The Unconscious Plagiarist
THE Imaginative Girl sat on a terrace in front of her Castle in Spain writing a poem to send to an Editor who lived in a Strange Country. It was a good poem, for it contained an idea and much coloring and sufficient metre. Moreover it came from the Girl’s soul, which is always to be taken into account when one considers a poem. Presently she signed it with her initials, and dated it, and then she leaned back against a thornless rose tree and forgot all about it, because there above her face floated a half moon, silver in the yellow sunshine, and it immediately put another poem into her charming head.
As she looked at it the Unconscious Plagiarist entered at the great arch of the gateway, and disposed himself picturesquely on the turf near by.
“You know the best poem I wrote last week ? ” he asked.
“ Which best ? ” inquired the Imaginative Girl.
“The one you liked so much,” explained the Plagiarist, who was continually under a delusion.
“Oh,” murmured the Girl, conveying an impression that the light had dawned, “ what have you done now ? ”
“Stolen it from Browning,” said the Unconscious Plagiarist, with the effrontery of the habitual criminal.
“That is really too bad of Browning, ” said the Girl, with practiced sympathy ; “ I have no use at all for that man. No one would have minded his writing one book of poetry, but to go and say everything there was to say in twenty ” — She paused.
“ Yes, ” assented the Plagiarist gratefully, “and to think of his ruining my career in this way when I ’ve carefully refrained from ever reading a line of him in my life! ”
“Still, I don’t see what you can do about it, ” said the Girl. “ Which poem is yours like ? ”
“Amphibian. The idea is the same. Also, in part, the expression. The Browning Man found him out. The only difference is that mine is the best. First, ” said the Unconscious Plagiarist, “it was Keats and Byron; then Tennyson and Swinburne; now it is Browning. And I took such care, too, never to read the standard poets when I discovered I was to be a standard poet myself. I was very young then.”
“Now that was clever of you,” said the Girl admiringly. “I never should have thought of that.”
“But it did n’t seem to work, you know,” he submitted with hesitation.
“That is Fate,” observed the Girl, with adorable gravity. She sighed, and read him the poem just finished. He considered over it judicially.
“I like that, ” he said at last; “you improve every day. How impressively you say things ! ”
“I think so too,” agreed the Girl. “Do you notice how the rhymes recur in the fourth stanza ? ”
The Plagiarist requested her to read it again.
“ Beautiful, ” he murmured with enthusiasm, “ beautiful! Is this all you ’ ve done since yesterday evening ? ”
“Yes. Did you bring anything? ”
The Unconscious Plagiarist modestly produced a small, square, expensive blank book.
“I ’ve only a couple,” he said, adjusting his becoming eyeglasses.
“How lovely! ” cried the Girl when he had read the first; “that climax is so subtle; I’ve felt just that way. What is the other ? ”
“Oh, it’s a cynical sort of thing.” He looked bored as he read it aloud between intervals of extreme languor.
The Girl looked sympathetically bored.
“But it’s a clever thing,” she said, “and true. Nothing is worth while when one comes to think about it.”
“Tobacco is worth while,” said the Unconscious Plagiarist, “and poetry — while one is writing it. And love — while one is making it. But apart from these! ”
He and the Girl gazed through the ilexes to the waste of life beyond. They both sighed.
“ They are at tea on the balcony, ” observed the Girl. “Let’s have some too.”
As they rose to go in they saw the Browning Man coming up the terrace. The Plagiarist scowled at him with his fair eyebrows. But his companion betrayed interest.
“How good of you! ” she said, giving him her hand.
No one knew just what she meant, but then she was a poet, and no one ever expected to.
“How good of you!” returned the Browning Man, who took the greeting in one way.
“He may be mistaken, you know,” interpolated the Plagiarist, who took it in another.
“You there, young un?” said the Browning Man. “You ’d best go back to the Desert Island and study Browning, — I’ve sent over a set — so you ’ll know what not to write next time.”
The Plagiarist looked at him sulkily out of his very blue eyes, and the three sauntered up to the rose-trellised balcony.
The tea drinkers received them amicably. There was the Youthful Sister, who thought she would write poetry some day; and there was the Long Suffering Mother, who thought that she would n’t; and there was the Girl Philistine, who hated poetry; and there was the Usual Brother, who agreed with the Girl Philistine, whom he considered the most perfectly beautiful and miraculously sensible girl in the whole world.
The Youthful Sister brought a Nile green lily cup to the Plagiarist, who mounted on the iron railing, and received it absently. His eyes almost matched it. He wished the Browning Man were not so good-looking, or else that he looked a little more as if he knew it. His good looks and his unconsciousness of his good looks often wrecked the Unconscious Plagiarist’s peace of mind for a whole fifteen minutes. There he was now balancing his transparent yellow cup and saucer on the tips of his brown fingers, and making the Imaginative Girl look distinctly entertained as she trifled with her yellow saucer and cup. His hazel eyes drank the sunlight as might some faun’s. His head had the antique surety, the few finely decisive lines, of good sculpture, as he turned to offer the Girl some grapes. The Plagiarist was good-looking himself, but it is not every man who possesses a head one could put in marble above the folds of a toga. Such heads belong by right to standard men of some kind. As a private individual the Browning Man had clearly no right to a head like that.
“Well, good-by, ” said the Plagiarist.
But the Imaginative Girl did not hear. Only as he turned the corner of the walk she glanced up and beheld the vanishing smoke of his cigarette.
“What an odd boy! ” she confided to the Browning Man. “Suppose you bring him back.”
He shook his head thoughtfully, and the Unconscious Plagiarist wended his way to the Desert Island which divided the river Lethe at that place. It was near shore, and a few strokes landed him within sight of his hut. He moored the boat and strode moodily up the footpath. As he lifted the hammock hung across it he saw that there was no room for him inside the hut because of the set of Browning, which occupied the small amount of available space. He dropped the hammock and lay down in it. He hated the Browning Man. About midnight he was aroused by the plash of oars. Then he saw a dark outline on the sky, and the Browning Man flung himself down near the hammock.
“I wish you ’d go away,” muttered the Plagiarist. “I’d like to know how this can be a Desert Island if every one crowds here. ”
The Browning Man lit a pipe, and looked disapprovingly at the other’s cigarette.
“Did you get Browning? ” he asked.
“He’s in there,” answered the Plagiarist angrily. “ Please take him back. The hut is small and I ’d like to go to bed.”
“Turn him out of doors,” said the Browning Man absently. “The boat is small too. ” He was silent a little, then, getting up, stretched his arms above his head.
“ I wish I could sleep, ” he added in a changed tone. “I have n’t closed my real eyes for a week. May you never know what that means. Go in to bed and let me stay out here to-night.”
The Plagiarist, after acting on the letter of the irreverent suggestion regarding Browning, went to bed and to sleep. The Browning Man could not sleep. Therefore he thought, and thought without sleep has been known to set men crazy. To-night he thought of everything, — of the Unconscious Plagiarist, and the Imaginative Girl, and his own damnation as a poet and success as a Browning magazine man, and of how much it was n’t worth. The moon came up incredibly white. The molten light spilled like quicksilver down the river, and over the island, and ran along the Browning Man’s profile turned against his coat-sleeve, until it looked like the profile on a Roman coin. The dancing light worried him. He wanted to be where it was all dark. He flung his arm across his face, but a sliver of light penetrated like an elfin dagger to his eyes. He shut them, but that served no better. Faces, some but an intense expression, some mere faint outline, swam and faded and changed on an iridescent background of shifting color that sickened him with its wavelike motion. The moonlight was better. He took his arm away and opened his eyes on a dark space of river. Then he began to think of the Imaginative Girl again.
“I wish I had n’t come,” he said to himself. Then he broke off.
“No, I don’t,” he continued almost audibly. “It’s sweet, and it’s brief. Why not ? ”
When the Plagiarist arose next morning he discovered the Browning Man sitting on the step reading Sordello.
“Look here! ” he said.
“I shan’t,” said the Unconscious Plagiarist suspiciously.
“You’d better,” said the Browning Man. “It’s your last poem — in print too.”
The Plagiarist brushed his hair viciously, but melancholy possessed him as he followed the Browning Man to the boat.
“I can’t see why you take the standard English poets to steal from,” observed the Browning Man. “There are plenty of foreign poets who might make you a standard English poet if you assimilated them judiciously. There are the Russian or Persian or Japanese, — and no one would ever know.”
The Unconscious Plagiarist swore miserably, and the Browning Man subsided. They tied their boat to a fig tree on shore and went up to the Inn for breakfast. The Unconscious Plagiarist generally took his meals at the Inn, for while, as is usual in such cases, every luxury of life was indigenous to the Desert Island, he was too busy appropriating standard poetry to be his own peripatetic chef. Later they climbed the Castle path, and there was the Girl Philistine not harmonizing at all with the griffin-backed stone seat and the dragon-mouthed fountain. They tarried on other griffin-backed benches and talked to her, for they desired to be polite, and they knew the Usual Brother would come as soon as he saw them.
“A beautiful morning,” said the Browning Man, looking up to a certain vine swung balcony.
“So sunny,” commented the Plagiarist, looking up to it also, and waving a greeting to the Imaginative Girl, who stood there in a white morning gown that had come out of a picture in the Castle. He could see the gold glint of her eyelashes as she leaned over the rail and flung two pink roses on the velvet green turf below. Then she disappeared in the peaked window frame, and the Plagiarist ran to get the roses.
When he came back, triumphant, the Browning Man reached over and took one as his right. The Girl Philistine laughed wickedly, and the Plagiarist frowned.
“One was mine, ” said the Browning Man, with conviction. He put it in his buttonhole.
“Take the other,” suggested the Plagiarist, with simple irony.
The Browning Man smiled, and the Plagiarist flung it in the fountain, and marched up to the Castle, where he presently came upon the Girl feeding peacocks in the southern courtyard. She held a dark blue china bowl filled with yellow grains, which she sprinkled slowly on the stone floor.
“See here, ” he said ; “ who were those roses for? ”
She opened her eyes at him. Then she returned to the peacocks.
“For whoever wanted roses,” said the Imaginative Girl.
“Oh,” said the Plagiarist. Some way this bit of information staggered him.
“I ’d think you would have some fiense of the fitness of things, ” he remarked at last. “ You might as well put a pink rose in the buttonhole of a stone Nero.”
“How could I?” objected the Girl in some perplexity.
Just then the Browning Man sauntered toward them, and all was plain. Of a sudden there were three pink roses in the old gray inclosure. Two were in the Imaginative Girl’s cheeks.
“I came to say that I ’ll be up to row you out at five, ” said the Browning Man ; “ I ’ve an article about Mr. Sludge to write this morning.”
“Even here? ” cried the Girl, with heartfelt sympathy.
“Even here,” echoed the Browning Man drearily.
He suddenly cast an envious glance at the Plagiarist, whose candid face had become delightfully good-tempered. He was young, and a fool, therefore; but he had gold coins to fling, and he might dream his dreams in peace.
As he went, the remark about Nero did not seem so irrelevant to the Girl. An intangible chill frosted the sunlight, and she was glad when they came into the tower above, where the rose-colored lights from the high casements streamed like sunrise on the white rugs and divans. Here was the Girl’s den, and here her desk where she leaned her white arm and wrote; here, too, the spindlelegged table where an ivory yellow skull grinned beneath a dim gold fragment of tapestry; here, too, the manuscript book of her poems, jewel clasped like a book of saints, and locked religiously against all chance of profanation by Pagan eyes. She kept the key in a jar of rose leaves near by.
“Now,” she said, “I’ve just shown you poems at random, but in here are my best — the ones to be published some day. You can take the book to the Island with you, if you wish to.”
He hastened to assure her that he did; so she gravely unlocked it, and replaced the key in the rose jar. Then she sat down and read him her last poem. The Plagiarist leaned his chin on his hand, and looked at her with undisguised admiration.
“ That is good, ” he said finally. “ You say things so impressively.”
“Let’s get some new adjectives,” remarked the Girl after an interval of reflective silence. “It’s so monotonous to say the same things every day about each other’s poetry.”
“I’ve just thought up a ballade, ” observed the Plagiarist, somewhat pointedly ignoring the Girl’s suggestion. “Two lovers ride out together for the last time. He snatches that one favor from Fate. He exults. I have not selected the refrain yet; but do you like the idea ? ”
“Very much,” admitted the Girl, regarding him with profound pity; “so did ” — She paused expressively. “You must read Browning,” she said persuasively. “What else is left? ”
“Suppose I do read him,” said the Plagiarist dejectedly. “You don’t expect any one except the Browning Man to remember what’s in him, do you? ”
“No, ” said the Girl, “I only thought maybe you might remember what was n’t in him.”
“No,” decided the Plagiarist, “I can’t go back on my principles. If a man gets to going back on his principles he never knows where he will end up. I’ve always held that a standard poet should be intellectually isolated, even to the point of living on a Desert Island whenever practicable. If he can’t be original then, I ’d like to know how he can be original when he deliberately fills his head with other people’s stuff? ”
“I wonder who it will be next?” said the Girl. Her curiosity was pardonable.
The Imaginative Girl and the Browning Man floated out on the river Lethe, whose dark, clear crystal flowed with mesmeric motion from under their boat. Her beautiful eyes were vague with dreams. Her head was uncovered above her softly falling white garments. Her reflection appeared as a pallid flower sucked to the under eddies of the stream. She was adorable, and she was a real poet, and he was only a poor devil with an inconvenient sense of honor; so he leaned back and talked platitudes out of the knowledge that had come to him since he had been a damned poet.
“Nothing is worth while,” said the Browning Man, “except the life sacrificed for an idea, and, on rare occasions, the idea.”
Usually the Girl could murmur epigrams as fast as the Browning Man, but to-day her lips were like a shut flower.
“The eternal verities,” said the Browning Man, “are only eternal fallacies. When I was young I was happy, for I believed in them. Now, — truth — pity — love — ah, love, ” he repeated with slow self-scorn.
Then suddenly she looked at him.
“I am young still,” she whispered, while her soul beat its butterfly wings against the woven net of his words.
“I am ashamed,” he said, getting hot and white.
He was ashamed. He had said it all before. He had even said it all to her, perhaps. He did not remember. Or perhaps she had said it all to him. Certainly she and the Plagiarist had spent the summer in saying it all to each other. Why should it be so much, then ? Why should she look at him with baffled, struggling eyes, as if, because he had said it, it could mean more than any other set of idle phrases said for the saying? They drifted on in silence toward the shadow drugged East, and, when they turned, rowed straight back into the heart of an amber sunset. Then the river turned black as infinite space and duplicated a million stars. And then the voices from the Castle sounded and they went up the dark, sweet terraces with the silence unbroken save by words that had no power to break it.
The Browning Man stayed down at the Inn after that, and let the Plagiarist go his ways in peace. These led to the presence of the Imaginative Girl, and concluded there forever thought the Plagiarist the day she said that maybe she would n’t mind marrying him some time. They were in the courtyard, and he would have kissed her, but she would not.
“I don’t think girls ought to let people kiss them,” she said firmly.
“I’m not people, ” objected the Plagiarist, with some justice.
“Well, any one,” said the Girl decisively. “It ’s one of my principles.”
The Plagiarist had nothing more to say when she said that, because he could n’t consistently object to people standing by their principles. But he secretly thought she might have made an exception in his favor, and his demeanor intimated as much.
“No,” she said; “I like you ever so much, and I think I ’d like to have you around to understand what I mean ; but you need n’t expect to hold my hand, and get sentimental, and as for kissing, I hate it — except in poetry. It’s a very good poetic property.”
“ Very well, ” assented the Plagiarist, who was, in certain exigencies, a philosopher; “whatever you say. Come on in the den. I want to show you something. ”
Once there, he produced a blue thing which he declared to be a check. “I don’t ask you to believe it,” he said, “but I ’ve sold a poem! ”
The Girl dropped down at her desk and looked at him incredulously.
“Yes,” he said, “and not even the Browning Man could find it in Browning. My theory is coming right. I knew it would.”
The Girl was almost excited. “Of course poetry can’t be paid for,” she said, “and the most the Al-Raschid of editors can do is to remotely suggest an ideal value ; but this is a very good suggestion. Say the poem to me.”
But the Plagiarist did n’t know it well enough for effective recitation, so she recited one of hers instead, which came to the same thing. Then they walked along the terraces, and she gave him all the white roses he wanted. But she gathered no pink roses for him.
“Your eyes are too blue,” she explained. “It makes too much color.”
In the days that followed, the Browning Man held undisputed sway over the Island, while the Plagiarist haunted the Castle like an heirloom Ghost.
One day he mailed to the Strange Country a packet of manuscript. He intended a great surprise for the Girl. This was nothing less than a volume of his very last, but of course very best poems, to be brought out by a famous publishing house in an artistic gray book dedicated to her. She had never seen these poems, for it was to be a complete birthday surprise, but the Browning Man had, and he had pronounced them original, inasmuch as they were not in any English-tongued poet, and they were undeniably good, even enviably good, said the Browning Man, and wondered where they came from.
It was Fate that a day or two before the gray book came to hand the Plagiarist should have been summoned to Arcady to see his youngest sister get married.
“It will take a week away,” said he wretchedly to the Browning Man. “Will you take the book up to her, and talk it over ? ”
Therefore while he was being whirled to Arcady next morning, the Browning Man sent a note to the Girl, saying that he would be up that evening. It seemed a needless formality, but was in accord with his enigmatic behavior of some weeks past.
She waited for him in her alcove, whose wide arch framed her as he turned the hall curve. He stood looking a moment as if at some exquisite genre painting. Then his pulses began to beat. But he entered quietly enough, and gave her a small package which he said the Plagiarist had sent her through him so as to be in time for her beautiful birthday. She opened it eagerly. It was the book of poems. A charming glow of pleasure lit her face as she discovered the dedication. Then she whirled over the illustrations, and then she bestowed her attention on the Browning Man.
“My cousin asked me to bring the poems, ” he explained, smiling since she expected him to, “ because he had to be away, and to tell you how really good they are, being too modest to do it himself.”
“ What nonsense! ” observed the Girl with delightful candor; “he just thought you knew more adjectives than he did. But go on and tell me.”
“They are curantistic,” said the Browning Man. “ They are also stimulative, and — and I think you will find them informed with delitescent truth.”
“Is that all ? ”
“No, but I ’ll tell you the rest when you read the book.”
“ Suppose you read it to me, ” she suggested, remembering how he had once read Dobson aloud one rainy morning of the risen past. Also perhaps she meant to punish him for intangible sins of the soul. It was not given either of them to know. He winced; but had she asked him to forego the one thing that rendered existence endurable, his intention of putting an end to it, he would no doubt have complied with her request. As the pages turned, he forgot the poet and the poems in bitter thought, but he read on mechanically, without lifting his eyes. When he closed the volume and turned to the Girl, he was startled into a low exclamation. She had hidden her face against the back of the divan and was evidently in tears.
“Dearest! ” he cried without knowing that he did so.
“He — he has plagiarized my unpublished poems, ” sobbed the Imaginative Girl.
As the Browning Man returned to the Inn he could not but acknowledge that things looked black for the Plagiarist. He had had the manuscript for weeks, and every poem in the gray book could be collated with poems in the manuscript book. Clearly he could not be an Unconscious Plagiarist, yet how could he have sent her the book if he were a Conscious Plagiarist? He had reached no conclusion when the culprit put in an exultant appearance. No one could have looked less criminal. For the first time surety of success had made a man of him.
“No,” decided the Browning Man. “The Unconscious Plagiarist was still an Unconscious Plagiarist.” How he did it he did n’t know; but he had done it, and how was he to tell him ?
“Look here! ” he began in a fainthearted way.
“Hurry up,” said the Plagiarist, with a hand on the latch.
“With all the poets in the world to plagiarize from, ” cried the poor Browning Man, “why must you take her? ”
Presently the Plagiarist fulfilled his intention of opening the door.
“I ’d as well have it over,” he said in an expectant voice. “You come too.”
They found her in the den. She looked at the Plagiarist with the severity of youth and a righteous cause, and there was no hope in him as he met that look.
“You can’t think I deliberately stole your poems? ” he asked defiantly.
“ You read them in manuscript before you wrote yours,” said the Girl pitilessly. “I know, because yours are all dated.”
The Plagiarist opened his lips, and the Browning Man waited with fascinated attention for the elucidation of the mystery.
“No, I did n’t read them, ” said the Unconscious Plagiarist.
“ Why ? ” cried the Girl and the Browning Man in one breath.
“My dear Girl, how could I? ” inquired the Plagiarist with the quietude of desperation.
It was unkind under the circumstances, but the Browning Man sat down on the nearest divan and laughed. The Girl did not laugh. The offense was bad enough, but the extenuation was so appallingly worse than the offense that she could only stand and dispose of the Unconscious Plagiarist forever with a single look.
One was enough for the Plagiarist. He held his head high as he went out, but there was really nothing whatever left of him.
Then she turned to the Browning Man and looked at him, and he stopped laughing instantly, and followed the Plagiarist, whom he overtook at the water’s edge, and together they sadly secluded themselves on the Desert Island.
After a week spent chiefly in expressive silence, one morning the Plagiarist rose from his hammock and made a speech replete with practical philosophy.
“After all,” he said, “I might as well have been engaged to a poem! ”
Next day he set sail for the Strange Country, and, out of that remote region, there came in the fullness of time a letter to the Browning Man.
“I have bought up those confounded books,” said the letter, “and you can tell her so. Though unable to decipher hieroglyphics I have some self-respect left. You can tell her this also. And you will be glad to hear that I have an entirely new set of principles. I have bought all the standard poets, and I have invested in a magazine which will not reject my poems, so you see my success is assured.”
The Browning Man read over this abrupt epistle, after which he lit his pipe with it, and went for a stroll under the ilexes. Halfway to the Castle he met the Girl Philistine, for a wonder alone. She accounted for it by saying that the Usual Brother had gone to the Castle for her golf clubs. The Browning Man shuddered, but he rested his arm against a tree, and conversed with her politely. There was presently a pause which the Girl Philistine broke.
“If I were a man,” she said, “I would n’t be an idiot.”
“You could n’t help it, ” returned the Browning Man, with impersonal conviction.
But the Girl would n’t be impersonal. “Could n’t I? ” she cried.
“I don’t know what you mean, ’ said the Browning Man, who sometimes lied.
“I don’t know what she sees in you myself, ” mused the Girl candidly; “you won’t dance, and you don’t hunt, and you look like a Roman out of an Ancient History; and, as if it were not enough to have Browning, you spend your life writing stuff about Browning. ”
“And I don’t make what will buy me tobacco and stamps by doing it,” recklessly supplemented the Browning Man, “ and I am under the influence of opium this very moment,”
“I don’t doubt it,” said the Girl. “You look as if you were under the influence of almost anything. Still I suppose you ’re not quite a De Quincey yet. Is that all? ”
“No; I am an unworthy wretch,” said the Browning Man from his heart.
“Oh, well,” said the Girl airily, “what difference does that make ? You are in love with each other, and she is a poet.”
At this juncture the Usual Brother came flying down the terraces and took frank possession of the Girl Philistine. When he had carried her off, the Browning Man flung himself down in the ilex shadows, with hidden face. Sometimes he also thought the Girl Philistine miraculously sensible, and then again he did n’t know. Though he lay so still, he could not have been more cruelly torn two ways had he been tied between wild horses. It was dusk before he arose and went down to the river. At first he rowed to get away from his thoughts; but the glory of creating a precedent was denied him, so he swung his boat around, and went drifting back in their company. At intervals he looked down at the darkly flowing river and mused idly of the one plank dividing him from forgetfulness.
It was dark when he landed beneath the Castle and began to climb the terraces. He did not know why he did so until he caught a glimpse of white through the rose trees. In a moment he was standing by the Imaginative Girl, looking down at her face in the wavering light of a young moon. There were pink roses on her breast, and the odors of them drugged his doubting to rest. With one sure movement he drew her nearer.
“Which is better — to starve a woman’s lips, or her soul? ” he said, trembling. “Tell me, you who know all things. ”
He spoke somewhat figuratively, but the Imaginative Girl understood. Her head drooped toward him, and when he bent his own and kissed her on the eyes and the lips she did not say a word. She had forgotten all about her principles.
Fanny Kemble Johnson.