Scraps Literary and Pictorial, January 1, 1903
WHEN the author came into the smoking-room the Superior Man left off telling me that my hair was getting thin on the top, and turned to the fresher victim.
“Morning,” he said. “Just been reading your book.”
It was pathetic to see the author’s face. Gratification that he had found at least one reader struggled with fear lest the verdict might be unfavourable. Taking into account the fact that it was the Superior Man who had spoken, he might have saved himself the trouble of speculating on the verdict. It was bound to be unfavourable.
“Oh—er—really?” he said.
“Yes. Some of it I thought—well, I won’t say readable, but not quite so bad as the rest of it. In fact, those lines of poetry in the first chapter I thought distinctly good—very good, indeed.”
“They were a quotation,” said the author with a sickly smile.
“Ah! From a poem of your own, of course?”
“No. They come from Shakespeare,” moaned the author.
“Indeed?” said the Superior Man, who had known that the lines were a quotation perfectly well. “You surprise me. It’s a pity, of course, because they were distinctly good.”
I murmured that Shakespeare would be pleased if he knew, but he affected not to hear me, and resumed.
“There were one or two little flaws, I thought, in the book. For instance, your burglar leaves behind him in the house he has robbed a pair of boots with his name in, and a signed photograph. Now, would a burglar do that?”
As far as I could gather from the author’s reply, he had drawn the burglar’s character so skilfully from the first that no other action was possible to him. Everything had pointed throughout to the inevitable dénouement.
“Then, again,” continued the Superior Man, watching his writhing victim with a delighted eye, “your heroine. I think you rely too much on the chance that the reader will not get beyond the first chapter. With a little skipping it is quite possible to read the whole volume, and any one who does so cannot help noticing your heroine’s peculiarities. For instance, you introduce her in Chapter I. something in this style: ‘Passing through a girlhood of unclouded calm, Gwendolen Vane emerged into womanhood a sweet, simple floweret. Never had she known an unkind look; never, save when her father the earl trod one night on an inverted tack, had she heard a word spoken in anger.’ And yet when, in the middle of Chapter II., Jasper Shoppun, the villain, makes her a perfectly respectful and gentlemanly proposal of marriage, she calls him a minion of the Evil One, tells him his soul is black, hideous, and slippery, and requests him to go back to his master. Take another instance. You say she had never read anything except Dr. Watts’s Hymns and the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ Well, in Chapter III. the comic curate asks her a clerical riddle, and she counters with the very latest from the sporting papers. It isn’t consistent, you know.”
“When she reaches womanhood,” said the author, miserably, “her knowledge naturally expands. Every one knows more at twenty-one than at seventeen.”
“Then how do you explain her words to Lord Beauchamp Spylles in Chapter X.? ‘And you really love poor, stupid, little me?’ she says. ‘How strange and beautiful! I am simple, untaught, ignorant. You will weary of your rustic flower.’ That sounds like a relapse.”
“In a moment of pure and passionate”—— began the author.
The Superior Man interrupted.
“One moment. The chief grievance I have against her is her vulgarity. I don’t care for her style of wit. It may be brilliant and flashing and all that sort of thing; but ought the daughter of an earl to ask a clergyman, a comparative stranger, the difference between a man dressing for dinner and a shepherd looking for his flock, and tell him, when he gives it up, that the one braces his trousers and the other traces his browsers? Surely it would be almost unladylike. That is not the only instance, either. In Chapter VI. the villain renews his offer of marriage. ‘He knelt before her in the moonlight. His head, rendered bald by a life of vice, shone strangely through the dim murkiness of the gloaming. “If you refuse me, I shall die,” he said. “After a course of what hair restorer?” she answered, scornfully.’ Now, that was simply rude. Here is another passage. ‘ “Dearest,” said Lord Beauchamp, “why did I not speak before? Why did I doubt you? Oh, I was blind, blind!” “Yes, Beauchamp,” replies Gwendolen, archly, “you were indeed. And, like papa’s tenants after the annual dinner, you were not only blind, but absolutely speechless.” ’ No reader will stand that sort of thing, you know. Then I think you have made some errors in the ping-pong scene. For instance, surely this is wrong: ‘Reggie Trevor, the Oxford champion, got a straight flush in the second sett, and ran out by four holes to two.’ Then”——
The author rose, and drew from his breast-pocket a cheque-book.
“Enough!” he said. “I will write you a cheque to refund the four-and-sixpence you spent on the book.”
For the first time, I should imagine, in his life the Superior Man blushed.
“Oh,” he said, “the fact is—er—I, well, I didn’t exactly buy it; I—er—borrowed it.”
The author’s eye blazed with fury. For a moment he struggled with his feelings. Then he spoke.
“Borrowed it!” he shouted. “And you have the insolence to stand there criticizing my heroine when you have not even bought the book! Borrowed it! I believe you stole it. Yes, sir, stole it. I consider you, sir, a disgrace to humanity. Borrowed it! You colossal column of cool, calm, concentrated cheek! You slimy, snaky, and systematic serpent! Borrowed it! Hah! oh, hah! Borrowed it, and criticized it, too! You miserable mountain of Macchiavellian meanness! Pah! Waiter, bring me immediately as much carbolic acid as you can find. I have been talking to this thing here, and I wish to disinfect myself.”
A moment later he dashed out of the room. Shortly afterwards I followed him. I left the critic on the hearth where he stood. He seemed to be waiting for somebody to come and sweep him up.
Printed unsigned in Scraps; Wodehouse entered this item in Money Received for Literary Work.
Thanks to Tony Ring for providing a copy of this item.