Whatever Mr. Andrew Lang writes he writes well. There is nish and polish to his work, the desiderata in all species of labor, but more especially in literature. His latest book, The Disentanglers, tends further to strengthen this generality. The plot of the book may best be given in the words of its originators, two young and impecunious gentlemen of London, as unfolded in the rst chapter, appropriately entitled The Great Idea; " Family rows about marriages. . . . The problem for the family, for hundreds of families, is to get the undesirable marriage o without the usual row. Very few people really like a row. . . . They want a pacic solution-marriage on, no remonstrances. . . . We are going to do it by a scientic and thoroughly organized system of disengaging or disentangling. We enlist a lot of girls and fellows like ourselves, beautiful, attractive, young, or not so young, well connected, intellectual, athletic, but all broke. . We send them out on demand, carefully selecting our agents to meet the circumstances in every case." The plot, as thus roughly sketched, presents almost unlimited poten- tialities, which Mr. Lang has fully utilized in the eleven stories that follow. This book is illustrated and annotated with a rare extensive biographical sketch of the author, Andrew Lang, written by Sir Edmund Gosse, CB, a contemporary poet and writer.
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ANDREW LANG (1844-1912)
I. THE GREAT IDEA
II. FROM THE HIGHWAYS AND HEDGES
III. ADVENTURE OF THE FIRST CLIENTS
IV. ADVENTURE OF THE RICH UNCLE
V. THE ADVENTURE OF THE OFFICE SCREEN
VI. A LOVER IN COCKY
VII. THE ADVENTURE OF THE EXEMPLARY EARL
VIII. THE ADVENTURE OF THE LADY PATRONESS
IX. ADVENTURE OF THE LADY NOVELIST AND THE VACCINATIONIST
X. ADVENTURE OF THE FAIR AMERICAN
XI. ADVENTURE OF THE MISERLY MARQUIS
XII. ADVENTURE OF THE CANADIAN HEIRESS
The Disentanglers, A. Lang
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
Biographical Sketch from "Portraits And Sketches" by Edmund Gosse
INVITED to note down some of my recollections of Andrew Lang, I find myself suspended between the sudden blow of his death and the slow development of memory, now extending in unbroken friendship over thirty-five years. The magnitude and multitude of Lang's performances, public and private, during that considerable length of time almost paralyse expression; it is difficult to know where to begin or where to stop. Just as his written works are so extremely numerous as to make a pathway through them a formidable task in bibliography, no one book standing out predominant, so his character, intellectual and moral, was full -of so many apparent inconsistencies, so many pitfalls for rash assertion, so many queer caprices of impulse, that in a whole volume of analysis, which would be tedious, one could scarcely do justice to them all. I will venture to put down, almost at haphazard, what I remember that seems to me to have been overlooked, or inexactly stated, by those who wrote, often very sympathetically, at the moment of his death, always premising that I speak rather of a Lang of from 1877 to 1890, when I saw him very frequently, than of a Lang whom younger people met chiefly in Scotland.
When he died, all the newspapers were loud in proclaiming his "versatility." But I am not sure that he was not the very opposite of versatile. I take "versatile" to mean changeable, fickle, constantly ready to alter direction with the weather-cock. The great instance of versatility in literature is Ruskin, who adopted diametrically different views of the same subject at different times of his life, and defended them with equal ardour. To be versatile seems to be unsteady, variable. But Lang was through his long career singularly unaltered; he never changed his point of view; what he liked and admired as a youth he liked and admired as an elderly man. It is true that his interests and knowledge were vividly drawn along a surprisingly large number of channels, but while there was abundance there does not seem to me to have been versatility. If a huge body of water boils up from a crater, it may pour down a dozen paths, but these will always be the same; unless there is an earthquake, new cascades will not form nor old rivulets run dry. In some authors earthquakes do take place as in Tolstoy, for instance, and in S. T. Coleridge but nothing of this kind was ever manifest in Lang, who was extraordinarily multiform, yet in his varieties strictly consistent from Oxford to the grave. As this is not generally perceived, I will take the liberty of expanding my view of his intellectual development.
To a superficial observer in late life the genius of Andrew Lang had the characteristics which we are in the habit of identifying with precocity. Yet he had not been, as a writer, precocious in his youth. One slender volume of verses represents all that he published in book-form before his thirty-fifth year. No doubt we shall learn in good time what he was doing before he flashed upon the world of journalism in all his panoply of graces, in 1876, at the close of his Merton fellowship. He was then, at all events, the finest finished product of his age, with the bright armour of Oxford burnished on his body to such a brilliance that humdrum eyes could hardly bear the radiance of it. Of the terms behind, of the fifteen years then dividing him from St. Andrews, we know as yet but little; they were years of insatiable acquirement, incessant reading, and talking, and observing gay preparation for a life to be devoted, as no other life in our time has been, to the stimulation of other people's observation and talk and reading. There was no cloistered virtue about the bright and petulant Merton don. He was already flouting and jesting, laughing with Ariosto in the sunshine, performing with a snap of his fingers tasks which might break the back of a pedant, and concealing under an affectation of carelessness a literary ambition which knew no definite bounds.
In those days, and when he appeared for the first time in London, the poet was paramount in him. Jowett is said to have predicted that he would be greatly famous in this line, but I know not what evidence Jowett had before him. Unless I am much mistaken, it was not until Lang left Balliol that his peculiar bent became obvious. Up to that time he had been a promiscuous browser upon books, much occupied, moreover, in the struggle with ancient Greek, and immersed in Aristotle and Homer. But in the early days of his settlement at Merton he began to concentrate his powers, and I think there were certain influences which were instant and far-reaching. Among them one was pre-eminent. When Andrew Lang came up from St. Andrews he had found Matthew Arnold occupying the ancient chair of poetry at Oxford. He was a listener at some at least of the famous lectures which, in 1865, were collected as "Essays in Criticism"; while one of his latest experiences as a Balliol undergraduate was hearing Matthew Arnold lecture on the study of Celtic literature. His conscience was profoundly stirred by "Culture and Anarchy" (1869); his sense of prose-form largely determined by "Friendship's Garland" (1871). I have no hesitation in saying that the teaching and example of Matthew Arnold prevailed over all other Oxford influences upon the intellectual nature of Lang, while, although I think that his personal acquaintance with Arnold was very slight, yet in his social manner there was, in early days, not a little imitation of Arnold's aloofness and superfine delicacy of address. It was unconscious, of course, and nothing would have enraged Lang more than to have been accused of "imitating Uncle Matt."
The structure which his own individuality now began to build on the basis supplied by the learning of Oxford, and in particular by the study of the Greeks, and "dressed" by courses of Matthew Arnold, was from the first eclectic. Lang eschewed as completely what was not sympathetic to him as he assimilated what was attractive to him. Those who speak of his "versatility" should recollect what large tracts of the literature of the world, and even of England, existed outside the dimmest apprehension of Andrew Lang. It is, however, more useful to consider what he did apprehend; and there were two English books, published in his Oxford days, which permanently impressed him: one of these was "The Earthly Paradise," the other D. G. Rossetti's " Poems." In after years he tried to divest himself of the traces of these volumes, but he had fed upon their honey-dew and it had permeated his veins.
Not less important an element in the garnishing of a mind already prepared for it by academic and aesthetic studies was the absorption of the romantic part of French literature. Andrew Lang in this, as in everything else, was selective. He dipped into the wonderful lucky-bag of France wherever he saw the glitter of romance. Hence his approach, in the early seventies, was threefold: towards the mediaeval lais and chansons, towards the sixteenth-century Pleiade, and towards the school of which Victor Hugo was the leader in the nineteenth century. For a long time Ronsard was Lang's poet of intensest predilection; and I think that his definite ambition was to be the Ronsard of modern England, introducing a new poetical dexterity founded on a revival of pure humanism. He had in those days what he lost, or at least dispersed, in the weariness and growing melancholia of later years a splendid belief in poetry as a part of the renown of England, as a heritage to be received in reverence from our fathers, and to be passed on, if possible, in a brighter flame. This honest and beautiful ambition to shine as one of the permanent benefactors to national verse, in the attitude so nobly sustained four hundred years ago by Du Bellay and Ronsard, was unquestionably felt by Andrew Lang through his bright intellectual April, and supported him from Oxford times until 1882, when he published " Helen of Troy." The cool reception of that epic by the principal judges of poetry caused him acute disappointment, and from that time forth he became less eager and less serious as a poet, more and more petulantly expending his wonderful technical gift on fugitive subjects. And here again, when one comes to think of it, the whole history repeated itself, since in " Helen of Troy " Lang simply suffered as Ronsard had done in the "Franciade." But the fact that 1882 was his year of crisis, and the tomb of his brightest ambition, must be recognised by every one who closely followed his fortunes at that time. Lang's habit of picking out of literature and of life the plums of romance, and these alone, comes to be, to the dazzled observer of his extraordinarily vivid intellectual career, the principal guiding line. This determination to dwell, to the exclusion of all other sides of any question, on its romantic side is alone enough to rebut the charge of versatility. Lang was in a sense encyclopaedic; but the vast dictionary of his knowledge had blank pages, or pages pasted down, on which he would not, or could not, read what experience had printed. Absurd as it sounds, there was always something maidenly about his mind, and he glossed over ugly matters, sordid and dull conditions, so that they made no impression whatever upon him. He had a trick, which often exasperated his acquaintances, of declaring that he had " never heard " of things that everybody else was very well aware of. He had " never heard the name " of people he disliked, of books that he thought tiresome, of events that bored him; but, more than this, he used the formula for things and persons whom he did not wish to discuss. I remember meeting in the street a famous professor, who advanced with uplifted hands, and greeted me with " What do you think Lang says now? That he has never heard of Pascal! " This merely signified that Lang, not interested (at all events for the moment) in Pascal nor in the professor, thus closed at once all possibility of discussion.
It must not be forgotten that we have lived to see him, always wonderful indeed, and always passionately devoted to perfection and purity, but worn, tired, harassed by the unceasing struggle, the lifelong slinging of sentences from that inexhaustible ink-pot. In one of the most perfect of his poems, " Natural Theology," Lang speaks of Cagn, the great hunter, who once was kind and good, but who was spoiled by fighting many things. Lang was never " spoiled," but he was injured; the surface of the radiant coin was rubbed by the vast and interminable handling of journalism. He was jaded by the toil of writing many things. Hence it is not possible but that those who knew him intimately in his later youth and early middle-age should prefer to look back at those years when he was the freshest, the most exhilarating figure in living literature, when a star seemed to dance upon the crest of his already silvering hair. Baudelaire exclaimed of Theophile Gautier: " Homme heureux! homme digne d'envie! il n'a jamais aimé que le Beau!" and of Andrew Lang in those brilliant days the same might have been said. As long as he had confidence in beauty he was safe and strong; and much that, with all affection and all respect, we must admit was rasping and disappointing in his attitude to literature in his later years, seems to have been due to a decreasing sense of confidence in the intellectual sources of beauty. It is dangerous, in the end it must be fatal, to sustain the entire structure of life and thought on the illusions of romance. But that was what Lang did he built his house upon the rainbow.
The charm of Andrew Lang's person and company was founded upon a certain lightness, an essential gentleness and elegance which were relieved by a sharp touch; just as a very dainty fruit may be preserved from mawkishness by something delicately acid in the rind of it. His nature was slightly inhuman; it was unwise to count upon its sympathy beyond a point which was very easily reached in social intercourse. If any simple soul showed an inclination, in eighteenth-century phrase, to " repose on the bosom " of Lang, that support was immediately withdrawn, and the confiding one fell among thorns. Lang was like an Angora cat, whose gentleness and soft fur, and general aspect of pure amenity, invite to caresses, which are suddenly met by the outspread paw with claws awake. This uncertain and freakish humour was the embarrassment of his friends, who, however, were preserved from despair by the fact that no malice was meant, and that the weapons were instantly sheathed again in velvet. Only, the instinct to give a sudden slap, half in play, half in fretful caprice, was incorrigible. No one among Lang's intimate friends but had suffered from this feline impulse, which did not spare even the serenity of Robert Louis Stevenson. But, tiresome as it sometimes was, this irritable humour seldom cost Lang a friend who was worth preserving. Those who really knew him recognised that he was always shy and usually tired.
His own swift spirit never brooded upon an offence, and could not conceive that any one else should mind what he himself minded so little and forgot so soon. Impressions swept over him very rapidly, and injuries passed completely out of his memory. Indeed, all his emotions were too fleeting, and in this there was something fairy-like; quick and keen and blithe as he was, he did not seem altogether like an ordinary mortal, nor could the appeal to gross human experience be made to him with much chance of success. This, doubtless, is why almost all imaginative literature which is founded upon the darker parts of life, all squalid and painful tragedy, all stories that " don't end well" all religious experiences, all that is not superficial and romantic, was irksome to him. He tried sometimes to reconcile his mind to the consideration of real life; he concentrated his matchless powers on it; but he always disliked it. He could persuade himself to be partly just to Ibsen or Hardy or Dostoieffsky, but what he really enjoyed was Dumas pêre, because that fertile romance-writer rose serene above the phenomena of actual human experience. We have seen more of this type in English literature than the Continental nations have in theirs, but even we have seen no instance of its strength and weakness so eminent as Andrew Lang. He was the fairy in our midst, the wonder-working, incorporeal, and tricksy fay of letters, who paid for all his wonderful gifts and charms by being not quite a man of like passions with the rest of us. In some verses which he scribbled to R.L.S. and threw away, twenty years ago, he acknowledged this unearthly character, and, speaking of the depredations of his kin, he said:
Faith, they might steal me, w? ma will,
And, ken'd I ony fairy hill
I#d lay me down there, snod and still,
Their land to win;
For, man, I maistly had my fill
O' this world's din
His wit had something disconcerting in its impishness. Its rapidity and sparkle were dazzling, but it was not quite human; that is to say, it conceded too little to the exigencies of flesh and blood. If we can conceive a seraph being fanny, it would be in the manner of Andrew Lang. Moreover, his wit usually danced over the surface of things, and rarely penetrated them. In verbal parry, in ironic misunderstanding, in breathless agility of topsy-turvy movement, Lang was like one of Milton's " yellow-skirted fays," sporting with the helpless, moon-bewildered traveller. His wit often had a depressing, a humiliating effect, against which one's mind presently revolted. I recollect an instance which may be thought to be apposite: I was passing through a phase of enthusiasm for Emerson, whom Lang very characteristically detested, and I was so ill-advised as to show him the famous epigram called " Brahma." Lang read it with a snort of derision (it appeared to be new to him), and immediately he improvised this parody:
If the wild bowler thinks he bowls,
Or if the batsman thinks he's bowled,
They know not, poor misguided souls,
They, too, shall perish unconsoled.
I am the batsman and the bat,
I am the bowler and the ball,
The umpire, the pavilion cat,
The roller, pitch and stumps, and all
This would make a pavilion cat laugh, and I felt that Emerson was done for. But when Lang had left me, and I was once more master of my mind, I reflected that the parody was but a parody, wonderful for its neatness and quickness, and for its seizure of what was awkward in the roll of Emerson's diction, but essentially superficial. However, what would wit be if it were profound? I must leave it there, feeling that I have not explained why Lang's extraordinary drollery in conversation so often left on the memory a certain sensation of distress.
But this was not the characteristic of his humour at its best, as it was displayed throughout the happiest period of his work. If, as seems possible, it is as an essayist that he will ultimately take his place in English literature, this element will continue to delight fresh generations of enchanted readers. I cannot imagine that the preface to his translation of " Theocritus," "Letters to Dead Authors," "In the Wrong Paradise," " Old Friends," and " Essays in Little " will ever lose their charm; but future admirers will have to pick their way to them through a tangle of history and anthropology and mythology, where there may be left no perfume and no sweetness. I am impatient to see this vast mass of writing reduced to the limits of its author's delicate, true, but somewhat evasive and ephemeral. genius. However, as far as the circumstances of his temperament permitted, Andrew Lang has left with us the memory of one of our most surprising contemporaries, a man of letters who laboured without cessation from boyhood to the grave, who pursued his ideal with indomitable activity and perseverance, and who was never betrayed except by the loftiness of his own endeavour. Lang's only misfortune was not to be completely in contact with life, and his work will survive exactly where he was most faithful to his innermost illusions.
It has been suggested to the Author that the incident of the Berbalangs, in The Adventure of the Fair American, is rather improbable. He can only refer the sceptical to the perfectly genuine authorities cited in his footnotes.
The scene was a dusky shabby little room in Ryder Street. To such caves many repair whose days are passed, and whose food is consumed, in the clubs of the adjacent thoroughfare of cooperative palaces, Pall Mall. The furniture was battered and dingy; the sofa on which Logan sprawled had a certain historic interest: it was covered with cloth of horsehair, now seldom found by the amateur. A bookcase with glass doors held a crowd of books to which the amateur would at once have flown. They were in 'boards' of faded blue, and the paper labels bore alluring names: they were all First Editions of the most desirable kind. The bottles in the liqueur case were antique; a coat of arms, not undistinguished, was in relief on the silver stoppers. But the liquors in the flasks were humble and conventional. Merton, the tenant of the rooms, was in a Zingari cricketing coat; he occupied the arm-chair, while Logan, in evening dress, maintained a difficult equilibrium on the slippery sofa. Both men were of an age between twenty-five and twenty-nine, both were pleasant to the eye. Merton was, if anything, under the middle height: fair, slim, and active. As a freshman he had coxed his College Eight, later he rowed Bow in that vessel. He had won the Hurdles, but been beaten by his Cambridge opponent; he had taken a fair second in Greats, was believed to have been 'runner up' for the Newdigate prize poem, and might have won other laurels, but that he was found to do the female parts very fairly in the dramatic performances of the University, a thing irreconcilable with study. His father was a rural dean. Merton's most obvious vice was a thirst for general information. 'I know it is awfully bad form to know anything,' he had been heard to say, 'but everyone has his failings, and mine is occasionally useful.'
Logan was tall, dark, athletic and indolent. He was, in a way, the last of an historic Scottish family, and rather fond of discoursing on the ancestral traditions. But any satisfaction that he derived from them was, so far, all that his birth had won for him. His little patrimony had taken to itself wings. Merton was in no better case. Both, as they sat together, were gloomily discussing their prospects.
In the penumbra of smoke, and the malignant light of an ill trimmed lamp, the Great Idea was to be evolved. What consequences hung on the Great Idea! The peace of families insured, at a trifling premium. Innocence rescued. The defeat of the subtlest criminal designers: undreamed of benefits to natural science! But I anticipate. We return to the conversation in the Ryder Street den.
'It is a case of emigration or the workhouse,' said Logan.
'Emigration! What can you or I do in the Colonies? They provide even their own ushers. My only available assets, a little Greek and less Latin, are drugs in the Melbourne market,' answered Merton; 'they breed their own dominies. Protection!'
'In America they might pay for lessons in the English accent . . . ' said Logan.
'But not,' said Merton, 'in the Scotch, which is yours; oh distant cousin of a marquis! Consequently by rich American lady pupils “you are not one to be desired.”'
'Tommy, you are impertinent,' said Logan. 'Oh, hang it, where is there an opening, a demand, for the broken, the stoney broke? A man cannot live by casual paragraphs alone.'
'And these generally reckoned “too high-toned for our readers,”' said Merton.
'If I could get the secretaryship of a golf club!' Logan sighed.
'If you could get the Chancellorship of the Exchequer! I reckon that there are two million applicants for secretaryships of golf clubs.'
'Or a land agency,' Logan murmured.
'Oh, be practical!' cried Merton. 'Be inventive! Be modern! Be up to date! Think of something new! Think of a felt want, as the Covenanting divine calls it: a real public need, hitherto but dimly present, and quite a demand without a supply.'
'But that means thousands in advertisements,' said Logan, 'even if we ran a hair-restorer. The ground bait is too expensive. I say, I once knew a fellow who ground-baited for salmon with potted shrimps.'
'Make a paragraph on him then,' said Merton.
'But results proved that there was no felt want of potted shrimps—or not of a fly to follow.'
'Your collaboration in the search, the hunt for money, the quest, consists merely in irrelevancies and objections,' growled Merton, lighting a cigarette.
'Lucky devil, Peter Nevison. Meets an heiress on a Channel boat, with 4,000_l. a year; and there he is.' Logan basked in the reflected sunshine.
'Cut by her people, though—and other people. I could not have faced the row with her people,' said Merton musingly.
'I don't wonder they moved heaven and earth, and her uncle, the bishop, to stop it. Not eligible, Peter was not, however you took him,' Logan reflected. 'Took too much of this,' he pointed to the heraldic flask.
'Well, she took him. It is not much that parents, still less guardians, can do now, when a girl's mind is made up.'
'The emancipation of woman is the opportunity of the indigent male struggler. Women have their way,' Logan reflected.
'And the youth of the modern aged is the opportunity of our sisters, the girls “on the make,”' said Merton. 'What a lot of old men of title are marrying young women as hard up as we are!'
'And then,' said Logan, 'the offspring of the deceased marchionesses make a fuss. In fact marriage is always the signal for a family row.'
'It is the infernal family row that I never could face. I had a chance—'
Merton seemed likely to drop into autobiography.
'I know,' said Logan admonishingly.
'Well, hanged if I could take it, and she—she could not stand it either, and both of us—'
'Do not be elegiac,' interrupted Logan. 'I know. Still, I am rather sorry for people's people. The unruly affections simply poison the lives of parents and guardians, aye, and of the children too. The aged are now so hasty and imprudent. What would not Tala have given to prevent his Grace from marrying Mrs. Tankerville?'
Merton leapt to his feet and smote his brow.
'Wait, don't speak to me—a great thought flushes all my brain. Hush! I have it,' and he sat down again, pouring seltzer water into a half empty glass.
'Have what?' asked Logan.
'The Felt Want. But the accomplices?'
'But the advertisements!' suggested Logan.
'A few pounds will cover them. I can sell my books,' Merton sighed.
'A lot of advertising your first editions will pay for. Why, even to launch a hair-restorer takes—'
'Oh, but,' Merton broke in, 'this want is so widely felt, acutely felt too: hair is not in it. But where are the accomplices?'
'If it is gentleman burglars I am not concerned. No Raffles for me! If it is venal physicians to kill off rich relations, the lives of the Logans are sacred to me.'
'Bosh!' said Merton, 'I want “lady friends,” as Tennyson says: nice girls, well born, well bred, trying to support themselves.'
'What do you want them for? To support them?'
'I want them as accomplices,' said Merton. 'As collaborators.'
'Blackmail?' asked Logan. 'Has it come to this? I draw the line at blackmail. Besides, they would starve first, good girls would; or marry Lord Methusalem, or a beastly South African richard.'
'Robert Logan of Restalrig, that should be'—Merton spoke impressively—'you know me to be incapable of practices, however lucrative, which involve taint of crime. I do not prey upon the society which I propose to benefit. But where are the girls?'
'Where are they not?' Logan asked. 'Dawdling, as jesters, from country house to country house. In the British Museum, verifying references for literary gents, if they can get references to verify. Asking leave to describe their friends' parties in The Leidy's News. Trying for places as golfing governesses, or bridge governesses, or gymnastic mistresses at girls' schools, or lady laundresses, or typewriters, or lady teachers of cookery, or pegs to hang costumes on at dress-makers'. The most beautiful girl I ever saw was doing that once; I met her when I was shopping with my aunt who left her money to the Armenians.'
'You kept up her acquaintance? The girl's, I mean,' Merton asked.
'We have occasionally met. In fact—'
'Yes, I know, as you said lately,' Merton remarked. 'That's one, anyhow, and there is Mary Willoughby, who got a second in history when I was up. She would do. Better business for her than the British Museum. I know three or four.'
'I know five or six. But what for?' Logan insisted.
'To help us in supplying the widely felt want, which is my discovery,' said Merton.
'And that is?'
'Disentanglers—of both sexes. A large and varied staff, calculated to meet every requirement and cope with every circumstance.' Merton quoted an unwritten prospectus.
'I don't follow. What the deuce is your felt want?'
'What we were talking about.'
'Ground bait for salmon?' Logan reverted to his idea.
'No. Family rows about marriages. Nasty letters. Refusals to recognise the choice of a son, a daughter, or a widowed but youthful old parent, among the upper classes. Harsh words. Refusals to allow meetings or correspondence. Broken hearts. Improvident marriages. Preaching down a daughter's heart, or an aged parent's heart, or a nephew's, or a niece's, or a ward's, or anybody's heart. Peace restored to the household. Intended marriage off, and nobody a penny the worse, unless—'
'Unless what?' said Logan.
'Practical difficulties,' said Merton, 'will occur in every enterprise. But they won't be to our disadvantage, the reverse—if they don't happen too often. And we can guard against that by a scientific process.'
'Now will you explain,' Logan asked, 'or shall I pour this whisky and water down the back of your neck?'
He rose to his feet, menace in his eye.
'Bear fighting barred! We are no longer boys. We are men—broken men. Sit down, don't play the bear,' said Merton.
'Well, explain, or I fire!'
'Don't you see? The problem for the family, for hundreds of families, is to get the undesirable marriage off without the usual row. Very few people really like a row. Daughter becomes anaemic; foreign cures are expensive and no good. Son goes to the Devil or the Cape. Aged and opulent, but amorous, parent leaves everything he can scrape together to disapproved of new wife. Relations cut each other all round. Not many people really enjoy that kind of thing. They want a pacific solution—marriage off, no remonstrances.'
'And how are you going to do it?'
'Why,' said Merton, 'by a scientific and thoroughly organised system of disengaging or disentangling. We enlist a lot of girls and fellows like ourselves, beautiful, attractive, young, or not so young, well connected, intellectual, athletic, and of all sorts of types, but all broke, all without visible means of subsistence. They are people welcome in country houses, but travelling third class, and devilishly perplexed about how to tip the servants, how to pay if they lose at bridge, and so forth. We enlist them, we send them out on demand, carefully selecting our agents to meet the circumstances in each case. They go down and disentangle the amorous by—well, by entangling them. The lovers are off with the old love, the love which causes all the worry, without being on with the new love—our agent. The thing quietly fizzles out.'
'Quietly!' Logan snorted. 'I like “quietly.” They would be on with the new love. Don't you see, you born gomeral, that the person, man or woman, who deserts the inconvenient A.—I put an A. B. case—falls in love with your agent B., and your B. is, by the nature of the thing, more ineligible than A.—too poor. A babe could see that. You disappoint me, Merton.'
'You state,' said Merton, 'one of the practical difficulties which I foresaw. Not that it does not suit us very well. Our comrade and friend, man or woman, gets a chance of a good marriage, and, Logan, there is no better thing. But parents and guardians would not stand much of that: of people marrying our agents.'
'Of course they wouldn't. Your idea is crazy.'
'Wait a moment,' said Merton. 'The resources of science are not yet exhausted. You have heard of the epoch-making discovery of Jenner, and its beneficent results in checking the ravages of smallpox, that scourge of the human race?'
'Oh don't talk like a printed book,' Logan remonstrated. 'Everybody has heard of vaccination.'
'And you are aware that similar prophylactic measures have been adopted, with more or less of success, in the case of other diseases?'
'I am aware,' said Logan, 'that you are in danger of personal suffering at my hands, as I already warned you.'
'What is love but a disease?' Merton asked dreamily. 'A French savant, Monsieur Janet, says that nobody ever falls in love except when he is a little bit off colour: I forget the French equivalent.'
'I am coming for you,' Logan arose in wrath.
'Sit down. Well, your objection (which it did not need the eyes of an Argus to discover) is that the patients, the lovers young, whose loves are disapproved of by the family, will fall in love with our agents, insist on marrying them, and so the last state of these afflicted parents—or children—will be worse than the first. Is that your objection?'
'Of course it is; and crushing at that,' Logan replied.
'Then science suggests prophylactic measures: something akin to vaccination,' Merton explained. 'The agents must be warranted “immune.” Nice new word!'
'The object,' Merton answered, 'is to make it impossible, or highly improbable, that our agents, after disentangling the affections of the patients, curing them of one attack, will accept their addresses, offered in a second fit of the fever. In brief, the agents must not marry the patients, or not often.'
'But how can you prevent them if they want to do it?'
'By a process akin, in the emotional region of our strangely blended nature, to inoculation.'
'Hanged if I understand you. You keep on repeating yourself. You dodder!'
'Our agents must have got the disease already, the pretty fever; and be safe against infection. There must be on the side of the agent a prior attachment. Now, don't interrupt, there always is a prior attachment. You are in love, I am in love, he, she, and they, all of the broken brigade, are in love; all the more because they have not a chance. “Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth.” So, you see, our agents will be quite safe not to crown the flame of the patients, not to accept them, if they do propose, or expect a proposal. “Every security from infection guaranteed.” There is the felt want. Here is the remedy; not warranted absolutely painless, but salutary, and tending to the amelioration of the species. So we have only to enlist the agents, and send a few advertisements to the papers. My first editions must go. Farewell Shelley, Tennyson, Keats, uncut Waverleys, Byron, The Waltz, early Kiplings (at a vast reduction on account of the overflooded state of the market). Farewell Kilmarnock edition of Burns, and Colonel Lovelace, his Lucasta, and Tamerlane by Mr. Poe, and the rest. The money must be raised.' Merton looked resigned.
'I have nothing to sell,' said Logan, 'but an entire set of clubs by Philp. Guaranteed unique, and in exquisite condition.'
'You must part with them,' said Merton. 'We are like Palissy the potter, feeding his furnace with the drawing-room furniture.'
'But how about the recruiting?' Logan asked. 'It's like one of these novels where you begin by collecting desperados from all quarters, and then the shooting commences.'
'Well, we need not ransack the Colonies,' Merton replied. 'Patronise British industries. We know some fellows already and some young women.'
'I say,' Logan interrupted, 'what a dab at disentangling Lumley would have been if he had not got that Professorship of Toxicology at Edinburgh, and been able to marry Miss Wingan at last!'
'Yes, and Miss Wingan would have been useful. What a lively girl, ready for everything,' Merton replied.
'But these we can still get at,' Logan asked: 'how are you to be sure that they are—vaccinated?'
'The inquiry is delicate,' Merton admitted, 'but the fact may be almost taken for granted. We must give a dinner (a preliminary expense) to promising collaborators, and champagne is a great promoter of success in delicate inquiries. In vino veritas.'
'I don't know if there is money in it, but there is a kind of larkiness,' Logan admitted.
'Yes, I think there will be larks.'
'About the dinner? We are not to have Johnnies disguised as hansom cabbies driving about, and picking up men and women that look the right sort, in the streets, and compelling them to come in?'
'Oh no, that expense we can cut. It would not do with the women, obviously: heavens, what queer fishes that net would catch! The flag of the Disentanglers shall never be stained by—anything. You know some likely agents: I know some likely agents. They will suggest others, as our field of usefulness widens. Of course there is the oath of secrecy: we shall administer that after dinner to each guest apart.'
'Jolly difficult for those that are mixed up with the press to keep an oath of secrecy!' Logan spoke as a press man.
'We shall only have to do with gentlemen and ladies. The oath is not going to sanction itself with religious terrors. Good form—we shall appeal to a “sense of form”—now so widely diffused by University Extension Lectures on the Beautiful, the Fitting, the—'
'Oh shut up!' cried Logan. 'You always haver after midnight. For, look here, here is an objection; this precious plan of yours, parents and others could work it for themselves. I dare say they do. When they see the affections of a son, or a daughter, or a bereaved father beginning to stray towards A., they probably invite B. to come and stay and act as a lightning conductor. They don't need us.'
'Oh, don't they? They seldom have an eligible and satisfactory lightning conductor at hand, somebody to whom they can trust their dear one. Or, if they have, the dear one has already been bored with the intended lightning conductor (who is old, or plain, or stupid, or familiar, at best), and they won't look at him or her. Now our Disentanglers are not going to be plain, or dull, or old, or stale, or commonplace—we'll take care of that. My dear fellow, don't you know how dismal the parti selected for a man or girl invariably is? Now we provide a different and superior article, a fresh article too, not a familiar bore or a neighbour.'
'Well, there is a good deal in that, as you say,' Logan admitted. 'But decent people will think the whole speculation shady. How are you to get round that? There is something you have forgotten.'
'What?' Merton asked.
'Why it stares you in the face. References. Unexceptionable references; people will expect them all round.'
'Please don't say “unexceptionable”; say “references beyond the reach of cavil.”' Merton was a purist. 'It costs more in advertisements, but my phrase at once enlists the sympathy of every liberal and elegant mind. But as to references (and I am glad that you have some common sense, Logan), there is, let me see, there is the Dowager.'
'The divine Althaea—Marchioness of Bowton?'
'The same,' said Merton. 'The oldest woman, and the most recklessly up- to-date in London. She has seen bien d'autres, and wants to see more.'
'She will do; and my aunt,' Logan said.
'Not, oh, of course not, the one who left her money to the Armenians?' Merton asked.
'No, another. And there's old Lochmaben's young wife, my cousin, widely removed, by marriage. She is American, you know, and perhaps you know her book, Social Experiments?'
'Yes, it is not half bad,' Merton conceded, 'and her heart will be in what I fear she will call “the new departure.” And she is pretty, and highly respected in the parish.'
'And there's my aunt I spoke of, or great aunt, Miss Nicky Maxwell. The best old thing: a beautiful monument of old gentility, and she would give her left hand to help any one of the clan.'
'She will do. And there's Mrs. Brown-Smith, Lord Yarrow's daughter, who married the patent soap man. Elle est capable de tout. A real good woman, but full of her fun.'
'That will do for the lady patronesses. We must secure them at once.'
'But won't the clients blab?' Logan suggested.
'They can't,' Merton said. 'They would be laughed at consumedly. It will be their interest to hold their tongues.'
'Well, let us hope that they will see it in that light.' Logan was not too sanguine.
Merton had a better opinion of his enterprise.
'People, if they come to us at all for assistance in these very delicate and intimate affairs, will have too much to lose by talking about them. They may not come, we can only try, but if they come they will be silent as the grave usually is.'
'Well, it is late, and the whisky is low,' said Logan in mournful tones. 'May the morrow's reflections justify the inspiration of—the whisky. Good night!'
'Good night,' said Merton absently.
He sat down when Logan had gone, and wrote a few notes on large sheets of paper. He was elaborating the scheme. 'If collaboration consists in making objections, as the French novelist said, Logan is a rare collaborator,' Merton muttered as he turned out the pallid lamp and went to bed.
Next morning, before dressing, he revolved the scheme. It bore the change of light and survived the inspiration of alcohol. Logan looked in after breakfast. He had no new objections. They proceeded to action.
The first step towards Merton's scheme was taken at once. The lady patronesses were approached. The divine Althaea instantly came in. She had enjoyed few things more since the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the eve of Waterloo. Miss Nicky Maxwell at first professed a desire to open her coffers, 'only anticipating,' she said, 'an event'—which Logan declined in any sense to anticipate. Lady Lochmaben said that they would have a lovely time as experimental students of society. Mrs. Brown-Smith instantly offered her own services as a Disentangler, her lord being then absent in America studying the negro market for detergents.
'I think,' she said, 'he expects Brown-Smith's brand to make an Ethiopian change his skin, and then means to exhibit him as an advertisement.'
'And settle the negro question by making them all white men,' said Logan, as he gracefully declined the generous but compromising proposal of the lady. 'Yet, after all,' thought he, 'is she not right? The prophylactic precautions would certainly be increased, morally speaking, if the Disentanglers were married.' But while he pigeon-holed this idea for future reference, at the moment he could not see his way to accepting Mrs. Brown-Smith's spirited idea. She reluctantly acquiesced in his view of the case, but, like the other dames, promised to guarantee, if applied to, the absolute respectability of the enterprise. The usual vows of secrecy were made, and (what borders on the supernatural) they were kept.
Merton's first editions went to Sotheby's, 'Property of a gentleman who is changing his objects of collection.' A Russian archduke bought Logan's unique set of golf clubs by Philp. Funds accrued from other sources. Logan had a friend, dearer friend had no man, one Trevor, a pleasant bachelor whose sister kept house for him. His purse, or rather his cheque book, gaped with desire to be at Logan's service, but had gaped in vain. Finding Logan grinning one day over the advertisement columns of a paper at the club, his prophetic soul discerned a good thing, and he wormed it out 'in dern privacy.' He slapped his manly thigh and insisted on being in it—as a capitalist. The other stoutly resisted, but was overcome.
'You need an office, you need retaining fees, you need outfits for the accomplices, and it is a legitimate investment. I'll take interest and risks,' said Trevor.
So the money was found.
The inaugural dinner, for the engaging of accomplices, was given in a private room of a restaurant in Pall Mall.
The dinner was gay, but a little pathetic. Neatness, rather than the gloss of novelty (though other gloss there was), characterised the garments of the men. The toilettes of the women were modest; that amount of praise (and it is a good deal) they deserved. A young lady, Miss Maskelyne, an amber-hued beauty, who practically lived as a female jester at the houses of the great, shone resplendent, indeed, but magnificence of apparel was demanded by her profession.
'I am so tired of it,' she said to Merton. 'Fancy being more and more anxious for country house invitations. Fancy an artist's feelings, when she knows she has not been a success. And then when the woman of the house detests you! She often does. And when they ask you to give your imitation of So-and-so, and forget that his niece is in the room! Do you know what they would have called people like me a hundred years ago? Toad- eaters! There is one of us in an old novel I read a bit of once. She goes about, an old maid, to houses. Once she arrived in a snow storm and a hearse. Am I to come to that? I keep learning new drawing-room tricks. And when you fall ill, as I did at Eckford, and you can't leave, and you think they are tired to death of you! Oh, it is I who am tired, and time passes, and one grows old. I am a hag!'
Merton said 'what he ought to have said,' and what, indeed, was true. He was afraid she would tell him what she owed her dress-makers. Therefore he steered the talk round to sport, then to the Highlands, then to Knoydart, then to Alastair Macdonald of Craigiecorrichan, and then Merton knew, by a tone in the voice, a drop of the eyelashes, that Miss Maskelyne was—vaccinated. Prophylactic measures had been taken: this agent ran no risk of infection. There was Alastair.
Merton turned to Miss Willoughby, on his left. She was tall, dark, handsome, but a little faded, and not plump: few of the faces round the table were plump and well liking. Miss Willoughby, in fact, dwelt in one room, in Bloomsbury, and dined on cocoa and bread and butter. These were for her the rewards of the Higher Education. She lived by copying crabbed manuscripts.
'Do you ever go up to Oxford now?' said Merton.
'Not often. Sometimes a St. Ursula girl gets a room in the town for me. I have coached two or three of them at little reading parties. It gets one out of town in autumn: Bloomsbury in August is not very fresh. And at Oxford one can “tout,” or “cadge,” for a little work. But there are so many of us.'
'What are you busy with just now?'
'Vatican transcripts at the Record Office.'
'Any exciting secrets?'
'Oh no, only how much the priests here paid to Rome for their promotions. Secrets then perhaps: not thrilling now.'
'No schemes to poison people?'
'Not yet: no plots for novels, and oh, such long-winded pontifical Latin, and such awful crabbed hands.'
'It does not seem to lead to much?'
'To nothing, in no way. But one is glad to get anything.'
'Jephson, of Lincoln, whom I used to know, is doing a book on the Knights of St. John in their Relations to the Empire,' said Merton.
'Is he?' said Miss Willoughby, after a scarcely distinguishable but embarrassed pause, and she turned from Merton to exhibit an interest in the very original scheme of mural decoration behind her.
'It is quite a new subject to most people,' said Merton, and he mentally ticked off Miss Willoughby as safe, for Jephson, whom he had heard that she liked, was a very poor man, living on his fellowship and coaching. He was sorry: he had never liked or trusted Jephson.
'It is a subject sure to create a sensation, isn't it?' asked Miss Willoughby, a little paler than before.
'It might get a man a professorship,' said Merton.
'There are so many of us, of them, I mean,' said Miss Willoughby, and Merton gave a small sigh. 'Not much larkiness here,' he thought, and asked a transient waiter for champagne.
Miss Willoughby drank a little of the wine: the colour came into her face.
'By Jove, she's awfully handsome,' thought Merton.
'It was very kind of you to ask me to this festival,' said the girl. 'Why have you asked us, me at least?'
'Perhaps for many besides the obvious reason,' said Merton. 'You may be told later.'
'Then there is a reason in addition to that which most people don't find obvious? Have you come into a fortune?'
'No, but I am coming. My ship is on the sea and my boat is on the shore.'
'I see faces that I know. There is that tall handsome girl, Miss Markham, with real gold hair, next Mr. Logan. We used to call her the Venus of Milo, or Milo for short, at St. Ursula's. She has mantles and things tried on her at Madame Claudine's, and stumpy purchasers argue from the effect (neglecting the cause) that the things will suit them. Her people were ruined by Australian gold mines. And there is Miss Martin, who does stories for the penny story papers at a shilling the thousand words. The fathers have backed horses, and the children's teeth are set on edge. Is it a Neo-Christian dinner? We are all so poor. You have sought us in the highways and hedges.'
'Where the wild roses grow,' said Merton.
'I don't know many of the men, though I see faces that one used to see in the High. There is Mr. Yorker, the athletic man. What is he doing now?'
'He is sub-vice-secretary of a cricket club. His income depends on his bat and his curl from leg. But he has a rich aunt.'
'Cricket does not lead to much, any more than my ability to read the worst handwritings of the darkest ages. Who is the man that the beautiful lady opposite is making laugh so?' asked Miss Willoughby, without moving her lips.
Merton wrote 'Bulstrode of Trinity' on the back of the menu.
'What does he do?'
'Nothing,' said Merton in a low voice. 'Been alligator farming, or ostrich farming, or ranching, and come back shorn; they all come back. He wants to be an ecclesiastical “chucker out,” and cope with Mr. Kensitt and
Co. New profession.'
'He ought not to be here. He can ride and shoot.'
'He is the only son of his mother and she is a widow.'
'He ought to go out. My only brother is out. I wish I were a man. I hate dawdlers.' She looked at him: her eyes were large and grey under black lashes, they were dark and louring.
'Have you, by any chance, a spark of the devil in you?' asked Merton, taking a social header.
'I have been told so, and sometimes thought so,' said Miss Willoughby. 'Perhaps this one will go out by fasting if not by prayer. Yes, I have a spark of the Accuser of the Brethren.'
'Tant mieux,' thought Merton.
All the people were talking and laughing now. Miss Maskelyne told a story to the table. She did a trick with a wine glass, forks, and a cork. Logan interviewed Miss Martin, who wrote tales for the penny fiction people, on her methods. Had she a moral aim, a purpose? Did she create her characters first, and let them evolve their fortunes, or did she invent a plot, and make her characters fit in?
Miss Martin said she began with a situation: 'I wish I could get one somewhere as secretary to a man of letters.'
'They can't afford secretaries,' said Logan. 'Besides they are family men, married men, and so—'
'And so what?'
'Go look in any glass, and say,' said Logan, laughing. 'But how do you begin with a situation?'
'Oh, anyhow. A lot of men in a darkened room. Pitch dark.'
'No, a conspiracy. They are in the dark that when arrested they may swear they never saw each other.'
'They could swear that anyhow.'
'Conspirators have consciences. Then there comes a red light shining between the door and the floor. Then the door breaks down under a hammer, the light floods the room. There is a man in it whom the others never saw enter.'
'How did he get in?'
'He was there before they came. Then the fighting begins. At the end of it where is the man?'
'Well, where is he? What was he up to?'
'I don't know yet,' said Miss Martin, 'it just comes as I go on. It has just got to come. It is a fourteen hours a day business. All writing. I crib things from the French. Not whole stories. I take the opening situation; say the two men in a boat on the river who hook up a sack. I don't read the rest of the Frenchman, I work on from the sack, and guess what was in it.'
'What was in the sack?'
'In the Sack! A name for a story! Anything, from the corpse of a freak (good idea, corpse of a freak with no arms and legs, or with too many) to a model of a submarine ship, or political papers. But I am tired of corpses. They pervade my works. They give “a bouquet, a fragrance,” as Mr. Talbot Twysden said about his cheap claret.'
'You read the old Masters?'
'The obsolete Thackeray? Yes, I know him pretty well.'
'What are you publishing just now?'
'This to an author? Don't you know?'
'I blush,' said Logan.
'Unseen,' said Miss Martin, scrutinising him closely.
'Well, you do not read the serials to which I contribute,' she went on. 'I have two or three things running. There is The Judge's Secret.'
'What was that?'
'He did it himself.'
'Killed the bishop. He is not a very plausible judge in English: in French he would be all right, a juge d'instruction, the man who cross- examines the prisoners in private, you know.'
'Judges don't do that in England,' said Logan.
'No, but this case is an exception. The judge was such a very old friend, a college friend, of the murdered bishop. So he takes advantage of his official position, and steals into the cell of the accused. My public does not know any better, and, of course, I have no reviewers. I never come out in a book.'
'And why did the judge assassinate the prelate?'
'The prelate knew too much about the judge, who sat in the Court of Probate and Divorce.'
'Satan reproving sin?' asked Logan.
'Yes, exactly; and the bishop being interested in the case—'
'No scandal about Mrs. Proudie?'
'No, not that exactly, still, you see the motive?'
'I do,' said Logan. 'And the conclusion?'
'The bishop was not really dead at all. It takes some time to explain. The corpus delicti—you see I know my subject—was somebody else. And the bishop was alive, and secretly watching the judge, disguised as Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Oh, I know it is too much in Dickens's manner. But my public has not read Dickens.'
'You interest me keenly' said Logan.
'I am glad to hear it. And the penny public take freely. Our circulation goes up. I asked for a rise of three pence on the thousand words.'
'Now this is what I call literary conversation,' said Logan. 'It is like reading The British Weekly Bookman. Did you get the threepence? if the inquiry is not indelicate.'
'I got twopence. But, you see, there are so many of us.'
'Tell me more. Are you serialising anything else?'
'Serialising is the right word. I see you know a great deal about literature. Yes, I am serialising a featured tale.'
'A featured tale?'
'You don't know what that is? You do not know everything yet! It is called Myself.'
'Oh, because the narrator did it—the murder. A stranger is found in a wood, hung to a tree. Nobody knows who he is. But he and the narrator had met in Paraguay. He, the murdered man, came home, visited the narrator, and fell in love with the beautiful being to whom the narrator was engaged. So the narrator lassoed him in a wood.'
'Oh, the old stock reason. He knew too much.'
'What did he know?'
'Why, that the narrator was living on a treasure originally robbed from a church in South America.'
'But, if it was a treasure, who would care?'
'The girl was a Catholic. And the murdered man knew more.'
'How much more?'
'This: to find out about the treasure, the narrator had taken priest's orders, and, of course, could not marry. And the other man, being in love with the girl, threatened to tell, and so the lasso came in handy. It is a Protestant story and instructive.'
'Jolly instructive! But, Miss Martin, you are the Guy Boothby of your sex!'
At this supreme tribute the girl blushed like dawn upon the hills.
'My word, she is pretty!' thought Logan; but what he said was, 'You know Mr. Tierney, your neighbour? Out of a job as a composition master. Almost reduced to University Extension Lectures on the didactic Drama.'
Tierney was talking eagerly to his neighbour, a fascinating lady laundress, la belle blanchisseuse, about starch.
Further off a lady instructress in cookery, Miss Frere, was conversing with a tutor of bridge.
'Tierney,' said Logan, in a pause, 'may I present you to Miss Martin?' Then he turned to Miss Markham, formerly known at St. Ursula's as Milo. She had been a teacher of golf, hockey, cricket, fencing, and gymnastics, at a very large school for girls, in a very small town. Here she became society to such an alarming extent (no party being complete without her, while the colonels and majors never left her in peace), that her connection with education was abruptly terminated. At present raiment was draped on her magnificent shoulders at Madame Claudine's. Logan, as he had told Merton, 'occasionally met her,' and Logan had the strongest reasons for personal conviction that she was absolutely proof against infection, in the trying circumstances to which a Disentangler is professionally exposed. Indeed she alone of the women present knew from Logan the purpose of the gathering.
Cigarettes had replaced the desire of eating and drinking. Merton had engaged a withdrawing room, where he meant to be closeted with his guests, one by one, administer the oath, and prosecute delicate inquiries on the important question of immunity from infection. But, after a private word or two with Logan, he deemed these conspicuous formalities needless. 'We have material enough to begin with,' said Logan. 'We knew beforehand that some of the men were safe, and certain of the women.'
There was a balcony. The providence of nature had provided a full moon, and a night of balm. The imaginative maintained that the scent of hay was breathed, among other odours, over Pall Mall the Blest. Merton kept straying with one guest or another into a corner of the balcony. He hinted that there was a thing in prospect. Would the guest hold himself, or herself, ready at need? Next morning, if the promise was given, the guest might awake to peace of conscience. The scheme was beneficent, and, incidentally, cheerful.
To some he mentioned retainers; money down, to speak grossly. Most accepted on the strength of Merton's assurances that their services must always be ready. There were difficulties with Miss Willoughby and Miss Markham. The former lady (who needed it most) flatly refused the arrangement. Merton pleaded in vain. Miss Markham, the girl known to her contemporaries as Milo, could not hazard her present engagement at Madame Claudine's. If she was needed by the scheme in the dead season she thought that she could be ready for whatever it was.
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