going out of me like perspiration, and now it is all in your book.”
“Yes, sir, under the name of Mrs. Brooks. But law! sir, what is there in a name? You might have taken the name of Baker and used that as you likes. There be plenty of Bakers in England and the Colonies. But it's my character, sir, you've taken away, and shoved it into your book.” Then the woman wiped her eyes with her apron.
“But really, Mrs. Baker, if there be a landlady in this novel of which you complain—”
“There is, and it is me.”
“But it is a mere work of fiction.”
“It is not a work of fiction, it is a work of fact, and that a cruel fact. What has a poor lorn widow like me got to boast of but her character? I'm sure I've done well by you, and never boiled your eggs hard—and to use me like this.”
“Good gracious, dear Mrs. Baker!”
“Don't dear me, sir. If you had loved me, if you had been decently grateful for all I have done for you, and mended your socks too, you'd not have stolen my character from me, and put it into your book. Ah, sir! you have dealt by me what I call regular shameful, and not like a gentleman. You have used me up.”
Joseph was silent, cowed. He turned the rashers about on the dish with his fork in an abstracted manner. All desire to eat was gone from him.
Then the landlady went on: “And it's not me only as has to complain. There are three gentlemen outside sitting on the doorstep, awaiting of you. And they say that there they will remain, till you go out to your office. And they intend to have it out with you.”
Joseph started from the chair he had taken, and went to the window, and threw up the sash. Leaning out, he saw three hats below. It was as Mrs. Baker had intimated. Three gentlemen were seated on the doorstep. One was the vicar, another his “boss” Mr. Stork, and the third was Mr. Wotherspoon.
There could be no mistake about the vicar; he wore a chimney-pot hat of silk, that had begun to curl at the brim, anticipatory of being adapted as that of an archdeacon. Moreover, he wore
extensive, well-cultivated grey whiskers on each cheek. If we were inclined to adopt the modern careless usage, we might say that he grew whiskers on either cheek. But in strict accuracy that would mean that the whiskers grew indifferently, or alternatively, intermittently on one cheek or the other. This, however, was not the case, consequently we say on each cheek. These whiskers now waved and fluttered in the light air passing up and down the street.
The second was Mr. Stork; he wore a stiff felt hat, his fiery hair showed beneath it, behind, and in front; when he lifted his head, the end of his pointed nose showed distinctly to Joseph Leveridge who looked down from above. The third, Mr. Wotherspoon, had a crushed brown cap on; he sat with his hands between his knees, dejected, and looking on the ground.
Mr. Wotherspoon lived in Swanton with his mother and three sisters. The mother was the widow of an officer, not well off. He was an agreeable man, an excellent player at lawn-tennis, croquet, golf, rackets, billiards, and cards. His age was thirty, and he had as yet no occupation. His mother gently, his sisters sharply, urged him to do something, so as to earn his livelihood. With his mother's death her pension would cease, and he could not then depend on his sisters. He always answered that something would turn up. Occasionally he ran to town to look for employment, but invariably returned without having secured any, and with his pockets empty. He was so cheerful, so good-natured, was such good company, that everyone liked him, but also everyone was provoked at his sponging on his mother and sisters.
“Really,” said Mr. Leveridge,” I cannot encounter those three. It is true that I have drawn them pretty accurately in my novel, and here they are ready to take me to account for so doing. I will leave the house by the back door.”
Without his breakfast, Joseph fled; and having escaped from those who had hoped to intercept him, he made his way to the river. Here were pleasant grounds, with walks laid out, and benches provided. The place was not likely to be frequented at that time of the morning, and Mr. Leveridge had half an hour to spare before he was due at the office. There, later, he was likely to meet his “boss”; but it was better to face him alone, than him accompanied by two others who had a similar grievance against him.
He seated himself on a bench and thought. He did not smoke; he had promised his “mamma” not to do so, and he was a dutiful son, and regarded his undertaking.
What should he do? He was becoming involved in serious embarrassments. Would it be possible to induce the publisher to withdraw the book from circulation and to receive back the fifty pounds? That was hardly possible. He had signed away all his rights in the novel, and the publisher had been to a considerable expense for paper, printing, binding, and advertising.
He was roused from his troubled thoughts by seeing Miss Asphodel Vincent coming along the walk towards him. Her step had lost its wonted spring, her carriage its usual buoyancy. In a minute or two she would reach him. Would she deign to speak? He felt no compunction towards her. He had made her his heroine in the tale. By not a word had he cast a shadow over her character or her abilities. Indeed, he had pictured her as the highest ideal of an English girl. She might be flattered, she could not be offended. And yet there was no flattery in his pencil— he had sketched her in as she was.
As she approached she noticed the young author. She did not hasten her step. She displayed a strange listlessness in her movements, and lack of vivacity in her eye.
When she stood over against him, Joseph Leveridge rose and removed his hat. “An early promenade, Miss Vincent,” he said.
“Oh!” she said, “I am glad to meet you here where we cannot be overheard. I have something about which I must speak to you, to complain of a great injury done to me.”
“You do me a high honour,” exclaimed Joseph. “If I can do anything to alleviate your distress and to redress the wrong, command me.”
“You can do nothing. It is impossible to undo what has already been done. You put me into your book.”
“Miss Vincent,” protested Leveridge with vehemence, “if I have, what then? I have not in the least overcharged the colours, by a line caricatured you.” It was in vain for him further to pretend not to be the author, and to have merely read the book.
“That may be, or it may not. But you have taken strange liberties with me in transferring me to your pages.”
“And you really recognised yourself?”
“It is myself, my very self, who is there.”
“And yet you are here, before my humble self.”
“That is only my outer shell. All my individuality, all that goes to make up the Ego—I myself—has been taken from me and put into your book.”
“Surely that cannot be.”
“But it is so. I feel precisely as I suppose felt my doll when I was a child, when it became unstitched and all the bran ran out; it hung limp like a rag. But it is not bran you have deprived me of, it is my personality.”
“In my novel is your portraiture indeed—but you yourself are here,” said Leveridge. “It is my very self, my noblest and best part, my moral and intellectual self, which has been carried off and put into your book.”
“This is quite impossible, Miss Vincent.”
“A moment's thought,” said she, “will convince you that it is as I say. If I pick an Alpine flower and transfer it to my blotting-book, it remains in the herbarium. It is no longer on the Alp where it bloomed.”
“But—” urged Joseph. “No,” she interrupted, “you cannot undeceive me. No one can be in two places at the same time. If I am in your book, I cannot be here—except so far as goes my animal nature and frame. You have subjected me, Mr. Leveridge, to the greatest humiliation. I am by you reduced to the level of a score of girls that I know, with no pursuits, no fixed principles, no opinions of their own, no ideas. They are swayed by every fashion, they are moulded by their surroundings; they are destitute of what some would call moral fibre, and I would term character. I had all this, but you have deprived me of it, by putting it into your book. I shall henceforth be the sport of every breath, be influenced by every folly, be without self-confidence and decision, the prey to any adventurer.”
“For Heaven's sake, do not say that.”
“I cannot say anything other. If I had a sovereign in my purse, and a pickpocket stole it, I should no longer have the purse and sovereign, only the pocket; and I am a mere pocket now without the coin of my personality that you have filched from me. Mr. Leveridge, it was a cruel wrong you did me, when you used me up.”
Then, sighing, Miss Asphodel went languidly on her way. Joseph was as one stunned. He buried his face in his hands. The person of all others with whom he desired to stand well, that person looked upon him as her most deadly enemy, at all events as the one who had most cruelly aggrieved her.
Presently, hearing the clock strike, he started. He was due at the office, and Joseph Leveridge had always made a point of punctuality.
He now went to the office, and learned from his fellow-clerk that Mr. Stork had not returned; he had been there, and then had gone away to seek Leveridge at his lodgings. Joseph considered it incumbent on him to resume his hat and go in quest of his “boss.”
On his way it occurred to him that there was monotony in bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, and he would like a change. Moreover, he was hungry; he had left the house of Mrs. Baker without taking a mouthful, and if he returned now for a snack the eggs and the bacon would be cold. So he stepped into the shop of Mr. Box, the grocer, for a tin of sardines in oil.
When the grocer saw him he said: “Will you favour me with a word, sir, in the back shop?”
“I am pressed for time,” replied Leveridge nervously.
“But one word; I will not detain you,” said Mr. Box, and led the way. Joseph walked after him.
“Sir,” said the grocer, shutting the glass door, “you have done me a prodigious wrong. You have deprived me of what I would not have lost for a thousand pounds. You have put me into your book. How my business will get on without me—I mean my intellect, my powers of organisation, my trade instincts, in a word, myself—I do not know. You have taken them from me and put them into your book. I am consigned to a novel, when I want all my powers behind the counter. Possibly my affairs for a while will go on by the weight of their own momentum, but it cannot be for long without my controlling brain. Sir, you have brought me and my family to ruin—you have used me up.”
Leveridge could bear this no more; he seized the handle of the door, rushed through the outer shop, precipitated himself into the street, carrying the sardine tin in his hand, and hurried to his lodgings.
But there new trouble awaited him. On the doorstep still sat the three gentlemen. When they saw him they rose to their feet.
“I know, I know what you have to say,” gasped Joseph. “In pity do not attack me all together. One at a time. With your leave, Mr. Vicar, will you step up first into my bumble little sanctum, and I will receive the others later. I believe that the smell of bacon and eggs is gone from the room. I left the window open.”
“I will most certainly follow you,” said the Vicar of Swanton. “This is a most serious matter.”
“Excuse me, will you take a chair?”
“No, thank you; I can speak best when on my legs. I lose impressiveness when seated. But I fear, alas! that gift has been taken from me. Sir! sir! you have put me into your book. My earthly tabernacle may be here, standing on your—or Mrs. Baker's drugget—but all my great oratorical powers have gone. I have been despoiled of what was in me my highest, noblest, most spiritual parts. What my preaching henceforth will be I fear to contemplate. I may be able to string together a number of texts, and tack on an application, but that is mere mechanical work. I used to dredge in much florid eloquence, to stick in the flowers of elocution between every joint. And now!—I am despoiled of all. I, the Vicar of Swanton, shall be as a mere stick; I shall no more be a power in the pulpit, a force on the platform. My prospects in the diocese are put an end to. Miserable, miserable young man, you might have pumped others, but why me? I know but too surely that you have used me up.” The vicar had taken off his hat, his bald forehead was beaded, his bristling grey whiskers drooped, his unctuous expression had faded away. His eyes, usually bearing the look as though turned inward in ecstatic contemplation of his personal piety, with only a watery stare on the world without, were now dull. He turned to the door. “I will send up Stork,” he said.
“Do so by all means, sir,” was all that Joseph could say. When the solicitor entered his red hair had assumed a darker dye, through the moisture that exuded from his head.
“Mr. Leveridge,” said he, “this is a scurvy trick you have played me. You have put me into your book.”
“I only sketched a not over-scrupulous lawyer,” protested Joseph. “Why should you put the cap on your own head?”
“Because it fits. It is myself you have put into your book, and by no legal process can I get out of it. I shall not be competent to advise the magistrates on the bench, and, good heavens! what a mess they will get into. I do not know whether your fellow-clerk can carry on the business. I have been used up. I'll tell you what. You go away; I want you no more at the office. Whenever you revisit Swanton you will see only the ruins of the respected firm of Stork. It cannot go on when I am not in it, but in your book.”
The last to arrive was Mr. Wotherspoon. He was in a most depressed condition. “There was not much in me,” said he, “not at any time. You might have spared such a trifle as me, and not put me also into your book and used me up. Oh, dear, dear! what will my poor mother do! And how Sarah and Jane will bully me.”
That same day Mr. Leveridge packed up his traps and departed from Swanton for his mother's house.
That she was delighted to see him need not be said; that something was wrong, her maternal instinct told her. But it was not for some days that he confided to her so much as this: “Oh, mother, I have written a novel, and have put into it the people of Swanton—and so have had to leave.”
“My dear Joe,” said the old lady, “you have done wrong and made a great mistake. You never should introduce actual living personages into a work of fiction. You should pulp them first, and then run out your characters fresh from the pulp.”
“I was so afraid of using my imagination,” explained Joe. Some months elapsed, and Leveridge could not resolve on an employment that would suit him and at the same time maintain him. The fifty pounds he had earned would not last long. He began to be sensible of the impulse to be again writing. He resisted it for a while, but when he got a letter from his publisher, saying that the novel had sold well, far better than had been expected, and that he would be pleased to consider another from Mr. Leveridge's pen, and could promise him for it more liberal terms, then Joseph's scruples vanished. But on one thing he was resolved. He would now create his characters. They should not be taken from observation.
Moreover, he determined to differentiate his new work the old in other material points. His characters should be the reverse of those in the first novel. For his heroine he imagined a girl of boisterous spirits, straight-forward, true, but somewhat unconventional, and given to use slang expressions. He had never met with such a girl, so that she would be a pure creation of his brain, and he made up his mind to call her Poppy. Then he would avoid drawing the portrait of an Evangelical parson, and introduce one decidedly High Church; he would have no heavy, narrow tradesman like Box, but a man full of venture and speculative push. Moreover, having used up the not over-scrupulous lawyer, he would portray one, the soul of honour, the confidant of not only the county gentry but of the county nobility. And as he had caused so much trouble by the introduction of good old Mother Baker, he would trace the line of a lively, skittish young widow, always on the hunt after admirers, and endeavouring to entangle the youths who lodged with her.
As he went on with his story, it worked out to his satisfaction, and what especially gratified him and gave repose to his mind was the consciousness that he was using no one up, with whom he was acquainted, and that all his characters were pure creations.
The work was complete, and the publisher agreed to give a hundred pounds for it. Then it passed through the press, and in due course Leveridge heard from the publisher that his six free copies had been sent off to him by train. Joseph was almost as excited over his second novel as he was over the first.
He was too impatient to wait till the parcels were sent round in the ordinary way. He hurried to the station in the evening, to meet the train from town, by which he expected his consignment; and having secured it, he hurried home, carrying the heavy parcel.
His mother's house was comparatively large; she occupied but a corner of it, and she had given over to her son a little cosy sitting-room, in which he might write and read. Into this room Joseph carried his parcel, full of impatience to cut the string and disclose the volumes.
But he had hardly passed through his door before he was startled to see that his room was full of people; all but one were seated about the table. That one who was not, lounged against the bookcase, standing on one foot. With a shock of surprise, Joseph recognised all those there gathered together. They were the characters in his book, his own creations. And that individual who stood, in an indifferent attitude, was his new heroine, Poppy. The first shock of surprise rapidly passed. Joseph Leveridge felt no fear, but rather a sense of pleasure. He was in the presence of his own creations, and knew them familiarly. There were seven in all. At his appearance they all saluted him respectfully as their creator—all except Poppy, who gave him a wink and a nod.
At the head of the table sat the High Church parson, shaven, with a long coat and a grave face, next to him, on the right, Lady Mabel Forraby, a tall, elderly, aristocratic-looking woman, the aunt of Poppy. One element of lightness in the book had consisted in the struggles of Lady Mabel to control her wayward niece and the revolt of the latter. Mr. Leveridge had never known a person of title in his life, so that Lady Mabel was a pure creation; so also, brought up, as he had been, by a Calvinistic mother, and afterwards thrown under the ministry of the Vicar of Swanton, he had not once come across a Ritualist. Consequently his parson, in this instance, was also a pure creation. A young gentleman, the hero of the novel, a bright intelligent fellow, full of vigour and good sense, and highly cultured, sat next to Lady Mabel. Joseph had never been thrown into association with men of quite this type. He had met nice respectable clerks and amusing and agreeable travellers for commercial houses, so that this personage also was a creation. So most certainly was the bold, pert little widow who rolled her eyes and put on winsome airs. Joseph had kept clear of all such instances, but he had heard and read of them. She could look to him as her creator.
And that naughty little Poppy! Her naughtiness was all mischief, put on to aggravate her staid old aunt, so full of daring, and yet withal so steady of heart; so full of frolic, but with principle underlying it all. Joseph had never encountered anyone like her, anyone approaching to her. The young ladies to whom his mother introduced him were all very prim and proper. At Swanton he had been little in society: the vicar's daughter was a tract distributer and a mission woman, and Mr. Stork's daughter a domestic drudge. Of all the characters in Joseph's book she was his most especial and delightful creation.
Then the white-haired family lawyer, fond of his jokes, able to tell a good story, close as a walnut relative to all matters communicated to him, strict and honourable in all his dealings, content with his small earnings, and frugally laying them by. Joseph had not met such a man, but he had idealised him as the sort of lawyer he would wish to be should he stick to his profession. He also, accordingly, was a creation. And last, but not least, was the red-faced, audacious stockbroker; a man of sharp and quick determination, who saw a chance in a moment and closed
on it, who was keen of scent and smelt a risky investment the moment it came before him. Joseph knew no stockbroker—had only heard of them by rumour. He, therefore, was a creation.
“Well, my children, not of my loins, but of my brain,” said the author. “What do you all want?”
“Bodies,” they replied with one voice.
“Bodies!” gasped Joseph, stepping backwards. “Why, what possesses you all? You can't expect me to furnish you with them.”
“But, indeed, we do, old chap,” said Poppy.
“Niece!” said Lady Mabel, turning about in her chair, “address your creator with more respect.”
“Stay, my lady,” said the parson. “Allow me to explain matters to Mr. Leveridge. He is young and an inexperienced writer of fiction, and is therefore unaware of the exigencies of his profession. You must know, dear author of our being, that every author of a work of imagination, such as you have been, lays himself under a moral and an inexorable obligation to find bodies for all those whom he has called into existence through his fertile brain. Mr. Leveridge has not mixed in the literary world. He does not belong to the Society of Authors. He is— he will excuse the expression—raw in his profession. It is a well-known law among novelists that they must furnish bodies for such as they have called into existence out of their pure imagination. For this reason they invariably call their observation to their assistance, and they balance in their books the creations with the transcripts from life. The only exception to this rule that I am aware of,” continued the parson, “is where the author is able to get his piece dramatised, in which case, of course, the difficulty ceases.”
“I should love to go on the stage,” threw in Poppy.
“Niece, you do not know what you say,” remarked Lady Mabel, turning herself about.
“Allow me, my lady,” said the parson. “What I have said is fact, is it not?”
“Most certainly,” replied all. Lady Mabel said: “I suppose it is.”
“Then,” pursued the parson, “the situation is this: Have you secured the dramatisation of your novel?”
“I never gave it a thought,” said Joseph. “In that case, as there is no prospect of our being so accommodated, the position is this: We shall have to haunt you night and day, mainly at night, till you have accommodated us with bodies; we cannot remain as phantom creations of a highly imaginative soul such as is yours, Mr. Leveridge. If you have your rights, so have we. And we insist on ours, and will insist till we are satisfied.”
At once all vanished.
Joseph Leveridge felt that he had got himself into a worse hobble than before. From his former difficulties he had escaped by flight. But there was, he feared, no flying from these seven impatient creations all clamouring for bodies, and to provide them with such was beyond his powers. All his delight in the publication of his new novel was spent. It had brought with it care and perplexity.
He went to bed.
During the night, he was troubled with his characters; they peeped in at him. Poppy got a peacock's feather and tickled his nose just as he was dropping asleep. “You bounder!” she said; “I shall give you no peace till you have settled me into a body—but oh! get me on to the stage if you can.”
“Poppy, come away,” called Lady Mabel. “Don't be improper. Mr. Leveridge will do his best. I want a body quite as much as do you, but I know how to ask for it properly.”
“And I,” said the parson, “should like to have mine before Easter, but have one I must.” Mr. Leveridge's state now was worse than the first. One or other of his creatures was ever watching him. His every movement was spied on. There was no escaping their vigilance. Sometimes they attended him in groups of two or three; sometimes they were all around him.
At meals not one was missing, and they eyed every mouthful of his food as he raised it t~ his lips. His mother saw nothing—the creations were invisible to all eyes save those of their creator.
If he went out for a country walk, they trotted forth with him, some before, looking round at every turn to see which way he purposed going, some following. Poppy and the skittish widow managed to attach themselves to him, one on each side. “I hate that little woman,” said Poppy. “Why did you call her into being?”
“I never dreamed that things would come to this pass.”
“I am convinced, creator dear, that there is a vein of wickedness in your composition, or you would never have imagined such a minx, good and amiable and butter-won't-melt-in-your-mouth though you may look. And there must be a frolicsome devil in your heart, or I should never have become.”
“Indeed, Poppy, I am very glad that I gave you being. But one may have too much even of a good thing, and there are moments when I could dispense with your presence.”
“I know, when you want to carry on with the widow. She is always casting sheep's eyes at you.”
“But, Poppy, you forget my hero, whom I created on purpose for you.”
“All my attention is now engrossed in you, and will be till you provide me with a body.” When Leveridge was in his room reading, if he raised his eyes from his book they met the stare of one of his characters. If he went up to his bedroom, he was followed. If be sat with his mother, one kept guard.
This was become so intolerable, that one evening he protested to the stockbroker, who was then in attendance. “Do, I entreat you, leave me to myself. You treat me as if I were a lunatic and about to commit felo de se, and you were my warders.”
We watch you, sir,” said the stockbroker, “in our own interest. We cannot suffer you to give us the slip. We are all expectant and impatient for the completion of what you have begun.”
Then the parson undertook to administer a lecture on Duty, on responsibilities contracted to those called into partial existence by a writer of fiction. He cannot be allowed to half do his work. His creations must be realised, and can only be realised by being given a material existence.
“But what the dickens can I do? I cannot fabricate bodies for you. I never in my life even made a doll.”
“Have you no thought of dramatising us?”
“I know no dramatic writers.”
“Do it yourself.”
“Does not this sort of work require a certain familiarity with the technique of the stage which I do not possess?”
“That might be attended to later. Pass your MS. through the hands of a dramatic expert, and pay him a percentage of your profits in recognition of his services. Only one thing I bargain for, do not present me on the stage in such a manner as to discredit my cloth.”
“Have I done so in my book?”
“No, indeed, I have nothing to complain of in that. But there is no counting on what Poppy may persuade you into doing, and I fear that she is gaining influence over you. Remember, she is your creation, and you must not suffer her to mould you.”
The idea took root. The suggestion was taken up, and Joseph Leveridge applied himself to his task with zest. But he had to conceal what he was about from his mother, who had no opinion of the drama, and regarded the theatre as a sink of iniquity.
But now new difficulties arose. Joseph's creations would not leave him alone for a moment. Each had a suggestion, each wanted his or her own part accentuated at the expense of the other. Each desired the heightening of the situations in which they severally appeared. The clamour, the bickering, the interference made it impossible for Joseph to collect his thoughts, keep cool, and proceed with his work.
Sunday arrived, and Joseph drew on his gloves, put on his box-hat, and offered his arm to his mother, to conduct her to chapel. All the characters were drawn up in the hall to accompany them. Joseph and his mother walking down the street to Ebenezer Chapel presented a picture of a good and dutiful son and of a pious widow not to be surpassed. Poppy and the widow entered into a struggle as to which was to walk on the unoccupied side of Joseph. If this had been introduced into the picture it would have marred it; but happily this was invisible to all eyes save those of Joseph. The rest of the imaginary party walked arm in arm behind till the chapel was reached, when the parson started back.
“I am not going in there! It is a schism-shop,” he exclaimed. “Nothing in the world would induce me to cross the threshold.”
“And I,” said Lady Mabel, “I have no idea of attending a place of worship not of the Established Church.”
“I'll go in—if only to protect Creator from the widow.” said Poppy. Joseph and his mother entered, and occupied their pew. The characters, with the exception of the parson and the old lady, grouped themselves where they were able. The stockbroker stood in the aisle with his arms on the pew door, to ensure that Joseph was kept a prisoner there.
But before the service had advanced far he had gone to sleep. This was the more to be regretted, as the minister delivered a very strong appeal to the unconverted, and if ever there was an unconverted worldling, it was that stockbroker.
The skittish widow was leering at a deacon of an amorous complexion, but as he did not, and, in fact, could not see her, all her efforts were cast away. The solicitor sat with stolid face and folded hands, and allowed the discourse to flow over him like a refreshing douche. Poppy had got very tired of the show, and had slunk away to rejoin her aunt. The hero closed his eyes and seemed resigned.
After nearly an hour had elapsed, whilst a hymn was being sung, Joseph, more to himself than to his mother, said: “Can I escape?”
“Escape what? Wretch?” inquired the widowed lady.
“I think I can do it. There's a room at the side for earnest inquirers, or a vestry or something, with an outer door. I will risk it, and make a bolt for my liberty.”
He very gently and cautiously unhasped the door of the pew, and as he slid it open, the sleeping stockbroker, still sleeping and unconscious, slipped back, and Joseph was out. He made his way into the room at the side, forth from the actual chapel, ran through it, and tried the door that opened into a side lane. It was locked, but happily the key was in its place. He turned it, plunged forth, and fell into the arms of his characters. They were all there. The solicitor had been observing him out of the corner of his eye, and had given the alarm. The stockbroker was aroused, and he, the solicitor, the hero, ran out, gave the alarm to the three without, and Joseph was intercepted, and his attempt at escape frustrated. He was reconducted home by them, himself dejected, they triumphant.
When his mother returned she was full of solicitude. “What was the matter, Joe dear?” she inquired.
“I wasn't feeling very well,” he explained. “But I shall be better presently.”
“I hope it will not interfere with your appetite, Joe. I have cold lamb and mint-sauce for our early dinner.”
“I shall peck a bit, I trust,” said Mr. Leveridge.
But during dinner he was abstracted and silent. All at once he brought down his fist on the table. “I've hit it!” he exclaimed, and a flush of colour mantled his face to the temples.
“My dear,” said his mother; “you have made all the plates and dishes jump, and have nearly upset the water-bottle.”
“Excuse me, mother; I really must go to my room.”
He rose, made a sign to his characters, and they all rose and trooped after him into his private apartment.
When they were within he said to his hero: “May I trouble you kindly to shut the door and turn the key? My mother will be anxious and come after me, and I want a word with you all. It will not take two minutes. I see my way to our mutual accommodation. Do not be uneasy and suspicious; I will make no further attempt at evasion. Meet me to-morrow morning at the 9.48 down train. I am going to take you all with me to Swanton.”
A tap at the door. “Open—it is my mother,” said Joseph.
Mrs. Leveridge entered with a face of concern. “What is the matter with you, Joe?” she said. “If we were not both of us water-drinkers, I should say that you had been indulging in—spirits.”
Mother, I must positively be off to Swanton to-morrow morning. I see my way now, all will come right.”
“How, my precious boy?”
“I cannot explain. I see my way to clearing up the unpleasantness caused by that unfortunate novel of mine. Pack my trunk, mother.”
“Not on the Sabbath, lovie.”
“No—to-morrow morning. I start by the 9.48 am. We all go together.”
“We—am I to accompany you?”
“No, no. We—did I say? It is a habit I have got into as an author. Authors, like royal personages, speak of themselves as We.”
Joseph Leveridge was occupied during the afternoon in writing to his victims at Swanton. First, he penned a notice to Mrs. Baker that he would require his lodgings from the morrow, and that he had something to say to her that would afford her much gratification.
Then he wrote to the vicar, expressed his regret for having deprived him of his personality, and requested him, if he would do him the favour, to call in the evening at 7.30, at his lodgings in West Street. He had something of special importance to communicate to him. He apologised for not himself calling at the vicarage, but said that there were circumstances that made it more desirable that he should see his reverence privately in his own lodgings.
Next, he addressed an epistle to Mr. Stork. He assured him that he, Joseph Leveridge, had felt keenly the wrong he had done him, that he had forfeited his esteem, had ill repaid his kindness, had acted in a manner towards his employer that was dishonourable. But, he added, he had found a means of rectifying what was wrong. He placed himself unreservedly in the hands of Mr. Stork, and entreated him to meet him at his rooms in West Street on the ensuing Monday evening at 7.45, when he sincerely trusted that the past would be forgotten, and a brighter future would be assured.
This was followed by a formal letter couched to Mr. Box. He invited him to call at Mrs. Baker's lodgings on that same evening at 8 p.m., as he had business of an important and far- reaching nature to discuss with him. If Mr. Box considered that he, Joseph Leveridge, had done him an injury, he was ready to make what reparation lay in his power.
Taking a fresh sheet of notepaper, he now wrote a fifth letter, this to Mr. Wotherspoon, requesting the honour of a call at his “diggings" at 8.15 p.m., when matters of controversy between them could be amicably adjusted.
The ensuing letter demanded some deliberation. It was to Asphodel. He wrote it out twice before he was satisfied with the mode in which it was expressed. He endeavoured to disguise under words full of respect, yet not disguise too completely, the sentiments of his heart. But he was careful to let drop nothing at which she might take umbrage. He entreated her to be so gracious as to allow him an interview by the side of the river at the hour of 8.30 on the Monday evening. He apologised for venturing to make such a demand, but he intimated that the matter he had to communicate was so important and so urgent, that it could not well be postponed till Tuesday, and that it was also most necessary that the interview should be private. It was something he had to say that would materially—no, not materially, but morally—affect her, and would relieve his mind from a burden of remorse that had become to him wholly intolerable.
The final, the seventh letter, was to Major Dolgelly Jones, and was more brief. It merely intimated that he had something of the utmost importance to communicate to his private ear, and for this purpose he desired the favour of a call at Mrs. Baker's lodgings, at 8.45 on Monday evening.
These letters despatched, Mr. Leveridge felt easier in mind and lighter at heart. He slept well the ensuing night, better than he had for long. His creations did not so greatly disturb him. He was aware that he was still kept under surveillance, but the watch was not so strict, nor so galling as hitherto.
On the Monday morning he was at the station, and took his ticket for Swanton. One ticket sufficed, as his companions, who awaited him on the platform, were imaginary characters.
When he took his seat, they pressed into the carriage after him. Poppy secured the seat next him, but the widow placed herself opposite, and exerted all her blandishment with the hope of engrossing his whole attention. At a junction all got out, and Joseph provided himself with a luncheon-basket and mineral water. The characters watched him discussing the half-chicken and slabs of ham, with the liveliest interest, and were especially observant of his treatment of the thin paper napkin, wherewith he wiped his fingers and mouth.
At last he arrived at Swanton and engaged a cab, as he was encumbered with a portmanteau. Lady Mabel, Poppy, and the widow could be easily accommodated within, the two latter with their backs to the horses. Joseph would willingly have resigned his seat to either of these, but they would not hear of it. A gentle altercation ensued between the parson and the solicitor, as to which should ride on the box. The lawyer desired to yield the place to “the cloth,” but the parson would not hear of this—the silver hairs of the other claimed precedence. The stockbroker mounted to the roof of the fly and the clerical gentleman hung on behind. The hero professed his readiness to walk.
Eventually the cab drew up at Mrs. Baker's door.
That stout, elderly lady received her old lodger without effusion, and with languid interest. The look of the house was not what it had been. It had deteriorated. The windows had not been cleaned nor the banisters dusted.
“My dear old landlady, I am so glad to see you again,” said Joseph. “Thank you, sir. You ordered no meal, but I have got two mutton chops in the larder, and can mash some potatoes. At what time would you like your supper, sir?” She had become a machine, a thing of routine.
“Not yet, thank you. I have business to transact first, and I shall not be disengaged before nine o'clock. But I have something to say to you, Mrs. Baker, and I will say it at once and get it over, if you will kindly step up into my parlour.”
She did so, sighing at each step of the stairs as she ascended.
All the characters mounted as well, and entering the little sitting-room, ranged themselves against the wall facing the door.
Mrs. Baker was a portly woman, aged about forty-five, and plain featured. She had formerly been neat, now she was dowdy. Before she had lost her character she never appeared in that room without removing her apron, but on this occasion she wore it, and it was not clean.
“Widow!” said Joseph, addressing his character, “will you kindly step forward?”
“I would do anything for you,” with a roll of the eyes.
“Dear Mrs. Baker,” said Leveridge, “I feel that I have done you a grievous wrong.”
“Well, sir, I ain't been myself since you put me into your book.”
“My purpose is now to undo the past, and to provide you with a character.”
Then, turning to the skittish widow of his creation, he said, “Now, then, slip into and occupy her.”
“I don't like the tenement,” said the widow, pouting.
“Whether you like it or not,” protested Joseph, “you must have that or no other.” He waved his hand. “Presto!” he exclaimed.
Instantly a wondrous change was effected in Mrs Baker. She whipped off the apron, and crammed it under the sofa cushion. She wriggled in her movements, she eyed herself in the glass, and exclaimed: “Oh, my! what a fright I am. I'll be back again in a minute when I have changed my gown and done up my hair.”
“We can dispense with your presence, Mrs. Baker,” said Leveridge sternly. “I will ring for you when you are wanted.”
At that moment a rap at the door was heard; and Mrs. Baker, having first dropped a coquettish curtsy to her lodger, tripped downstairs to admit the vicar, and to show him up to Mr. Leveridge's apartment.
“You may go, Mrs. Baker,” said he; for she seemed inclined to linger. When she had left the room, Joseph contemplated the reverend gentleman. He bore a crestfallen appearance. He looked as if he had been out in the rain all night without a paletot. His cheeks were flabby, his mouth drooped at the corners, his eyes were vacant, and his whiskers no longer stuck out horrescent and assertive.
“Dear vicar,” said Leveridge, “I cannot forgive myself.” In former times, Mr. Leveridge would not have dreamed of addressing the reverend gentleman in this familiar manner, but it was other now that the latter looked so limp and forlorn. “My dear vicar, I cannot forgive myself for the trouble I have brought upon you. It has weighed on me as a nightmare, for I know that it is not you only who have suffered, but also the whole parish of Swanton. Happily a remedy is at hand. I have here—” he waved to the parson of his creation, “I have here an individuality I can give to you, and henceforth, if you will not be precisely yourself again, you will be a personality in your parish and the diocese.” He waved his hand. “Presto!” In the twinkling of an eye all was changed in the Vicar of Swanton. He straightened himself. His expression altered to what it never had been before. The cheeks became firm, and lines formed about the mouth indicative of force of character and of self-restraint. The eye assumed an eager look as into far distances, as seeking something beyond the horizon.
The vicar walked to the mirror over the mantelshelf.
“Bless me!” he said, “I must go to the barber's and have these whiskers off.” And he hurried downstairs.
After a little pause in the proceedings, Mrs. Baker, now very trim, with a blue ribbon round her neck hanging down in streamers behind, ushered up Mr. Stork. The lawyer had a faded appearance, as if he had been exposed to too strong sunlight; he walked in with an air of lack of interest, and sank into a chair.
“My dear old master,” said Leveridge, “it is my purpose to restore to you all your former energy, and to supply you with what you may possibly have lacked previously.”
He signed to the white-haired family solicitor he had called into fictitious being, and waved his hand.
At once Mr. Stork stood up and shook his legs, as though shaking out crumbs from his trousers. His breast swelled, he threw back his head, his eye shone clear and was steady.
“Mr. Leveridge,” said he, “I have long had my eye on you, sir—had my eye on you. I have marked your character as one of uncompromising probity. I hate shiftiness, I abhor duplicity. I
have been disappointed with my clerks. I could not always trust them to do the right thing. I want to strengthen and brace my firm. But I will not take into partnership with myself any but one of the strictest integrity. Sir! I have marked you—I have marked you, Mr. Leveridge. Call on me tomorrow morning, and we will consider the preliminaries for a partnership. Don't talk to me of buying a partnership.”
“I have not done so, sir.”
“I know you have not. I will take you in, sir, for your intrinsic value. An honest man is worth his weight in gold, and is as scarce as the precious metal.”
Then, with dignity, Mr. Stork withdrew, and passed Mr. Box, the grocer, mounting the stairs.
“Well, Mr. Box,” said Leveridge, “how wags the world with you?”
“Badly, sir, badly since you booked me. I mentioned to you, sir, that I trusted my little business would for a while go on by its own momentum. It has, sir, it has, but the momentum has been downhill. I can't control it. I have not the personality to do so, to serve as a drag, to urge it upwards. I am in daily expectation, sir, of a regular smash up.”
“I am sorry to hear this,” said Leveridge. “But I think I have found a means of putting all to rights. Presto!”
He waved his hand and the imaginary character of the stockbroker had actualised himself in the body of Mr. Box.
“I see how to do it. By ginger, I do!” exclaimed the grocer, a spark coming into his eye. “I'll run my little concern on quite other lines. And look ye here, Mr. Leveridge. I bet you my bottom dollar that I'll run it to a tremendous success, become a second Lipton, and keep a yacht.”
As Mr. Box bounced out of the room and proceeded to run downstairs, he ran against and nearly knocked over Mrs. Baker; the lady was whispering to and coquetting with Mr. Wotherspoon, who was on the landing. That gentleman, in his condition of lack of individuality, was like a teetotum spun in the hands of the designing Mrs. Baker, who put forth all the witchery she possessed, or supposed that she possessed, to entangle him in an amorous intrigue.
“Come in,” shouted Joseph Leveridge, and Mr. Wotherspoon, looking hot and frightened and very shy, tottered In and sank into a chair. He was too much shaken and perturbed by the advances of Mrs. Baker to be able to speak.
“There,” said Joseph, addressing his hero. “You cannot do better than animate that feeble creature. Go!”
Instantly Mr. Wotherspoon sprang to his feet. “By George!” said he. “I wonder that never struck me before. I'll at once volunteer to go out to South Africa, and have a shot at those canting, lying, treacherous Boers. If I come back with a score of their scalps at my waist, I shall have deserved well of my country. I will volunteer at once. But—I say, Leveridge — clear that hulking, fat old landlady out of the way. She blocks the stairs, and I can't kick down a woman.”
When Mr. Wotherspoon was gone—“Well,” said Poppy, “what have you got for me?”
“If you will come with me, Poppy dear, 1 will serve you as well as the rest.”
“I hope better than you did that odious little widow. But she is well paid out.”
“Follow me to the riverside,” said Joseph; “at 8.33 p.m. I am due there, and so is another—a lady.”
“And pray why did you not make her come here instead of lugging me all the way down there?”
“Because I could not make an appointment with a young lady in my bachelor's apartments.”
“That's all very fine. But I am there.”
“Yes, you—but you are only an imaginary character, and she is a substantial reality.”
“I think I had better accompany you,” said Lady Mabel. “I think not. If your ladyship will kindly occupy my fauteuil till I return, that chair will ever after be sacred to me. Come along, Poppy.”
“I'm game,” said she.
On reaching the riverside Joseph saw that Miss Vincent was walking there in a listless manner, not straight, but swerving from side to side. She saw him, but did not quicken her pace, nor did her face light up with interest.
“Now, then,” said he to Poppy, “what do you think of her?”
“She ain't bad,” answered the fictitious character; “she is pretty certainly, but inanimate.”
“You will change all that.”
“I'll try—you bet.”
Asphodel came up. She bowed, but did not extend her hand, “Miss Vincent,” said Joseph. “How good of you to come.”
“Not at all. I could not help. I have no free-will left. When you wrote Come—I came, I could do no other. I have no initiative, no power of resistance.”
“I do hope, Miss Vincent, that the thing you so feared has not happened.”
“You have not been snapped up by a fortune-hunter?”
“No. People have not as yet found out that I have lost my individuality. I have kept very much to myself—that is to say, not to myself, as I have no proper myself left—I mean to the semblance of myself. People have thought I was anæmic.”
Leveridge turned aside: “Well, Poppy!”
“Right you are.”
Leveridge waved his hand. Instantly all the inertia passed away from the girl, she stood erect and firm. A merry twinkle kindled in her eye, a flush was on her cheek, and mischievous devilry played about her lips.
“I feel,” said she, “as another person.”
“Oh! I am so glad, Miss Vincent.”
“That is a pretty speech to make to a lady! Glad I am different from what I was before.”
“I did not mean that—I meant—in fact, I meant that as you were and as you are you are always charming.”
“Thank you, sir!” said Asphodel, curtsying and laughing. “Ah! Miss Vincent, at all times you have seemed to me the ideal of womanhood. I have worshipped the very ground you have trod upon.”
He looked at her. For the moment he was bewildered, oblivious that the old personality of Asphodel had passed into his book and that the new personality of Poppy had invaded Asphodel.
“Well,” said she, “is that all you have to say to me?”
“All?—oh, no. I could say a great deal—I have ordered my supper for nine o'clock.”
“Oh, how obtuse you men are! Come—is this leap year?”
“I really believe that it is.”
“Then I shall take the privilege of the year, and offer you my hand and heart and fortune— there! Now it only remains with you to name the day.”
“Oh! Miss Vincent, you overcome.”
“Stuff and nonsense. Call me Asphodel, do Joe.”
Mr. Leveridge walked back to his lodgings as if he trod on air. As he passed by the churchyard, he noticed the vicar, now shaven and shorn, labouring at a laden wheelbarrow. He halted at the rails and said: “Why, vicar, what are you about?”
“The sexton has begun a grave for old Betty Goodman, and it is unfinished. He must dig another.” He turned over the wheelbarrow and shot its contents into the grave.
“But what are you doing?” again asked Joseph. “Burying the Mitre hymnals,” replied the vicar. The clock struck a quarter to nine.
“I must hurry!” exclaimed Joseph.
On reaching his lodgings he found Major Dolgelly Jones in his sitting-room, sitting on the edge of his table tossing up a tennis-ball. In the armchair, invisible to the major, reclined Lady Mabel.
“I am so sorry to be late,” apologised Joseph. “How are you, sir?”
“Below par. I have been so ever since you put me into your book. I have no appetite for golf. I can do nothing to pass the weary hours but toss up and down a tennis-ball.”
“I hope——” began Joseph; and then a horror seized on him. He had no personality of his creation left but that of Lady Mabel. Would it be possible to translate that into the major?
He remained silent, musing for a while, and then said hesitatingly to the lady: “Here, my lady, is the body you are to individualise.”
“But it is that of a man!”
“There is no other left.”
“It is hardly delicate.”
“There is no help for it.” Then turning to the major, be said: 'I am very sorry—it really is no fault of mine, but I have only a female personality to offer to you, and that elderly.”
“It is all one to me,” replied the major, “catch”—he caught the ball. “Many of our generals are old women. I am agreeable. Place aux dames.”
“But,” protested Lady Mabel, “you made me a member of a very ancient titled house that came over with the Conqueror.”
“The personality I offer you,” said I to the major, “though female is noble; the family is named in the roll of Battle Abbey.”
“Oh!” said Dolgelly Jones, “I descend from one of the royal families of Powys, lineally from Caswallon Llanhir and Maelgwn Gwynedd, long before the Conqueror was thought of.”
“Well, then,” said Leveridge, and waved his hand.
In Swanton it is known that the major now never plays golf; he keeps rabbits.
It is with some scruple that I insert this record in the Book of Ghosts, for actually it is not a story of ghosts. But a greater scruple moved me as to whether I should be justified in revealing a professionial secret, known only among such as belong to the Confraternity of Writers of Fiction. But I have observed so much perplexity arise, so much friction caused, by persons suddenly breaking out into a course of conduct, or into actions, so entirely inconsistent with their former conduct as to stagger their acquaintances and friends. Henceforth, to use a vulgarism, since I have let the cat out of the bag, they will know that such persons have been used up by novel writers that have known them, and who have replaced the stolen individualities with others freshly created. This is the explanation, and the explanation has up to the present remained a professional secret.