HE stood on the hearth and looked at the pile of mail on his desk. He could see by the firelight that the letters he most wished were there–a thin one from his publisher, and a thick one from Her. Someone, probably his mother, had laid them on top of the others. He warmed his hands a moment at the sparkling blaze before he turned on the lights and settled himself in the Morris chair near the hearth.
The square, well-filled envelope of pale-gray linen he opened first, read a few lines to see that all was well, and then laid it aside to be read after the others, as a child saves the rosiest spot in its apple for the last bite.
He frowned a little over the letter from his publisher, who was also a personal friend.
"This is better stuff," it said, "you are improving, but put in a little more blood and thunder next time. Not enough to make it 'yellow, but enough to keep the dear public amused while it believes it is being instructed. Don't let your Quixotic notions stand between you and success."
There was more in the same vein. He read it through and put it on the fire. It was not the first time he had received such advice and he had already begun to follow it, but he still hated it. We always hate that which holds us back from the heights we dream of in our youth.
He looked through the other letters hastily and then took up the one he had opened first, leaning back in his chair as one who is sure of a thoroughly satisfactory half hour. But half-way through the letter he moved uneasily in his comfortable chair. The words he was reading were at least unexpected. The girl had written:
"You know how proud I am of your growing fame, and I am sure you understand how glad I am that there is some prospect of soon ending this long, dreary time of waiting, so you won't misunderstand me if I tell you frankly just what I think of your novels. You are not doing your best work, the highest of which you are capable. The promise of your earlier work is not being fulfilled. I think it is partly because you are writing so prolifically. Do you not feel sometimes that you are forcing your thoughts out on paper before they are quite ready for expression, when you know you really ought to be loafing and inviting your soul? But that is not the worst, and I am going to tell you all the worst, Dearest, for I would want you to tell me if I were in your place. You are (though unconsciously, I believe) succumbing to the temptation which all men must meet, the temptation to produce only that which will bring the highest market price.
"I was so glad when you quit newspaper work, because it is almost impossible to do that work and be true to yourself. The journalist sells his brain as the coal-heaver sells his muscle to the highest bidder. It is so with nearly all the professions that are considered intellectual in these degenerate days. But in the field that you have chosen it is possible for one to walk upright and unfearing. It is not easy, but it is possible.
"You remember Bellamy's parable of the marketplace in which men sell themselves to the Masters of the Bread. The masses are not only willing but anxious to do the most menial service if they may only be sure of receiving enough bread to keep them alive; and the intellectuals,' whose strength is in their brain instead of in their bodies, are no less anxious to sell themselves, they write and speak against the Cause of the people, they plead in the courts against the widow and the fatherless, but because they sell not only their bodies but their souls also they receive more bread than the laborers who sell their bodies only.
"There are some who can not be bought. There are some who, like Whitman, Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, Martin Irons (thank God I could extend the list indefinitely), are true to the 'Inner Light'–I like that quaint old Quaker phrase, I know none better. And these live and die in poverty–the work they do is not rewarded by the masters of the bread; but the life they live is its own reward–an exceeding great reward.
"For it is much to be a freeman. It is much to walk the open road with the heroes of all the ages. It is much to live close to humanity, with ever deepening knowledge and ever broadening sympathies, until we reach "the end that shall lightly and joyfully meet its translation.' It is more to know that others shall grow free though our freedom and courageous through our daring. Let us live this life, Beloved, we two together.
"I do not say that this is the ideal life. I do not think so. But so long as society is divided into two warring classes none of us can live ideal lives. We can only choose which we shall serve, the people or the masters of the people: the spirit or democracy or the spirit of tyranny. And we must choose. We cannot serve both. I believe this is what Christ meant when He said,'Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.' For how can one serve God without serving 'the least of these, my brethren?' And the least, is not that the 'downmost man we meet?' When we espouse the cause of the lowest stratum of human society, then and not till then are we working out the purpose of the All–the Infinite.
"So long as tyranny is triumphant and its victims fill the world–making that which should be an earthly paradise a ghastly charnel-house–no highly-organized, sentient being can hope for happiness. The nearest approach to it lies in strenuous revolt. Even Tennyson, who so faithfully flattered the masters of the bread, tells of the futility of trying to escape by building one's individual soul a lordly pleasure house wherein at ease to dwell.
"I don't think I have expressed my ideas very clearly. I hope you will not misunderstand me. It is not your realism that I object to. You know I don't want you to write goody-goody stories with morals tacked on at the end. I believe in realism. The realism that Tolstoy wields as a weapon against power and privilege; the realism of Millet, depicting the true condition of the brother to the ox; of Verestchagin, portraying the horrors of war; of Gorky showing up the infinite smallness of eminent respectability and the squalor of the abyss; this realism is wholly good, even though it seem grotesque or ghastly. But the realism that merely photographs brutal or lustful scenes to make a Roman holiday; the realism that aims only to make money, and serves only to amuse and debase the people while they are being shorn of their power; this, this is the deadly realism and to use it is an unpardonable sin against humanity.
"Do you think I am writing too strongly? It is a subject on which I feel strongly. And yet I was tempted not to mention it to you at all, and I will tell you why. I was afraid that you are a victim of the delusion that has afflicted some of our greatest men, namely–that women are fragile and precious ornaments, made like Dresden statuettes, to be set in safe niches and guarded carefully lest some rude shock should demolish them. That he who chooses the open road must not take unto himself one of these ornaments lest he hang lake a millstone about his neck and drag him back into the path of eminent respectability. 'What beckonings of love you receive you shall answer only is with passionate kisses of parting. I was afraid, Dearest, that if I persuaded you to choose the right road, you would think me too weak to walk beside you and so would forsake me. I hope you do not think so meanly of me. You ought to know me better. But I want you to be true to yourself, even if it takes you from me.
"I am not trying to map out a path for your feet. I would not, if I could. I want you to follow your own own inner light–not mine. All I ask is that you will consider the matter, Dearest, and tell me all you think.
"It is very late. Good night, Dearest.
"Forever your own
He folded the letter, placed it in the envelope and sat gazing into the fire reflectively for a few minutes. Outside the wind was rising and lashing the trees. One of the branches whipped against the house monotonously. After a while his sister passed through the hall singing lightly the words that someone has set to the famous intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. The highest notes came to him distinctly.
"My dearest dream, my only dream,
My heart's long dream of you."
He reached up to the mantel, and took down a small photograph in a plain, dark frame. For a moment he sat looking at it; then he rose and went over to his desk, still holding the photograph in his hand. He sat down and began turning over the pages of a manuscript that he had finished that morning, reading a few lines here and there. He had set the photograph down on his desk. The sweet, sensitive face seemed looking at his questioningly. Presently he began arguing the matter with her.
"All you say is true," he admitted, "and I knew it before you said it. I am not a fool. I have not been deceiving myself by imagining that the work I am doing is highly intellectual or in any way great or worth while. But, sweetheart, so long as the masses are brutalized by excessive toil and the classes are brutalized by the callousness which we all must acquire in order to live at all in this charnelhouse of walking, working, fighting, corpses–just so long will there be a demand for the monstrosities called popular novels. And if I don't supply this demand someone else will."
He turned to the duelling scene in his manuscript. He knew that it was a masterpiece of its kind, realistic, brutal, revolting. He remembered that he had felt a little proud of it this morning and sighed to think he had fallen so low. "It is as refined as a bull-fight," he said, "and as ennobling as the sight of a dying gladiator's agonies. But it will amuse the populace."
He laughed a little, mockingly, at his own earnestness and looked across at her.
"Almost thou persuadest me to be a Socialist," he said.
Then his face grew grave again.
"Why it's you I'm doing it for, sweetheart," he said. "You shall not 'live and die in poverty,' bless you, darling, no."
He looked into the sweet, earnest eyes. His noticeably square jaw grew set and determined.
"I'd sell my, immortal soul–if I have one," he said; "I'd go through hell laughing for you."
He thrust the story in an envelope and addressed it to his publisher.