If London was dreary when Lufa left it, it was worse than dreary to Walter now that she was gone from his world; gone from the universe past and future both--for the Lufa he had dreamed of was not, and had never been! He had no longer any one to dream about, waking or asleep. The space she had occupied was a blank spot, black and cold, charred with the fire of passion, cracked with the frost of disappointment and scorn. It had its intellectual trouble too--the impossibility of bringing together the long-cherished idea of Lufa, and the reality of Lufa revealed by herself; the two stared at each other in mortal irreconcilement. Now also he had no book to occupy him with pleasant labor. It had passed from him into the dark; the thought of it was painful, almost loathesome to him. No one, however, he was glad to find, referred to it. His friends pitied him, and his foes were silent. Three copies of it were sold. The sneaking review had had influence enough with the courted public to annihilate it.
But the expenses of printing it remained; he had yet to pay his share of them; and, alas, he did not know how! The publisher would give him time, no doubt, but, work his hardest, it would be a slow clearance! There was the shame too of having undertaken what he was unable at once to fulfill! He set himself to grind and starve.
At times the clouds would close in upon him, and there would seem nothing in life worth living for; though in truth his life was so much the more valuable that Lufa was out of it. Occasionally his heart would grow very gentle toward her, and he would burrow for a possible way to her excuse. But his conclusion was ever the same: how could he forget that laugh of utter merriment and delight when she found it was indeed himself under the castigation of such a mighty beadle of literature! In his most melting mood, therefore, he could only pity her. But what would have become of him had she not thus unmasked herself! He would now be believing her the truest, best of women, with no fault but a coldness of which he had no right to complain, a coldness comforted by the extent of its freezing!
But there was far more to make London miserable to him: he was now at last disgusted with his trade: this continuous feeding on the labor of others was no work for a gentleman! he began to descry in it certain analogies which grew more and more unpleasant as he regarded them. For his poetizing he was sick of that also. True, the quality or value of what he had written was nowise in itself affected by its failure to meet acceptance. It had certainly not had fair play; it had been represented as it was not; its character had been lied away! But now that the blinding influence of their chief subject was removed, he saw the verses themselves to be little worth. The soul of them was not the grand all-informing love, but his own private self-seeking little passion for a poor show of the lovable. No one could care for such verses, except indeed it were some dumb soul in love with a woman like, or imaginably like the woman of their thin worship! Not a few were pretty, he allowed, and some were quaint--that is, had curious old-flavored phrases and fantastic turns of thought; but throughout there was no revelation! They sparkled too with the names of things in themselves beautiful, but whether these things were in general wisely or fairly used in his figures and tropes and comparisons, he was now more than doubtful. He had put on his singing robes to whisper his secret love into the two great red ears of the public!--desiring, not sympathy from love and truth, but recognition from fame and report! That he had not received it was better than he deserved! Then what a life was it thus to lie wallowing among the mushrooms of the press! To spend gifts which, whatever they were, were divine, in publishing the tidings that this man had done ill, that other had done well, that he was amusing, and she was dull! Was it worth calling work, only because it was hard and dreary? His conscience, his taste, his impulses, all declined to back him in it any longer. What was he doing for the world? they asked him. How many books had he guided men to read, by whose help they might steer their way through the shoals of life? He could count on the fingers of one hand such as he had heartily recommended. If he had but pointed out what was good in books otherwise poor, it would have been something! He had not found it easy to be at once clever, honest, and serviceable to his race: the press was but for the utterance of opinion, true or false, not for the education of thought! And why should such as he write books, who had nothing to tell men that could make them braver, stronger, purer, more loving, less selfish!
What next was to be done? His calling had vanished! It was not work worthy of a man! It was contemptible as that of the parson to whom the church is a profession! He owed his landlady money: how was he to pay her? He must eat, or how was he to work? There must be something honest for him to do! Was a man to do the wrong in order to do the right?
The true Walter was waking--beginning to see things as they were, and not as men regarded them. He was tormented with doubts and fears of all kinds, high and low. But for the change in his father's circumstances, he would have asked his help, cleared off everything, and gone home at once; and had he been truer to his father, he would have known that such a decision would even now have rejoiced his heart.
He had no longer confidence enough to write on any social question. Of the books sent him, he chose such as seemed worthiest of notice, but could not do much. He felt not merely a growing disinclination, but a growing incapacity for the work. How much the feeling may have been increased by the fact that his health was giving way, I can not tell; but certainly the root of it was moral.
His funds began to fail his immediate necessities, and he had just come from pawning the watch which he would have sold but that it had been his mother's, and was the gift of his father, when he met Harold Sullivan, who persuaded him to go with him to a certain theater in which the stalls had not yet entirely usurped upon the enjoyable portion of the pit. Between the first and second acts, he caught sight of Lady Lufa in a box, with Sefton standing behind her. There was hardly a chance of their seeing him, and he regarded them at his ease, glad to see Sefton, and not sorry to see Lufa, for it was an opportunity of testing himself. He soon perceived that they held almost no communication with each other, but was not surprised, knowing in how peculiar a relation they stood. Lufa was not looking unhappy--far from it; her countenance expressed absolute self-contentment: in all parts of the house she was attracting attention, especially from the young men. Sefton's look was certainly not one of content; but neither, as certainly, was it one of discontent; it suggested power waiting opportunity, strength quietly attendant upon, hardly expectant of the moment of activity. Walter imagined one watching a beloved cataleptic: till she came alive, what was to be done but wait! God has had more waiting than any one else! Lufa was an iceberg that would not melt even in the warm southward sea, watched by a still volcano, whose fires were of no avail, for they could not reach her. Sparklingly pretty, not radiantly beautiful, she sat, glancing, coruscating, glittering, anything except glowing: glow she could not even put on! She did not know what it was. Now and then a soft sadness would for a moment settle on Sefton's face--like the gray of a cloudy summer evening about to gather into a warm rain; but this was never when he looked at her; it was only when, without seeing, he thought about her. Hitherto Walter had not been capable of understanding the devotion, the quiet strength, the persistent purpose of the man; now he began to see into it and wonder. While a spark of hope lay alive in those ashes of disappointment that had often seemed as if they would make but a dust-heap of his bosom, there he must remain, by the clean, cold hearth, swept and garnished, of the woman he loved--loved strangely, mysteriously, inexplicably even to himself!
Walter sat gazing; and as he gazed, simultaneously the two became aware of his presence. A friendly smile spread over Sefton's face, but, with quick perception, he abstained from any movement that might seem to claim recognition. To Walter's wonder, Lufa, so perfectly self-contained, so unchangingly self-obedient, colored--faintly indeed, but plainly enough to the eyes of one so well used to the white rose of her countenance. She moved neither head nor person, only turned her eyes away, and seemed, like the dove for its foot, to seek some resting-place for her vision--and with the sight awoke in Walter the first unselfish resolve of his life. Would he not do anything--could he not do something to bring those two together? The thought seemed even to himself almost a foolish one; but spiritual relations and potencies go far beyond intellectual ones, and a man must become a fool to be wise. Many a foolish thought, many a most improbable idea, has proved itself seed-bearing fruit of the kingdom of heaven. A man may fail to effect, or be unable to set hand to work he would fain do--and be judged, as Browning says in his "Saul," by what he would have done if he could. Only the would must be as true as a deed; then it is a deed. The kingdom of heaven is for the dreamers of true dreams only!
Was there then anything Walter could do to help the man to gain the woman he had so faithfully helped Walter to lose? It was no plain task. The thing was not to enable him to marry her--that Sefton could have done long ago--might do any day without help from him! As she then was, she was no gain for any true man! But if he could help to open the eyes of the cold-hearted, conceited, foolish girl, either to her own valuelessness as she was, or her worth as she might be, or again to the value, the eternal treasure of the heart she was turning from, she would then be a gift that in the giving grew worthy even of such a man!
Here, however, came a different thought, bearing nevertheless in the same direction. It was very well to think of Lufa's behavior to Sefton, but what had Walter's been to Lufa? It may seem strange that the reflection had not come to him before; but in nothing are we slower than in discovering our own blame--and the slower that we are so quick to perceive or imagine we perceive the blame of others. For, the very fact that we see and heartily condemn the faults of others, we use, unconsciously perhaps, as an argument that we must be right ourselves. We must take heed not to judge with the idea that so we shall escape judgment--that by condemning evil we clear ourselves. Walter's eyes were opened to see that he had done Lufa a great wrong; that he had helped immensely to buttress and exalt her self-esteem. Had he not in his whole behavior toward her, been far more anxious that he should please her than that she should be worthy? Had he not known that she was far more anxious to be accepted as a poet than to be admired as a woman?--more anxious indeed to be accepted than, even in the matter of her art, to be worthy of acceptance--to be the thing she wished to be thought? In that review which, in spite of his own soul, he had persuaded himself to publish, knowing it to be false, had he not actively, most unconscientiously, and altogether selfishly, done her serious intellectual wrong, and heavy moral injury? Was he not bound to make what poor reparation might be possible? It mattered nothing that she did not desire any such reparation; that she would look upon the attempt as the first wrong in the affair--possibly as a pretense for the sake of insult, and the revenge of giving her the deepest possible pain: having told her the lies, he must confess they were lies! having given her the poison of falsehood, he must at least follow it with the only antidote, the truth! It was not his part to judge of consequences so long as a duty remained to be done! and what could be more a duty than to undeceive where he had deceived, especially where the deception was aggravating that worst of diseases, self-conceit, self-satisfaction, self-worship? It was doubtful whether she would read what he might write; but the fact that she did not trust him, that, notwithstanding his assurance, she would still be in fear of how he might depreciate her work in the eyes of the public, would, he thought, secure for him a reading. She might, when she got far enough to see his drift, destroy the letter in disgust; that would be the loss of his labor; but he would have done what he could! He had begun to turn a new leaf, and here was a thing the new leaf required written upon it!
As to Sefton, what better thing could he do for him, than make her think less of herself! or, if that were impossible, at least make her understand that other people did not think so much of her as she had been willingly led to believe! In wronging her he had wronged his friend as well, throwing obstacles in the way of his reception! He had wronged the truth itself!
When the play was over, and the crowd was dispersing, he found himself close to them on the pavement as they waited for their carriage. So near to Lufa was he that he could not help touching her dress. But what a change had passed on him! Not once did he wish her to look round and brighten when she saw him! Sefton, moved perhaps by that unknown power of presence, operating in bodily proximity but savoring of the spiritual, looked suddenly round and saw him. He smiled and did not speak, but, stretching out a quiet hand, sought his. Walter grasped it as if it was come to lift him from some evil doom. Neither spoke, and Lufa did not know that hands had clasped in the swaying human flood. No physical influence passed between Walter and her.
Having made up his mind on the way, he set to work as soon as he reached home. He wrote and destroyed and rewrote, erased and substituted, until, as near as he could, he had said what he intended, so at least as it should not be mistaken for what he did not intend, which is the main problem in writing. Then he copied all out fair and plain, so that she could read it easily--and here is his letter, word for word: