Brissenden gave no explanation of his long absence, nor did Martin pry into it. He was content to see his friend’s cadaverous face opposite him through the steam rising from a tumbler of toddy.
“I, too, have not been idle,” Brissenden proclaimed, after hearing Martin’s account of the work he had accomplished.
He pulled a manuscript from his inside coat pocket and passed it to Martin, who looked at the title and glanced up curiously.
“Yes, that’s it,” Brissenden laughed. “Pretty good title, eh? ‘Ephemera’-it is the one word. And you’re responsible for it, what of your man , who is always the erected, the vitalized inorganic, the latest of the ephemera, the creature of temperature strutting his little space on the thermometer. It got into my head and I had to write it to get rid of it. Tell me what you think of it.”
Martin’s face, flushed at first, paled as he read on. It was perfect art. Form triumphed over substance, if triumph it could be called where the last conceivable atom of substance had found expression in so perfect construction as to make Martin’s head swim with delight, to put passionate tears into his eyes, and to send chills creeping up and down his back. It was a long poem of six or seven hundred lines, and it was a fantastic, amazing, unearthly thing. It was terrific, impossible; and yet there it was, scrawled in black ink across the sheets of paper. It dealt with man and his soul-gropings in their ultimate terms, plumbing the abysses of space for the testimony of remotest suns and rainbow spectrums. It was a mad orgy of imagination, wassailing in the skull of a dying man who half sobbed under his breath and was quick with the wild flutter of fading heart-beats. The poem swung in majestic rhythm to the cool tumult of interstellar conflict, to the onset of starry hosts, to the impact of cold suns and the flaming up of nebular in the darkened void; and through it all, unceasing and faint, like a silver shuttle, ran the frail, piping voice of man, a querulous chirp amid the screaming of planets and the crash of systems.
“There is nothing like it in literature,” Martin said, when at last he was able to speak. “It’s wonderful!-wonderful! It has gone to my head. I am drunken with it. That great, infinitesimal question-I can’t shake it out of my thoughts. That questing, eternal, ever recurring, thin little wailing voice of man is still ringing in my ears. It is like the dead-march of a gnat amid the trumpeting of elephants and the roaring of lions. It is insatiable with microscopic desire. I now I’m making a fool of myself, but the thing has obsessed me. You are-I don’t know what you are-you are wonderful, that’s all. But how do you do it? How do you do it?”
Martin paused from his rhapsody, only to break out afresh.
“I shall never write again. I am a dauber in clay. You have shown me the work of the real artificer-artisan. Genius! This is something more than genius. It transcends genius. It is truth gone mad. It is true, man, every line of it. I wonder if you realize that, you dogmatist. Science cannot give you the lie. It is the truth of the sneer, stamped out from the black iron of the Cosmos and interwoven with mighty rhythms of sound into a fabric of splendor and beauty. And now I won’t say another word. I am overwhelmed, crushed. Yes, I will, too. Let me market it for you.”
Brissenden grinned. “There’s not a magazine in Christendom that would dare to publish it-you know that.”
“I know nothing of the sort. I know there’s not a magazine in Christendom that wouldn’t jump at it. They don’t get things like that every day. That’s no mere poem of the year. It’s the poem of the century.”
“I’d like to take you up on the proposition.”
“Now don’t get cynical,” Martin exhorted. “The magazine editors are not wholly fatuous. I know that. And I’ll close with you on the bet. I’ll wager anything you want that ‘Ephemera’ is accepted either on the first or second offering.”
“There’s just one thing that prevents me from taking you.” Brissenden waited a moment. “The thing is big-the biggest I’ve ever done. I know that. It’s my swan song. I am almighty proud of it. I worship it. It’s better than whiskey. It is what I dreamed of-the great and perfect thing-when I was a simple young man, with sweet illusions and clean ideals. And I’ve got it, now, in my last grasp, and I’ll not have it pawed over and soiled by a lot of swine. No, I won’t take the bet. It’s mine. I made it, and I’ve shared it with you.”
“But think of the rest of the world,” Martin protested. “The function of beauty is joy-making.”
“It’s my beauty.”
“Don’t be selfish.”
“I’m not selfish.” Brissenden grinned soberly in the way he had when pleased by the thing his thin lips were about to shape. “I’m as unselfish as a famished hog.”
In vain Martin strove to shake him from his decision. Martin told him that his hatred of the magazines was rabid, fanatical, and that his conduct was a thousand times more despicable than that of the youth who burned the temple of Diana at Ephesus. Under the storm of denunciation Brissenden complacently sipped his toddy and affirmed that everything the other said was quite true, with the exception of the magazine editors. His hatred of them knew no bounds, and he excelled Martin in denunciation when he turned upon them.
“I wish you’d type it for me,” he said. “You know how a thousand times better than any stenographer. And now I want to give you some advice.” He drew a bulky manuscript from his outside coat pocket. “Here’s your ‘Shame of the Sun.’ I’ve read it not once, but twice and three times-the highest compliment I can pay you. After what you’ve said about ‘Ephemera’ I must be silent. But this I will say: when ‘The Shame of the Sun’ is published, it will make a hit. It will start a controversy that will be worth thousands to you just in advertising.”
Martin laughed. “I suppose your next advice will be to submit it to the magazines.”
“By all means no-that is, if you want to see it in print. Offer it to the first-class houses. Some publisher’s reader may be mad enough or drunk enough to report favorably on it. You’ve read the books. The meat of them has been transmuted in the alembic of Martin Eden’s mind and poured into ‘The Shame of the Sun,’ and one day Martin Eden will be famous, and not the least of his fame will rest upon that work. So you must get a publisher for it-the sooner the better.”
Brissenden went home late that night; and just as he mounted the first step of the car, he swung suddenly back on Martin and thrust into his hand a small, tightly crumpled wad of paper.
“Here, take this,” he said. “I was out to the races to-day, and I had the right dope.”
The bell clanged and the car pulled out, leaving Martin wondering as to the nature of the crinkly, greasy wad he clutched in his hand. Back in his room he unrolled it and found a hundred-dollar bill.
He did not scruple to use it. He knew his friend had always plenty of money, and he knew also, with profound certitude, that his success would enable him to repay it. In the morning he paid every bill, gave Maria three months’ advance on the room, and redeemed every pledge at the pawnshop. Next he bought Marian’s wedding present, and simpler presents, suitable to Christmas, for Ruth and Gertrude. And finally, on the balance remaining to him, he herded the whole Silva tribe down into Oakland. He was a winter late in redeeming his promise, but redeemed it was, for the last, least Silva got a pair of shoes, as well as Maria herself. Also, there were horns, and dolls, and toys of various sorts, and parcels and bundles of candies and nuts that filled the arms of all the Silvas to overflowing.
It was with this extraordinary procession trooping at his and Maria’s heels into a confectioner’s in quest if the biggest candy-cane ever made, that he encountered Ruth and her mother. Mrs. Morse was shocked. Even Ruth was hurt, for she had some regard for appearances, and her lover, cheek by jowl with Maria, at the head of that army of Portuguese ragamuffins, was not a pretty sight. But it was not that which hurt so much as what she took to be his lack of pride and self-respect. Further, and keenest of all, she read into the incident the impossibility of his living down his working-class origin. There was stigma enough in the fact of it, but shamelessly to flaunt it in the face of the world-her world-was going too far. Though her engagement to Martin had been kept secret, their long intimacy had not been unproductive of gossip; and in the shop, glancing covertly at her lover and his following, had been several of her acquaintances. She lacked the easy largeness of Martin and could not rise superior to her environment. She had been hurt to the quick, and her sensitive nature was quivering with the shame of it. So it was, when Martin arrived later in the day, that he kept her present in his breast-pocket, deferring the giving of it to a more propitious occasion. Ruth in tears-passionate, angry tears-was a revelation to him. The spectacle of her suffering convinced him that he had been a brute, yet in the soul of him he could not see how nor why. It never entered his head to be ashamed of those he knew, and to take the Silvas out to a Christmas treat could in no way, so it seemed to him, show lack of consideration for Ruth. On the other hand, he did see Ruth’s point of view, after she had explained it; and he looked upon it as a feminine weakness, such as afflicted all women and the best of women.