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Title: A Popular Novelist
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: A Popular Novelist
Author: Fred M White


*

Published in the West Gippsland Gazette (Warragul, Vic.), Tuesday 20
January, 1914.

*

Machin puts the blame on to the the editor of the Arena, and the latter
complains that he was grossly deceived. Now, the Arena is an exceedingly
important journal, and, as everybody knows, carries great weight with
people of intelligence. It is a sixpenny weekly, and devotes a good deal
of its space to the better fiction. So therefore it cannot be assumed
for a moment that Cruchley, the editor, allowed himself to be made a
party to a deliberate fraud on the British public.

The fiction particularly favoured by the Arena belongs largely to the
cameo type--exquisitely polished sketches and clear-cut emotions and the
like. There must be at least half a dozen novelists of the front rank
who have to thank Cruchley for their present position. Therefore
Cruchley, when he received that eloquent trifle entitled 'The Liver
Wing,' written over the signature of Laura Jane Parlby, lost no time in
asking the author of the story to call upon him. It was just the kind of
stuff he wanted, and he was naturally desirous of making the best
bargain he could before his fellow editors came in. The sketch in
question, had it been Scotch, would have belonged to the Kailyard
school, but being frankly English, and Arcadian at that, was still
waiting for the appropriate epithet. Once that was done, Laura Jane
Parlby was a made woman, and the circulation of the Arena would
indubitably be enhanced. Now, some people would have sneered at the
carefully careless simplicity of 'The Liver Wing'; some people would
have failed to see its delicate humour. It was a mere account of an
unselfish old maid who never in her life had partaken of the delicacy in
question. In her youth she had never desired to rob her parents of the
dainty; when she became independent and set up house for herself, it was
her invariable practice to prevent the precious trifle to other people.

All this sounds very frivolous, of course, but, as any editor worthy of
his salt knows, it is merely a matter of treatment. And every editor
worth his salt, too, is naturally on the lookout for a boom. Cruchley
was exceedingly particular whom he did boom, but it seemed to him now
that here was a legitimate object and scope for opportunity. Therefore
it was that he wrote to Laura Jane Parlby, and asked her to call upon
him. Could she make it convenient to look in after twelve o'clock some
Thursday? There came a wire in response to the effect that the very
first Thursday that ever was should see the meeting between writer and
editor.

It was a considerable disappointment, therefore, for Cruchley when there
presented himself a big man with a big beard and moustache and tanned
face, to say nothing of a shabby Norfolk suit, who announced himself
without any sense of fitting humility as the author of 'The Liver Wing.'

"The deuce you are!" Cruchley gasped in dismay.

"Nothing wrong about it, is there?" Machin demanded.

"Well--er, not precisely. But, naturally I expected to see a lady. You
know, I made rather a prominent feature of 'The Liver Wing', in last
week's Arena. I wrote a leaderette on the subject. I told my readers
that we had discovered a new humorist--the rare type of humorist with
the art of blending tears and laughter. I went so far as to insinuate
that here was another Jane Austen with a flavour of George Eliot."

The big man smiled.

"I think I understand you," he said. "You see, at one time I took a hand
in the game--I mean that in my family there were several journalists,
and I have learnt something of the inner workings of a newspaper. Now
precisely what did you expect Laura Jane Parlby to be like?"

"Well, you see, one goes, to a certain extent by the name. Laura Jane
Parlby sounds so delightfully Victorian. One pictures her in a white,
creeper-covered house, furnished with Georgian simplicity; one sees her
going about the village with her charity basket on her arm, carrying
sunshine into the Tudor cottages; one marks her as a friend of everybody
and the depository of all kinds of sentimental little secrets. She
should be tall and thin, with blue eyes and grey hair, and, of course,
her lover should have perished at sea or something of that sort. She
should be an excellent cook, and people should throw their champagne on
one side when she makes them a present of her rare old rhubarb wine. Oh,
dash it all, my dear chap, you know exactly what I mean. I expected to
see her come in here wearing one of those black silk dresses that stand
by themselves, to say nothing of a big white bonnet or balcony hat. And
when you came in here just now, looking--if you will pardon a
simile--more like a gamekeeper than anything else, I was disappointed."

Machin made no reply. He did not appear to be in the least annoyed in
being taken for a gamekeeper--indeed, it was doubtful if he heard what
Cruchley was saying, for he seemed deeply mersed in thought. He came to
himself with a start.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "You see, I am a bit of a sportsman, and I
should be a gamekeeper if I could afford to preserve. But I don't see
that the fact of my being a man makes any difference. I can go on
writing under the name of Laura Jane Parlby and the public will be none
the wiser."

"That's not good enough for the Arena," Cruchley said promptly. "We have
far too sweet and clean a reputation for anything of that sort. The
truth must be told, though it will be a great disappointment and we
shan't do anything like so well out of your work. Mind you, it's
rattling good stuff, and I congratulate you warmly."

Machin contemplated his boots gloomily.

"Without knowing it, you are putting me in a very tight place," he said;
"and if your paper is so particular, then I must violate a confidence
and tell you the whole facts. Now, Mr. Cruchley, do I look like the sort
of man who could write a story like 'The Liver Wing'? Do I look like a
man with a soul?"

"Not a bit," Cruchley said promptly. "Why?"

"Well, you see, I have an Aunt Jane. Whether she is Laura Jane Parlby or
not does not matter. We will assume for the sake of argument, if you
like, that after a great many years she suddenly discovers that she can
write. Perhaps that is not quite the right way to put it. Somebody
discovers in an old desk of hers a little sheaf of stories, and reads
them. Say it's me, if you like. And I urge her to publish them. She
looks at me as if I had suggested that she should commit some crime.
She's a gentle, kindly soul, who never likes to say no to anybody. At
length she permits me to send one of those sketches to a paper which
shall be nameless, and she nearly dies of heart disease when she finds
the story has been accepted. And you can imagine the consternation of
the poor old soul when she got your telegram. Something had to be done,
or assuredly I should have lost my Aunt Jane. She was delighted, of
course, to feel that her work was worthy of publication but the
suggestion of publicity filled her with horror. She began to anticipate
hordes of journalists bearing down upon her ivy-covered cottage to
interview her. It was I who suggested the plot. I write a bit, anyhow;
she was to do the stories, and I was to pretend that I was Laura Jane
Parlby so far as putting the public off the scent were concerned. Mind
you, I didn't mean to tell you this. I shouldn't have done so only
you've been so straightforward and so loyal to your paper. I hope all
this is satisfactory."

"Oh, eminently!" Cruchley cried. "You see, it makes all the difference
in the world. You can pretend what you like--it doesn't make the
slightest difference to us. You can practise a mild deception on the
British public, but it leaves our editorial acumen untarnished. We knew
that 'The Liver Wing' was the work of a woman, and so long as we are
assured of the fact that there is a genuine Laura Jane Parlby, we can go
on with the boom. I'd like to run down a little later on and see the
talented authoress. When she gets more accustomed to the fame which is
surely coming she won't be quite so retiring."

"Oh, you mustn't do that," Machin protested. "You haven't the remotest
notion what a sensitive woman she is. And how can I go back home and
tell her that I have betrayed her secret in this shameful way? My dear
fellow, you must regard this conversation as absolutely confidential. I
have made it all plain sailing for you, and I will see that you get
plenty of stories. I suppose there are about a score of them altogether,
and I hope a little later on to induce my aunt to write a book."

Cruchley's eyes gleamed. For the proprietors of the Arena were also
publishers. In his mind's eye he could see an exceedingly good thing in
this. And, besides that, he personally was going to add to his
reputation by introducing a new novelist to the world of letters.

"Very well," he said. "I am exceedingly obliged to you for coming here
to-day and taking me into your confidence in this candid manner. And
mind, it is quite understood that I am to have the refusal of all Laura
Jane Parlby's work. We can afford to pay her far more handsomely than
the majority of magazines, and I need not remind you what a start in the
Arena means. Before many months are over, Laura Jane Parlby will be
famous."

Strange as it may seem, this information did not appear to afford any
particular satisfaction to Machin. Possibly he was fond of his aunt,
possibly he feared what the effect would be of verbal intrusion into her
Arcadian paradise. He went away somewhat thoughtfully, and for the next
few days Cruchley heard nothing of him. Then the batch of short stories
arrived with an intimation that a book was in contemplation; and, in the
fullness of his heart, Cruchley dispatched a cheque which a little later
caused some unpleasantness between his commercial-minded employers and
himself. He defended himself on the grounds of expediency; he was quite
sure that the money would come back a hundredfold. That the house had
secured a new literary star of magnitude he did not for a moment doubt.
And certainly his prophecy was speedily fulfilled. From the very first
the discriminating public drank eagerly at the pierian spring as
filtered to them through the brain of Laura Jane Parlby. Three months,
and everybody was talking about Laura Jane Parlby--there had been no
such phenomenal boom since the days when the Scots came down from the
north and captured a shrewd and discriminating public.

Never had a fame been more cleverly or easily exploited. And the
talented authoress herself appeared unconsciously to be playing exactly
the role that Cruchley would have chosen for her. She seemed to be
absolutely unaware of the fact that she was famous. It was understood
that she read no papers, and no one could say anything about her ways or
habits--indeed, Machin saw to that. He had a fine eye for a wandering
journalist in search of copy, as more than one of his tribe can tell to
his cost. And meanwhile, Miss Laura Jane Parlby went quietly about her
daily life, tending her house and her old-world garden and visiting her
pensioners. Not the most audacious or daring brother of the pencil had
ever had speech with her; not one of them had got beyond the front gate.
At the first sign of danger Machin loomed big and strong on the horizon,
and Miss Parlby fled into the house. The whole thing was beginning to
get on Machin's nerves.

"I'm getting rather fed up with this," he confessed, as he discussed the
matter with his particular chum, Martin, the village doctor. "I can
hardly get away for half an hour now. The dear old lady hasn't the
remotest idea what people are saying about her. She thinks she has
written two or three stories which are just good enough for print, and
that's all there is to it. That she's a great personage, she's not the
remotest idea. If she knew the truth she'd have a fit. Upon my word, I
shall have to take a holiday. My idea is to change our names and go
abroad somewhere. I could get a companion for the old lady and settle
her down in some old-fashioned French town, then I might pop back and
get a bit of shooting. I'm quite soft for want of exercise."

"But she's bound to find out sooner or later," Martin urged. "The papers
are full of her. Most of the details are all lies, but that doesn't make
any difference. The village has been talked about and photographed and
all the rest of it, and I'm told that one of the livery stable keepers
at Frampton is organising weekly chara-banc excursions to run over here
with a view to excursionists seeing Laura Jane Parlby's cottage. My dear
chap, you'll have them all over the garden after a bit picking flowers
and carving their names on the trees. Why don't you break the thing
gently to Miss Parlby? If you don't do it somebody else will. You can't
expect everybody to keep a bridle on their tongue every time they meet
your aunt."

Machin did not appear to relish the prospect. He had his own reasons for
pursuing a policy of silence.

"I shall have to do something," he said. "Of course, it's all very well
in one way. So far as the money is concerned, it's simply rolling in. I
suppose in England and America they must have sold at least two hundred
thousand copies of the last book. I don't know what to do with it."

"You don't know what to do with it? How do you mean?"

"Well, that's what it comes to," Machin said with a slight flush on his
face. "You see, the dear old lady doesn't care anything about the money.
She persists in thinking that she makes about a pound a week, and so
long as she has an extra sovereign a week to spend on her pensioners,
she's perfectly satisfied. And all the rest comes to me. You needn't
look at me like that, because I'm absolutely entitled to it. And yet I
can't spend a penny of it. I'm like a poor chap who finds himself
shipwrecked on an island of gold."

It was exceeding hard luck, and Martin was correspondingly sympathetic.
It was all very well to talk about getting Laura Jane Parlby away, but
she could be obstinate enough in some respects, and she absolutely
declined to leave her beloved village. Martin's suggestion that he
should call upon her and discover some alarming symptoms which called
for a change of air ended in absolute disaster. The old lady looked up
from her knitting with an air of mild surprise.

"I don't think there's anything the matter with me," she said mildly.
"It is my dear nephew, Charles, who wants a change. Indeed, I'm getting
quite anxious about him. I cannot understand why he always looks so
troubled and worried."

"Oh, possibly some family weakness," the doctor said. "I shouldn't
wonder if you shared it yourself. Two or three months' travel on the
Continent would make all the difference."

Miss Parlby clicked her knitting needles together. She looked
wonderfully soft and amiable, she made quite a picture.

"I shall never leave here," she said. "Nothing would induce me to. Ever
since my dear father died I have not been a mile beyond the village. I
went to London once, but I was quite glad to come back the next day. I
could not bear the thought of dying anywhere except amongst my own
people."

"It's no good," Martin confided to Machin afterwards. "I can't get the
old lady to stir. Your only chance is to go somewhere at a distance and
break a leg or an arm or something of that sort. Then the old lady will
hurry to your side quite in the traditional Victorian manner."

But there was no occasion for Machin to go to a distance in order to
fracture a limb, because Fate took a hand in the game and did that for
him. The God in the Car took the shape of a young horse in conjunction
with some posts and rails, and when Machin scrambled to his feet, he
needed no master of surgery to tell him that he had broken his arm. It
was a pretty bad fracture, to say nothing of an injured rib, and it
looked as if Machin would have to lie up for a month at least. Miss
Parlby was more than sympathetic. She knew the value of quiet to an
invalid, and she took the liberty of even suppressing Machin's letters.
She saw with perturbation that some of these letters were arriving
regularly from the office of the Arena, but thought they might be of the
last importance--Machin was not to see them. At the end of the second
week there came a visitor with a very pressing demand that Miss Parlby
would grant him the favour of an audience. She was only human, after
all, and she thrilled when she saw from the visitor's card that he was
the editor of the Arena. She had all the ordinary person's veneration
for the editorial fraternity, and with some considerable agitation
donned her best cap in honour of the occasion.

"I am exceedingly sorry for this intrusion," Cruchley said, "but I was
so anxious that I had to come down and see you. I have heard nothing for
the last three weeks. And I have not a single short story by me. I trust
you've not been ill?"

"I am never ill," Miss Parlby said. "I suppose you are disturbed because
you have heard nothing from my nephew, who transacts all my business for
me. I regret to say that he is lying in bed with a broken arm."

Cruchley breathed a little more easily. He knew something of the moods
and vagaries of the artistic mind, and he had been somewhat fearful that
wounded vanity was at the bottom of that disturbing silence. You never
could tell, and again there was the possibility that a rival editor had
gone one better in the way of price. Even the artistic mind is not
always above sordid considerations like these. So it was all right,
though Cruchley was uneasily conscious that he had broken a promise in
intruding upon Miss Parlby. Doubtless she had been so taken up with her
nephew that she had forgotten everything else.

"I am very sorry to hear what you say," he murmured. "I shall be able to
explain to our readers now that a domestic misfortune has dragged you
from your desk."

"Oh, dear, no," Miss Parlby explained. "I hope I know my duty to my
nephew. There is no question of dragging, I assure you. I have
cheerfully put everything else on one side since he has been laid up.
One could not think of letters when there is illness in the house."

"I wasn't thinking about letters," Cruchley stammered, "but more of
those beautiful stories."

Miss Parlby looked slightly puzzled. No doubt this was an exceedingly
clever and brilliant young man, but he seemed to be labouring under some
sort of delusion.

"Are they really worth talking about?" she said. "Do you know they were
never meant to be seen at all? They were more in the way of little
innocent notes, just as if one played at writing to oneself. I used to
do that as a child. You see, I was never lucky enough to have a
playmate."

Here was the real human note, and Cruchley responded to it promptly.

"Charming, charming," he exclaimed. "A quaint and simple conceit
indeed."

"Conceit!" Miss Parlby echoed. "I don't understand. I have never been
called conceited before."

Cruchley stammered something in reply. What on earth was the matter with
the woman? Was she trying to take a rise out of him? It was ridiculous
to believe that one whose style was almost purely Addisonian should fail
to understand the meaning of the application of his phrase.

"But it is so interesting," he said. "It will be quite a new note for
our readers. They will be delighted to hear that you began your literary
career by writing letters to yourself. That, no doubt, is where you
learnt the rare art of prose introspection. If I may say so, that is one
of the outstanding features of your wonderful workmanship. I suppose
your short stories grew and grew until they attained that marvellous
finish and style."

A little red spot burnt on Miss Parlby's cheeks.

"I quite fail to understand you," she said coldly. "It is not very good
taste, sir, on your part to make fun of an old woman like myself. I
never aspired to be an author, and I was exceedingly sorry when my
nephew found those poor little efforts of mine. He persuaded me to let
him have them, and when he told me they were going to be published in
one of the magazines, nobody was more astonished than myself. Not that I
have ever seen them. I should have been perhaps ashamed and
uncomfortable if I had realised that the world had been taken into my
confidence through the medium of a newspaper."

"Extraordinary," Cruchley murmured, "quite extraordinary. One of the
vagaries of genius, in fact. And yet I assure you that I never printed a
score or so of short stories with more pleasure in my life. And I am
considered a judge."

"There is some dreadful mistake here," Miss Parlby said. "All I had to
go on was a handful of notes, just silly little thoughts that occur to
solitary people. You see, I read a good deal of poetry, and I have ideas
for poems, though I don't in the least know how to write them."

"I am sure you could if you tried."

"I am sure I couldn't. At any rate, I handed those notes over to my
nephew, and he said they had been published. They would not have made
much of a story altogether."

"And what about the books?" Cruchley asked.

A cold fear was clutching him, a bead of perspiration stood on the
editorial brow. Miss Parlby's gentle puzzled amazement fairly frightened
him.

"I have not the remotest idea what you are talking about," she said. "My
dear sir, do you actually think I am capable of writing a book? I am
afraid that somebody has been grossly deceiving you. And you spoke just
now as if I am a regular contributor to your paper. It looks to me as if
someone has actually had the impertinence to make use of my name. Now I
see why my friends have been amusing themselves at my expense. All sorts
of funny little hints and suggestions. I thought at first that you were
making fun of me. What vulgar minded people call chaff, I believe. You
had better see my nephew."

"I am emphatically of the same opinions," Cruchley said grimly. "I will
come down when he is better and interview him. If I have unconsciously
said anything to offend you, I beg to apologise most humbly. Possibly
the mistake has been mine."

Cruchley went back to London thoughtfully, and by the time he reached
his office he began to see daylight. It was a fortnight later before he
went down to the Sweet Auburn village again and confronted Machin.

"Now, you blackguard," he said, "tell me all about it. A nice mess
you've got me into."

"Well, practically it's your own fault," Machin said. "I sent you a
pretty little short story over the signature of Laura Jane Parlby. As a
matter of fact, she was my inspiration and I thought it would be a neat
idea to assume her name. Then you wrote and asked to see me or her, and
I came. When I told you I was the author of the yarn, I could see that
you were most bitterly disappointed. You told me pretty plainly that if
you could father the stories on to some dainty mid-Victorian old maid,
there was a big boom in front for the stuff. Now, I had written about
twenty of those yarns, and I began to smell large money in them. I admit
the inspiration came from my aunt, but the work was my own; and whether
you like it or not, you are bound to admit that they were rattling good
stories, and the public has endorsed your verdict. Well, I wasn't going
to disappoint you, and I wasn't going to disappoint myself either. You
asked for Laura Jane Parlby, and I was in a position to deliver the
goods. So to speak, I had her in the ice chest. It seemed a pity to
spoil a beautiful romance like that for the sake of a virgin aunt. I
knew that she would never hear about it, and even if she did, she would
forgive a little innocent deception like that. So I allowed you to think
that I was merely a go-between to shield her lavender-scented genius
from a vulgar and curious world. You seemed so dead keen upon the whole
thing that I hadn't the heart to undeceive you. And, in any case, you
had no business to have come down here."

Cruchley was too angry to see his advantage.

"Well, I like that!" he cried. "I like the idea of you posing as the
injured party. Here you have made me an absolute confederate to one of
the grossest frauds ever worked upon the public. Good heavens, man, when
I think of the reams of gush that have been written about Miss Parlby I
don't know whether to laugh or to cry."

"I don't see anything to cry about," Machin said. "I think I'm a fairly
modest man, but I cannot close my eyes to the fact that in me you have
presented another great literary genius to a grateful public. Dash it
all, man, I did write those stories, and I did write those books. And,
what's more, there will be plenty still where they came from. Of course,
if you like to repudiate me and tell the whole truth, I shall be pleased
to take my work elsewhere. But the public would only laugh at you and go
on reading the immortal works of Laura Jane Parlby all the same. My dear
chap, what are you going to do?"

Cruchley wasn't quite sure. Assuredly he would be laughed at if the
story became public, and most assuredly his house would lose the benefit
of Machin's work. And that it was really good work there was no
denying--it seemed almost impossible to believe that this big man in the
rough tweed suit was capable of such dainty fiction.

"Oh, I'd better let it go," he growled. "I must tell my proprietors, of
course. And, as you say, no one has been hurt and the public has been
elevated."

And Machine was quite content to let it go at that.



THE END



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