On a beautiful fall day, a day of similar Indian summer to that which had seen their love declared the year before, Martin read his “Love-cycle” to Ruth. It was in the afternoon, and, as before, they had ridden out to their favorite knoll in the hills. Now and again she had interrupted his reading with exclamations of pleasure, and now, as he laid the last sheet of manuscript with its fellows, he waited her judgment.
She delayed to speak, and at last she spoke haltingly, hesitating to frame in words the harshness of her thought.
“I think they are beautiful, very beautiful,” she said; “but you can’t sell them, can you? You see what I mean,” she said, almost pleaded. “This writing of yours is not practical. Something is the matter—maybe it is with the market—that prevents you from earning a living by it. And please, dear, don’t misunderstand me. I am flattered, and made proud, and all that—I could not be a true woman were it otherwise—that you should write these poems to me. But they do not make our marriage possible. Don’t you see, Martin? Don’t think me mercenary. It is love, the thought of our future, with which I am burdened. A whole year has gone by since we learned we loved each other, and our wedding day is no nearer. Don’t think me immodest in thus talking about our wedding, for really I have my heart, all that I am, at stake. Why don’t you try to get work on a newspaper, if you are so bound up in your writing? Why not become a reporter?—for a while, at least?”
“It would spoil my style,” was his answer, in a low, monotonous voice. “You have no idea how I’ve worked for style.”
“But those storiettes,” she argued. “You called them hack-work. You wrote many of them. Didn’t they spoil your style?”
“No, the cases are different. The storiettes were ground out, jaded, at the end of a long day of application to style. But a reporter’s work is all hack from morning till night, is the one paramount thing of life. And it is a whirlwind life, the life of the moment, with neither past nor future, and certainly without thought of any style but reportorial style, and that certainly is not literature. To become a reporter now, just as my style is taking form, crystallizing, would be to commit literary suicide. As it is, every storiette, every word of every storiette, was a violation of myself, of my self-respect, of my respect for beauty. I tell you it was sickening. I was guilty of sin. And I was secretly glad when the markets failed, even if my clothes did go into pawn. But the joy of writing the ‘Love-cycle’! The creative joy in its noblest form! That was compensation for everything.”
Martin did not know that Ruth was unsympathetic concerning the creative joy. She used the phrase—it was on her lips he had first heard it. She had read about it, studied about it, in the university in the course of earning her Bachelorship of Arts; but she was not original, not creative, and all manifestations of culture on her part were but harpings of the harpings of others.
“May not the editor have been right in his revision of your ‘Sea Lyrics’?” she questioned. “Remember, an editor must have proved qualifications or else he would not be an editor.”
“That’s in line with the persistence of the established,” he rejoined, his heat against the editor-folk getting the better of him. “What is, is not only right, but is the best possible. The existence of anything is sufficient vindication of its fitness to exist—to exist, mark you, as the average person unconsciously believes, not merely in present conditions, but in all conditions. It is their ignorance, of course, that makes them believe such rot—their ignorance, which is nothing more nor less than the henidical mental process described by Weininger. They think they think, and such thinkless creatures are the arbiters of the lives of the few who really think.”
He paused, overcome by the consciousness that he had been talking over Ruth’s head.
“I’m sure I don’t know who this Weininger is,” she retorted. “And you are so dreadfully general that I fail to follow you. What I was speaking of was the qualification of editors—”
“And I’ll tell you,” he interrupted. “The chief qualification of ninety-nine per cent of all editors is failure. They have failed as writers. Don’t think they prefer the drudgery of the desk and the slavery to their circulation and to the business manager to the joy of writing. They have tried to write, and they have failed. And right there is the cursed paradox of it. Every portal to success in literature is guarded by those watch-dogs, the failures in literature. The editors, sub-editors, associate editors, most of them, and the manuscript-readers for the magazines and book-publishers, most of them, nearly all of them, are men who wanted to write and who have failed. And yet they, of all creatures under the sun the most unfit, are the very creatures who decide what shall and what shall not find its way into print—they, who have proved themselves not original, who have demonstrated that they lack the divine fire, sit in judgment upon originality and genius. And after them come the reviewers, just so many more failures. Don’t tell me that they have not dreamed the dream and attempted to write poetry or fiction; for they have, and they have failed. Why, the average review is more nauseating than cod-liver oil. But you know my opinion on the reviewers and the alleged critics. There are great critics, but they are as rare as comets. If I fail as a writer, I shall have proved for the career of editorship. There’s bread and butter and jam, at any rate.”
Ruth’s mind was quick, and her disapproval of her lover’s views was buttressed by the contradiction she found in his contention.
“But, Martin, if that be so, if all the doors are closed as you have shown so conclusively, how is it possible that any of the great writers ever arrived?”
“They arrived by achieving the impossible,” he answered. “They did such blazing, glorious work as to burn to ashes those that opposed them. They arrived by course of miracle, by winning a thousand-to-one wager against them. They arrived because they were Carlyle’s battle-scarred giants who will not be kept down. And that is what I must do; I must achieve the impossible.”
“But if you fail? You must consider me as well, Martin.”
“If I fail?” He regarded her for a moment as though the thought she had uttered was unthinkable. Then intelligence illumined his eyes. “If I fail, I shall become an editor, and you will be an editor’s wife.”
She frowned at his facetiousness—a pretty, adorable frown that made him put his arm around her and kiss it away.
“There, that’s enough,” she urged, by an effort of will withdrawing herself from the fascination of his strength. “I have talked with father and mother. I never before asserted myself so against them. I demanded to be heard. I was very undutiful. They are against you, you know; but I assured them over and over of my abiding love for you, and at last father agreed that if you wanted to, you could begin right away in his office. And then, of his own accord, he said he would pay you enough at the start so that we could get married and have a little cottage somewhere. Which I think was very fine of him—don’t you?”
Martin, with the dull pain of despair at his heart, mechanically reaching for the tobacco and paper (which he no longer carried) to roll a cigarette, muttered something inarticulate, and Ruth went on.
“Frankly, though, and don’t let it hurt you—I tell you, to show you precisely how you stand with him—he doesn’t like your radical views, and he thinks you are lazy. Of course I know you are not. I know you work hard.”
How hard, even she did not know, was the thought in Martin’s mind.
“Well, then,” he said, “how about my views? Do you think they are so radical?”
He held her eyes and waited the answer.
“I think them, well, very disconcerting,” she replied.
The question was answered for him, and so oppressed was he by the grayness of life that he forgot the tentative proposition she had made for him to go to work. And she, having gone as far as she dared, was willing to wait the answer till she should bring the question up again.
She had not long to wait. Martin had a question of his own to propound to her. He wanted to ascertain the measure of her faith in him, and within the week each was answered. Martin precipitated it by reading to her his “The Shame of the Sun.”
“Why don’t you become a reporter?” she asked when he had finished. “You love writing so, and I am sure you would succeed. You could rise in journalism and make a name for yourself. There are a number of great special correspondents. Their salaries are large, and their field is the world. They are sent everywhere, to the heart of Africa, like Stanley, or to interview the Pope, or to explore unknown Thibet.”
“Then you don’t like my essay?” he rejoined. “You believe that I have some show in journalism but none in literature?”
“No, no; I do like it. It reads well. But I am afraid it’s over the heads of your readers. At least it is over mine. It sounds beautiful, but I don’t understand it. Your scientific slang is beyond me. You are an extremist, you know, dear, and what may be intelligible to you may not be intelligible to the rest of us.”
“I imagine it’s the philosophic slang that bothers you,” was all he could say.
He was flaming from the fresh reading of the ripest thought he had expressed, and her verdict stunned him.
“No matter how poorly it is done,” he persisted, “don’t you see anything in it?—in the thought of it, I mean?”
She shook her head.
“No, it is so different from anything I have read. I read Maeterlinck and understand him—”
“His mysticism, you understand that?” Martin flashed out.
“Yes, but this of yours, which is supposed to be an attack upon him, I don’t understand. Of course, if originality counts—”
He stopped her with an impatient gesture that was not followed by speech. He became suddenly aware that she was speaking and that she had been speaking for some time.
“After all, your writing has been a toy to you,” she was saying. “Surely you have played with it long enough. It is time to take up life seriously—our life, Martin. Hitherto you have lived solely your own.”
“You want me to go to work?” he asked.
“Yes. Father has offered—”
“I understand all that,” he broke in; “but what I want to know is whether or not you have lost faith in me?”
She pressed his hand mutely, her eyes dim.
“In your writing, dear,” she admitted in a half-whisper.
“You’ve read lots of my stuff,” he went on brutally. “What do you think of it? Is it utterly hopeless? How does it compare with other men’s work?”
“But they sell theirs, and you—don’t.”
“That doesn’t answer my question. Do you think that literature is not at all my vocation?”
“Then I will answer.” She steeled herself to do it. “I don’t think you were made to write. Forgive me, dear. You compel me to say it; and you know I know more about literature than you do.”
“Yes, you are a Bachelor of Arts,” he said meditatively; “and you ought to know.”
“But there is more to be said,” he continued, after a pause painful to both. “I know what I have in me. No one knows that so well as I. I know I shall succeed. I will not be kept down. I am afire with what I have to say in verse, and fiction, and essay. I do not ask you to have faith in that, though. I do not ask you to have faith in me, nor in my writing. What I do ask of you is to love me and have faith in love.”
“A year ago I believed for two years. One of those years is yet to run. And I do believe, upon my honor and my soul, that before that year is run I shall have succeeded. You remember what you told me long ago, that I must serve my apprenticeship to writing. Well, I have served it. I have crammed it and telescoped it. With you at the end awaiting me, I have never shirked. Do you know, I have forgotten what it is to fall peacefully asleep. A few million years ago I knew what it was to sleep my fill and to awake naturally from very glut of sleep. I am awakened always now by an alarm clock. If I fall asleep early or late, I set the alarm accordingly; and this, and the putting out of the lamp, are my last conscious actions.”
“When I begin to feel drowsy, I change the heavy book I am reading for a lighter one. And when I doze over that, I beat my head with my knuckles in order to drive sleep away. Somewhere I read of a man who was afraid to sleep. Kipling wrote the story. This man arranged a spur so that when unconsciousness came, his naked body pressed against the iron teeth. Well, I’ve done the same. I look at the time, and I resolve that not until midnight, or not until one o’clock, or two o’clock, or three o’clock, shall the spur be removed. And so it rowels me awake until the appointed time. That spur has been my bed-mate for months. I have grown so desperate that five and a half hours of sleep is an extravagance. I sleep four hours now. I am starved for sleep. There are times when I am light-headed from want of sleep, times when death, with its rest and sleep, is a positive lure to me, times when I am haunted by Longfellow’s lines:
“‘The sea is still and deep;
All things within its bosom sleep;
A single step and all is o’er,
A plunge, a bubble, and no more.’
“Of course, this is sheer nonsense. It comes from nervousness, from an overwrought mind. But the point is: Why have I done this? For you. To shorten my apprenticeship. To compel Success to hasten. And my apprenticeship is now served. I know my equipment. I swear that I learn more each month than the average college man learns in a year. I know it, I tell you. But were my need for you to understand not so desperate I should not tell you. It is not boasting. I measure the results by the books. Your brothers, to-day, are ignorant barbarians compared with me and the knowledge I have wrung from the books in the hours they were sleeping. Long ago I wanted to be famous. I care very little for fame now. What I want is you; I am more hungry for you than for food, or clothing, or recognition. I have a dream of laying my head on your breast and sleeping an aeon or so, and the dream will come true ere another year is gone.”
His power beat against her, wave upon wave; and in the moment his will opposed hers most she felt herself most strongly drawn toward him. The strength that had always poured out from him to her was now flowering in his impassioned voice, his flashing eyes, and the vigor of life and intellect surging in him. And in that moment, and for the moment, she was aware of a rift that showed in her certitude—a rift through which she caught sight of the real Martin Eden, splendid and invincible; and as animal-trainers have their moments of doubt, so she, for the instant, seemed to doubt her power to tame this wild spirit of a man.
“And another thing,” he swept on. “You love me. But why do you love me? The thing in me that compels me to write is the very thing that draws your love. You love me because I am somehow different from the men you have known and might have loved. I was not made for the desk and counting-house, for petty business squabbling, and legal jangling. Make me do such things, make me like those other men, doing the work they do, breathing the air they breathe, developing the point of view they have developed, and you have destroyed the difference, destroyed me, destroyed the thing you love. My desire to write is the most vital thing in me. Had I been a mere clod, neither would I have desired to write, nor would you have desired me for a husband.”
“But you forget,” she interrupted, the quick surface of her mind glimpsing a parallel. “There have been eccentric inventors, starving their families while they sought such chimeras as perpetual motion. Doubtless their wives loved them, and suffered with them and for them, not because of but in spite of their infatuation for perpetual motion.”
“True,” was the reply. “But there have been inventors who were not eccentric and who starved while they sought to invent practical things; and sometimes, it is recorded, they succeeded. Certainly I do not seek any impossibilities—”
“You have called it ‘achieving the impossible,’” she interpolated.
“I spoke figuratively. I seek to do what men have done before me—to write and to live by my writing.”
Her silence spurred him on.
“To you, then, my goal is as much a chimera as perpetual motion?” he demanded.
He read her answer in the pressure of her hand on his—the pitying mother-hand for the hurt child. And to her, just then, he was the hurt child, the infatuated man striving to achieve the impossible.
Toward the close of their talk she warned him again of the antagonism of her father and mother.
“But you love me?” he asked.
“I do! I do!” she cried.
“And I love you, not them, and nothing they do can hurt me.” Triumph sounded in his voice. “For I have faith in your love, not fear of their enmity. All things may go astray in this world, but not love. Love cannot go wrong unless it be a weakling that faints and stumbles by the way.”
Martin had encountered his sister Gertrude by chance on Broadway—as it proved, a most propitious yet disconcerting chance. Waiting on the corner for a car, she had seen him first, and noted the eager, hungry lines of his face and the desperate, worried look of his eyes. In truth, he was desperate and worried. He had just come from a fruitless interview with the pawnbroker, from whom he had tried to wring an additional loan on his wheel. The muddy fall weather having come on, Martin had pledged his wheel some time since and retained his black suit.
“There’s the black suit,” the pawnbroker, who knew his every asset, had answered. “You needn’t tell me you’ve gone and pledged it with that Jew, Lipka. Because if you have—”
The man had looked the threat, and Martin hastened to cry:-
“No, no; I’ve got it. But I want to wear it on a matter of business.”
“All right,” the mollified usurer had replied. “And I want it on a matter of business before I can let you have any more money. You don’t think I’m in it for my health?”
“But it’s a forty-dollar wheel, in good condition,” Martin had argued. “And you’ve only let me have seven dollars on it. No, not even seven. Six and a quarter; you took the interest in advance.”
“If you want some more, bring the suit,” had been the reply that sent Martin out of the stuffy little den, so desperate at heart as to reflect it in his face and touch his sister to pity.
Scarcely had they met when the Telegraph Avenue car came along and stopped to take on a crowd of afternoon shoppers. Mrs. Higginbotham divined from the grip on her arm as he helped her on, that he was not going to follow her. She turned on the step and looked down upon him. His haggard face smote her to the heart again.
“Ain’t you comin’?” she asked
The next moment she had descended to his side.
“I’m walking—exercise, you know,” he explained.
“Then I’ll go along for a few blocks,” she announced. “Mebbe it’ll do me good. I ain’t ben feelin’ any too spry these last few days.”
Martin glanced at her and verified her statement in her general slovenly appearance, in the unhealthy fat, in the drooping shoulders, the tired face with the sagging lines, and in the heavy fall of her feet, without elasticity—a very caricature of the walk that belongs to a free and happy body.
“You’d better stop here,” he said, though she had already come to a halt at the first corner, “and take the next car.”
“My goodness!—if I ain’t all tired a’ready!” she panted. “But I’m just as able to walk as you in them soles. They’re that thin they’ll bu’st long before you git out to North Oakland.”
“I’ve a better pair at home,” was the answer.
“Come out to dinner to-morrow,” she invited irrelevantly. “Mr. Higginbotham won’t be there. He’s goin’ to San Leandro on business.”
Martin shook his head, but he had failed to keep back the wolfish, hungry look that leapt into his eyes at the suggestion of dinner.
“You haven’t a penny, Mart, and that’s why you’re walkin’. Exercise!” She tried to sniff contemptuously, but succeeded in producing only a sniffle. “Here, lemme see.”
And, fumbling in her satchel, she pressed a five-dollar piece into his hand. “I guess I forgot your last birthday, Mart,” she mumbled lamely.
Martin’s hand instinctively closed on the piece of gold. In the same instant he knew he ought not to accept, and found himself struggling in the throes of indecision. That bit of gold meant food, life, and light in his body and brain, power to go on writing, and—who was to say?—maybe to write something that would bring in many pieces of gold. Clear on his vision burned the manuscripts of two essays he had just completed. He saw them under the table on top of the heap of returned manuscripts for which he had no stamps, and he saw their titles, just as he had typed them—“The High Priests of Mystery,” and “The Cradle of Beauty.” He had never submitted them anywhere. They were as good as anything he had done in that line. If only he had stamps for them! Then the certitude of his ultimate success rose up in him, an able ally of hunger, and with a quick movement he slipped the coin into his pocket.
“I’ll pay you back, Gertrude, a hundred times over,” he gulped out, his throat painfully contracted and in his eyes a swift hint of moisture.
“Mark my words!” he cried with abrupt positiveness. “Before the year is out I’ll put an even hundred of those little yellow-boys into your hand. I don’t ask you to believe me. All you have to do is wait and see.”
Nor did she believe. Her incredulity made her uncomfortable, and failing of other expedient, she said:-
“I know you’re hungry, Mart. It’s sticking out all over you. Come in to meals any time. I’ll send one of the children to tell you when Mr. Higginbotham ain’t to be there. An’ Mart—”
He waited, though he knew in his secret heart what she was about to say, so visible was her thought process to him.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you got a job?”
“You don’t think I’ll win out?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Nobody has faith in me, Gertrude, except myself.” His voice was passionately rebellious. “I’ve done good work already, plenty of it, and sooner or later it will sell.”
“How do you know it is good?”
“Because—” He faltered as the whole vast field of literature and the history of literature stirred in his brain and pointed the futility of his attempting to convey to her the reasons for his faith. “Well, because it’s better than ninety-nine per cent of what is published in the magazines.”
“I wish’t you’d listen to reason,” she answered feebly, but with unwavering belief in the correctness of her diagnosis of what was ailing him. “I wish’t you’d listen to reason,” she repeated, “an’ come to dinner to-morrow.”
After Martin had helped her on the car, he hurried to the post-office and invested three of the five dollars in stamps; and when, later in the day, on the way to the Morse home, he stopped in at the post-office to weigh a large number of long, bulky envelopes, he affixed to them all the stamps save three of the two-cent denomination.
It proved a momentous night for Martin, for after dinner he met Russ Brissenden. How he chanced to come there, whose friend he was or what acquaintance brought him, Martin did not know. Nor had he the curiosity to inquire about him of Ruth. In short, Brissenden struck Martin as anaemic and feather-brained, and was promptly dismissed from his mind. An hour later he decided that Brissenden was a boor as well, what of the way he prowled about from one room to another, staring at the pictures or poking his nose into books and magazines he picked up from the table or drew from the shelves. Though a stranger in the house he finally isolated himself in the midst of the company, huddling into a capacious Morris chair and reading steadily from a thin volume he had drawn from his pocket. As he read, he abstractedly ran his fingers, with a caressing movement, through his hair. Martin noticed him no more that evening, except once when he observed him chaffing with great apparent success with several of the young women.
It chanced that when Martin was leaving, he overtook Brissenden already half down the walk to the street.
“Hello, is that you?” Martin said.
The other replied with an ungracious grunt, but swung alongside. Martin made no further attempt at conversation, and for several blocks unbroken silence lay upon them.
“Pompous old ass!”
The suddenness and the virulence of the exclamation startled Martin. He felt amused, and at the same time was aware of a growing dislike for the other.
“What do you go to such a place for?” was abruptly flung at him after another block of silence.
“Why do you?” Martin countered.
“Bless me, I don’t know,” came back. “At least this is my first indiscretion. There are twenty-four hours in each day, and I must spend them somehow. Come and have a drink.”
“All right,” Martin answered.
The next moment he was nonplussed by the readiness of his acceptance. At home was several hours’ hack-work waiting for him before he went to bed, and after he went to bed there was a volume of Weismann waiting for him, to say nothing of Herbert Spencer’s Autobiography, which was as replete for him with romance as any thrilling novel. Why should he waste any time with this man he did not like? was his thought. And yet, it was not so much the man nor the drink as was it what was associated with the drink—the bright lights, the mirrors and dazzling array of glasses, the warm and glowing faces and the resonant hum of the voices of men. That was it, it was the voices of men, optimistic men, men who breathed success and spent their money for drinks like men. He was lonely, that was what was the matter with him; that was why he had snapped at the invitation as a bonita strikes at a white rag on a hook. Not since with Joe, at Shelly Hot Springs, with the one exception of the wine he took with the Portuguese grocer, had Martin had a drink at a public bar. Mental exhaustion did not produce a craving for liquor such as physical exhaustion did, and he had felt no need for it. But just now he felt desire for the drink, or, rather, for the atmosphere wherein drinks were dispensed and disposed of. Such a place was the Grotto, where Brissenden and he lounged in capacious leather chairs and drank Scotch and soda.
They talked. They talked about many things, and now Brissenden and now Martin took turn in ordering Scotch and soda. Martin, who was extremely strong-headed, marvelled at the other’s capacity for liquor, and ever and anon broke off to marvel at the other’s conversation. He was not long in assuming that Brissenden knew everything, and in deciding that here was the second intellectual man he had met. But he noted that Brissenden had what Professor Caldwell lacked—namely, fire, the flashing insight and perception, the flaming uncontrol of genius. Living language flowed from him. His thin lips, like the dies of a machine, stamped out phrases that cut and stung; or again, pursing caressingly about the inchoate sound they articulated, the thin lips shaped soft and velvety things, mellow phrases of glow and glory, of haunting beauty, reverberant of the mystery and inscrutableness of life; and yet again the thin lips were like a bugle, from which rang the crash and tumult of cosmic strife, phrases that sounded clear as silver, that were luminous as starry spaces, that epitomized the final word of science and yet said something more—the poet’s word, the transcendental truth, elusive and without words which could express, and which none the less found expression in the subtle and all but ungraspable connotations of common words. He, by some wonder of vision, saw beyond the farthest outpost of empiricism, where was no language for narration, and yet, by some golden miracle of speech, investing known words with unknown significances, he conveyed to Martin’s consciousness messages that were incommunicable to ordinary souls.
Martin forgot his first impression of dislike. Here was the best the books had to offer coming true. Here was an intelligence, a living man for him to look up to. “I am down in the dirt at your feet,” Martin repeated to himself again and again.
“You’ve studied biology,” he said aloud, in significant allusion.
To his surprise Brissenden shook his head.
“But you are stating truths that are substantiated only by biology,” Martin insisted, and was rewarded by a blank stare. “Your conclusions are in line with the books which you must have read.”
“I am glad to hear it,” was the answer. “That my smattering of knowledge should enable me to short-cut my way to truth is most reassuring. As for myself, I never bother to find out if I am right or not. It is all valueless anyway. Man can never know the ultimate verities.”
“You are a disciple of Spencer!” Martin cried triumphantly.
“I haven’t read him since adolescence, and all I read then was his ‘Education.’”
“I wish I could gather knowledge as carelessly,” Martin broke out half an hour later. He had been closely analyzing Brissenden’s mental equipment. “You are a sheer dogmatist, and that’s what makes it so marvellous. You state dogmatically the latest facts which science has been able to establish only by à posteriori reasoning. You jump at correct conclusions. You certainly short-cut with a vengeance. You feel your way with the speed of light, by some hyperrational process, to truth.”
“Yes, that was what used to bother Father Joseph, and Brother Dutton,” Brissenden replied. “Oh, no,” he added; “I am not anything. It was a lucky trick of fate that sent me to a Catholic college for my education. Where did you pick up what you know?”
And while Martin told him, he was busy studying Brissenden, ranging from a long, lean, aristocratic face and drooping shoulders to the overcoat on a neighboring chair, its pockets sagged and bulged by the freightage of many books. Brissenden’s face and long, slender hands were browned by the sun—excessively browned, Martin thought. This sunburn bothered Martin. It was patent that Brissenden was no outdoor man. Then how had he been ravaged by the sun? Something morbid and significant attached to that sunburn, was Martin’s thought as he returned to a study of the face, narrow, with high cheek-bones and cavernous hollows, and graced with as delicate and fine an aquiline nose as Martin had ever seen. There was nothing remarkable about the size of the eyes. They were neither large nor small, while their color was a nondescript brown; but in them smouldered a fire, or, rather, lurked an expression dual and strangely contradictory. Defiant, indomitable, even harsh to excess, they at the same time aroused pity. Martin found himself pitying him he knew not why, though he was soon to learn.
“Oh, I’m a lunger,” Brissenden announced, offhand, a little later, having already stated that he came from Arizona. “I’ve been down there a couple of years living on the climate.”
“Aren’t you afraid to venture it up in this climate?”
There was no special emphasis of his repetition of Martin’s word. But Martin saw in that ascetic face the advertisement that there was nothing of which it was afraid. The eyes had narrowed till they were eagle-like, and Martin almost caught his breath as he noted the eagle beak with its dilated nostrils, defiant, assertive, aggressive. Magnificent, was what he commented to himself, his blood thrilling at the sight. Aloud, he quoted:-
“‘Under the bludgeoning of Chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.’”
“You like Henley,” Brissenden said, his expression changing swiftly to large graciousness and tenderness. “Of course, I couldn’t have expected anything else of you. Ah, Henley! A brave soul. He stands out among contemporary rhymesters—magazine rhymesters—as a gladiator stands out in the midst of a band of eunuchs.”
“You don’t like the magazines,” Martin softly impeached.
“Do you?” was snarled back at him so savagely as to startle him.
“I—I write, or, rather, try to write, for the magazines,” Martin faltered.
“That’s better,” was the mollified rejoinder. “You try to write, but you don’t succeed. I respect and admire your failure. I know what you write. I can see it with half an eye, and there’s one ingredient in it that shuts it out of the magazines. It’s guts, and magazines have no use for that particular commodity. What they want is wish-wash and slush, and God knows they get it, but not from you.”
“I’m not above hack-work,” Martin contended.
“On the contrary—” Brissenden paused and ran an insolent eye over Martin’s objective poverty, passing from the well-worn tie and the saw-edged collar to the shiny sleeves of the coat and on to the slight fray of one cuff, winding up and dwelling upon Martin’s sunken cheeks. “On the contrary, hack-work is above you, so far above you that you can never hope to rise to it. Why, man, I could insult you by asking you to have something to eat.”
Martin felt the heat in his face of the involuntary blood, and Brissenden laughed triumphantly.
“A full man is not insulted by such an invitation,” he concluded.
“You are a devil,” Martin cried irritably.
“Anyway, I didn’t ask you.”
“You didn’t dare.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I invite you now.”
Brissenden half rose from his chair as he spoke, as if with the intention of departing to the restaurant forthwith.
Martin’s fists were tight-clenched, and his blood was drumming in his temples.
“Bosco! He eats ’em alive! Eats ’em alive!” Brissenden exclaimed, imitating the spieler of a locally famous snake-eater.
“I could certainly eat you alive,” Martin said, in turn running insolent eyes over the other’s disease-ravaged frame.
“Only I’m not worthy of it?”
“On the contrary,” Martin considered, “because the incident is not worthy.” He broke into a laugh, hearty and wholesome. “I confess you made a fool of me, Brissenden. That I am hungry and you are aware of it are only ordinary phenomena, and there’s no disgrace. You see, I laugh at the conventional little moralities of the herd; then you drift by, say a sharp, true word, and immediately I am the slave of the same little moralities.”
“You were insulted,” Brissenden affirmed.
“I certainly was, a moment ago. The prejudice of early youth, you know. I learned such things then, and they cheapen what I have since learned. They are the skeletons in my particular closet.”
“But you’ve got the door shut on them now?”
“I certainly have.”
“Then let’s go and get something to eat.”
“I’ll go you,” Martin answered, attempting to pay for the current Scotch and soda with the last change from his two dollars and seeing the waiter bullied by Brissenden into putting that change back on the table.
Martin pocketed it with a grimace, and felt for a moment the kindly weight of Brissenden’s hand upon his shoulder.
Promptly, the next afternoon, Maria was excited by Martin’s second visitor. But she did not lose her head this time, for she seated Brissenden in her parlor’s grandeur of respectability.
“Hope you don’t mind my coming?” Brissenden began.
“No, no, not at all,” Martin answered, shaking hands and waving him to the solitary chair, himself taking to the bed. “But how did you know where I lived?”
“Called up the Morses. Miss Morse answered the ’phone. And here I am.” He tugged at his coat pocket and flung a thin volume on the table. “There’s a book, by a poet. Read it and keep it.” And then, in reply to Martin’s protest: “What have I to do with books? I had another hemorrhage this morning. Got any whiskey? No, of course not. Wait a minute.”
He was off and away. Martin watched his long figure go down the outside steps, and, on turning to close the gate, noted with a pang the shoulders, which had once been broad, drawn in now over, the collapsed ruin of the chest. Martin got two tumblers, and fell to reading the book of verse, Henry Vaughn Marlow’s latest collection.
“No Scotch,” Brissenden announced on his return. “The beggar sells nothing but American whiskey. But here’s a quart of it.”
“I’ll send one of the youngsters for lemons, and we’ll make a toddy,” Martin offered.
“I wonder what a book like that will earn Marlow?” he went on, holding up the volume in question.
“Possibly fifty dollars,” came the answer. “Though he’s lucky if he pulls even on it, or if he can inveigle a publisher to risk bringing it out.”
“Then one can’t make a living out of poetry?”
Martin’s tone and face alike showed his dejection.
“Certainly not. What fool expects to? Out of rhyming, yes. There’s Bruce, and Virginia Spring, and Sedgwick. They do very nicely. But poetry—do you know how Vaughn Marlow makes his living?—teaching in a boys’ cramming-joint down in Pennsylvania, and of all private little hells such a billet is the limit. I wouldn’t trade places with him if he had fifty years of life before him. And yet his work stands out from the ruck of the contemporary versifiers as a balas ruby among carrots. And the reviews he gets! Damn them, all of them, the crass manikins!”
“Too much is written by the men who can’t write about the men who do write,” Martin concurred. “Why, I was appalled at the quantities of rubbish written about Stevenson and his work.”
“Ghouls and harpies!” Brissenden snapped out with clicking teeth. “Yes, I know the spawn—complacently pecking at him for his Father Damien letter, analyzing him, weighing him—”
“Measuring him by the yardstick of their own miserable egos,” Martin broke in.
“Yes, that’s it, a good phrase,—mouthing and besliming the True, and Beautiful, and Good, and finally patting him on the back and saying, ‘Good dog, Fido.’ Faugh! ‘The little chattering daws of men,’ Richard Realf called them the night he died.”
“Pecking at star-dust,” Martin took up the strain warmly; “at the meteoric flight of the master-men. I once wrote a squib on them—the critics, or the reviewers, rather.”
“Let’s see it,” Brissenden begged eagerly.
So Martin unearthed a carbon copy of “Star-dust,” and during the reading of it Brissenden chuckled, rubbed his hands, and forgot to sip his toddy.
“Strikes me you’re a bit of star-dust yourself, flung into a world of cowled gnomes who cannot see,” was his comment at the end of it. “Of course it was snapped up by the first magazine?”
Martin ran over the pages of his manuscript book. “It has been refused by twenty-seven of them.”
Brissenden essayed a long and hearty laugh, but broke down in a fit of coughing.
“Say, you needn’t tell me you haven’t tackled poetry,” he gasped. “Let me see some of it.”
“Don’t read it now,” Martin pleaded. “I want to talk with you. I’ll make up a bundle and you can take it home.”
Brissenden departed with the “Love-cycle,” and “The Peri and the Pearl,” returning next day to greet Martin with:-
“I want more.”
Not only did he assure Martin that he was a poet, but Martin learned that Brissenden also was one. He was swept off his feet by the other’s work, and astounded that no attempt had been made to publish it.
“A plague on all their houses!” was Brissenden’s answer to Martin’s volunteering to market his work for him. “Love Beauty for its own sake,” was his counsel, “and leave the magazines alone. Back to your ships and your sea—that’s my advice to you, Martin Eden. What do you want in these sick and rotten cities of men? You are cutting your throat every day you waste in them trying to prostitute beauty to the needs of magazinedom. What was it you quoted me the other day?—Oh, yes, ‘Man, the latest of the ephemera.’ Well, what do you, the latest of the ephemera, want with fame? If you got it, it would be poison to you. You are too simple, too elemental, and too rational, by my faith, to prosper on such pap. I hope you never do sell a line to the magazines. Beauty is the only master to serve. Serve her and damn the multitude! Success! What in hell’s success if it isn’t right there in your Stevenson sonnet, which outranks Henley’s ‘Apparition,’ in that ‘Love-cycle,’ in those sea-poems?
“It is not in what you succeed in doing that you get your joy, but in the doing of it. You can’t tell me. I know it. You know it. Beauty hurts you. It is an everlasting pain in you, a wound that does not heal, a knife of flame. Why should you palter with magazines? Let beauty be your end. Why should you mint beauty into gold? Anyway, you can’t; so there’s no use in my getting excited over it. You can read the magazines for a thousand years and you won’t find the value of one line of Keats. Leave fame and coin alone, sign away on a ship to-morrow, and go back to your sea.”
“Not for fame, but for love,” Martin laughed. “Love seems to have no place in your Cosmos; in mine, Beauty is the handmaiden of Love.”
Brissenden looked at him pityingly and admiringly. “You are so young, Martin boy, so young. You will flutter high, but your wings are of the finest gauze, dusted with the fairest pigments. Do not scorch them. But of course you have scorched them already. It required some glorified petticoat to account for that ‘Love-cycle,’ and that’s the shame of it.”
“It glorifies love as well as the petticoat,” Martin laughed.
“The philosophy of madness,” was the retort. “So have I assured myself when wandering in hasheesh dreams. But beware. These bourgeois cities will kill you. Look at that den of traitors where I met you. Dry rot is no name for it. One can’t keep his sanity in such an atmosphere. It’s degrading. There’s not one of them who is not degrading, man and woman, all of them animated stomachs guided by the high intellectual and artistic impulses of clams—”
He broke off suddenly and regarded Martin. Then, with a flash of divination, he saw the situation. The expression on his face turned to wondering horror.
“And you wrote that tremendous ‘Love-cycle’ to her—that pale, shrivelled, female thing!”
The next instant Martin’s right hand had shot to a throttling clutch on his throat, and he was being shaken till his teeth rattled. But Martin, looking into his eyes, saw no fear there,—naught but a curious and mocking devil. Martin remembered himself, and flung Brissenden, by the neck, sidelong upon the bed, at the same moment releasing his hold.
Brissenden panted and gasped painfully for a moment, then began to chuckle.
“You had made me eternally your debtor had you shaken out the flame,” he said.
“My nerves are on a hair-trigger these days,” Martin apologized. “Hope I didn’t hurt you. Here, let me mix a fresh toddy.”
“Ah, you young Greek!” Brissenden went on. “I wonder if you take just pride in that body of yours. You are devilish strong. You are a young panther, a lion cub. Well, well, it is you who must pay for that strength.”
“What do you mean?” Martin asked curiously, passing aim a glass. “Here, down this and be good.”
“Because—” Brissenden sipped his toddy and smiled appreciation of it. “Because of the women. They will worry you until you die, as they have already worried you, or else I was born yesterday. Now there’s no use in your choking me; I’m going to have my say. This is undoubtedly your calf love; but for Beauty’s sake show better taste next time. What under heaven do you want with a daughter of the bourgeoisie? Leave them alone. Pick out some great, wanton flame of a woman, who laughs at life and jeers at death and loves one while she may. There are such women, and they will love you just as readily as any pusillanimous product of bourgeois sheltered life.”
“Pusillanimous?” Martin protested.
“Just so, pusillanimous; prattling out little moralities that have been prattled into them, and afraid to live life. They will love you, Martin, but they will love their little moralities more. What you want is the magnificent abandon of life, the great free souls, the blazing butterflies and not the little gray moths. Oh, you will grow tired of them, too, of all the female things, if you are unlucky enough to live. But you won’t live. You won’t go back to your ships and sea; therefore, you’ll hang around these pest-holes of cities until your bones are rotten, and then you’ll die.”
“You can lecture me, but you can’t make me talk back,” Martin said. “After all, you have but the wisdom of your temperament, and the wisdom of my temperament is just as unimpeachable as yours.”
They disagreed about love, and the magazines, and many things, but they liked each other, and on Martin’s part it was no less than a profound liking. Day after day they were together, if for no more than the hour Brissenden spent in Martin’s stuffy room. Brissenden never arrived without his quart of whiskey, and when they dined together down-town, he drank Scotch and soda throughout the meal. He invariably paid the way for both, and it was through him that Martin learned the refinements of food, drank his first champagne, and made acquaintance with Rhenish wines.
But Brissenden was always an enigma. With the face of an ascetic, he was, in all the failing blood of him, a frank voluptuary. He was unafraid to die, bitter and cynical of all the ways of living; and yet, dying, he loved life, to the last atom of it. He was possessed by a madness to live, to thrill, “to squirm my little space in the cosmic dust whence I came,” as he phrased it once himself. He had tampered with drugs and done many strange things in quest of new thrills, new sensations. As he told Martin, he had once gone three days without water, had done so voluntarily, in order to experience the exquisite delight of such a thirst assuaged. Who or what he was, Martin never learned. He was a man without a past, whose future was the imminent grave and whose present was a bitter fever of living.
Martin was steadily losing his battle. Economize as he would, the earnings from hack-work did not balance expenses. Thanksgiving found him with his black suit in pawn and unable to accept the Morses’ invitation to dinner. Ruth was not made happy by his reason for not coming, and the corresponding effect on him was one of desperation. He told her that he would come, after all; that he would go over to San Francisco, to the Transcontinental office, collect the five dollars due him, and with it redeem his suit of clothes.
In the morning he borrowed ten cents from Maria. He would have borrowed it, by preference, from Brissenden, but that erratic individual had disappeared. Two weeks had passed since Martin had seen him, and he vainly cudgelled his brains for some cause of offence. The ten cents carried Martin across the ferry to San Francisco, and as he walked up Market Street he speculated upon his predicament in case he failed to collect the money. There would then be no way for him to return to Oakland, and he knew no one in San Francisco from whom to borrow another ten cents.
The door to the Transcontinental office was ajar, and Martin, in the act of opening it, was brought to a sudden pause by a loud voice from within, which exclaimed:- “But that is not the question, Mr. Ford.” (Ford, Martin knew, from his correspondence, to be the editor’s name.) “The question is, are you prepared to pay?—cash, and cash down, I mean? I am not interested in the prospects of the Transcontinental and what you expect to make it next year. What I want is to be paid for what I do. And I tell you, right now, the Christmas Transcontinental don’t go to press till I have the money in my hand. Good day. When you get the money, come and see me.”
The door jerked open, and the man flung past Martin, with an angry countenance and went down the corridor, muttering curses and clenching his fists. Martin decided not to enter immediately, and lingered in the hallways for a quarter of an hour. Then he shoved the door open and walked in. It was a new experience, the first time he had been inside an editorial office. Cards evidently were not necessary in that office, for the boy carried word to an inner room that there was a man who wanted to see Mr. Ford. Returning, the boy beckoned him from halfway across the room and led him to the private office, the editorial sanctum. Martin’s first impression was of the disorder and cluttered confusion of the room. Next he noticed a bewhiskered, youthful-looking man, sitting at a roll-top desk, who regarded him curiously. Martin marvelled at the calm repose of his face. It was evident that the squabble with the printer had not affected his equanimity.
“I—I am Martin Eden,” Martin began the conversation. (“And I want my five dollars,” was what he would have liked to say.)
But this was his first editor, and under the circumstances he did not desire to scare him too abruptly. To his surprise, Mr. Ford leaped into the air with a “You don’t say so!” and the next moment, with both hands, was shaking Martin’s hand effusively.
“Can’t say how glad I am to see you, Mr. Eden. Often wondered what you were like.”
Here he held Martin off at arm’s length and ran his beaming eyes over Martin’s second-best suit, which was also his worst suit, and which was ragged and past repair, though the trousers showed the careful crease he had put in with Maria’s flat-irons.
“I confess, though, I conceived you to be a much older man than you are. Your story, you know, showed such breadth, and vigor, such maturity and depth of thought. A masterpiece, that story—I knew it when I had read the first half-dozen lines. Let me tell you how I first read it. But no; first let me introduce you to the staff.”
Still talking, Mr. Ford led him into the general office, where he introduced him to the associate editor, Mr. White, a slender, frail little man whose hand seemed strangely cold, as if he were suffering from a chill, and whose whiskers were sparse and silky.
“And Mr. Ends, Mr. Eden. Mr. Ends is our business manager, you know.”
Martin found himself shaking hands with a cranky-eyed, bald-headed man, whose face looked youthful enough from what little could be seen of it, for most of it was covered by a snow-white beard, carefully trimmed—by his wife, who did it on Sundays, at which times she also shaved the back of his neck.
The three men surrounded Martin, all talking admiringly and at once, until it seemed to him that they were talking against time for a wager.
“We often wondered why you didn’t call,” Mr. White was saying.
“I didn’t have the carfare, and I live across the Bay,” Martin answered bluntly, with the idea of showing them his imperative need for the money.
Surely, he thought to himself, my glad rags in themselves are eloquent advertisement of my need. Time and again, whenever opportunity offered, he hinted about the purpose of his business. But his admirers’ ears were deaf. They sang his praises, told him what they had thought of his story at first sight, what they subsequently thought, what their wives and families thought; but not one hint did they breathe of intention to pay him for it.
“Did I tell you how I first read your story?” Mr. Ford said. “Of course I didn’t. I was coming west from New York, and when the train stopped at Ogden, the train-boy on the new run brought aboard the current number of the Transcontinental.”
My God! Martin thought; you can travel in a Pullman while I starve for the paltry five dollars you owe me. A wave of anger rushed over him. The wrong done him by the Transcontinental loomed colossal, for strong upon him were all the dreary months of vain yearning, of hunger and privation, and his present hunger awoke and gnawed at him, reminding him that he had eaten nothing since the day before, and little enough then. For the moment he saw red. These creatures were not even robbers. They were sneak-thieves. By lies and broken promises they had tricked him out of his story. Well, he would show them. And a great resolve surged into his will to the effect that he would not leave the office until he got his money. He remembered, if he did not get it, that there was no way for him to go back to Oakland. He controlled himself with an effort, but not before the wolfish expression of his face had awed and perturbed them.
They became more voluble than ever. Mr. Ford started anew to tell how he had first read “The Ring of Bells,” and Mr. Ends at the same time was striving to repeat his niece’s appreciation of “The Ring of Bells,” said niece being a school-teacher in Alameda.
“I’ll tell you what I came for,” Martin said finally. “To be paid for that story all of you like so well. Five dollars, I believe, is what you promised me would be paid on publication.”
Mr. Ford, with an expression on his mobile features of mediate and happy acquiescence, started to reach for his pocket, then turned suddenly to Mr. Ends, and said that he had left his money home. That Mr. Ends resented this, was patent; and Martin saw the twitch of his arm as if to protect his trousers pocket. Martin knew that the money was there.
“I am sorry,” said Mr. Ends, “but I paid the printer not an hour ago, and he took my ready change. It was careless of me to be so short; but the bill was not yet due, and the printer’s request, as a favor, to make an immediate advance, was quite unexpected.”
Both men looked expectantly at Mr. White, but that gentleman laughed and shrugged his shoulders. His conscience was clean at any rate. He had come into the Transcontinental to learn magazine-literature, instead of which he had principally learned finance. The Transcontinental owed him four months’ salary, and he knew that the printer must be appeased before the associate editor.
“It’s rather absurd, Mr. Eden, to have caught us in this shape,” Mr. Ford preambled airily. “All carelessness, I assure you. But I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll mail you a check the first thing in the morning. You have Mr. Eden’s address, haven’t you, Mr. Ends?”
Yes, Mr. Ends had the address, and the check would be mailed the first thing in the morning. Martin’s knowledge of banks and checks was hazy, but he could see no reason why they should not give him the check on this day just as well as on the next.
“Then it is understood, Mr. Eden, that we’ll mail you the check to-morrow?” Mr. Ford said.
“I need the money to-day,” Martin answered stolidly.
“The unfortunate circumstances—if you had chanced here any other day,” Mr. Ford began suavely, only to be interrupted by Mr. Ends, whose cranky eyes justified themselves in his shortness of temper.
“Mr. Ford has already explained the situation,” he said with asperity. “And so have I. The check will be mailed—”
“I also have explained,” Martin broke in, “and I have explained that I want the money to-day.”
He had felt his pulse quicken a trifle at the business manager’s brusqueness, and upon him he kept an alert eye, for it was in that gentleman’s trousers pocket that he divined the Transcontinental’s ready cash was reposing.
“It is too bad—” Mr. Ford began.
But at that moment, with an impatient movement, Mr. Ends turned as if about to leave the room. At the same instant Martin sprang for him, clutching him by the throat with one hand in such fashion that Mr. Ends’ snow-white beard, still maintaining its immaculate trimness, pointed ceilingward at an angle of forty-five degrees. To the horror of Mr. White and Mr. Ford, they saw their business manager shaken like an Astrakhan rug.
“Dig up, you venerable discourager of rising young talent!” Martin exhorted. “Dig up, or I’ll shake it out of you, even if it’s all in nickels.” Then, to the two affrighted onlookers: “Keep away! If you interfere, somebody’s liable to get hurt.”
Mr. Ends was choking, and it was not until the grip on his throat was eased that he was able to signify his acquiescence in the digging-up programme. All together, after repeated digs, its trousers pocket yielded four dollars and fifteen cents.
“Inside out with it,” Martin commanded.
An additional ten cents fell out. Martin counted the result of his raid a second time to make sure.
“You next!” he shouted at Mr. Ford. “I want seventy-five cents more.”
Mr. Ford did not wait, but ransacked his pockets, with the result of sixty cents.
“Sure that is all?” Martin demanded menacingly, possessing himself of it. “What have you got in your vest pockets?”
In token of his good faith, Mr. Ford turned two of his pockets inside out. A strip of cardboard fell to the floor from one of them. He recovered it and was in the act of returning it, when Martin cried:-
“What’s that?—A ferry ticket? Here, give it to me. It’s worth ten cents. I’ll credit you with it. I’ve now got four dollars and ninety-five cents, including the ticket. Five cents is still due me.”
He looked fiercely at Mr. White, and found that fragile creature in the act of handing him a nickel.
“Thank you,” Martin said, addressing them collectively. “I wish you a good day.”
“Robber!” Mr. Ends snarled after him.
“Sneak-thief!” Martin retorted, slamming the door as he passed out.
Martin was elated—so elated that when he recollected that The Hornet owed him fifteen dollars for “The Peri and the Pearl,” he decided forthwith to go and collect it. But The Hornet was run by a set of clean-shaven, strapping young men, frank buccaneers who robbed everything and everybody, not excepting one another. After some breakage of the office furniture, the editor (an ex-college athlete), ably assisted by the business manager, an advertising agent, and the porter, succeeded in removing Martin from the office and in accelerating, by initial impulse, his descent of the first flight of stairs.
“Come again, Mr. Eden; glad to see you any time,” they laughed down at him from the landing above.
Martin grinned as he picked himself up.
“Phew!” he murmured back. “The Transcontinental crowd were nanny-goats, but you fellows are a lot of prize-fighters.”
More laughter greeted this.
“I must say, Mr. Eden,” the editor of The Hornet called down, “that for a poet you can go some yourself. Where did you learn that right cross—if I may ask?”
“Where you learned that half-Nelson,” Martin answered. “Anyway, you’re going to have a black eye.”
“I hope your neck doesn’t stiffen up,” the editor wished solicitously: “What do you say we all go out and have a drink on it—not the neck, of course, but the little rough-house?”
“I’ll go you if I lose,” Martin accepted.
And robbers and robbed drank together, amicably agreeing that the battle was to the strong, and that the fifteen dollars for “The Peri and the Pearl” belonged by right to The Hornet’s editorial staff.
Arthur remained at the gate while Ruth climbed Maria’s front steps. She heard the rapid click of the type-writer, and when Martin let her in, found him on the last page of a manuscript. She had come to make certain whether or not he would be at their table for Thanksgiving dinner; but before she could broach the subject Martin plunged into the one with which he was full.
“Here, let me read you this,” he cried, separating the carbon copies and running the pages of manuscript into shape. “It’s my latest, and different from anything I’ve done. It is so altogether different that I am almost afraid of it, and yet I’ve a sneaking idea it is good. You be judge. It’s an Hawaiian story. I’ve called it ‘Wiki-wiki.’”
His face was bright with the creative glow, though she shivered in the cold room and had been struck by the coldness of his hands at greeting. She listened closely while he read, and though he from time to time had seen only disapprobation in her face, at the close he asked:-
“Frankly, what do you think of it?”
“I—I don’t know,” she, answered. “Will it—do you think it will sell?”
“I’m afraid not,” was the confession. “It’s too strong for the magazines. But it’s true, on my word it’s true.”
“But why do you persist in writing such things when you know they won’t sell?” she went on inexorably. “The reason for your writing is to make a living, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s right; but the miserable story got away with me. I couldn’t help writing it. It demanded to be written.”
“But that character, that Wiki-Wiki, why do you make him talk so roughly? Surely it will offend your readers, and surely that is why the editors are justified in refusing your work.”
“Because the real Wiki-Wiki would have talked that way.”
“But it is not good taste.”
“It is life,” he replied bluntly. “It is real. It is true. And I must write life as I see it.”
She made no answer, and for an awkward moment they sat silent. It was because he loved her that he did not quite understand her, and she could not understand him because he was so large that he bulked beyond her horizon.
“Well, I’ve collected from the Transcontinental,” he said in an effort to shift the conversation to a more comfortable subject. The picture of the bewhiskered trio, as he had last seen them, mulcted of four dollars and ninety cents and a ferry ticket, made him chuckle.
“Then you’ll come!” she cried joyously. “That was what I came to find out.”
“Come?” he muttered absently. “Where?”
“Why, to dinner to-morrow. You know you said you’d recover your suit if you got that money.”
“I forgot all about it,” he said humbly. “You see, this morning the poundman got Maria’s two cows and the baby calf, and—well, it happened that Maria didn’t have any money, and so I had to recover her cows for her. That’s where the Transcontinental fiver went—‘The Ring of Bells’ went into the poundman’s pocket.”
“Then you won’t come?”
He looked down at his clothing.
Tears of disappointment and reproach glistened in her blue eyes, but she said nothing.
“Next Thanksgiving you’ll have dinner with me in Delmonico’s,” he said cheerily; “or in London, or Paris, or anywhere you wish. I know it.”
“I saw in the paper a few days ago,” she announced abruptly, “that there had been several local appointments to the Railway Mail. You passed first, didn’t you?”
He was compelled to admit that the call had come for him, but that he had declined it. “I was so sure—I am so sure—of myself,” he concluded. “A year from now I’ll be earning more than a dozen men in the Railway Mail. You wait and see.”
“Oh,” was all she said, when he finished. She stood up, pulling at her gloves. “I must go, Martin. Arthur is waiting for me.”
He took her in his arms and kissed her, but she proved a passive sweetheart. There was no tenseness in her body, her arms did not go around him, and her lips met his without their wonted pressure.
She was angry with him, he concluded, as he returned from the gate. But why? It was unfortunate that the poundman had gobbled Maria’s cows. But it was only a stroke of fate. Nobody could be blamed for it. Nor did it enter his head that he could have done aught otherwise than what he had done. Well, yes, he was to blame a little, was his next thought, for having refused the call to the Railway Mail. And she had not liked “Wiki-Wiki.”
He turned at the head of the steps to meet the letter-carrier on his afternoon round. The ever recurrent fever of expectancy assailed Martin as he took the bundle of long envelopes. One was not long. It was short and thin, and outside was printed the address of The New York Outview. He paused in the act of tearing the envelope open. It could not be an acceptance. He had no manuscripts with that publication. Perhaps—his heart almost stood still at the—wild thought—perhaps they were ordering an article from him; but the next instant he dismissed the surmise as hopelessly impossible.
It was a short, formal letter, signed by the office editor, merely informing him that an anonymous letter which they had received was enclosed, and that he could rest assured the Outview’s staff never under any circumstances gave consideration to anonymous correspondence.
The enclosed letter Martin found to be crudely printed by hand. It was a hotchpotch of illiterate abuse of Martin, and of assertion that the “so-called Martin Eden” who was selling stories to magazines was no writer at all, and that in reality he was stealing stories from old magazines, typing them, and sending them out as his own. The envelope was postmarked “San Leandro.” Martin did not require a second thought to discover the author. Higginbotham’s grammar, Higginbotham’s colloquialisms, Higginbotham’s mental quirks and processes, were apparent throughout. Martin saw in every line, not the fine Italian hand, but the coarse grocer’s fist, of his brother-in-law.
But why? he vainly questioned. What injury had he done Bernard Higginbotham? The thing was so unreasonable, so wanton. There was no explaining it. In the course of the week a dozen similar letters were forwarded to Martin by the editors of various Eastern magazines. The editors were behaving handsomely, Martin concluded. He was wholly unknown to them, yet some of them had even been sympathetic. It was evident that they detested anonymity. He saw that the malicious attempt to hurt him had failed. In fact, if anything came of it, it was bound to be good, for at least his name had been called to the attention of a number of editors. Sometime, perhaps, reading a submitted manuscript of his, they might remember him as the fellow about whom they had received an anonymous letter. And who was to say that such a remembrance might not sway the balance of their judgment just a trifle in his favor?
It was about this time that Martin took a great slump in Maria’s estimation. He found her in the kitchen one morning groaning with pain, tears of weakness running down her cheeks, vainly endeavoring to put through a large ironing. He promptly diagnosed her affliction as La Grippe, dosed her with hot whiskey (the remnants in the bottles for which Brissenden was responsible), and ordered her to bed. But Maria was refractory. The ironing had to be done, she protested, and delivered that night, or else there would be no food on the morrow for the seven small and hungry Silvas.
To her astonishment (and it was something that she never ceased from relating to her dying day), she saw Martin Eden seize an iron from the stove and throw a fancy shirt-waist on the ironing-board. It was Kate Flanagan’s best Sunday waist, than whom there was no more exacting and fastidiously dressed woman in Maria’s world. Also, Miss Flanagan had sent special instruction that said waist must be delivered by that night. As every one knew, she was keeping company with John Collins, the blacksmith, and, as Maria knew privily, Miss Flanagan and Mr. Collins were going next day to Golden Gate Park. Vain was Maria’s attempt to rescue the garment. Martin guided her tottering footsteps to a chair, from where she watched him with bulging eyes. In a quarter of the time it would have taken her she saw the shirt-waist safely ironed, and ironed as well as she could have done it, as Martin made her grant.
“I could work faster,” he explained, “if your irons were only hotter.”
To her, the irons he swung were much hotter than she ever dared to use.
“Your sprinkling is all wrong,” he complained next. “Here, let me teach you how to sprinkle. Pressure is what’s wanted. Sprinkle under pressure if you want to iron fast.”
He procured a packing-case from the woodpile in the cellar, fitted a cover to it, and raided the scrap-iron the Silva tribe was collecting for the junkman. With fresh-sprinkled garments in the box, covered with the board and pressed by the iron, the device was complete and in operation.
“Now you watch me, Maria,” he said, stripping off to his undershirt and gripping an iron that was what he called “really hot.”
“An’ when he feenish da iron’ he washa da wools,” as she described it afterward. “He say, ‘Maria, you are da greata fool. I showa you how to washa da wools,’ an’ he shows me, too. Ten minutes he maka da machine—one barrel, one wheel-hub, two poles, justa like dat.”
Martin had learned the contrivance from Joe at the Shelly Hot Springs. The old wheel-hub, fixed on the end of the upright pole, constituted the plunger. Making this, in turn, fast to the spring-pole attached to the kitchen rafters, so that the hub played upon the woollens in the barrel, he was able, with one hand, thoroughly to pound them.
“No more Maria washa da wools,” her story always ended. “I maka da kids worka da pole an’ da hub an’ da barrel. Him da smarta man, Mister Eden.”
Nevertheless, by his masterly operation and improvement of her kitchen-laundry he fell an immense distance in her regard. The glamour of romance with which her imagination had invested him faded away in the cold light of fact that he was an ex-laundryman. All his books, and his grand friends who visited him in carriages or with countless bottles of whiskey, went for naught. He was, after all, a mere workingman, a member of her own class and caste. He was more human and approachable, but, he was no longer mystery.
Martin’s alienation from his family continued. Following upon Mr. Higginbotham’s unprovoked attack, Mr. Hermann von Schmidt showed his hand. The fortunate sale of several storiettes, some humorous verse, and a few jokes gave Martin a temporary splurge of prosperity. Not only did he partially pay up his bills, but he had sufficient balance left to redeem his black suit and wheel. The latter, by virtue of a twisted crank-hanger, required repairing, and, as a matter of friendliness with his future brother-in-law, he sent it to Von Schmidt’s shop.
The afternoon of the same day Martin was pleased by the wheel being delivered by a small boy. Von Schmidt was also inclined to be friendly, was Martin’s conclusion from this unusual favor. Repaired wheels usually had to be called for. But when he examined the wheel, he discovered no repairs had been made. A little later in the day he telephoned his sister’s betrothed, and learned that that person didn’t want anything to do with him in “any shape, manner, or form.”
“Hermann von Schmidt,” Martin answered cheerfully, “I’ve a good mind to come over and punch that Dutch nose of yours.”
“You come to my shop,” came the reply, “an’ I’ll send for the police. An’ I’ll put you through, too. Oh, I know you, but you can’t make no rough-house with me. I don’t want nothin’ to do with the likes of you. You’re a loafer, that’s what, an’ I ain’t asleep. You ain’t goin’ to do no spongin’ off me just because I’m marryin’ your sister. Why don’t you go to work an’ earn an honest livin’, eh? Answer me that.”
Martin’s philosophy asserted itself, dissipating his anger, and he hung up the receiver with a long whistle of incredulous amusement. But after the amusement came the reaction, and he was oppressed by his loneliness. Nobody understood him, nobody seemed to have any use for him, except Brissenden, and Brissenden had disappeared, God alone knew where.
Twilight was falling as Martin left the fruit store and turned homeward, his marketing on his arm. At the corner an electric car had stopped, and at sight of a lean, familiar figure alighting, his heart leapt with joy. It was Brissenden, and in the fleeting glimpse, ere the car started up, Martin noted the overcoat pockets, one bulging with books, the other bulging with a quart bottle of whiskey.
Brissenden gave no explanation of his long absence, nor did Martin pry into it. He was content to see his friend’s cadaverous face opposite him through the steam rising from a tumbler of toddy.
“I, too, have not been idle,” Brissenden proclaimed, after hearing Martin’s account of the work he had accomplished.
He pulled a manuscript from his inside coat pocket and passed it to Martin, who looked at the title and glanced up curiously.
“Yes, that’s it,” Brissenden laughed. “Pretty good title, eh? ‘Ephemera’—it is the one word. And you’re responsible for it, what of your man, who is always the erected, the vitalized inorganic, the latest of the ephemera, the creature of temperature strutting his little space on the thermometer. It got into my head and I had to write it to get rid of it. Tell me what you think of it.”
Martin’s face, flushed at first, paled as he read on. It was perfect art. Form triumphed over substance, if triumph it could be called where the last conceivable atom of substance had found expression in so perfect construction as to make Martin’s head swim with delight, to put passionate tears into his eyes, and to send chills creeping up and down his back. It was a long poem of six or seven hundred lines, and it was a fantastic, amazing, unearthly thing. It was terrific, impossible; and yet there it was, scrawled in black ink across the sheets of paper. It dealt with man and his soul-gropings in their ultimate terms, plumbing the abysses of space for the testimony of remotest suns and rainbow spectrums. It was a mad orgy of imagination, wassailing in the skull of a dying man who half sobbed under his breath and was quick with the wild flutter of fading heart-beats. The poem swung in majestic rhythm to the cool tumult of interstellar conflict, to the onset of starry hosts, to the impact of cold suns and the flaming up of nebular in the darkened void; and through it all, unceasing and faint, like a silver shuttle, ran the frail, piping voice of man, a querulous chirp amid the screaming of planets and the crash of systems.
“There is nothing like it in literature,” Martin said, when at last he was able to speak. “It’s wonderful!—wonderful! It has gone to my head. I am drunken with it. That great, infinitesimal question—I can’t shake it out of my thoughts. That questing, eternal, ever recurring, thin little wailing voice of man is still ringing in my ears. It is like the dead-march of a gnat amid the trumpeting of elephants and the roaring of lions. It is insatiable with microscopic desire. I now I’m making a fool of myself, but the thing has obsessed me. You are—I don’t know what you are—you are wonderful, that’s all. But how do you do it? How do you do it?”
Martin paused from his rhapsody, only to break out afresh.
“I shall never write again. I am a dauber in clay. You have shown me the work of the real artificer-artisan. Genius! This is something more than genius. It transcends genius. It is truth gone mad. It is true, man, every line of it. I wonder if you realize that, you dogmatist. Science cannot give you the lie. It is the truth of the sneer, stamped out from the black iron of the Cosmos and interwoven with mighty rhythms of sound into a fabric of splendor and beauty. And now I won’t say another word. I am overwhelmed, crushed. Yes, I will, too. Let me market it for you.”
Brissenden grinned. “There’s not a magazine in Christendom that would dare to publish it—you know that.”
“I know nothing of the sort. I know there’s not a magazine in Christendom that wouldn’t jump at it. They don’t get things like that every day. That’s no mere poem of the year. It’s the poem of the century.”
“I’d like to take you up on the proposition.”
“Now don’t get cynical,” Martin exhorted. “The magazine editors are not wholly fatuous. I know that. And I’ll close with you on the bet. I’ll wager anything you want that ‘Ephemera’ is accepted either on the first or second offering.”
“There’s just one thing that prevents me from taking you.” Brissenden waited a moment. “The thing is big—the biggest I’ve ever done. I know that. It’s my swan song. I am almighty proud of it. I worship it. It’s better than whiskey. It is what I dreamed of—the great and perfect thing—when I was a simple young man, with sweet illusions and clean ideals. And I’ve got it, now, in my last grasp, and I’ll not have it pawed over and soiled by a lot of swine. No, I won’t take the bet. It’s mine. I made it, and I’ve shared it with you.”
“But think of the rest of the world,” Martin protested. “The function of beauty is joy-making.”
“It’s my beauty.”
“Don’t be selfish.”
“I’m not selfish.” Brissenden grinned soberly in the way he had when pleased by the thing his thin lips were about to shape. “I’m as unselfish as a famished hog.”
In vain Martin strove to shake him from his decision. Martin told him that his hatred of the magazines was rabid, fanatical, and that his conduct was a thousand times more despicable than that of the youth who burned the temple of Diana at Ephesus. Under the storm of denunciation Brissenden complacently sipped his toddy and affirmed that everything the other said was quite true, with the exception of the magazine editors. His hatred of them knew no bounds, and he excelled Martin in denunciation when he turned upon them.
“I wish you’d type it for me,” he said. “You know how a thousand times better than any stenographer. And now I want to give you some advice.” He drew a bulky manuscript from his outside coat pocket. “Here’s your ‘Shame of the Sun.’ I’ve read it not once, but twice and three times—the highest compliment I can pay you. After what you’ve said about ‘Ephemera’ I must be silent. But this I will say: when ‘The Shame of the Sun’ is published, it will make a hit. It will start a controversy that will be worth thousands to you just in advertising.”
Martin laughed. “I suppose your next advice will be to submit it to the magazines.”
“By all means no—that is, if you want to see it in print. Offer it to the first-class houses. Some publisher’s reader may be mad enough or drunk enough to report favorably on it. You’ve read the books. The meat of them has been transmuted in the alembic of Martin Eden’s mind and poured into ‘The Shame of the Sun,’ and one day Martin Eden will be famous, and not the least of his fame will rest upon that work. So you must get a publisher for it—the sooner the better.”
Brissenden went home late that night; and just as he mounted the first step of the car, he swung suddenly back on Martin and thrust into his hand a small, tightly crumpled wad of paper.
“Here, take this,” he said. “I was out to the races to-day, and I had the right dope.”
The bell clanged and the car pulled out, leaving Martin wondering as to the nature of the crinkly, greasy wad he clutched in his hand. Back in his room he unrolled it and found a hundred-dollar bill.
He did not scruple to use it. He knew his friend had always plenty of money, and he knew also, with profound certitude, that his success would enable him to repay it. In the morning he paid every bill, gave Maria three months’ advance on the room, and redeemed every pledge at the pawnshop. Next he bought Marian’s wedding present, and simpler presents, suitable to Christmas, for Ruth and Gertrude. And finally, on the balance remaining to him, he herded the whole Silva tribe down into Oakland. He was a winter late in redeeming his promise, but redeemed it was, for the last, least Silva got a pair of shoes, as well as Maria herself. Also, there were horns, and dolls, and toys of various sorts, and parcels and bundles of candies and nuts that filled the arms of all the Silvas to overflowing.
It was with this extraordinary procession trooping at his and Maria’s heels into a confectioner’s in quest if the biggest candy-cane ever made, that he encountered Ruth and her mother. Mrs. Morse was shocked. Even Ruth was hurt, for she had some regard for appearances, and her lover, cheek by jowl with Maria, at the head of that army of Portuguese ragamuffins, was not a pretty sight. But it was not that which hurt so much as what she took to be his lack of pride and self-respect. Further, and keenest of all, she read into the incident the impossibility of his living down his working-class origin. There was stigma enough in the fact of it, but shamelessly to flaunt it in the face of the world—her world—was going too far. Though her engagement to Martin had been kept secret, their long intimacy had not been unproductive of gossip; and in the shop, glancing covertly at her lover and his following, had been several of her acquaintances. She lacked the easy largeness of Martin and could not rise superior to her environment. She had been hurt to the quick, and her sensitive nature was quivering with the shame of it. So it was, when Martin arrived later in the day, that he kept her present in his breast-pocket, deferring the giving of it to a more propitious occasion. Ruth in tears—passionate, angry tears—was a revelation to him. The spectacle of her suffering convinced him that he had been a brute, yet in the soul of him he could not see how nor why. It never entered his head to be ashamed of those he knew, and to take the Silvas out to a Christmas treat could in no way, so it seemed to him, show lack of consideration for Ruth. On the other hand, he did see Ruth’s point of view, after she had explained it; and he looked upon it as a feminine weakness, such as afflicted all women and the best of women.
“Come on,—I’ll show you the real dirt,” Brissenden said to him, one evening in January.
They had dined together in San Francisco, and were at the Ferry Building, returning to Oakland, when the whim came to him to show Martin the “real dirt.” He turned and fled across the water-front, a meagre shadow in a flapping overcoat, with Martin straining to keep up with him. At a wholesale liquor store he bought two gallon-demijohns of old port, and with one in each hand boarded a Mission Street car, Martin at his heels burdened with several quart-bottles of whiskey.
If Ruth could see me now, was his thought, while he wondered as to what constituted the real dirt.
“Maybe nobody will be there,” Brissenden said, when they dismounted and plunged off to the right into the heart of the working-class ghetto, south of Market Street. “In which case you’ll miss what you’ve been looking for so long.”
“And what the deuce is that?” Martin asked.
“Men, intelligent men, and not the gibbering nonentities I found you consorting with in that trader’s den. You read the books and you found yourself all alone. Well, I’m going to show you to-night some other men who’ve read the books, so that you won’t be lonely any more.”
“Not that I bother my head about their everlasting discussions,” he said at the end of a block. “I’m not interested in book philosophy. But you’ll find these fellows intelligences and not bourgeois swine. But watch out, they’ll talk an arm off of you on any subject under the sun.”
“Hope Norton’s there,” he panted a little later, resisting Martin’s effort to relieve him of the two demijohns. “Norton’s an idealist—a Harvard man. Prodigious memory. Idealism led him to philosophic anarchy, and his family threw him off. Father’s a railroad president and many times millionnaire, but the son’s starving in ’Frisco, editing an anarchist sheet for twenty-five a month.”
Martin was little acquainted in San Francisco, and not at all south of Market; so he had no idea of where he was being led.
“Go ahead,” he said; “tell me about them beforehand. What do they do for a living? How do they happen to be here?”
“Hope Hamilton’s there.” Brissenden paused and rested his hands. “Strawn-Hamilton’s his name—hyphenated, you know—comes of old Southern stock. He’s a tramp—laziest man I ever knew, though he’s clerking, or trying to, in a socialist coöperative store for six dollars a week. But he’s a confirmed hobo. Tramped into town. I’ve seen him sit all day on a bench and never a bite pass his lips, and in the evening, when I invited him to dinner—restaurant two blocks away—have him say, ‘Too much trouble, old man. Buy me a package of cigarettes instead.’ He was a Spencerian like you till Kreis turned him to materialistic monism. I’ll start him on monism if I can. Norton’s another monist—only he affirms naught but spirit. He can give Kreis and Hamilton all they want, too.”
“Who is Kreis?” Martin asked.
“His rooms we’re going to. One time professor—fired from university—usual story. A mind like a steel trap. Makes his living any old way. I know he’s been a street fakir when he was down. Unscrupulous. Rob a corpse of a shroud—anything. Difference between him—and the bourgeoisie is that he robs without illusion. He’ll talk Nietzsche, or Schopenhauer, or Kant, or anything, but the only thing in this world, not excepting Mary, that he really cares for, is his monism. Haeckel is his little tin god. The only way to insult him is to take a slap at Haeckel.”
“Here’s the hang-out.” Brissenden rested his demijohn at the upstairs entrance, preliminary to the climb. It was the usual two-story corner building, with a saloon and grocery underneath. “The gang lives here—got the whole upstairs to themselves. But Kreis is the only one who has two rooms. Come on.”
No lights burned in the upper hall, but Brissenden threaded the utter blackness like a familiar ghost. He stopped to speak to Martin.
“There’s one fellow—Stevens—a theosophist. Makes a pretty tangle when he gets going. Just now he’s dish-washer in a restaurant. Likes a good cigar. I’ve seen him eat in a ten-cent hash-house and pay fifty cents for the cigar he smoked afterward. I’ve got a couple in my pocket for him, if he shows up.”
“And there’s another fellow—Parry—an Australian, a statistician and a sporting encyclopaedia. Ask him the grain output of Paraguay for 1903, or the English importation of sheetings into China for 1890, or at what weight Jimmy Britt fought Battling Nelson, or who was welter-weight champion of the United States in ’68, and you’ll get the correct answer with the automatic celerity of a slot-machine. And there’s Andy, a stone-mason, has ideas on everything, a good chess-player; and another fellow, Harry, a baker, red hot socialist and strong union man. By the way, you remember Cooks’ and Waiters’ strike—Hamilton was the chap who organized that union and precipitated the strike—planned it all out in advance, right here in Kreis’s rooms. Did it just for the fun of it, but was too lazy to stay by the union. Yet he could have risen high if he wanted to. There’s no end to the possibilities in that man—if he weren’t so insuperably lazy.”
Brissenden advanced through the darkness till a thread of light marked the threshold of a door. A knock and an answer opened it, and Martin found himself shaking hands with Kreis, a handsome brunette man, with dazzling white teeth, a drooping black mustache, and large, flashing black eyes. Mary, a matronly young blonde, was washing dishes in the little back room that served for kitchen and dining room. The front room served as bedchamber and living room. Overhead was the week’s washing, hanging in festoons so low that Martin did not see at first the two men talking in a corner. They hailed Brissenden and his demijohns with acclamation, and, on being introduced, Martin learned they were Andy and Parry. He joined them and listened attentively to the description of a prize-fight Parry had seen the night before; while Brissenden, in his glory, plunged into the manufacture of a toddy and the serving of wine and whiskey-and-sodas. At his command, “Bring in the clan,” Andy departed to go the round of the rooms for the lodgers.
“We’re lucky that most of them are here,” Brissenden whispered to Martin. “There’s Norton and Hamilton; come on and meet them. Stevens isn’t around, I hear. I’m going to get them started on monism if I can. Wait till they get a few jolts in them and they’ll warm up.”
At first the conversation was desultory. Nevertheless Martin could not fail to appreciate the keen play of their minds. They were men with opinions, though the opinions often clashed, and, though they were witty and clever, they were not superficial. He swiftly saw, no matter upon what they talked, that each man applied the correlation of knowledge and had also a deep-seated and unified conception of society and the Cosmos. Nobody manufactured their opinions for them; they were all rebels of one variety or another, and their lips were strangers to platitudes. Never had Martin, at the Morses’, heard so amazing a range of topics discussed. There seemed no limit save time to the things they were alive to. The talk wandered from Mrs. Humphry Ward’s new book to Shaw’s latest play, through the future of the drama to reminiscences of Mansfield. They appreciated or sneered at the morning editorials, jumped from labor conditions in New Zealand to Henry James and Brander Matthews, passed on to the German designs in the Far East and the economic aspect of the Yellow Peril, wrangled over the German elections and Bebel’s last speech, and settled down to local politics, the latest plans and scandals in the union labor party administration, and the wires that were pulled to bring about the Coast Seamen’s strike. Martin was struck by the inside knowledge they possessed. They knew what was never printed in the newspapers—the wires and strings and the hidden hands that made the puppets dance. To Martin’s surprise, the girl, Mary, joined in the conversation, displaying an intelligence he had never encountered in the few women he had met. They talked together on Swinburne and Rossetti, after which she led him beyond his depth into the by-paths of French literature. His revenge came when she defended Maeterlinck and he brought into action the carefully-thought-out thesis of “The Shame of the Sun.”
Several other men had dropped in, and the air was thick with tobacco smoke, when Brissenden waved the red flag.
“Here’s fresh meat for your axe, Kreis,” he said; “a rose-white youth with the ardor of a lover for Herbert Spencer. Make a Haeckelite of him—if you can.”
Kreis seemed to wake up and flash like some metallic, magnetic thing, while Norton looked at Martin sympathetically, with a sweet, girlish smile, as much as to say that he would be amply protected.
Kreis began directly on Martin, but step by step Norton interfered, until he and Kreis were off and away in a personal battle. Martin listened and fain would have rubbed his eyes. It was impossible that this should be, much less in the labor ghetto south of Market. The books were alive in these men. They talked with fire and enthusiasm, the intellectual stimulant stirring them as he had seen drink and anger stir other men. What he heard was no longer the philosophy of the dry, printed word, written by half-mythical demigods like Kant and Spencer. It was living philosophy, with warm, red blood, incarnated in these two men till its very features worked with excitement. Now and again other men joined in, and all followed the discussion with cigarettes going out in their hands and with alert, intent faces.
Idealism had never attracted Martin, but the exposition it now received at the hands of Norton was a revelation. The logical plausibility of it, that made an appeal to his intellect, seemed missed by Kreis and Hamilton, who sneered at Norton as a metaphysician, and who, in turn, sneered back at them as metaphysicians. Phenomenon and noumenon were bandied back and forth. They charged him with attempting to explain consciousness by itself. He charged them with word-jugglery, with reasoning from words to theory instead of from facts to theory. At this they were aghast. It was the cardinal tenet of their mode of reasoning to start with facts and to give names to the facts.
When Norton wandered into the intricacies of Kant, Kreis reminded him that all good little German philosophies when they died went to Oxford. A little later Norton reminded them of Hamilton’s Law of Parsimony, the application of which they immediately claimed for every reasoning process of theirs. And Martin hugged his knees and exulted in it all. But Norton was no Spencerian, and he, too, strove for Martin’s philosophic soul, talking as much at him as to his two opponents.
“You know Berkeley has never been answered,” he said, looking directly at Martin. “Herbert Spencer came the nearest, which was not very near. Even the stanchest of Spencer’s followers will not go farther. I was reading an essay of Saleeby’s the other day, and the best Saleeby could say was that Herbert Spencer nearly succeeded in answering Berkeley.”
“You know what Hume said?” Hamilton asked. Norton nodded, but Hamilton gave it for the benefit of the rest. “He said that Berkeley’s arguments admit of no answer and produce no conviction.”
“In his, Hume’s, mind,” was the reply. “And Hume’s mind was the same as yours, with this difference: he was wise enough to admit there was no answering Berkeley.”
Norton was sensitive and excitable, though he never lost his head, while Kreis and Hamilton were like a pair of cold-blooded savages, seeking out tender places to prod and poke. As the evening grew late, Norton, smarting under the repeated charges of being a metaphysician, clutching his chair to keep from jumping to his feet, his gray eyes snapping and his girlish face grown harsh and sure, made a grand attack upon their position.
“All right, you Haeckelites, I may reason like a medicine man, but, pray, how do you reason? You have nothing to stand on, you unscientific dogmatists with your positive science which you are always lugging about into places it has no right to be. Long before the school of materialistic monism arose, the ground was removed so that there could be no foundation. Locke was the man, John Locke. Two hundred years ago—more than that, even in his ‘Essay concerning the Human Understanding,’ he proved the non-existence of innate ideas. The best of it is that that is precisely what you claim. To-night, again and again, you have asserted the non-existence of innate ideas.
“And what does that mean? It means that you can never know ultimate reality. Your brains are empty when you are born. Appearances, or phenomena, are all the content your minds can receive from your five senses. Then noumena, which are not in your minds when you are born, have no way of getting in—”
“I deny—” Kreis started to interrupt.
“You wait till I’m done,” Norton shouted. “You can know only that much of the play and interplay of force and matter as impinges in one way or another on our senses. You see, I am willing to admit, for the sake of the argument, that matter exists; and what I am about to do is to efface you by your own argument. I can’t do it any other way, for you are both congenitally unable to understand a philosophic abstraction.”
“And now, what do you know of matter, according to your own positive science? You know it only by its phenomena, its appearances. You are aware only of its changes, or of such changes in it as cause changes in your consciousness. Positive science deals only with phenomena, yet you are foolish enough to strive to be ontologists and to deal with noumena. Yet, by the very definition of positive science, science is concerned only with appearances. As somebody has said, phenomenal knowledge cannot transcend phenomena.”
“You cannot answer Berkeley, even if you have annihilated Kant, and yet, perforce, you assume that Berkeley is wrong when you affirm that science proves the non-existence of God, or, as much to the point, the existence of matter.—You know I granted the reality of matter only in order to make myself intelligible to your understanding. Be positive scientists, if you please; but ontology has no place in positive science, so leave it alone. Spencer is right in his agnosticism, but if Spencer—”
But it was time to catch the last ferry-boat for Oakland, and Brissenden and Martin slipped out, leaving Norton still talking and Kreis and Hamilton waiting to pounce on him like a pair of hounds as soon as he finished.
“You have given me a glimpse of fairyland,” Martin said on the ferry-boat. “It makes life worth while to meet people like that. My mind is all worked up. I never appreciated idealism before. Yet I can’t accept it. I know that I shall always be a realist. I am so made, I guess. But I’d like to have made a reply to Kreis and Hamilton, and I think I’d have had a word or two for Norton. I didn’t see that Spencer was damaged any. I’m as excited as a child on its first visit to the circus. I see I must read up some more. I’m going to get hold of Saleeby. I still think Spencer is unassailable, and next time I’m going to take a hand myself.”
But Brissenden, breathing painfully, had dropped off to sleep, his chin buried in a scarf and resting on his sunken chest, his body wrapped in the long overcoat and shaking to the vibration of the propellers.