JOHN BRACE sat at the breakfast table, gazing reflectively at a bulky envelope opened at one end. The superscription recited his address. The imprint in the upper left-hand corner was that of a well-known periodical.
To his world — the world of business — Brace was a common soldier in the great army of traffic. To his wife, who knew him rather better than he knew himself, he was that and more. For example, she knew that under the enthusiastic exterior of the man of business there dwelt a deep-seated, love for such unmarketable trumpery as literature and music and art.
It was this love which had made it easy for him, when brought face to face with a business reverse, to try his hand at story-writing. The first story was sent to the periodical whose return envelope Brace was thoughtfully regarding at the breakfast table.
He was the first to break the silence which followed the reading of the politely worded circular of declination. “ It’s pretty carefully non-committal, is n’t it ? It suggests a stack of reasons, from which the snubbed one may take his choice, and so let himself down easy.”
“ It is designed to fit a good many different kinds of cases, I suppose,” rejoined the wife.
“ Doubtless. Well, thus endeth the first lesson. Now I ’ll go to work and write something worth while.”
Clara Brace knew her husband too well to remonstrate, and she held her peace when he got out the writing materials and plunged recklessly into a second attempt. She feared the difficulties for him vicariously. And yet, womanlike, she put reason aside, and from that moment John Brace the aspiring had an ally whose loyalty was not measured by the facts in the case.
Every evening fora week fornd Brace at the writing table, turning off page after page of the new story with the easy fluency which is the birthright of beginners. He read some of it to his wife as it progressed ; and when it was finished, he settled himself comfortably in his chair and asked her to listen to the whole of it.
“ Is n’t that a good story ? ” he demanded, facing the last sheet of manuscript upon the pile.
“ Ye-es; it’s much better than I thought you could do. But ” —
“ But what. ? Don’t consider it as the production of your nearest relative. Just rise above all that, and criticise it coldly, as you would a story in print.”
Her eyes met his with a look of half pleading in them. “ I can’t do that, John ; please don’t ask me to. Your work will always be a part of yourself to me.”
Brace gave a low whistle. “ So be it.
I 've done the best I could with it; but now that you’ve refused to slash it, I ’ll admit that it seems peculiarly weak and tasteless.”
“ In what way ? ”
“ If I knew, I ’d change it. That’s what fazes me.”
“Can’t you learn to criticise your own work ? ”
“ I suppose I ’ll have to. But it ’s very evident that the self-critical faculty has n’t begun to sprout yet. If it had, I could tell what is the matter with this thing, " Brace rejoined, clasping his hands at the back of his head, and relapsing into a posture of ease before the crackling wood fire on the hearth. “ I’m afraid I’ve started up a long hill, this time.”
“ Will you send this story out ? ”
“ Assuredly. Why else have I wrought upon it ? It ’ll come back, to a dead moral certainty, — if I don’t forget to put in return postage ; but I hope there 'll be a word — just one word — of criticism, to enable me to get the trajectory for the next shot.”
“ You have determined to go on, then?”
Brace laughed. “ I could n’t stop now, if I wanted to. I never did have sense enough to let go of anything. But there ’s one thing about it : I ’ve got to scrape an acquaintance with somebody who can give me a few points on the mechanical details. I 'm too fresh to know where to sign my name on a manuscript as yet.”
“ Have you ever met Mr. Talford, over at the Palmettos ? ”
“ Yes, casually. He was on the train, coming over from the city yesterday.”
“ Mrs. Allison says he writes for the magazines. Perhaps he would help you.”
“ That’s the idea. I ’ll drop in on him to-morrow and give him a chance to try.”
Following his card up to Mr. Talford’s room, the next morning, he stated his errand frankly, and with a naive disregard for the congruities which brought a smile to the face of the real maker of books. But the journeyman was too kindly to discourage the apprentice.
“You will have to find out most of it for yourself,” he said, when Brace had made an end. “ If the gift is in you, you can develop it. Such advice as any one could give you now would be chiefly about the mechanical part of the work, and I presume you don’t need that.”
“ But I do,” admitted the tyro shamefacedly. “ I thought of a point this morning. Is a writer expected to punctuate his manuscript ? ”
The amused smile came again. “ Certainly. You are expected to present it as it should appear in type.”
The apprentice grimaced his dismay. “ That’s my failing, — or one of them,” he confessed. “ I sent a story to the Adytum last night, in which I’m afraid the punctuation is conspicuous by its absence. You see, I’ve been writing business letters all my life, with a dash or two here and there, and a period at the end.”
The author caught at the name of the periodical. “ The Adytum, did you say ? You aim high, don’t you ? But that is right; hitch your wagon to a star, and don’t be discouraged if you find there is no thoroughfare. I happen to know that the Adytum has a great many manuscripts ahead.”
“ Oh, I shan’t mind if it comes back " said the apprentice magnanimously. “ I know an editor can’t buy everything in sight. But I thought I might get a word or two of criticism which would help out.”
“ You must n’t expect that, either. Last year, one of the leading magazines was required to pass upon rather more than ten thousand manuscripts, and ” —
Brace rose and found his hat. “That will do,’ he said. “ I’m only one of the ten thousand, and the worst equipped of the lot; but I 'll have to fight it out to a finish, now. I don’t begin to have sense enough to let go.”
As a result of this interview, Brace went back to his business journeyings with a large and increasing respect for the difficulties of the vocation which had been taken up as a side issue. He foresaw that he must prepare for a long and patient struggle, with the odds against the chances of ultimate success.
“ I’ve gone into this fight just about barehanded,” he said to his wife, while he was packing his valise for a journey. “ I have n’t any of the munitions of war, and I don’t know what I need. How will this do to begin on ? ” thrusting a small volume of Shakespeare into the traveling bag. “ Have you any pointers to give me ? ”
“ No, dear ; only that you don’t work too hard over it.”
“ Over what, — the Shakespeare or the fad ? ” “ You know what I mean. You are earning a good living now, and there is no necessity for such a strenuous effort as you are making.”
“ Only the necessity of succeeding in that whereunto I have laid my hand. Be good to yourself and the babies. I ’ll be back Saturday.”
For some weeks the tyro adhered steadfastly to a resolution he had made to read and study much, and to let composition severely alone. Within this period the story was returned, without comment.
“ That’s a weight off my mind,” he said, with a sigh of relief, when the package appeared in the mail. “ I should have had a fit if it had by any chance gotten into print, — though I fancy there was n’t much danger of that.”
Clara laughed. “ Do you think you could criticise it now ? ”
“ I don’t want to. It would have to be rewritten before it could be criticised. I had mighty little to say when I wrote it, and I did n’t know how to say that little.”
“ Did Shakespeare tell you that ? ”
“ Possibly. He’s had a good bit to say to me in the last few weeks. I’ve been catching on to a few things : one of them is that something more than a fair knowledge of the rules of English grammar and the ability to spell correctly is needful to the building of a readable story.”
The lack of material — a lack which, in the first fervor of composition, seems the most remote among the future exigencies — began to make itself apparent with the gradual overcoming of the mechanical difficulties. From having the beginner’s plethora of stories and no words in which to tell them, he came by easy stages to that valley of vacuity where the very air is rife with forms of expression, but where everything conceivable seems too banal to write about.
For many days, and over endless miles of railway journeys, Brace sought diligently for a theme worthy of the name, and found it not. The daily panorama and the archives of memory were alike barren. It was a period of soul-searching trial, and the Delectable Mountains of fruition were dimming to the vanishing point, when a word from his loyal ally set him at work again. He had been digging in the archives, rejecting incident after incident, with the plaint that none of them had any literary value.
“ Is n’t that the artist’s art, John, — to take the bones of fact and clothe them with the flesh and blood of verisimilitude?” asked the ally.
“ By Jove, Clara, I believe you’ve hit it! I’ve been hunting for an incident that had all the attachments, — something that l could photograph. I forgot that incidents are not typical. Imagination is the brick and mortar of the thing, with a stone or two of fact for the foundation.”
Brace thrust his hands deep into his pockets, and began the digging of another pit in the quarry of memory. Well below the detritus of later years he came upon a gruesome incident marking a day in a summer outing among the Colorado mountains. On one of its exploring trips, the party of which he was a member had come upon an abandoned “prospect” tunnel high up on the tonsure of Uncompahgre. Propped against one of the entrance shores was the mummy of a man, with the skeleton of a pistol beside it; and in the heading of the tunnel, prone upon its face in the débris brought down by the blasting, was a second mummy. Inquiry at the nearest mining camp had left the mystery still unexplained ; and Brace had suffered his imagination to construct, upon the foundation of visible fact, a story of avarice and murder and remorseful suicide. Here was a starting point, and he lost no time in making a beginning.
“ How does that strike you, Clara ? ” he asked, when something like a connected narrative had grown out of the ghastly memory.
“ Mercy ! it’s simply horrible I How could you think of such a thing, John ? ”
Brace chuckled at the unconscious tribute to his descriptive powers. “ It has to be horrible to agree with the after fact.”
“ Yes, but ” —
“ But what ? ”
“Is n’t it a little too much on the ‘ penny dreadful ’ order ? ”
“ Perhaps it is ; but we 'll give it a trial, anyway.”
It was tried, accordingly, not once, but many times, and it finally found lodgment in a periodical whose literary standing compensated somewhat the scanty figures of the check.
When it had gone upon the first of its journeys, Brace began to rummage again, this time with suspended pen, — an expectant attitude in which an entire evening was wasted.
“The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that fiction is n’t my best hold, Clara,” he said, tearing up the twentieth beginning and dropping the paper ribbons into the wastebasket.
Mistress Clara looked up from her sewing with the light of a new sympathy in her eyes.
“ What else can you try, John ? ”
“ I don’t know. I used to be pretty good at essays in my undergraduate days. I believe I ’ll try something in an argumentative way ; something meaty and solid, you know, like a leader in an English newspaper.”
“ But I always supposed that kind of work required a special knowledge of the subject.”
“ I guess it does ; but I can cram for it, if I can find a timely subject. How would the lottery question do ? There’s a lot of word-spinning about that in everything you pick up, nowadays.”
“ You might try it,” said the ally, in loyal acquiescence, bending lower over the garment she was making, and shedding inward tears of compassion for the sublime obstinacy which would rise above such petty obstacles as the mere lack of a starting point.
“ I believe I will. But first I ’ll write to one of the magazines to find out if such a paper would be timely. If the editor says ‘yes,’ I 'll begin to fish for facts.”
The editor said “ yes,” hedging the affirmative about with chevaux-de-frise of a cautionary nature, designed to prevent the possible construing of his letter into an order ; and Brace plunged into the study of his subject. Old M’sieu’ Bougard drove him to the railway station that morning, into whom the sounding line of investigation was dropped haphazard.
“ W’at I s’all t’ink ’bout da lott’ry ? Bien, he’s not much ’count. Me ? I ’ll juz buy da tick’ two, t’ree year, reg’lar, an’ I don’t get nutting back. Ha! da morale, you h-ask ? I ’ll t’ink dat’s not da good morale ; tek da mona from poor h-ol’ man lak me. Yes, sir, I ’ll t’ink dat’s not da good morale, non ? ”
That was the barren beginning; and the middle part and the ending were scarcely more fruitful. None the less, Brace raked patiently in the rubbish heaps of statistics, and made shift to grind out a dissertation whose periods alternated between commonplace matters of fact and spread-eagle bursts of denunciation ; these last in spite of the author’s best efforts to hold the argument down to the level of a fair-minded discussion.
“ It’s no use; it does n’t march, Clara,” he admitted ruefully, folding the manuscript and addressing it. " I 'll have to come down a peg and try something easier.”
“ You always have an alternative, dear. What is it this time ? ”
“ I’ve thought of trying a gossipy letter for the newspapers, using it as an entering wedge to get my name before the public. Anything for the sake of practice and a little advertising. I can’t afford to stick at trifles, at this stage of the game.”
“ I don’t believe you would be satisfied with anything of that kind, John.”
“ Probably not; but it seems to be the last resort.”
The “ gossipy letter ” was carefully written, and was a model of its kind, — stately, dignified, and somewhat over-exact as to matters of fact. It went to a Western newspaper, and brought a courteous letter of declination, unaccompanied, however, by the manuscript. Brace thought no more of it until, some weeks later, a friend sent him a marked copy of the paper in which the declined “ letter ” occupied the post of honor, specialized by the enticing headline, “ From our special correspondent.”
Brace carried the paper home and showed it to his ally. “ If these be the ethics of journalism, I’m done with the newspapers,” he said wrathfully. “If the thing were worth the trouble, — which it is n’t, — I 'd try to get even with that fellow.”
Clara laid the paper aside, and came and stood behind his chair. “ The American Monte Carlo is back with a printed slip,” she said gently, trying to temper the bad news with a caress.
“ Is it ? Well, that’s the end of that experiment, too. It’s the end of all of them, by Jove ! ”
“ The end of them ? ” she faltered. “ Oh, John ! ” Time was when she would have rejoiced ; but now vicarious ambition sat in the seat of reason, and there was sharp disappointment in her voice.
“ Don’t mistake me. The fight is still on, and it shall continue until I win or wear out. But there is n’t going to be any more dabbling in experiments. I shall take one line and stick to it through thick and thin. No more timely potboilers, or letters ' from our special correspondent.’ We ’re going into the house of literature through the front door, or not at all.”
“ Bravo ! ” she said, clapping her hands softly. And then, in an uprising of tender solicitude: “ But I do so wish I could help you. It hurts me to see you working so hard, and alone.”
“ You do help me. You believe in me.”
“ It does n’t keep you from looking worn and tired.”
“Never mind about that. I’ve an idea for another story, — suggested by the face of a mountain girl whom I saw up in Alabama the other day. I’m going to tramp the beach and develop the plot. Won’t you come along ? ”
“ No. You can think better if you are alone.”
In the course of the plot-making jaunt Brace came upon Talford, who asked him to report progress.
Brace laughed. “ There is n’t much to report. 1 'm desperately in earnest, by this time ; so far into it that retreat means more discomfiture than I’m equal to. You did n’t say much about the stumbling-blocks, but I ’m finding them, all right.”
Talford caught step and linked arms with him. “ Then you have n’t given it up ? ”
“ No, I can’t now. That’s one of the things I don’t know how to do. I suspect I’m a natural-born idiot for having gone into it, but that’s neither here nor there ; I’m in for it. and nothing short of defeat positive and proscriptive will drive me out of the field.”
“ I like that,” said the man of letters. “ It’s refreshing in this day of dilettantism. Are you working on anything now ? ”
“ Of course. I came out this morning for the express purpose of gathering up the threads of an elusive plot. It moves after a fashion, but I’m afraid the scheme’s pretty badly overworked.”
“ Give me the line. Perhaps I can help you.”
“ It’s about like this : Scene, the Alabama mountains. Hero, a young fellow off on a hunting trip. He is mistaken for a revenue officer, and captured by the moonshiners. They hold him for a few days, and the boss moonshiner’s daughter falls in love with him. She is that impossible combination of all the feminine graces and virtues wrapped up in no end of ignorance and simplicity; beautiful as a black-eyed dream, and all that. You get the idea ? ”
“ Yes ; go on.”
“ Well, the hero can’t identify himself, and he is condemned to walk the plank. That’s in secret session; but the girl overhears, and purchases a chance to save her lover by promising to marry the villain. Whereupon succeeds the flight of the hero and heroine through the moon-washed forest at midnight. Pursuit of same by the baffled mountaineers— and I have n’t quite decided yet whether I shall violate all of the unities by letting the two escape together, or whether I shall turn on the blue lights and end it with a couple of rifle shots.”
Talford laughed. Your commercial training is worth something to you even in literature. I’ve known a man work a week to get a notion into such terse form as that. The scheme is a bit hackneyed, as you intimate ; but you can redeem it by original treatment.”
Their walk had led them back to the village, and Talford shook hands with Brace at parting. " I wish you abundant success,” he said. “ Come to me when I can help you.”
“ Thank you. That’s the first Godspeed I’ve had, outside of the family.”
“ Don’t be discouraged. You’ve got to learn the trade, and it 'll take time. And don’t work too hard ; you ’re showing the marks of it already. There is no mental labor included in Adam’s curse so exhausting as the creative.”
Brace went home and began again. This time he put impatience aside, and wrote and rewrote until he could do no more. When The Moonshiner’s Daughter was launched upon the first of its many voyages, he went on writing other stories of Southern folk life, sending them adrift one by one on the heaving ocean of competition.
As the struggle went on, the patient tenacity which was the strong thread in the warp of his character was strained to the utmost. His daily life became an eager quest for knowledge. Every chance word of dialect or quaint idiom, stumbled upon in his journeys, was carefully written out for future use. Every tale of folk life, heard on the trains or over the evening pipe in country inns, was remembered and summarized. And gradually, with a growth so slow as to be almost imperceptible, there came a juster appreciation of the things that go to the making of a story; what was better, there came also the genesis of a deep love of the art for its own sake.
While he studied he wrote, not now with the easy fluency of the beginnings, but rather with a painful exactness wearying alike to writer and to reader. Brace recognized this as a new stone of stumbling, and strove patiently to acquire an easier style. That too promised to come in time ; but meanwhile his little argosies came back to him from each succeeding voyage, bringing always the same courteously worded stereotyped letter of refusal.
“ Are n’t you getting dreadfully weary, dear ? ” asked the ally one evening, when Brace had settled himself at his desk. He had just returned from a journey, and the inevitable plethoric envelope was awaiting him.
“ Of failure, yes; of the effort, not in the least. But I should be grateful if some fellow who knows would stop the machinery long enough to point out a few of the weak places. Take this story : it’s been everywhere, and not a man of them all has said anything more to the purpose than this last. Hear him: ' We sincerely regret that we are compelled to decline the manuscript you were good enough to submit to us. Accept our thanks for your kindness in allowing us to examine it,’ — facsimile stereo., with date and signature written in. It’s all right, I suppose, but I wish he ’d told me in so many words that I ’m a botch, and no carpenter. Then I could go about my legitimate business with a clear conscience.”
“ But you know you would n’t, John. You’d work yourself into a brain fever trying to produce something which would make him retract.”
“ Should I ? I don’t know but you ’re right. Which goes to prove that the Sphinxlike editor knows his business, after all.”
“ You say the story has been everywhere. Your list is very small; would n’t it pay to go a little farther down the scale and enlarge it ? ”
Brace shook his head. " No; the second-rate periodicals can’t afford to bring out new people. They can better afford to take poor work from writers of repute, as many of them do. It’s different with those on my list. Their position is assured. Instead of banking upon the name of a writer, they make him a name if his work is worthy.”
Wherein spake chiefly the optimistic pertinacity of the tyro, not wholly uncolored, perhaps, by a tinge of logic. Every fresh suggestion to change his plan of campaign only served to make him fight more strenuously upon the line he had drawn for himself. All through the long Southern summer he toiled on with a dogged perseverance which seemed to gather fresh inspiration from each succeeding failure. In the sanguine desperation which is sometimes a consequent of hope long deferred, he came to reckon atoms as weighing upon one side or the other in the scale of success. A manuscript kept long gave rise to the hope that it had been found worthy of a more critical examination ; and when some editor, touched, perhaps, by the pathetic persistence of the man, added a written word of regret or criticism, Brace found fuel therein to keep alive the fires of perseverance through another period of working and waiting.
Such strenuous and unsparing effort, joined to the wear and tear of business, could scarcely fail of its effect upon the health of the toiler. With the reddening of the sweet-gum leaves in autumn came a weariness which refused to be ignored. Brace fought it fiercely, and would not desist, though the weariness was presently emphasized by failing eyesight and a clouded brain.
Clara Brace saw, with vision sharpened by affection, the symptoms of approaching collapse ; and one evening, when her husband announced his intention of making a long-deferred business trip into Florida, with a complete rest from literary work, the sudden relaxing of the strain upon her sympathy brought the tears to her eyes.
“ It is what you need more than anything in the world, John, dear,” she said. " I 've been waiting so anxiously for you to find it out for yourself.”
Brace threw down the pen and rose stiffly. “ I guess you ’re about right, Clara, as you usually are. I have n’t much sense when it comes to climbing the hill Difficulty.”
She got up and stood beside him, with her cheek on his shoulder. “ It’s a fine ambition, dear, and I love you for it ; but it will make me a widow some day, if you don’t control it. When will you go ? ”
“ To-morrow morning. The trip will take two weeks, and a fortnight’s rest ought to have something to say to my addled brain. Just now it seems as if I could never think another thought that would be worth putting in black on white.”
The thoughts will come again ; hut you must make the rest absolute.”
I mean to. I’m going to try to forget that I was ever bitten by the scribbling tarantula.”
So ran the good intention. But the shackles of habit are not so easily broken. and the first night out found Brace working far into the small hours, heedless of reluctant brain and smarting eyes ; his good resolution forgotten in the genesis of a new train of ideas fostered by a quiet writing room in a comfortable hotel.
That was the beginning of the end, and the catastrophe did not tarry. Never before had he had such far - sighted glimpses into the heart of things ; and never had he striven so vainly to catch and crystallize into fitting words the thoughts which slipped and glided from his grasp like globules of quicksilver. Night after night he renewed the struggle, only to sink deeper in the mire of bafflement. He gave up at last, heartsick and ill, and turned his face homeward ; but he could not stop the mazy dance of the half-formed mental pictures weaving themselves in and out to the clicking of the car wheels.
As he neared home, he tried to interest himself in the familiar panorama flitting past the car window, but the effort only added fresh complications to the figures in the relentless mental kaleidoscope. The colonnades of stately pines ; the quaint Old - World architecture in the villages ; the bright bits of color in the dooryards, thrown out into vivid relief against the white of the limewash on the cottages, and the sombre green backgrounds of Chinese umbrella trees and wax-leafed magnolias; the broad bands of snowy sand on the beaches; the sudden reaches of open water, stretching away to invisible horizons, — all the homely and tangible idealities became component parts of the devils’ dance of thought images.
Turning his back to the window in a fit of despair, he drew out the worn notebook, and tried once more to catch and fix the outlines of the story which clamored for expression. It was useless. The effort only quickened the phantasmagoric medley, and the pencil shared the helplessness of his faculties.
At such times, when the failing will is bent like a strained bow toward the accomplishment of a single purpose, small irrelevancies pierce like luminous spears through the mists and vapors of the sick brain, until their keen points touch the reason. Brace remarked two of these curiously obtrusive facts, and was conscious of an effort to ignore them. One was the dancing of a group of microscopic meteors on the page of the notebook, and the other was the inability to gauge the distance from the pencil point to the open page.
The autumn afternoon was waning when the train rumbled over a long bridge and across the shell road into the hamlet which Brace called home. When the brakeman shouted the name of the station, Brace started to his feet and stumbled down the aisle. The next moment there was a shriek from the locomotive ; the air brakes ground viciously on the flying wheels, and the train stopped with a jolt that scattered the piled-up wares of the newsvender. Brace was near the door when the shock came, and he fell clumsily, striking his head against the iron arm of a seat. He was unconscious when they took him up and carried him home ; and an hour later, when he came out of the swoon, he was delirious.
The village doctor, summoned quickly, shook his head and hinted at brain fever when Clara questioned him.
“ Get him to bed and keep him quiet,” he said. “ He’s been working himself to death, and that cut on his head is only the exciting cause. I hope it is n’t going to be serious, but he’s in bad shape to fight a fever.”
Through the early part of the night the sick man talked incoherently; but toward morning he sank into a deep sleep, from which he did not awaken until after the physician had made his morning call. Clara was at the bedside when he awoke, and a vague foreboding seized upon her when he rose on one elhow and stared at her.
“ Where am I ? ” he asked. " You are here, at home, John. Don’t you know me ? ”
Brace fell back upon the pillow and tried to rally his wits. “ What has happened to me, Clara ? ” he asked, after a little.
“ You were thrown down in the collision, yesterday, and you struck something in falling. Do you remember it ? ” “ I don’t think I do ; at least, not very clearly. Was it yesterday, did you say ? ” “ Yes ; in the afternoon. You were on Number Four, coming from the east.”
“ I do remember something about it, but it seems as if it might have been ages ago. What time is it now, Clara ? ” Her heart gave a great bound, and then stood still. The clock on the mantel was measuring the final half hour of the forenoon, and the wide-open eyes of the sick man were staring fixedly at its face. The dreadful truth overwhelmed her for a moment; but when she answered him, there was infinite tenderness in her voice and her hand sought his.
“ It is nearly noon, dear,” she said.
“ Nearly noon ! Why have you made the room so dark ? ”
She held his hand in both of hers now, and he felt a warm tear plash upon it.
“ I know,” he said. “ I ’m blind. I ’ll never see you or the babies again.” Then he turned his face to the wall and tried to pull himself together to fight the horrors of darkness.
Only He who was acquainted with grief could know the silent agony of those first few moments : the sudden plunge into endless night, the insurmountable barrier closing all the avenues of study, the swift transition from ambitious activity to the monotonous half life of the blind.
When he turned his face again toward her, the wife read with grief-quickened eyes the sharply graven history of the fierce struggle. She laid her hand on his forehead. " I ’ll be eyes and hands to you, John. Can’t you trust me ? ”
“ If that were all, yes. But how are we to live ? ”
“ Don’t think about that yet, dear. We '11 consider ways and means when you are stronger. Shall I bring the children in ? ”
“ Not now. I think I’d like to be alone for a while, if you don’t mind. And before you go, I wish you 'd draw the curtains and darken the room. It hurts me to know that the place is full of things that can Stare at me when I can’t see them. It’s terribly new yet, and I’ll have to get used to it by degrees.”
When Dr. Turnley came again, that afternoon, he listened to the story of the gradual failure of his patient’s sight, and inquired minutely concerning the symptoms attending it.
“You’ve been something worse than heedless,” he said, when Brace had made an end of his confession. “ Of course, we all knew you were in training for literary work, but I had no idea you were burning the candle at both ends at this rate. I ’ll be frank with you. The case is beyond me, now. You’d better call in the best oculist you can find in New Orleans, and do it at once.”
“ Don’t be too hard on me, doctor. I know I 've been an ambitious idiot, but you should n’t hit a man when he’s down. About the oculist, I wish you ’d send for him — and come with him, yourself. I shall need some good friend to rail at, if he tells me I’m done for.”
The oculist came the next day, and Dr. Turnley drove him to the cottage. The examination was brief. When it was over, Brace asked the verdict.
“ You have about one chance in ten of recovering your sight,” said the great man curtly.
“ And the treatment ? ”
“ I will arrange with Dr. Turnley about that. But you must make up your mind to obey orders. You must have perfect rest in a darkened room, till a cure is effected, or until we know that you can’t be cured.”
“ How long shall I have to lie by ? ”
“I said until you’re cured. It may be six weeks, but it’s more likely to be six months.” And the oculist bowed to Mrs. Brace, and left the room with Dr. Turnley.
Brace groaned as he heard the door close behind them. “ That settles it, Clara. You ’re there, are n’t you ? ”
“ Yes, dear.”
“ Well, call a meeting of the ways and means committee, and let’s see what’s to be done. So far as I’m concerned, it might as well turn itself into a coroner’s jury and be done with it.”
“That isn’t like you, John. You must n’t give up, if only for the sake of the children and me.”
“ I know it. I ought to be sufficiently grateful for the tenth chance, but I ’m not. I’m afraid you ’ll have to administer another dose of solitude, and give me a chance to argue myself into a better frame of mind.”
She darkened the room and left him, returning in an hour with a dainty luncheon.
“ Has the better frame of mind arrived ? ” she asked.
“ Let us hope so. But the ways and means trouble me. I suppose I’m definitely out of business. The company won’t hold my place unfilled for six months or six weeks ; and I’d like to know how I’m to earn anything.”
“You don’t need to earn anything for a while,” she rejoined. “ For what rainier day have we been saving, all these years? ”
“ That’s all right; but the bank account is no widow’s cruse, — it won’t last forever.”
“Never mind about the bank account, now ; I’m going to feed you. You ’ll feel better after you’ve had your luncheon.”
Brace wedged a pillow behind his shoulders and submitted. “ Think of it,”be said. “ Two days ago I was a man among men, able to do for myself and for the rest of us. To-day I can’t find the way to my own mouth. I 'd actually starve to death if you were n’t good to me. Eheu ! ”
Halfway through the meal he caught her hand and held it. “ Say, little woman, I’ve an idea ! If I can learn to dictate, will you do the amanuensis act ? ”
“ Dictation would be work, and the doctor said perfect rest.”
“ Perfect rest implies some sort of safety valve. I shall swell up and burst in less than a week, if I have to lie here and think thoughts that I can’t get rid of.”
“ That would be sad. We might try the amanuensis plan ; but if it tires you, you mustn’t insist.”
“ I 'll be simply cherubic. When shall we begin ? ”
“Perhaps some day next week, if you are strong enough.”
“ Oh, Clara, dear, don’t be despotic! Think how wicked it is to bully a blind man ! Now listen. Last week — or was it last year, or a century ago ? — the making of the best story I ’ve ever thought of was dodging about in my head. It was too slippery, and I went foolish trying to write it out; but now it has come back, clothed and in its right mind. Won’t you please help me to put it in black on white ? ”
She said " no,” and then went for the writing materials, propping the window shade open an inch, and sitting where the narrow ray of light fell across the page in her lap; and thereupon another experiment, more exacting than any of its forerunners, was begun.
But the obstacles were chiefly of a mechanical nature. The art of dictating is not to be acquired without practice ; and success bespeaks active and comprehensive work on the part of the author, and infinite patience in the amanuensis. It was days before Brace could formulate a sentence, and keep the balance of its component parts in a clear field of mental vision while dictating it; but once he was able to do this, the compensations of his affliction began to be evident in his work. With the mandatory banishment of business cares came a return of the diverted rivulets of thought to the main stream. For hurried moments, snatched at irregular intervals, there were peaceful hours for consecutive work in preparation ; mental revision became the natural substitute for manual rewriting ; and there was time for indulgence in that luxury of expression, the choosing and fitting of apposite words, — that part of composition which is comparable to the art of the lapidary selecting his gems so that the reflected brilliance of each shall increase the lustre of its neighbor.
The story was completed after many patient days ; and whatever its shortcomings in depth of motif and intricacy of plot, it set forth in unmistakable phrase the careful work of the craftsman.
“ I wish I could see it,” Brace said. “ I can’t tell how it looks from hearing it. Is it any better than the others ? ”
“ It is hardly to be compared with anything else you have done ; it is very different. It tells of leisure and uninterrupted trains of thought; and you have put much of yourself into it.”
“ That last is a consequence, is n’t it ? I wonder if a writer is quite free from the charge of impudence, if he goes before his public without having first tasted for himself something of the joys and sorrows he attempts to depict. It ’s no light thing to speak to a multitude, and yet I fancy most beginners think little of that.”
The story went the way of its predecessors ; and when it was gone, Brace settled down to await the outcome. The days dragged wearily enough without occupation, but he felt that he had put his best into this last experiment, and that more fuel must be added before the fire would burn higher. Just how it was to be added, with all the means of self-help lacking, was a problem which the loyal ally undertook to solve by reading aloud to him from his favorite books.
One evening Clara had bandaged his eyes and led him to a seat on the veranda, leaving him to enjoy the cool breeze sweeping in from the Gulf. The harmony of the plashing waves, chiming with the gentle rustling of leaves and the small voices of insects, charmed the sense which so soon begins to lift the heavy burden of the blind; and Brace fell into a reverie, in which the vanishing point led up to devout gratitude for the gift of the keener mental vision which had followed so closely upon the heels of his affliction.
A familiar step on the shell-paved walk brought him back to a realization of things present.
“ Have you been to the post office ? ” he inquired, as Clara came up the steps.
She went to him and stood behind his chair. “John, dear,” she said softly, “ have you — have you been counting much upon the success of A Borrowed Conscience ? ”
He knew what was coming, and bent his head as one who faces a wintry storm.
“You were quite prepared to have it returned two or three times, were n’t you ? It was hardly to be expected that it would find a place on its first journey.”
“No ; I did n’t dare hope for that — and yet”— He turned his face eagerly toward her. “ Did he say anything ? Did he write a letter ? ”
She bent over him till her lips touched his brow. “ He did, dear ; and this is what he says : ‘ We have read with much pleasure your story, A Borrowed Conscience, and are glad to accept it for publication in the magazine. It will be put into galleys within a few weeks, and payment for it will be sent you about the time the proofs are forwarded. Thanking you for having permitted us to see your work, and trusting that we shall see more of it, we are very truly yours.’ ”