Story#14 Edith Wharton — April Showers
“BUT Guy’s heart slept under the violets on Muriel’s grave.”
It was a beautiful ending; Theodora had seen girls cry over last chapters that weren’t half as pathetic. She laid her pen aside and read the words over, letting her voice linger on the fall of the sentence; then, drawing a deep breath, she wrote across the foot of the page the name by which she had decided to become known in literature — Gladys Glyn.
Down-stairs the library clock struck two. Its muffled thump sounded like an admonitory knock against her bedroom floor. Two o’clock! and she had promised her mother to be up early enough to see that the buttons were sewn on Johnny’s reefer, and that Kate had her cod-liver oil before starting for school!
Lingeringly, tenderly she gathered up the pages of her novel, — there were five hundred of them, — and tied them with the blue satin ribbon that her Aunt Julia had given her. She had meant to wear the ribbon with her new dotted muslin on Sundays, but this was putting it to a nobler use. She bound it round her manuscript, tying the ends in a pretty bow. Theodora was clever at making bows, and could have trimmed hats beautifully, had not all her spare moments been given to literature. Then, with a last look at the precious pages, she sealed and addressed the package. She meant to send it off next morning to the Home Circle. She knew it would be hard to obtain access to a paper which numbered so many popular authors among its contributors, but she had been encouraged to make the venture by something her Uncle James had said the last time he had come down from Boston.
He had been telling his brother, Doctor Dace, about his new house out at Brookline. Uncle James was prosperous, and was always moving into new houses with more “modern improvements.” Hygiene was his passion, and he migrated in the wake of sanitary plumbing.
“The bath-rooms alone are worth the money,” he was saying, cheerfully, “although it is a big rent. But then, when a man’s got no children to save up for — ” he glanced compassionately round Doctor Dace’s crowded table — “and it is something to be in a neighborhood where the drainage is A 1. That’s what I was telling our neighbor. Who do you suppose she is, by the way?” He smiled at Theodora. “I rather think that young lady knows all about her. Ever hear of Kathleen Kyd?”
Kathleen Kyd! The famous “society novelist,” the creator of more “favorite heroines” than all her predecessors put together had ever turned out; the author of “Fashion and Passion,” “An American Duchess,” “Rhona’s Revolt.” Was there any intelligent girl from Maine to California whose heart would not have beat faster at the mention of that name?
“Why, yes,” Uncle James was saying, “Kathleen Kyd lives next door. Frances G. Wollop is her real name, and her husband’s a dentist. She’s a very pleasant, sociable kind of woman; you’d never think she was a writer. Ever hear how she began to write? She told me the whole story. It seems she was saleswoman in a store, working on starvation wages, with a mother and a consumptive sister to support. Well, she wrote a story one day, just for fun, and sent it to the Home Circle. They’d never heard of her, of course, and she never expected to hear from them. She did, though. They took the story and passed their plate for more. She became a regular contributor and eventually was known all over the country. Now she tells me her books bring her in about ten thousand a year. Rather more than you and I can boast of, eh, John? Well, I hope this household doesn’t contribute to her support.” He glanced sharply at Theodora. “I don’t believe in feeding youngsters on sentimental trash; it’s like sewer-gas — doesn’t smell bad, and infects the system without your knowing it.”
Theodora listened breathlessly. Kathleen Kyd’s first story had been accepted by the Home Circle, and they had asked for more! Why should Gladys Glyn be less fortunate? Theodora had done a great deal of novel-reading, — far more than her parents were aware of, — and felt herself competent to pronounce upon the quality of her own work. She was almost sure that “April Showers” was a remarkable book. If it lacked Kathleen Kyd’s lightness of touch, it had an emotional intensity never achieved by that brilliant writer. Theodora did not care to amuse her readers; she left that to more frivolous talents. Her aim was to stir the depths of human nature, and she felt she had succeeded. It was a great thing for a girl to be able to feel that about her first novel. Theodora was only seventeen; and she remembered, with a touch of retrospective compassion, that George Eliot had not become famous till she was nearly forty.
No, there was no doubt about the merit of “April Showers.” But would not an inferior work have had a better chance of success? Theodora recalled the early struggles of famous authors, the notorious antagonism of publishers and editors to any new writer of exceptional promise. Would it not be wiser to write the book down to the average reader’s level, reserving for some later work the great “effects” into which she had thrown all the fervor of her imagination? The thought was sacrilege! Never would she lay hands on the sacred structure she had reared; never would she resort to the inartistic expedient of modifying her work to suit the popular taste. Better obscure failure than a vulgar triumph. The great authors never stooped to such concessions, and Theodora felt herself included in their ranks by the firmness with which she rejected all thought of conciliating an unappreciative public. The manuscript should be sent as it was.
She woke with a start and a heavy sense of apprehension. The Home Circle had refused “April Showers!” No, that couldn’t be it; there lay the precious manuscript, waiting to be posted. What was it, then? Ah, that ominous thump below stairs — nine o’clock striking! It was Johnny’s buttons!
She sprang out of bed in dismay. She had been so determined not to disappoint her mother about Johnny’s buttons! Mrs. Dace, helpless from chronic rheumatism, had to entrust the care of the household to her eldest daughter; and Theodora honestly meant to see that Johnny had his full complement of buttons, and that Kate and Bertha went to school tidy. Unfortunately, the writing of a great novel leaves little time or memory for the lesser obligations of life, and Theodora usually found that her good intentions matured too late for practical results.
Her contrition was softened by the thought that literary success would enable her to make up for all the little negligences of which she was guilty. She meant to spend all her money on her family; and already she had visions of a wheeled chair for her mother, a fresh wallpaper for the doctor’s shabby office, bicycles for the girls, and Johnny’s establishment at a boarding-school where sewing on his buttons would be included in the curriculum. If her parents could have guessed her intentions, they would not have found fault with her as they did: and Doctor Dace, on this particular morning, would not have looked up to say, with his fagged, ironical air:
“I suppose you didn’t get home from the ball till morning.”
Theodora’s sense of being in the right enabled her to take the thrust with a dignity that would have awed the unfeeling parent of fiction.
“I’m sorry to be late, father,” she said.
Doctor Dace, who could never be counted on to behave like a father in a book, shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
“Your sentiments do you credit, but they haven’t kept your mother’s breakfast warm.”
“Hasn’t mother’s tray gone up yet?”
“Who was to take it, I should like to know? The girls came down so late that I had to hustle them off before they’d finished breakfast, and Johnny’s hands were so dirty that I sent him back to his room to make himself decent. It’s a pretty thing for the doctor’s children to be the dirtiest little savages in Norton!”
Theodora had hastily prepared her mother’s tray, leaving her own breakfast untouched. As she entered the room up-stairs, Mrs. Dace’s patient face turned to her with a smile much harder to bear than her father’s reproaches.
“Mother, I’m so sorry — “
“No matter, dear. I suppose Johnny’s buttons kept you. I can’t think what that boy does to his clothes!”
Theodora set the tray down without speaking. It was impossible to own to having forgotten Johnny’s buttons without revealing the cause of her forgetfulness. For a few weeks longer she must bear to be misunderstood; then — ah, then if her novel were accepted, how gladly would she forget and forgive! But what if it were refused? She turned aside to hide the dismay that flushed her face. Well, then she would admit the truth — she would ask her parents’ pardon, and settle down without a murmur to an obscure existence of mending and combing.
She had said to herself that after the manuscript had been sent, she would have time to look after the children and catch up with the mending; but she had reckoned without the postman. He came three times a day; and for an hour before each ring she was too excited to do anything but wonder if he would bring an answer this time, and for an hour afterward she moved about in a leaden stupor of disappointment. The children had never been so trying. They seemed to be always coming to pieces, like cheap furniture; Page 26
one would have supposed they had been put together with bad glue. Mrs. Dace worried herself ill over Johnny’s tatters, Bertha’s bad marks at school, and Kate’s open abstention from cod-liver oil; and Doctor Dace, coming back late from a long round of visits to a fireless office with a smoky lamp, called out furiously to know if Theodora would kindly come down and remove the “East, West, home’s best” that hung above the empty grate.
In the midst of it all, Miss Sophy Brill called. It was very kind of her to come, for she was the busiest woman in Norton. She made it her duty to look after other people’s affairs, and there was not a house in town but had the benefit of her personal supervision. She generally came when things were going wrong, and the sight of her bonnet on the door-step was a surer sign of calamity than a crape bow on the bell. After she left, Mrs. Dace looked very sad, and the doctor punished Johnny for warbling down the entry:
“Miss Sophy Brill
Is a bitter pill!” while Theodora, locking herself in her room, resolved with tears that she would never write another novel.
The week was a long nightmare. Theodora could neither eat nor sleep. She was up early enough, but instead of looking after the children and seeing that breakfast was ready, she wandered down the road to meet the postman, and came back wan and empty-handed, oblivious of her morning duties. She had no idea how long the suspense would last; but she didn’t see how authors could live if they were kept waiting more than a week.
Then suddenly, one afternoon — she never quite knew how or when it happened — she found herself with a Home Circle envelope in her hands, and her dazzled eyes flashing over a wild dance of words that wouldn’t settle down and make sense.
“Dear Madam:” [They called her Madam! And then; yes, the words were beginning to fall into line now.] “Your novel, ‘April Showers,’ has been received, and we are glad to accept it on the usual terms. A serial on which we were counting for immediate publication has been delayed by the author’s illness, and the first chapters of ‘April Showers’ will therefore appear in our midsummer number. Thanking you for favoring us with your manuscript, we remain,” and so forth.
Theodora found herself in the wood beyond the schoolhouse. She was kneeling on the ground, brushing aside the dead leaves and pressing her lips to the little bursting green things that pushed up eager tips through last year’s decay. It was spring — spring! Everything was crowding toward the light, and in her own heart hundreds of germinating hopes had burst into sudden leaf. She wondered if the thrust of those little green fingers hurt the surface of the earth as her springing raptures hurt — yes, actually hurt! — her hot, constricted breast! She looked up through interlacing boughs at a tender, opaque blue sky full of the coming of a milky moon. She seemed enveloped in an atmosphere of loving comprehension. The brown earth throbbed with her joy, the tree-tops trembled with it, and a sudden star broke through the branches like an audible “I know!”
Theodora, on the whole, behaved very well. Her mother cried, her father whistled and said he supposed he must put up with grounds in his coffee now, and be thankful if he ever got a hot meal again; while the children took the most deafening and harassing advantage of what seemed a sudden suspension of the laws of nature.
Within a week everybody in Norton knew that Theodora had written a novel, and that it was coming out in the Home Circle. On Sundays, when she walked up the aisle, her friends dropped their prayer-books and the soprano sang false in her excitement. Girls with more pin-money than Theodora had ever dreamed of copied her hats and imitated her way of speaking. The local paper asked her for a poem; her old school-teachers stopped to shake hands and grew shy over their congratulations; and Miss Sophy Brill came to call. She had put on her Sunday bonnet, and her manner was almost abject. She ventured, very timidly, to ask her young friend how she wrote, whether it “just came to her,” and if she had found that the kind of pen she used made any difference; and wound up by begging Theodora to write a sentiment in her album.
Even Uncle James came down from Boston to talk the wonder over. He called Theodora a “sly baggage,” and proposed that she should give him her earnings to invest in a new patent grease-trap company. From what Kathleen Kyd had told him, he thought Theodora would probably get a thousand dollars for her story. He concluded by suggesting that she should base her next romance on the subject of sanitation, making the heroine nearly die of sewer-gas poisoning because her parents won’t listen to the handsome young doctor next door, when he warns them that their plumbing is out of order. That was a subject that would interest everybody, and do a lot more good than the sentimental trash most women wrote.
At last the great day came. Theodora had left an order with the bookseller for the midsummer number of the Home Circle, and before the shop was open she was waiting on the sidewalk. She clutched the precious paper and ran home without opening it. Her excitement was almost more than she could bear. Not heeding her father’s call to breakfast, she rushed up-stairs and locked herself in her room. Her hands trembled so that she could hardly turn the pages. At last — yes, there it was: “April Showers.”
The paper dropped from her hands. What name had she read beneath the title? Had her emotion blinded her?
“April Showers, by Kathleen Kyd.”
Kathleen Kyd! Oh, cruel misprint! Oh, dastardly typographer! Through tears of rage and disappointment Theodora looked again: yes, there was no mistaking the hateful name. Her glance ran on. She found herself reading a first paragraph that she had never seen before. She read farther. All was strange. The horrible truth burst upon her: It was not her story!
— — — —
She never knew how she got back to the station. She struggled through the crowd on the platform, and a gold-banded arm pushed her into the train just starting for Norton. It would be dark when she reached home; but that didn’t matter — nothing mattered now. She sank into her seat, closing her eyes in the vain attempt to shut out the vision of the last few hours; but minute by minute memory forced her to relive it; she felt like a rebellious school child dragged forth to repeat the same detested “piece.”
Although she did not know Boston well, she had made her way easily enough to the Home Circle building; at least, she supposed she had, since she remembered nothing till she found herself ascending the editorial stairs as easily as one does incredible things in dreams. She must have walked very fast, for her heart was beating furiously, and she had barely breath to whisper the editor’s name to a young man who looked out at her from a glass case, like a zoological specimen. The young man led her past other glass cases containing similar specimens to an inner enclosure which seemed filled by an enormous presence. Theodora felt herself enveloped in the presence, submerged by it, gasping for air as she sank under its rising surges.
Gradually fragments of speech floated to the surface. “‘April Showers?’ Mrs. Kyd’s new serial? Your manuscript, you say? You have a letter from me? The name, please? Evidently some unfortunate misunderstanding. One moment.” And then a bell ringing, a zoological specimen ordered to unlock a safe, her name asked for again, the manuscript, her own precious manuscript, tied with Aunt Julia’s ribbon, laid on the table before her, and her outcries, her protests, her interrogations, drowned in a flood of bland apology: “An unfortunate accident — Mrs. Kyd’s manuscript received the same day — extraordinary coincidence in the choice of a title — duplicate answers sent by mistake — Miss Dace’s novel hardly suited to their purpose — should of course have been returned — regrettable oversight — accidents would happen — sure she understood.”
The voice went on, like the steady pressure of a surgeon’s hand on a shrieking nerve. When it stopped she was in the street. A cab nearly ran her down, and a car-bell jangled furiously in her ears. She clutched her manuscript, carrying it tenderly through the crowd, like a live thing that had been hurt. She could not bear to look at its soiled edges and the ink-stain on Aunt Julia’s ribbon.
The train stopped with a jerk, and she opened her eyes. It was dark, and by the windy flare of gas on the platform she saw the Norton passengers getting out. She stood up stiffly and followed them. A warm wind blew into her face the fragrance of the summer woods, and she remembered how, two months earlier, she had knelt among the dead leaves, pressing her lips to the first shoots of green. Then for the first time she thought of home. She had fled away in the morning without a word, and her heart sank at the thought of her mother’s fears. And her father — how angry he would be! She bent her head under the coming storm of his derision.
The night was cloudy, and as she stepped into the darkness beyond the station a hand was slipped in hers. She stood still, too weary to feel frightened, and a voice said, quietly:
“Don’t walk so fast, child. You look tired.”
“Father!” Her hand dropped from his, but he recaptured it and drew it through his arm. When she found voice, it was to whisper, “You were at the station?”
“It’s such a good night I thought I’d stroll down and meet you.”
Her arm trembled against his. She could not see his face in the dimness, but the light of his cigar looked down on her like a friendly eye, and she took courage to falter out: “Then you knew — “
“That you’d gone to Boston? Well, I rather thought you had.”
They walked on slowly, and presently he added, “You see, you left the Home Circle lying in your room.”
How she blessed the darkness and the muffled sky! She could not have borne the scrutiny of the tiniest star.
“Then mother wasn’t very much frightened?”
“Why, no, she didn’t appear to be. She’s been busy all day over some toggery of Bertha’s.”
Theodora choked. “Father, I’ll — ” She groped for words, but they eluded her. “I’ll do things — differently; I haven’t meant — ” Suddenly she heard herself bursting out: “It was all a mistake, you know — about my story. They didn’t want it; they won’t have it!” and she shrank back involuntarily from his impending mirth.
She felt the pressure of his arm, but he didn’t speak, and she figured his mute hilarity. They moved on in silence. Presently he said:
“It hurts a bit just at first, doesn’t it?”
He stood still, and the gleam of his cigar showed a face of unexpected participation.
“You see I’ve been through it myself.”
“You, father? You?”
“Why, yes. Didn’t I ever tell you? I wrote a novel once. I was just out of college, and I didn’t want to be a doctor. No; I wanted to be a genius. So I wrote a novel.”
The doctor paused, and Theodora clung to him in a mute passion of commiseration. It was as if a drowning creature caught a live hand through the murderous fury of the waves.
“Father — O father!”
“It took me a year — a whole year’s hard work; and when I’d finished it the publishers wouldn’t have it, either; not at any price. And that’s why I came down to meet you, because I remembered my walk home.”