Better Dead - J.M. Barrie - ebook

Better Dead ebook

J.M. Barrie

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Scottish-born author and playwright Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM (9 May 1860 – 19 June 1937) first established himself in the public eye as a writer of children’s books and humorous plays. He is best remembered for creating Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, whom he based on his friends, the Llewelyn Davies boys. According to historians of Barrie’s life and work, „Better Dead” is one of his earliest pieces, it is a novel about the challenges of finding ones place in the world. It combines sly humor with a compelling plot with elements of mystery and romance. The main character Andrew is a young Scotsman who heads to London after university because the job prospects are so poor back home. He finds himself as a probationary member of a secret society which engages in the murder of those in society it deems would be, as the title suggests, „Better Dead”.

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Contents

INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

INTRODUCTION

This is the only American edition of my books produced with my sanction, and I have special reasons for thanking Messrs. Scribner for its publication; they let it be seen, by this edition, what are my books, for I know not how many volumes purporting to be by me, are in circulation in America which are no books of mine. I have seen several of these, bearing such titles as “Two of Them,” “An Auld Licht Manse,” “A Tillyloss Scandal,” and some of them announce themselves as author’s editions, or published by arrangement with the author. They consist of scraps collected and published without my knowledge, and I entirely disown them. I have written no books save those that appear in this edition.

I am asked to write a few lines on the front page of each of these volumes, to say something, as I take it, about how they came into being. Well, they were written mainly to please one woman who is now dead, but as I am writing a little book about my mother I shall say no more of her here.

Many of the chapters in “Auld Licht Idylls” first appeared in a different form in the St. James’s Gazette, and there is little doubt that they would never have appeared anywhere but for the encouragement given to me by the editor of that paper. It was pressure from him that induced me to write a second “Idyll” and a third after I thought the first completed the picture, he set me thinking seriously of these people, and though he knew nothing of them himself, may be said to have led me back to them. It seems odd, and yet I am not the first nor the fiftieth who has left Thrums at sunrise to seek the life-work that was all the time awaiting him at home. And we seldom sally forth a second time. I had always meant to be a novelist, but London, I thought, was the quarry.

For long I had an uneasy feeling that no one save the editor read my contributions, for I was leading a lonely life in London, and not another editor could I find in the land willing to print the Scotch dialect. The magazines, Scotch and English, would have nothing to say to me–I think I tried them all with “The Courting of T’nowhead’s Bell,” but it never found shelter until it got within book-covers. In time, however, I found another paper, the British Weekly, with an editor as bold as my first (or shall we say he suffered from the same infirmity?). He revived my drooping hopes, and I was again able to turn to the only kind of literary work I now seemed to have much interest in. He let me sign my articles, which was a big step for me and led to my having requests for work from elsewhere, but always the invitations said “not Scotch–the public will not read dialect.” By this time I had put together from these two sources and from my drawerful of rejected stories this book of “Auld Licht Idylls,” and in its collected form it again went the rounds. I offered it to certain firms as a gift, but they would not have it even at that. And then, on a day came actually an offer for it from Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton. For this, and for many another kindness, I had the editor of the British Weekly to thank. Thus the book was published at last, and as for Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton I simply dare not say what a generous firm I found them, lest it send too many aspirants to their doors. But, indeed, I have had the pleasantest relations with all my publishers.

“Better Dead” is, by my wish, no longer on sale in Great Britain, and I should have preferred not to see it here, for it is in no way worthy of the beautiful clothes Messrs. Scribner have given it. Weighted with “An Edinburgh Eleven” it would rest very comfortably in the mill dam, but the publishers have reasons for its inclusion; among them, I suspect, is a well-grounded fear that if I once began to hack and hew, I should not stop until I had reduced the edition to two volumes. This juvenile effort is a field of prickles into which none may be advised to penetrate–I made the attempt lately in cold blood and came back shuddering, but I had read enough to have the profoundest reason for declining to tell what the book is about. And yet I have a sentimental interest in “Better Dead,” for it was my first–published when I had small hope of getting any one to accept the Scotch–and there was a week when I loved to carry it in my pocket and did not think it dead weight. Once I almost saw it find a purchaser. She was a pretty girl and it lay on a bookstall, and she read some pages and smiled, and then retired, and came back and began another chapter. Several times she did this, and I stood in the background trembling with hope and fear. At last she went away without the book, but I am still of opinion that, had it been just a little bit better, she would have bought it.

CHAPTER I

When Andrew Riach went to London, his intention was to become private secretary to a member of the Cabinet. If time permitted, he proposed writing for the Press.

“It might be better if you and Clarrie understood each other,” the minister said.

It was their last night together. They faced each other in the manse-parlour at Wheens, whose low, peeled ceiling had threatened Mr. Eassie at his desk every time he looked up with his pen in his mouth until his wife died, when he ceased to notice things. The one picture on the walls, an engraving of a boy in velveteen, astride a tree, entitled “Boyhood of Bunyan,” had started life with him. The horsehair chairs were not torn, and you did not require to know the sofa before you sat down on it, that day thirty years before, when a chubby minister and his lady walked to the manse between two cart-loads of furniture, trying not to look elated.

Clarrie rose to go, when she heard her name. The love-light was in her eyes, but Andrew did not open the door for her, for he was a Scotch graduate. Besides, she might one day be his wife.

The minister’s toddy-ladle clinked against his tumbler, but Andrew did not speak. Clarrie was the girl he generally adored.

“As for Clarrie,” he said at last, “she puts me in an awkward position. How do I know that I love her?”

“You have known each other a long time,” said the minister.

His guest was cleaning his pipe with a hair-pin, that his quick eye had detected on the carpet.

“And she is devoted to you,” continued Mr. Eassie.

The young man nodded.

“What I fear,” he said, “is that we have known each other too long. Perhaps my feeling for Clarrie is only brotherly–”

“Hers for you, Andrew, is more than sisterly.”

“Admitted. But consider, Mr. Eassie, she has only seen the world in soirées. Every girl has her day-dreams, and Clarrie has perhaps made a dream of me. She is impulsive, given to idealisation, and hopelessly illogical.”

The minister moved uneasily in his chair.

“I have reasoned out her present relation to me,” the young man went on, “and, the more you reduce it to the usual formulae, the more illogical it becomes. Clarrie could possibly describe me, but define me–never. What is our prospect of happiness in these circumstances?”

“But love–” began Mr. Eassie.

“Love!” exclaimed Andrew. “Is there such a thing? Reduce it to syllogistic form, and how does it look in Barbara?”

For the moment there was almost some expression in his face, and he suffered from a determination of words to the mouth.

“Love and logic,” Mr. Eassie interposed, “are hardly kindred studies.”

“Is love a study at all?” asked Andrew, bitterly. “It is but the trail of idleness. But all idleness is folly; therefore, love is folly.”

Mr. Eassie was not so keen a logician as his guest, but he had age for a major premiss. He was easy-going rather than a coward; a preacher who, in the pulpit, looked difficulties genially in the face, and passed them by.

Riach had a very long neck. He was twenty-five years of age, fair, and somewhat heavily built, with a face as inexpressive as book-covers.

A native of Wheens and an orphan, he had been brought up by his uncle, who was a weaver and read Herodotus in the original. The uncle starved himself to buy books and talk about them, until one day he got a good meal, and died of it. Then Andrew apprenticed himself to a tailor.

When his time was out, he walked fifty miles to Aberdeen University, and got a bursary. He had been there a month, when his professor said good-naturedly–

“Don’t you think, Mr. Riach, you would get on better if you took your hands out of your pockets?”

“No, sir, I don’t think so,” replied Andrew, in all honesty.

When told that he must apologise, he did not see it, but was willing to argue the matter out.

Next year he matriculated at Edinburgh, sharing one room with two others; studying through the night, and getting their bed when they rose. He was a failure in the classics, because they left you where you were, but in his third year he woke the logic class-room, and frightened the professor of moral philosophy.

He was nearly rusticated for praying at a debating society for a divinity professor who was in the chair.

“O Lord!” he cried, fervently, “open his eyes, guide his tottering footsteps, and lead him from the paths of folly into those that are lovely and of good report, for lo! his days are numbered, and the sickle has been sharpened, and the corn is not yet ripe for the cutting.”

When Andrew graduated he was known as student of mark.

He returned to Wheens, before setting out for London, with the consciousness of his worth.

Yet he was only born to follow, and his chance of making a noise in the world rested on his meeting a stronger than himself. During his summer vacations he had weaved sufficient money to keep himself during the winter on porridge and potatoes.

Clarrie was beautiful and all that.

“We’ll say no more about it, then,” the minister said after a pause.

“The matter,” replied Andrew, “cannot be dismissed in that way. Reasonable or not, I do undoubtedly experience sensations similar to Clarrie’s. But in my love I notice a distinct ebb and flow. There are times when I don’t care a hang for her.”

“Andrew!”

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