Promptly, the next afternoon, Maria was excited by Martin’s second visitor. But she did not lose her head this time, for she seated Brissenden in her parlor’s grandeur of respectability.
“Hope you don’t mind my coming?” Brissenden began.
“No, no, not at all,” Martin answered, shaking hands and waving him to the solitary chair, himself taking to the bed. “But how did you know where I lived?”
“Called up the Morses. Miss Morse answered the ’phone. And here I am.” He tugged at his coat pocket and flung a thin volume on the table. “There’s a book, by a poet. Read it and keep it.” And then, in reply to Martin’s protest: “What have I to do with books? I had another hemorrhage this morning. Got any whiskey? No, of course not. Wait a minute.”
He was off and away. Martin watched his long figure go down the outside steps, and, on turning to close the gate, noted with a pang the shoulders, which had once been broad, drawn in now over, the collapsed ruin of the chest. Martin got two tumblers, and fell to reading the book of verse, Henry Vaughn Marlow’s latest collection.
“No Scotch,” Brissenden announced on his return. “The beggar sells nothing but American whiskey. But here’s a quart of it.”
“I’ll send one of the youngsters for lemons, and we’ll make a toddy,” Martin offered.
“I wonder what a book like that will earn Marlow?” he went on, holding up the volume in question.
“Possibly fifty dollars,” came the answer. “Though he’s lucky if he pulls even on it, or if he can inveigle a publisher to risk bringing it out.”
“Then one can’t make a living out of poetry?”
Martin’s tone and face alike showed his dejection.
“Certainly not. What fool expects to? Out of rhyming, yes. There’s Bruce, and Virginia Spring, and Sedgwick. They do very nicely. But poetry-do you know how Vaughn Marlow makes his living?-teaching in a boys’ cramming-joint down in Pennsylvania, and of all private little hells such a billet is the limit. I wouldn’t trade places with him if he had fifty years of life before him. And yet his work stands out from the ruck of the contemporary versifiers as a balas ruby among carrots. And the reviews he gets! Damn them, all of them, the crass manikins!”
“Too much is written by the men who can’t write about the men who do write,” Martin concurred. “Why, I was appalled at the quantities of rubbish written about Stevenson and his work.”
“Ghouls and harpies!” Brissenden snapped out with clicking teeth. “Yes, I know the spawn-complacently pecking at him for his Father Damien letter, analyzing him, weighing him-”
“Measuring him by the yardstick of their own miserable egos,” Martin broke in.
“Yes, that’s it, a good phrase,-mouthing and besliming the True, and Beautiful, and Good, and finally patting him on the back and saying, ‘Good dog, Fido.’ Faugh! ‘The little chattering daws of men,’ Richard Realf called them the night he died.”
“Pecking at star-dust,” Martin took up the strain warmly; “at the meteoric flight of the master-men. I once wrote a squib on them-the critics, or the reviewers, rather.”
“Let’s see it,” Brissenden begged eagerly.
So Martin unearthed a carbon copy of “Star-dust,” and during the reading of it Brissenden chuckled, rubbed his hands, and forgot to sip his toddy.
“Strikes me you’re a bit of star-dust yourself, flung into a world of cowled gnomes who cannot see,” was his comment at the end of it. “Of course it was snapped up by the first magazine?”
Martin ran over the pages of his manuscript book. “It has been refused by twenty-seven of them.”
Brissenden essayed a long and hearty laugh, but broke down in a fit of coughing.
“Say, you needn’t tell me you haven’t tackled poetry,” he gasped. “Let me see some of it.”
“Don’t read it now,” Martin pleaded. “I want to talk with you. I’ll make up a bundle and you can take it home.”
Brissenden departed with the “Love-cycle,” and “The Peri and the Pearl,” returning next day to greet Martin with:-
“I want more.”
Not only did he assure Martin that he was a poet, but Martin learned that Brissenden also was one. He was swept off his feet by the other’s work, and astounded that no attempt had been made to publish it.
“A plague on all their houses!” was Brissenden’s answer to Martin’s volunteering to market his work for him. “Love Beauty for its own sake,” was his counsel, “and leave the magazines alone. Back to your ships and your sea-that’s my advice to you, Martin Eden. What do you want in these sick and rotten cities of men? You are cutting your throat every day you waste in them trying to prostitute beauty to the needs of magazinedom. What was it you quoted me the other day?-Oh, yes, ‘Man, the latest of the ephemera.’ Well, what do you, the latest of the ephemera, want with fame? If you got it, it would be poison to you. You are too simple, too elemental, and too rational, by my faith, to prosper on such pap. I hope you never do sell a line to the magazines. Beauty is the only master to serve. Serve her and damn the multitude! Success! What in hell’s success if it isn’t right there in your Stevenson sonnet, which outranks Henley’s ‘Apparition,’ in that ‘Love-cycle,’ in those sea-poems?
“It is not in what you succeed in doing that you get your joy, but in the doing of it. You can’t tell me. I know it. You know it. Beauty hurts you. It is an everlasting pain in you, a wound that does not heal, a knife of flame. Why should you palter with magazines? Let beauty be your end. Why should you mint beauty into gold? Anyway, you can’t; so there’s no use in my getting excited over it. You can read the magazines for a thousand years and you won’t find the value of one line of Keats. Leave fame and coin alone, sign away on a ship to-morrow, and go back to your sea.”
“Not for fame, but for love,” Martin laughed. “Love seems to have no place in your Cosmos; in mine, Beauty is the handmaiden of Love.”
Brissenden looked at him pityingly and admiringly. “You are so young, Martin boy, so young. You will flutter high, but your wings are of the finest gauze, dusted with the fairest pigments. Do not scorch them. But of course you have scorched them already. It required some glorified petticoat to account for that ‘Love-cycle,’ and that’s the shame of it.”
“It glorifies love as well as the petticoat,” Martin laughed.
“The philosophy of madness,” was the retort. “So have I assured myself when wandering in hasheesh dreams. But beware. These bourgeois cities will kill you. Look at that den of traitors where I met you. Dry rot is no name for it. One can’t keep his sanity in such an atmosphere. It’s degrading. There’s not one of them who is not degrading, man and woman, all of them animated stomachs guided by the high intellectual and artistic impulses of clams-”
He broke off suddenly and regarded Martin. Then, with a flash of divination, he saw the situation. The expression on his face turned to wondering horror.
“And you wrote that tremendous ‘Love-cycle’ to her-that pale, shrivelled, female thing!”
The next instant Martin’s right hand had shot to a throttling clutch on his throat, and he was being shaken till his teeth rattled. But Martin, looking into his eyes, saw no fear there,-naught but a curious and mocking devil. Martin remembered himself, and flung Brissenden, by the neck, sidelong upon the bed, at the same moment releasing his hold.
Brissenden panted and gasped painfully for a moment, then began to chuckle.
“You had made me eternally your debtor had you shaken out the flame,” he said.
“My nerves are on a hair-trigger these days,” Martin apologized. “Hope I didn’t hurt you. Here, let me mix a fresh toddy.”
“Ah, you young Greek!” Brissenden went on. “I wonder if you take just pride in that body of yours. You are devilish strong. You are a young panther, a lion cub. Well, well, it is you who must pay for that strength.”
“What do you mean?” Martin asked curiously, passing aim a glass. “Here, down this and be good.”
“Because– ” Brissenden sipped his toddy and smiled appreciation of it. “Because of the women. They will worry you until you die, as they have already worried you, or else I was born yesterday. Now there’s no use in your choking me; I’m going to have my say. This is undoubtedly your calf love; but for Beauty’s sake show better taste next time. What under heaven do you want with a daughter of the bourgeoisie? Leave them alone. Pick out some great, wanton flame of a woman, who laughs at life and jeers at death and loves one while she may. There are such women, and they will love you just as readily as any pusillanimous product of bourgeois sheltered life.”
“Pusillanimous?” Martin protested.
“Just so, pusillanimous; prattling out little moralities that have been prattled into them, and afraid to live life. They will love you, Martin, but they will love their little moralities more. What you want is the magnificent abandon of life, the great free souls, the blazing butterflies and not the little gray moths. Oh, you will grow tired of them, too, of all the female things, if you are unlucky enough to live. But you won’t live. You won’t go back to your ships and sea; therefore, you’ll hang around these pest-holes of cities until your bones are rotten, and then you’ll die.”
“You can lecture me, but you can’t make me talk back,” Martin said. “After all, you have but the wisdom of your temperament, and the wisdom of my temperament is just as unimpeachable as yours.”
They disagreed about love, and the magazines, and many things, but they liked each other, and on Martin’s part it was no less than a profound liking. Day after day they were together, if for no more than the hour Brissenden spent in Martin’s stuffy room. Brissenden never arrived without his quart of whiskey, and when they dined together down-town, he drank Scotch and soda throughout the meal. He invariably paid the way for both, and it was through him that Martin learned the refinements of food, drank his first champagne, and made acquaintance with Rhenish wines.
But Brissenden was always an enigma. With the face of an ascetic, he was, in all the failing blood of him, a frank voluptuary. He was unafraid to die, bitter and cynical of all the ways of living; and yet, dying, he loved life, to the last atom of it. He was possessed by a madness to live, to thrill, “to squirm my little space in the cosmic dust whence I came,” as he phrased it once himself. He had tampered with drugs and done many strange things in quest of new thrills, new sensations. As he told Martin, he had once gone three days without water, had done so voluntarily, in order to experience the exquisite delight of such a thirst assuaged. Who or what he was, Martin never learned. He was a man without a past, whose future was the imminent grave and whose present was a bitter fever of living.