In June of 1901 the Welsh newspaper the Evening Express published a short story by an unnamed writer. At this time gay literature was starting to appear more regularly in mainstream literature and art but this does appear to be one of the first ‘gay’ stories from Wales.
Arthur Pagewood and Henry Varcoe had become close friends and intimates, although their acquaintance was by no means one of long standing. In fact, it had commenced about twelve months before the period at which our story opens in the smoking room of a Westminster club of which they were both members.
They were Varsity men – Pagewood hailing from Exeter College, Oxford, and Varcoe from Gonville and Caius, Cambridge – and moreover litterateurs in a small way. Some startling and unconventional short stories, of the decadent type, from the pen of Pagewood which had appeared in a certain eccentric magazine whose life had been a short and merry one, had caused a considerable flutter in the devocotes of Philistia; and Varcoe had contributed to the still surviving “Tyburnia” six or eight fugitive sketches of London life, admirable in style and technique, but lacking in power of “vision” and imagination.
Extremes meet, they say; and Arthur Page wood and Henry Varcoe, contrasting strongly in physique and line of thought, separated by nature to all outward appearance as widely as the poles, had not been long in each other’s society before they became conscious of a subtle and mysterious aura of mutual attraction, when the world would have looked for a wave of mutual repulsion. Each man was, as it were, the complement of the other.
The romantic friendship which resulted presently led to a literary partnership.
The collaborators scored many successes, but they were, after all only minor ones. Each had a soul above the short story – which is often regarded as the most effectual test of literary ability – and each aspired to produce a work which should make Stanley Weyman and Conan Doyle tremble for their laurels.
One breathless evening in late August, when the Parks were deserted and Pall Mall and Piccadilly disconsolate, Arthur Pagewood, in his usual casual way lounged into his friend’s Bayswater chambers, and, flinging the soft felt American hat which he always affected upon the table, while he jerked the butt-end of a cigar out of the open window, threw himself listlessly into an easy chair.
“Varcoe,” he said, fixing his bright eyes eagerly upon that gentleman’s face, “I have been haunted by it in the visions of the night. It will make the world grow pale – readers with delirious horror, rivals with delirious envy.”
“You mean the plot of our projected historical novel, no doubt,” said Varcoe with his accustomed phlegm.
“Why what else would rouse my enthusiasm in this weather? I have the ‘root of the matter.’ But to attempt to develop it here – in London – in this stifling, pestiferous atmosphere, with the thermometer at 80 deg. in the shade – would lead to ruin, disaster, idiocy, and asphyxia.”
“What do you propose to do, then?” inquired his coadjutor rather ruefully, for he by no means relished the abandonment of his cherished idea.
“Briefly this: to ‘fly these cruel lands, this avaricious shore’ – pray excuse mixed reminiscences of Virgil and Savonarola – and seek larger ether,’ larger inspiration, and local colouring.”
“A brilliant project, indeed!” cried Varcoe, affected by the other’s enthusiasm. “But can’t you tell me something more about the plot?”
“Not here – not here, my friend. The city dust would besmirch, the brazen glare of the city streets would scorch the radiant butterfly wings of the Iris of my fancy. As I have said, William de la Marck is the hero. For the rest, let it suffice that the leit-motiv is the old, yet ever new one of a ‘woman weeping for her demon lover.’ Once more I adjure you not to be alarmed, for I pledge you my honour as a literary Bohemian that there is not a souneon of Moore’s ‘Love of the Angels’ nor a trace of Maturin’s ‘Melinott the Wanderer’ in my highly original plot.”
“Have with you, then, Pagewood. I place myself unreservedly in your hands. You have a right, I suppose to play the autocrat, for you supply the literary ‘hegemonic spark.’ Let us see. This is Monday. Well, I shall be ready to accompany you in your quest of the ‘larger ether’ and the ‘local colouring’ on Wednesday.”
From place to place in the picturesque woodland Ardennes district did the friends wander through the shortening days of the golden autumn. Adhering to their programme, they made a pilgrimage to Liege, followed the windings of the Meuse, visited grey old Namus perched above the river, stayed for some days at the Tete d’Or in lovely Dinant, and explored the grottoes of Hun. But their steps always gravitated towards the forest, and when its greenery had given place to russet they settled down at a sleepy little hotel in St. Hubert, which, as every Belgian traveller knows, lies in the very heart of the Ardennes.
Now, Pagewood was eccentric – eccentricity, we know, is the hall-mark of genius – and cherished some peculiar fads, which he had been known to sacrifice on the altar of friendship, or even on that of love. The most aggravating of these fads was a literary one, as Varcoe had learnt to his cost. You might urge him with the most frenzied entreaties, you might demonstrate the utter futility of his line of action, but you could never induce him to disclose the denouement or peripety of a story until its conclusion was virtually reached. “I must keep the bonne bouche for the last’’ was his invariable reply to the remonstrance of Varcoe on the subject. Men may and do laugh at fads, but they often lead up to strange and unpleasant consequences – a truism destined to receive a specially melancholy exemplification in the present case. Arthur Pagewood was by no means a strong man; the fiery and ceaseless workings of his soul had already well-nigh frittered out the frail constitution which he had inherited from consumptive parents. To make matters worse, he was one of those Quixotic individuals who scorn to adapt their clothing to the weather. Cold blasts were not unknown in the Ardennes in October, but Pagewood rejected an overcoat as effeminate. The consequence was that during a walk one day, when the wind blew from the east, he contracted a severe chill. Pneumonia set in, and in less than a week Henry Varcoe stood weeping bitterly, for all his Anglo-Saxon phlegm, over the corpse of a friend whom he loved as few brothers are loved.
This, then, was the end of all their pleasant intercourse. Thus had their partnership terminated. The bright star or fancy was extinguished, the sparkling foam of imagination choked up for ever. Those eyes, eternally closed, would never again thrill him with the impassioned fervour of their gaze; that white cold, delicate hand would never again hold his own in the grasp of friendship. And what of the dream of literary distinction, than which none other is more fascinating? Death, grim harlequin of life’s pantomime, had smitten the illusory fabric with his icy wand, and the glistening rainbow battlements, the golden towers, the fairy cupulas, had trembled, tottered, fallen in ruin, like so many stage properties beneath his resistless hand. Neither man nor angel could rear again the palace of delight in which the vanished spirit had so revelled.
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo’s laurel-bough.
Henry Varcoe was stricken to the heart by the death of his friend, and yet he could not tear himself away from the scene of his loss. Some spirits are so constituted, and they suffer most acutely of all.
Alone he roamed the dreary and sodden woodlands, now thickly carpeted with fallen leaves, missing his dear companion at every step; alone at night in his solitary chamber wherever his eye rested he was reminded of Pagewood. On the mantel lay his favourite meerschaum; the few volumes which had accompanied his wanderings – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, AEchylus, Schopenhauer’s “Parerga” – were ranged on a shelf hard by; and on a small in a corner of the room was deposited the treasured MS. whose progress had been interrupted by his death.
That chief d’oeuvre, Varcoe feared, would never see the light. His mental powers were in abeyance – under eclipse. More than once, when the burden of his lonely sorrow had seemed utterly insupportable, he had sat down and tried to write; if for no other purpose, at least to distract his thoughts; but his brain was torpid and barren, no ideas would come to him and the useless pen was quickly laid aside in despair.
The master hand which had so jealously retained the clue that led through the labyrinthine maze of the plot right to its heart lay stiff and cold in the grave. Varcoe might have been hypercritical, too distrustful of his own powers, but no solution – only a few, indeed, occurred to him – of the mystery hanging around the fate of the hapless heroine who had surrendered herself, body and soul, to the embodied demon. William de la Marck, commended itself to him as satisfactory, or even remotely probable. And then he caught himself wondering whether there was out in the vast unknown universe a mystic treasure-house wherein were deposited those thoughts of the mighty thinkers of the earth which seemed to perish on their decease, and wishing that, if such there were, he knew the open sesame that would compel it to disclose its secrets. Musing thus, he bethought him of Lytton’s “Pausanias,” of Dickens’s “Edwin Drood,” of Louis Stevenson’s “St. Ives,” and then, looking back through the centuries, of
Him who left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold.
All these inspired ones, like that Pagewood whom he mourned, had wended their way to the “bourne from which no traveller returns,” and others had endeavoured, with scant success to place a coping-stone shaped by alien hands upon the fabric which the mighty dead had left unfinished, and which they alone could have adequately completed.
One night – it was November, and the rain, driven by violent, intermittent squalls, beat furiously against the casement – Henry Varcoe, as if in protest against the wild weather, his own gloomy thoughts, and no less gloomy surroundings, braced himself up for a supreme effort. He read and read again the latter part of the MS.; he tried to think whether the dead man had ever dropped a casual hint which might lead him to the discovery of the intended denouement; he marshalled for the hundredth time before his menial vision the various possibilities of the case. All was in vain; his brain whirled like a lonely sphere of fire, desolate, unproductive, tormented.
He buried his face in his hands, and moaned aloud, “Oh, Pagewood! Pagewood! friend of my heart. I have lost you, and with you, I have lost all – hope, energy, intellect. I am not man enough to complete the monument of your genius, which owes so little to my poor efforts. And yet how gladly would I give my life, my soul, to place before the world – not, Heaven knows, for my own sake, but yours – in a manner worthy of you, our last labours.”
The bells of the Abbey Church of St. Hubert, which was within a stone’s cast of the hotel, at this moment, in tones muffled by the battling wind and rain, slowly chimed the midnight hour.
The last stroke was still vibrating through the troubled air, when the door of the chamber was noiselessly opened, and a tall, cloaked figure as noiselessly glided in and took the seat at the table before the open manuscript which Varcoe had been perusing. The visitor next, with a well-remembered gesture, flung off his broad-brimmed felt hat and seized the pen which had so lately fallen from the watcher’s nerveless grasp.
From his post beside the stove Varcoe gazed in much terror upon the features of the newcomer, which were fully revealed by the removal of his headgear. The face he beheld was, and yet was not, the face of Pagewood. It was a livid and horrible mask, which simply reproduced and travestied, as a wax replica might have done, the cast of his features as his friend remembered them in life, but left them utterly devoid of expression. Sorrow and joy were equally banished from the passionless lineaments of the dead; and in those fixed and glassy eyes there was neither speculation nor recognition.
Varcoe, naturally a strong man, and by no means given to sentimentality and imaginative crazes, was now an altered being. He was unnerved by the constant presence and tensions of his grief, his prolonged vigils, his utter loneliness in a foreign land, and the gnawing haunting sense of a complete paralyses of his literary powers, and, consequently of his literary ambition. The sight of the melancholy apparition, which seemed unaware of his presence and yet bent upon the performance of some important task, so wrought upon him that his consciousness forsook him, and he slipped helplessly from his chair to the ground in a deep swoon.
When Varcoe come to himself the weird eidolon of what had once been Pagewood had vanished. Time had not stood still, although he had been unconscious of its progress, for the candles on the table burned low in their sockets.
Feebly he arose, and fearfully he drew near the open manuscript. He remembered that the instant before he fainted he had seen the shade take up a pen and bend eagerly over it. Judge of his amaze when he beheld page after page, from the point where the narrative had broken off, filled with the handwriting of his dead friend! Was he waking or dreaming? That night, at all events, he would not – he could not – sleep.
He replenished the stove, procured fresh candles, and addressed himself to the perusal of the concluding portion of the MS.
The story was finished! Yes, finished by the hand of the dead, which had dispensed with his feeble help.
The plot culminated in scenes suggestive of the lurid splendours of the Hindu Padalon when the doomed Kehama made his descent thither. The mystic and terrible things of the spiritual world were, for once in the history of literature, described by a spirit. The frantic efforts of the wretched Yolande, the heroine to rescue the demon soul of the outlawed William de la Marck, whom she loves in spite of all the threats and judgments of the angry heavens; the supreme sacrifice which her luckless passion claims and receives; the ghastly horrors of that night when the nameless tragedy is consummated and the silver planet of love is quenched, as it were, in a lake of blood and fire; all these things were portrayed in words and imagery that lived, that breathed, that stood out as grim, objective realities from the pages, like the ghostly pylons of Karnac silhouetted against the pure indigo of the midnight Egyptian skies – the words and imagery of a spirit, redolent of that higher sphere wherein spirits exist.
When Henry Varcoe had ceased reading, the hair on his head stood up, he was bathed, despite the warmth of the apartment, in a cold sweat, and his countenance was as livid as had been that of his phantom visitant.
Some lines traced on the last page of the MS. now arrested his attention. They ran thus:-
“Our collaboration, the action and reaction of our spirits each upon the other, seemed to, but, did not cease upon my death. The agony of your heart, the cry of your sorrow, the bitterness of your disappointment – these are influences that reach from earth to other worlds, and they have brought me to your side to-night.
“The story, which was begun so gaily and hopefully has, alas! been finished by the hand of the dead. You can use it or destroy it as you please. To me it matters not; for to me earthly triumphs are indifferent. But remember that conditions are annexed to your choice, whichever that may be. If you destroy it your life will be as that of others – the normal threescore years and ten; if you use it, unparalleled success – which your collaborator is not destined to share and enjoy – awaits the book and its author. But then you must die, in the zenith of your fame, a year after its publication.
“Ponder and choose. In either event, beloved friend,
“Be thou assured I shall not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.”
That night Henry Varcoe made his choice.
The grand sensation of the Christmas literary season that year was “A Romance of the Ardennes.” written in collaboration by Arthur Pagewod and Henry Varcoe. Edition after edition was called for and exhausted. The glories of the popular Corelli waxed pale and were eclipsed by the splendour of its success. It took the hearts and souls of men captive, and yet it was more “triste et terrible,” more awful in its diablery, than the weird masterpiece of the uniue Maturin. It was a wail from the regions. Of eternal dolour – a wail in which was heard the death-shriek of a woman’s love, which had vainly essayed to plumb those sunless depths.
The world, of course, knew that Arthur Pagewood was dead; but it looked for other work from the pen of his brilliant confrere. The world was disappointed. Long ere it had ceased clamouring for fresh editions of “A Romance of the Ardennes,” Henry Varcoe had re-joined that friend to immortalise whose name he had cheerfully laid down his own life. Those who had bent over the pillow of the dying man to catch his last words had seen a smile light up his face as he faintly whispered-
“Be thou assured I shall not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.”