Rounding Up the Novels

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/February, 1912

LET us now, ladies and gentlemen, besot ourselves with prose fiction—the last debauch of that sort, I promise you faithfully, for several months at least.

Not that I myself dislike novels, or hold the vice of reading them to be worse than any other vice. Far from it, indeed. As a lifelong student of immorality in all its branches, I know very well (or I ought to know, if I don’t) that between one vice and another there is no difference of degree, but only a difference of kind. One is just as bad as another—and just as good; just as deplorable—and just as satisfying. They bear the relation, one to the other, not of czar and peasant, whale and protozoon, Ossa and wart, but of free and equal citizens in an ideal republic. And that equality, I am convinced, has its roots in the fact that all of them, at bottom, are alike harmless. The essence of a vice, in brief, is not in its actual character, not in any inherent evil quality, but in its mere excessiveness, its hint of hoggishness.

I take, for example, the vice of drink—a target of moralists for unnumbered years—the cause, we are told, of eighty-eight per cent of all maladies of the veins and arteries, of ninety-one per cent of all lunacies and phobias, of seventy-eight per cent of all felonies, of sixty-four per cent of all divorces—the author of and excuse for the Salvation Army, acetanilid, the hot towel of the barber shops, the exhorting ex-drunkard, the Blue Laws, “Ten Nights in a Barroom,” the Anti-Saloon League of America, local option, the blind pig, the free lunch, organized charity, katzenjammer and a host of other hideous and horrific things. But of what elements does the vice of drink consist? Inspection shows that there are two: (a) the act of taking a drink, and (b) the multiple repetition of the act. Let us represent the first by x and the second by y. Now multiply the one by the other and we have xxy, or xy—which thus becomes the symbol of and for the vice itself, the mathematical sign of drunkenness, the souse swastika. Well, which of the two elements is the essential one, the vicious one? Certainly not x. To take a drink, in itself, is not harmful. I myself do it now and then, and yet I am neither an apoplectic, a maniac, a felon or a divorci. My personal experience, indeed, is that the ingestion of alcohol, in the modest quantities I affect, is not only not damaging but actually very beneficial. It produces in me a feeling of comfort, of amiability, of toleration, of mellowness. It makes me a more humane and sympathetic, and hence a happier, man. I am able, thus mildly etherized, to enjoy and applaud many things which would otherwise baffle and alarm me—for example, the tenor voice, Maryland cooking, cut flowers, the Chopin nocturnes and the young of the human species. And that effect is not merely idiosyncratical, but universal. It appears in all normal men. Alcohol in small doses dilutes and ameliorates our native vileness. Behind the spirit of Christmas are the spirits of Christmas. It is the suave gin rickey, the ingratiating whiskey sour, that gives ninety percent of all civilized lovers the valor to make the last enslaving avowals—or, to be more accurate, that produces the state of egoistic inflation which serves in valor’s stead. And later on it is the more fiery whiskey straight that steels the bridegroom to face the baleful glitter of the parson’s eye.

Thus it appears that drink, per se, is not a viper. On the contrary, it is a sweet singing canary, a faithful house dog, a purring cat upon a hearth rug. And thus it also appears that the member which makes xy lamentable is not x but y. But what is y? Merely a symbol for excess, the mathematical sign of superfluity—in brief, n. Merely a symbol—a scratch upon paper—and yet how nefarious, how demoniacal! Make x represent anything you please, however innocent, however lovely—and naughty y is still able to give a sinister quality to xy. Try it with shaving. One shave—a pleasant business, sanitary and caressing. But v shaves in succession—a debauch, a saturnalia, a delirium! Or platitudes. A platitude here and there, discreetly inserted, deftly screened—who shall say that it does not give discourse an air? But y platitudes, an orgy of platitudes—in short, a sermon by a bishop, a political platform, a newspaper editorial—and how the tortured intellect revolts! And so with novels. To read a novel or two now and then is to do only what civilization demands of us all. One must know what Arnold Bennett is writing of late, what Thackeray and Zola wrote, even what Dickens wrote. But to read novels, good and bad, incessantly; to wallow in them, to gulp down whole counters of them, with all their split infinitives, their “as thoughs,” their gold and scarlet covers, their astounding pictures by A. B. Wenzell, their canned reviews, their pallid lecheries, their brummagem epigrams—to do all that is to practice a vice as bad as winebibbing, even as bad as teetotaling. The devil is in it. Voluptuous, it leads to perdition.

And yet that is precisely what we have before us this month—a debauch, an orgy of novels, good and bad—so many that I fear to count them. They have been piling up for months —ever since the best seller factories began belching their autumnal smoke. If we are ever to get through them and have done with them, if we are ever to hold discriminating conversations about the other and better books waiting beyond them, we must now gobble them with defiant abandon, as a small boy gobbles ginger snaps behind the pantry door, and with no thought of the immorality of the spree. And as the first act of that spree we can do no better than gulp down “The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart (Bobbs-Merrill); “The Man in the Brown Derby,” by Wells Hastings (Bobbs-Merrill), and “How Old Was Ann?”, by Kate Trimble Sharber (Bobbs-Merrill), three volumes of excellent trade goods by three of the most skillful journeyman fictioneers in all our republic. The first named is in Mrs. Rinehart’s very best manner. It sets forth a story full of those surprises and perplexities which lift the pulse and pop the eye, and it sets forth that story with never failing bounce and humor. Mrs. Rinehart is not afraid of a situation. She faces it squarely—and disposes of it with a twist of the wrist. Consider, for example, the opening scene of this tale. A certain Mr. Johnson, a spiritualist with three wives beyond the sunset, has just died in a hospital and his body has been removed to the mortuary, where a young and skittish nurse is left to guard it. Overcome by the gruesomeness of her job, the girl turns her back upon Mr. Johnson. A faint, creepy sound. She turns ’round. Mr. Johnson is hanging from the gas bracket, a roller towel around his neck! A hair raising situation, to be sure. But Mrs. Rinehart deftly keeps it in the comedy key—not in the key of heavy, hairy-fisted comedy, but in the key of light comedy. A clever woman! A best sellerist with redeeming virtues! And so, too, Mr. Hastings. It is a mere story of mystery that he has to tell, but he tells it with such ingenuity and humor that one readily forgives him. And so, too, Mrs. Sharber. Her concern is with young love, but she evades its tediousness and penetrates to its joy.

Sterner stuff. To wit, “The Indian Lily,” by Hermann Sudermann (Huebsch), a collection of short stories of quite extraordinary excellence. Sudermann’s last book, “The Song of Songs,” was disappointing. Maybe that was because the first chapter was done too well; after such a dashing piece of writing the less brilliant chapters following seemed more commonplace than they really were. But whatever the true and the whole cause, the book left an impression, at the end, of something lacking, of a plan somehow marred in execution. Its weight was on the side of the theory that Sudermann had shot his bolt, that his obvious decline as a dramatist was merely symptom of a larger going backward. But in these new stories of his that theory gets its quietus. Here we have short tales of the very first calibre—mordant and illuminating studies of men and women, each with the chill wind of disillusion blowing through it, each full of shrewd observation and biting reflection, each preaching, with more or less gay whistling in the dark, the doctrine that life is meaningless, that its tragedy has no moral, that its heroics are mere heroics, that the button molder is ever around the corner. Sudermann is fifty-four; his youth is gone. The shadow of that loss is upon half of these stories. In one a man of middle age, dallying lightly with love, as with a joy to be tasted tomorrow, sees it stolen from him by a young ruffian he has scarcely considered seriously as a human being. In another an old roue, suddenly getting his fill of adventure, turns sentimentally to romance—only to find that romance has gone out of his life forever.

Two other stories are incisive studies of self-sacrifice. In one a woman sacrifices her all to a lover, in the other to a husband. Each loses youth—and each loses the man. These last stories are among the best that Sudermann, or any other German of today, has ever given us. That called “The Purpose” is a little masterpiece, not only because of its content but also because of its technical perfection, its display of virtuosity. Here, in less than fifteen thousand words, Sudermann has told the whole story of a woman’s life—told it in all its essentials, and yet without leaving any sense of bald brevity, of mere chronicling. Antonie Wiesner, a country innkeeper’s daughter, falls in love with Robert Messerschmidt, a medical student, and they sin the scarlet sin.

To Robert, perhaps, the thing is a mere midsummer madness, but to Toni it is all life’s meaning and glory. Robert is poor and his degree is still two years ahead; it is out of the question for him to marry her. Very well, Toni will find a father for her child; she is her lover’s property, and that property must be protected. And she will wait willingly, careless of the years, for the distant day of triumph and redemption. All other ideas and ideals drop out of her mind; she becomes an automaton moved by the one impulse, the one yearning. She marries one Wiegand, a decayed innkeeper; he, poor fool, accepts the parentage of her child. Her father, rich and unsuspicious, buys them a likely inn; they begin to make money. And then begins the second chapter of Toni’s sacrifice. She robs her husband systematically and steadily; she takes commissions on all his goods; she becomes the houri of his bar that trade may grow and pickings increase. Mark by mark, the money goes to Robert. It sees him through his college; it gives him his year or two in the hospitals; it buys him a practice; it feeds and clothes him, and his mother with him. The days pass endlessly—a young doctor’s progress is slow. But finally the great day approaches. Soon Robert will be ready for his wife. But Wiegand—what of him? Toni thinks of half a dozen plans. The notion of poisoning him gradually formulates itself. Not a touch of horror stays her—she is, by this time, beyond all the common moralities—a monomaniac with no thought for anything save her great purpose. But an accident saves Wiegand. Toni, too elaborate in her plans, poisons herself by mischance, and comes near dying. Very well, if not poison, then some more subtle craft. She puts a barmaid into Wiegand’s path; she manages the whole affair; before long she sees her victim safely enmeshed. A divorce follows; the inn is sold; her father’s death makes her suddenly rich—at last she is off to greet her lover!

That meeting! Certainly Sudermann must give it to us again, and in a play! It is a scene full of the surge and tension of drama. Toni waits in the little flat that she has rented in the city—she and her child, the child of Robert. Robert is to come at noon ; as the slow moments pass the burden of her happiness seems too great to bear. And then suddenly the ecstatic climax—the ring at the door. . . . “A gentleman entered. A strange gentleman. Wholly strange. Had she met him on the street she would not have known him. He had grown old—forty, fifty, a hundred years. Yet his real age could not be over twenty-eight! . . . He had grown fat. He carried a little paunch around with him, round and comfortable. And the honorable scars gleamed in round, red cheeks. His eyes seemed small and receding. . . . And when he said : ‘Here I am at last,’ it was no longer the old voice, clear and a little resonant, which had echoed and reechoed in her spiritual ear. He gurgled as though he had swallowed dump lings.” An oaf without and an oaf within! Toni is for splendors, triumphs, the life. Robert has “settled down”; his remote village, hard by the Russian border, is to his liking; he has made comfortable friends there; he is building up a practice; why not try it? He is, of course, a man of honor. He will marry Toni—willingly and with gratitude, even with genuine affection. Going further, he will pay back to her every cent that ever came from Wiegand’s till. He has kept a strict account. Here it is, in a little blue notebook—seven years of entries. As he reads them aloud the events of those seven years unroll themselves before Toni and every mark brings up its picture—stolen cash and trinkets, savings in railroad fares and food, commissions upon furniture and wines, profits of champagne debauches with the county counselor, sharp trading in milk and eggs, “suspense and longing, an inextricable web of falsification and trickery, of terror and lying without end. The memory of no guilt is spared her.” Robert is an honest, an honorable man. He has kept a strict account, and he will repay mark for mark; the money is waiting in bank. What is more, he will make all necessary confessions. He has not, perhaps, kept to the strict letter of fidelity. There was a waitress in Berlin; there was a nurse at the surgical clinic; there is even now a Lithuanian servant girl at his bachelor quarters. The last named, of course, will be sent away forthwith. Robert is a man of honor, a man sensitive to every requirement of the punctilio, a gentleman. He will order the announcement cards, consult a clergyman—and not forget to get rid of the Lithuanian and air the house. . . . Poor Toni stares at him as he departs. “Will he come back soon?” asks the child. “I scarcely think so,” she answers. . . . “That night she broke the purpose of her life, the purpose that had become interwoven with a thousand others, and when the morning came she wrote a letter of farewell to the beloved of her youth.”

A short story of rare and excellent quality. A short story—oh, miracle!— worth reading twice. It is not so much that its motive is new—that motive, indeed, has appeared in fiction many times, though usually with the man as the protagonist—as that its workmanship is superb. Sudermann knows how to write. His act divisions are exactly right; his scenes a faire are splendidly managed; he has got into the thing that rhythmic ebb and flow of emotion which makes for drama. And in most of the other stories in this book you will find much the same skill. No other, perhaps, is quite so good as “The Purpose,” but at least one of them, “The Song of Death,” is not far behind it. Here we have the tragedy of a woman brought up rigorously, puritanically, stupidly, who discovers, just as it is too late, that love may be a wild dance, an ecstasy. I can imagine no more grotesquely pathetic scene than that which shows this drab preacher’s wife watching by her husband’s deathbed—while through the door comes the sound of hot kisses from the next room. And then there is a strangely moving Christmas story, “Merry Folk”—pathos with the hard iron in it. And there are “Autumn” and “The Indian Lily,” elegies to lost youth—the first of them almost a fit complement to Joseph Conrad’s great paean to youth triumphant. Altogether, a notable collection of stories. No need to make excuses for Sudermann now. His hand was never steadier; he was never more the master of his art.

Another German awaits—Gerhart Hauptmann, like Sudermann a wholesaler in literature, novelist, dramatist, poet. But before we come to him let us gulp down a few more lesser novels—for example, “A Country Lawyer,” by Henry A. Shute (Houghton – Mifflin); “Her Husband,” by Julia Magruder (Small-Maynard); “In The Shadow or Islam,” by Demetra Vaka (Houghton-Mifflin), and “The Den of the Sixteenth Section” (Broadway Pub. Co.). The first named is a pastoral by the author of “The Real Diary of a Real Boy,” a book which slowly moves toward the rank and dignity of a juvenile classic. Here the beginning is melodrama, but the middle is gentle comedy and the end is young love. Judge Shute has a keen eye for character; his caricatures have a Dickensian plausibility; one always feels that he knows his people. Miss Magruder’s story is a polite romance in the Ladies’ Home Journal manner. Mrs. Vaka-Brown’s is the chronicle of an American girl’s love affair with a Turk—a love affair, by the way, which stops short of the ultimate absurdity of marriage. The author knows the scenes and the people she describes intimately, completely. A Greek herself, she has lived in Constantinople; she has visited Turkish women in their homes; she fathoms the complexities of Turkish politics and etiquette; her account of harem life, “Haremlik,” is perhaps the best ever written in English. But her present story shows a constant ineptness in plan and execution. Its incidents proceed clumsily; there are long halts and returns and double trackings. And its heroine lacks the blood of life: with her “clear blue-gray eyes,” her “firm lips” and her vast bank account, not to mention her cardiocentric theory of the universe, she is a bit too near the common heroines of the best sellers. The Greeks and Turks are more real. Perhaps Mrs. Vaka-Brown will try again and make a clearer success of it. She knows the Levant, inside and outside, and she knows how to write English; all she needs is a firmer grip upon her materials. What “The Den of the Sixteenth Section” is about I don’t know. The style of it is so startlingly original that it is impossible to keep one’s mind upon the story. Says the heroine, on one page: “Oh, if the earth would only open and swallow me for the time being!” Again, in declining the hero’s offer of holy matrimony: “I thank you from the depths of my heart for the honor, and beg a continuation of the friendship that to me has been a great source of beneficial pleasure, a spring from which has flowed a bountiful supply of refreshing food for my inexperienced mind to feast upon, making bright many lonely hours.” Yet again: “My dear sir, if there is such a thing in this life as one human suffering for another, or the bonds of love and sympathy being so strong that the very life’s blood is drawn for another, is a very feeble expression for what I feel for you in this most heartrending and lonely inexpressible depths of sorrow that man was ever called on to bear.” Well, well, let that last sentence stand as my review of the book, as my offer of consolation for those who try to read it.

Now for Hauptmann. His story is “The Fool in Christ” (Huebsch), an attempt to retell the story of Christ in a modern setting. The thing, of course, has been done before. Years ago, if I remember rightly, the ingenious W. T. Stead wrote a volume called “If Christ Came to Chicago,” and made with it a distinguished succes de yellow journal. Imitators followed, the last of them but a few months ago, with a new version, perhaps the tenth, of “ If Christ Came to Paris.” In art it’s an old, old story. Rembrandt paved the way with his Biblical etchings—Job a Zeeland mortgage shark, Moses an Amsterdam rabbi. The Germans, latterly, have gone even further. I remember a “Mother and Child,” in some Munich shop window, with the babe grasping a nursing bottle and Mary in prim gingham. Let it be said for Hauptmann that he has steered clear of such heavy-handed burlesque. His Christ is a German peasant, out at elbows and more than a little daft, but from first to last he has dignity. The chief merit of the book, indeed, lies in its conveyance of this idea. One understands from the start the impression that Emmanuel Quint, the carpenter’s son, makes upon the weavers and tinkers of the countryside; one follows clearly the change from fear to respect, from respect to awe, from awe to frank worship. The village parson reads Emmanuel out of meeting; the village squire takes him up as a rogue and vagabond. But one by one the lesser folk yield to the magic of his personality. In the end the noise of his fame reaches far. A fashionable countess, eager for new thrills, offers him hospitality; a psychiatrist or two deigns to observe him; he is engaged in disputation by learned connoisseurs of the fantastic and the mystical; he finds his Mary of Magdala, his motley band of disciples. The Passion, of course, is impossible —the German polizei are too alert for that —though in the British West Indies, not twelve years ago, it was actually played out, with a young negro, crazed by Salvation Army theology, as the victim! But an accusation of murder serves the need of the drama —and Emmanuel comes very near tasting steel. Then he slowly fades from the scene. Heidelberg, Basel, Zurich and Lucerne glimpse him; his way is toward the high Alps, the lonely heights of Alfred Allmers and all such soaring mystics. In the spring a rigid, crouching corpse is found in the snow above St. Gothard, beside it a sheet of paper with the scrawled words: “The mystery of the kingdom?”

Hauptmann’s story is painstaking, penetrating, more than a little profound. He has got pretty close to the fundamentals of religious enthusiasm; if he has not actually interpreted Christ, then he has at least interpreted the impulse to Christliness. And he has interpreted, too, what may be called the external effects of that impulse—its carrying of conviction to simple minds, its psychic prolificness, its tendency to awaken atavistic emotions. Emmanuel’s followers swing incessantly from extravagant devotions to extravagant debauches. They are brothers to the bawling darkeys of our camp .meetings; more than once he has to go among them more as police man than as messiah; some of them are never far from the jail gate. But the dignity and serenity of Emmanuel himself are never broken by that contact. He is a figure sketched reverently and at full length; there is in him a persistent reality. Where the book fails is in its accentuation of the disputative side of the man—in its halting with Emmanuel the rabbi to the cost of Emmanuel the prophet and seer. There are long debates with various theologians—pastors, rival hedge preachers, amateurs of the divine mysteries. Well, Hauptmann is a German, and the Germans, like the Scandinavians, have a taste for that sort of thing. Do you remember the first act of Bjornson’s “Beyond Human Power,” with its soporific gabbling of parsons? We of English speech have an instinctive dislike of argumentation in fiction. Even when it is a duel of wit, an incandescent exchange of heresies, as in “Man and Superman,” we turn from it quickly, and seek scenes wherein the arms of heroes span the diaphragms of heroines and the thought is less than the kiss. Here Hauptmann fails—at least for us. But in a larger way he does not fail at all. His book is a careful, an incisive, an arresting piece of work.

“The Case of Richard Meynell,” by Mrs. Humphry Ward (Doubleday Page) —a return to the theme and manner of “Robert Elsmere,” thoughtful, elegant, but I fear uninspired. “The Beacon,” by Eden Phillpotts (Lane)—another tale of Dartmoor and its simple folk. “The Song of Renny,” by Maurice Hewlett (Scribner) —Hewlett in an expansive, golden mood—a picaresque romance to warm the cockles of your heart. Not Brazenhead himself, Third Murderer to the Duke of Milan, is a more engaging scoundrel than Gernulf de Salas, Earl of Pikpoyntz, with his lonely castle upon the heights above the. Valley of Stones, his regiments of ruffians at Cantacute and Montgrace and his mysterious business North and South. One fine autumn day, returning to Pikpoyntz from the South, the Earl brings a pretty captive upon his saddle bow —the little Lady Sabine, to wit—twelve years old and with the grand manner of an empress. “She is a dead man’s daughter. Guard her well and let her want for nothing.” That is all the information about her that he vouchsafes to good Father Sorges, his chaplain, or even to pale Blanchmains, his favorite among the maids of the hall. A taciturn, saturnine fellow. And little Lady Sabine is taciturn, too—that is, until Father Sorges, after the Earl’s departure, insists upon enrolling her name and pedigree in the great register of Pikpoyntz. “Names, my child?” asks His Reverence suavely, his pen in hand. “Sabine de Renny, “ answers the Lady Sabine—and Father Sorges drops his pen and his jaw, and his eyes pop from their sockets. “Are you,” he gasps, “ a Renny of Coldscaur?” The Lady Sabine stiffens in her chair. “No,” she says, “no, Father, I am the Renny of Coldscaur!” Well, well, what do you think of that? The bad Earl Gemulf has gone and done it surely! The Coldscaur house is of royal, almost of imperial blood, and the Renny is its head. Here now is that august personage, a maid of twelve, captive at Pikpoyntz! Just how the bad Earl nabbed her—how he first slew her papa and her mamma and then took her—and how, in the end, he pays for his black sins with his blood—all this you must read in Mr. Hewlett’s charming book. What other scrivening gentlemen can tell such tales so well? What other can make the gay days of marauding earl and fighting bishop, of pied troubadour and unwashed lady so real?

Novels! Novels! “Love’s Purple,” by S. Ella Wood Dean (Forbes) —amateurish balderdash, with characters creaking in every joint. “Flower o’ the Peach,” by Perceval Gibbon (Century Co.)—a study of color prejudice in South Africa, distinctive in style and handling, the work of a man who has something genuine to say. “The Innocence of Father Brown,” by Gilbert K. Chesterton (Lane)—twelve detective stories by the cleverest of Englishmen, which is as if one said twelve Wiener waltzes by Richard Strauss. “Find the Woman,” by Gelett Burgess (Bobbs-Merrill)—thirteen grotesques worthy of Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann —a book full of ingenuity and humor. I descend to cataloguing, forced feeding; the pyramid of novels must be brought down! “Ship’s Company,” by W. W. Jacobs (Scribner)—you know Jacobs; you know his mirthful yarns. Here are a dozen of them. “The Grip of Fear,” by Maurice Level (Kennerley —a French thriller, a best seller from some boulevard paper. “The Haunted Photo graph,” by Ruth McEnery Stuart (Century Co.)—four short stories, including two very good ones about darkies. “Pandora’s Box,” by J. A. Mitchell (Stokes)—a romance with an American for hero and the daughter of an English earl for heroine—and Mr. Mitchell’s inevitable touch of the spookish. “Peter and Wendy,” by J. M. Barrie (Scribner)—a sort of “novelization,” whimsical and delightful, of “Peter Pan,” itself a dramatization of an earlier book. “Interventions,” by Georgia Wood Pangborn (Scribner)—such good short stories as “The Rubber Stamp” and “Rasselas in the Vegetable Kingdom”; such bad short stories as “A Tempered Wind”—but more good than bad.

“A Bed of Roses,” by W. L. George (Brentano), which now halts us for a space, has made a considerable succes de scandale in English where it is still regarded as somewhat shocking to discuss a fille de joie from any standpoint save those of penology and theology. Here we have the story of a woman who makes deliberate choice of the primrose path— and lives to be sincerely thankful for her action. The widow of an army officer who has drunk himself to death in India, she returns to London with thirty pounds in her pocket and no kith nor kin nor even friend save a priggish brother teaching nonsense in some remote and God-forsaken boys’ school. She has no trade or profession; she is not too well educated; the business of getting work is difficult. After a long and heartbreaking wait, during which she sees her little hoard shrink day by day, she finally gets the post of companion to the wife of a wealthy cement manufacturer, fresh from the Midlands. Life in that mausoleum of a house is dull beyond all description, but there are fires in the grates and three meals a day—and Victoria Fulton cannot ask too much. But one day the son of the house, half jackass and half poet, grabs her in the hall and kisses her—and she is discharged on the spot. She is perfectly innocent; she has not encouraged him in the slightest; her actual feeling toward him is that of disgust—but the virtue of the home must be preserved. Hard days for Victoria! She narrowly escapes the meshes of a white slaver; she starves genteely in an eighth-rate boarding house; she fights, in the end, for a waitress’s job in a tea shop. And there she remains for two or three years, until finally a vagrant customer, a queer reader of queer books, fills her with that Unrest of which the Socialists discourse. Why be a slave forever, serving tea and scones to libidinous clerks? Varicose veins impend; the future is black. Why not turn upon Society and ravish it of its sweets?

Thus it is that Victoria passes under the protection of Major Thomas Cairnes, R.A., ret., and thus it is that she finds herself, when he is killed by Irish tenants, in possession of a thousand pounds. Next the Vesuvius, an all-night restaurant, and a long succession of light loves. Finally young John Holt, whose lass cost her her first job. John is still half jackass and half poet. He falls an easy victim to Victoria’s smile—and when at last his mother rescues him he is ready for a sanitarium and Victoria has ten thousand pounds! The last scene is a pastoral. Victoria has taken a little house at Cumberleigh, somewhere in the shires. She is a well-to-do and estimable widow, lately returned from the United States. The rector of Cumberleigh finds her very charitable. The bachelor squire of Cumberleigh finds her a devilishly charming woman.

Altogether excellent is “The Gods and Mr. Perrin,” by Hugh Walpole (Century Co.), a tragi-comedy with its scenes laid in an English prep, school. But the concern of the author is not with the boys, but with their teachers—their teachers, their teachers’ amours and their teachers’ wives. Here we are among unfamiliar fauna. What sort of man is the man who has rammed Latin and algebra into the heads of twelve-year-olds for twenty years? What sort of woman is his wife? Mr. Walpole tries to show us, and in the showing he produces a story of quite extraordinary merit—a story with real people in it and genuine emotion and that incisive humor which gets beneath the skin. If you miss every other novel I notice this month, don’t miss this one. And don’t miss “The Man Who Understood Women,” by Leonard Merrick (Kennerley), sixteen short stories without a bad one in the lot. You will doubtless remember Mr. Merrick as the author of “Conrad in Quest of His Youth,” which I ventured to recommend to you four or five months ago. Here is the same extravagant fancy, the same touch of sentiment, the same accomplished handling of incident and character. The ideal book for a gloomy Sunday. It will take you to Montmartre and give you back your youth.

Comes now—a considerable drop—“The Last Galley,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Doubleday-Page). There are eighteen tales in this collection of short stories and ten of them are not short stories at all, as the term is ordinarily understood, but “pictures of the past . . . between actual story and actual history.” One of them, for example, describes the destruction of the last Carthaginian galley in that famous sea fight which made Rome mistress of the seas and sent Roman plows through the dusty field that once was Carthage. A moral for England is in the tale, and it is well rubbed in. Another describes the coming of the barbarians to Rome; a third the departure of the last Roman legion from Britain; a fourth the first invasion of Saxons—and so on. The plan promises entertainment, but I cannot report that Sir Arthur displays much skill in the execution of it. Most of the tales are entirely lacking in what our native dramatists call the punch. The eight short stories proper are slightly better. But even here there is seldom a rise above mediocrity.


The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.