CHAPTER XII

1900 ­ 1901

We found Paris all over exhibition and fin de siècle. Everything was fin de siècle, revues, plays, dress, manners, customs, everything. The emancipation of women was in full swing. The French, hitherto in the rearguard of the movement, threw themselves whole-heartedly into it to celebrate the death of the old century. French ladies became reckless: they danced, they puffed at cigarettes, they went unaccompanied to restaurants, they qualified for admission to one or two of the liberal professions: they passed their doctorat and qualified for jurisprudence. Only of votes for women there was no question. That was English and, of course, ridiculous.

We were well-hated during this time. The French man in the street was heartily pro-Boer. The English were after the gold over there. S'ils n'avaient fait que planter des pommes de terre . . . was the slogan. (If they, the Boers, the brave, peaceable agriculturists had only planted potatoes the wicked grasping English would never have molested them.) The comic papers were full of virulent articles and pictures representing the British lion in every kind of humiliating posture.

There was one absolutely scurrilous cartoon which confronted us at the kiosks and corners of every street, and which those of us who happened to see it then, cannot quite forgive even now. It showed Queen Victoria lying across Kruger's knee and being whipped by two attendant Boers. In the music-halls there was invariably a one-act sketch representing the handsome manly Boer and the long-legged cringing English soldier in short scarlet tunic tilting at the Boer with a tin sword which curled up as soon as it touched the enemy's noble bosom, and the Boer then knocking the English soldier down, putting his foot on the latter's neck and inflicting chastisement upon him with a riding-whip.

The Englishman on the stage and in the comic papers always had red hair and side-whiskers and a huge mouth with large yellow teeth. English women were represented wearing early Victorian dresses, yellow straw boaters, long moth-eaten fur boas. They had huge feet and hands and huge teeth. There was a scurrilous publication called V'là les Angliches with a picture cover of Joan of Arc at the stake, of English sportsmen decoying crocodiles by tying children to stumps of trees on the shores of infested rivers, and English women in early-Victorian dresses photographing emaciated Hindoos and children in the last stages of starvation.

In the shops the former legend 'English spoken' was changed to 'U.S. spoken'. One amusing incident I recall which made us laugh, for it was characteristic of the attitude of every class of Frenchman at the time. A couple of cochers were having an altercation on the Boulevard. Each driver had drawn rein in order to give his language full scope. What the origin of the quarrel was we didn't know, but abuse and a variety of expletives flew backwards and forwards together with copious spittings and cracking of whips. Neither of the antagonists was getting the last word. Both were egged on by the crowd that had speedily gathered round them. They had called each other every kind of abusive name under the sun, cochon and chien and lâche being the most favoured. Backwards and forwards did the insulting words fly from mouth to mouth, and it seemed as if they would go on flying until the middle of next week, the gendarme, by the way, never attempting to interfere, when suddenly one of the belligerents, standing upon his box and shaking his fist at his antagonist, yelled at the top of his voice the one word, "Fashoda!" and immediately the turmoil ceased. There was no answer to this supreme insult.

In addition to hatred of the English over the Boer War there was the Fashoda incident, which was looked upon by every French man and woman as the deadliest insult ever inflicted on the French army.

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We were in Paris on that great day in November when old Kruger came to visit the capital. We had left London soon after the great Mafeking night--when all London was mad with joy and thronged the streets shouting and singing. The worst of that horrible war was over. It would not be long now before the final capitulation of Kruger and Cronje, and De Witt and the rest of them. The certainty of victory, the hope of seeing the boys come home before the spring, was an intoxication of joy. Let joy be unconfined.

Well! Paris was going mad with joy also. The brave Boers! The fine old man Paul Kruger! Those abominable grasping, brutal English! Yes! the war would soon be over, the English would be brought to their knees, driven out of Africa! and wouldn't this be just the beginning of the final break-up of that much vaunted, arrogant British Empire. Indeed we all found Paris as full of joy as London had been when we left. Paul Kruger, the heroic President of the Transvaal, was coming to pay a visit to the great capital. To see the great exhibition? Oh dear me, no! He came to see what financial and military support he could get out of his French admirers. Demonstrations and shouts of 'Vive les Boers' was all very well. The old villain wanted something more substantial than that.

Well! he didn't get it, but cheers he got in plenty on the day of his arrival; and for days afterwards the streets were thronged; the access to the station was a veritable ant-heap of humanity; the roofs of neighbouring houses and factories were black with throngs of enthusiasts, many of them in work-a-day clothes, pushing and jostling for a good place from which to see the great arrival. The streets were beflagged; at every window women and children waited with flowers and confetti to shower upon the open landau when it would come rattling along the Boulevard Diderot with its eagerly awaited occupant. Senators and deputies, presidents of councils, municipal bigwigs from Rouen, Lyons, and Bourges were all there waiting at the station to give a rousing and respectful welcome to the heroic defender of his country's liberty.

And suddenly the noise and hubbub subsided. A solemn silence fell over the assembled multitude as the huge locomotive of the presidential train came puffing into the station. Then a terrific cry of 'Vive Kruger!' 'Vive les Boers!' The train came to a standstill and a shabbily dressed and none too clean old gentleman then stepped on to the platform. A military band blared forth the 'Marseillaise' with much trombone and multifarious brass. The crowd yelled itself hoarse. The women and children pelted the landau with flowers. Unfortunate pedestrians were pushed and jostled, some seriously hurt, others swallowed mouthfuls of confetti. Everybody was happy.

The reception was a great success.

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We saw all that from a window in the Boulevard Diderot, in the house of English friends, who had a grocery shop in the Boulevard St. Michel where we used to purchase various delicacies for our picnic lunches. We saw a good deal more of Paul Kruger after that. He went about sightseeing and among other places he came over to the Latin Quarter to visit the Pantheon, where France's eminent dead are buried. He came chiefly on the invitation of the students of the Sorbonne and of the several schools and colleges there, the Beaux Arts, the École de Medecine, and so on. These young people turned out in their thousands to acclaim him when he drove in the open landau along the Boulevard St. Michel (familiarly known as the Boul' Miche).

We had rooms in the Hôtel des Etrangers, at the corner of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Rue Racine, and we had a splendid view of the huge and boisterous crowds of Parisian youths. We had frightened our landlady to death by telling her that we would hang a Union Jack out of our window which gave on to the boulevard. Of course we had no intention of doing any such thing, for the mob would most certainly have smashed all the windows and doors of the hotel and probably have set fire to the whole place.

The students from the École des Breaux Arts were in the forefront of the particular show to welcome Kruger on his arrival at the Pantheon. In the fullness of their hearts they presented him with a statue of Victory, modelled by one of their best sculptors. Unfortunately, the complete success of the demonstration of sympathy was marred by the fact that Victory was not wearing early Victorian clothes such as Mrs. Kruger would have approved of. In fact, she wore no clothes at all. And when she was finally deposited in the suite occupied by the old man in the Hôtel Scribe, she had to be swathed in antimacassars hastily dragged from the red plush chairs of the sitting-room so as not to offend the chaste eyes of the austere President. He was staying in the Hôtel Scribe and when on his return from the Latin Quarter, he opened wide the window of his room and stepped out on the balcony to receive further ovations from the enthusiastic crowd, he beheld exactly facing him the gaily illuminated shop fronts of 'Old England'.

As a matter of fact the crowd in this fashionable part of Paris was not nearly so demonstrative in its enthusiasm as the youthful denizens of the Latin quarter. There certainly was quite a good crowd round and about the Scribe, but there was no noisy cheering and English visitors were not molested. We certainly had nothing to complain of. We drove down the Grands Boulevards in a small open voiture fully expecting to have eggs or cabbages hurled at us in execration, but nothing of the sort happened. While we sat outside a café opposite the Scribe, a small boy shouldering a Boer flag marched up and down the pavement, shouting: "A bas les anglais". We called to him, promised him a few centimes if he changed his tune for A bas les Boers, which he promptly did and pocked his centimes with a grin. Old Kruger spent about a fortnight in Paris, during which time excitement over his visit gradually cooled down.

Another great--far greater--event now occupied the mind of the 'man in the street': the illness and subsequent death of Queen Victoria. The 'man in the street' certainly took a great interest in that event which filled us and our English friends with sorrow. It was such a great passing away of the most outstanding personality of the past hundred years. The morning that the news appeared in the Paris Daily Mail we were greeted by all our friendly tradespeople with subdued voices and a certain awed expression of face: "Vous savez?" they all said, even before they answered to our 'bonjour' "Votre idole est morte". Your idol! That is how they talked of Queen Victoria.

She was to their minds (more insular than those of our own people) something quite apart. Not altogether real. A fetish that we, the hated English, almost worshipped, and to their credit be it said that with her death, all scurrilous cartoons and postcards disappeared from the kiosks, nor did any derogatory or disrespectful article appear in the Press.

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Well! all through this period of excitement we two continued with the work which we had made up our minds to do while we were in Paris. My husband was busy with what he always called pot-boiling work for Messrs. McKenzie, one of the most important firms of colour printers in London. This left him sufficient leisure to make ready his pictures for the Paris Salon, for the Spring exhibition of the Royal Institute of Painters in water-colours, and eventually for the Academy. Daylight, alas! was of short duration, but we had a very nice room with a good North light and on the whole the winter was bright and often sunny. We breakfasted and lunched in the hotel. And when the weather was fine we dined at a restaurant on the other side of the river and had our coffee on the Boulevard, watching the passers-by.

I was busy for some time with the series of detective stories (six in number) which I had planned around the personality of the old scarecrow with the piece of string and of the lady journalist who discussed crime-lore with him in the A.B.C. tea shop. Under the comprehensive title of The Old Man in the Corner.

That, of course, was all right as far as it went and £60 for the six stories was quite pleasant, but already I felt inside my heart a kind of stirring that the writing of sensational stuff for magazines would not, and should not, be the end and aim of my ambition. I wanted to do something more than that. Something big. Something that would spread my name throughout the country, that would make it known and repeated by people who read, people who mattered, people whose opinion I would value.

Had I the power to accomplish this? I had no idea. All I knew was that this was to be the aim of my life, that every thought and every aspiration of my soul must tend that way and no other. I just believed that if only one longed for something with the whole of one's mind, of one's heart and of one's strength, it would come. Come eventually. For to my mind ambition is the primum mobile, the key-stone of success. The striving after one aim--and one only. Not to be satisfied with small things, with easily-gained successes. Not to aim at an eagle and then be content if one has brought down a sparrow. Dash the sparrow!

And so I went on thinking and planning while hand in hand with the one being in the world who thoroughly understood my varying moods and to whom I could confide my every thought, we wandered through the streets of that quarter of old Paris which held enshrined the whole of her marvellous history and along the pavements which to my ears still echoed with the footsteps of Robespierre and Danton, of Charlotte Corday and Madame Roland, with the clatter of the tumbrils and the shouts of 'Ca ira' of the revolutionary mob thirsting for freedom at the price of the tyrant's blood.

Thoughts and pictures crowded in upon my mind. With every step we took up the Boul' Miche or the Rue École de Médecine, past the house where Marat was assassinated, through the Palais Royal where Camille Desmoulins had stood upon the table and inflamed his hearers with the fire of his own hatred and enthusiasm, and where Rouget de l'Isle had first sung his 'Marseillaise', and past every corner of this old Paris I seemed to be thrust back into a life which I had lived not so very long ago.

These were, of course, the final links of the chain of my life which culminated in the conception of the Scarlet Pimpernel. His personality and that of the minor characters in the story had not yet begun to shape themselves in my mind. I did not then as much as think of him nor of Chauvelin nor of Marguerite, but the background was there: the pity for the victims of that terrible revolution, which had been brought about by injustice and tyranny and of which so many were the innocent sufferers. And during the last month of our stay in Paris the outline of my story began to take definite form in my mind. The shell only: the vital core was yet to come.

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Back in London in the Spring of that year I was still aiming at an eagle; but, in the meanwhile, one or two little sparrows fell to my gun, and for these I was sincerely grateful. The most important of these small pieces of good fortune (I refused to call them successes or to take pride in them) was the suggestion from kind Mr. Everett that I should continue the series of my Old Man in the Corner stories which the Royal was bringing out now month by month, but with this difference that the various crimes, whatever they were which the old scarecrow elucidated for the benefit of the lady journalist, should occur not in London but in one or other of the great cities in England or even in Scotland. He even suggested one or two towns as possible backgrounds for the stories, Glasgow might be one, York another, and so forth: any town, in fact, that I happened to have visited and to know.

Well! I was not fool enough to grumble at this piece of good fortune. I was promised good publicity for the stories in the several towns where their venue was laid, and with a half-sigh of regret I put the notes I had already made for my magnum opus away in the innermost recesses of my mind as one would put away some jewel of great price but not immediately wanted for wear, into a precious casket, and gaily set to work on the new set of stories.

I had thought out a capital and mysterious murder full of surprises destined to baffle the most astute body of police in the kingdom and decided on Glasgow as its location. I knew Glasgow fairly well and, anyway, it was only a question of choosing the street and the house where the crime would be committed. I had everything pat: the coroner's inquest, the several witnesses, the contradictory evidence, the activities of the police. . . . Let me say at once that both the editor and the reader of the Royal were delighted with the story, and even assured me that they were looking forward with pleasurable anticipation to the rest of the series.

Little did they and I guess what was in store for us. The story appeared . . . and within three days, editor, reader, and the unfortunate author were absolutely snowed under a voluminous correspondence. Letters poured in by the dozen, by the score, and yes! by the hundred, from every town in the kingdom--chiefly in Scotland--where the Royal was read. Angry letters, sarcastic letters, letters written more in sorrow than in anger, but all to the same purport: There is no such thing in Scotland as a coroner's inquest. Didn't the author know that? Of course she didn't; then how had she the temerity to display her ignorance? Didn't the editor or the reader know that there is no such thing as a coroner's inquest in Scotland? That the first investigation of a misdemeanour is carried on by the Procurator Fiscal? Very much in the same way as this is done in France by the Juge d'instruction?

Oh! I know all about that now, but at the time. . . . Imagine, my shame and my despair! I saw myself jeered at, discredited for ever, my career blighted, even before the great work was begun. Would it ever be begun now? Would any reader or editor ever look again at any manuscript submitted by that stupid, ignorant author who did not even take the trouble to verify the most important facts relating to her lucubrations?

I felt thoroughly cheap and ashamed. It was only my husband, always kind and understanding, who found the way to lay salve on my wounded vanity. His advice to me was: "Carry the war in the enemy's camp. Hit out before you yourself get hit. Ask the editor of the Royal and his reader how it came that neither of these clever gentlemen, or anyone in the office for that matter, knew anything about criminal procedure in Scotland, no more that you did in fact. Then see what happens."

Well! nothing happened. I did write the letter my dear consoler had suggested, it was a nice simple, not too humble a letter. Fortunately for me the clever gentlemen in the office of the Royal Magazine had a sense of humour. The certainly did not know anything about the Procurator Fiscal, either, but they saw the humour of the situation, threw the two hundred and fifty letters they had received into the waste-paper basket and advised me to do the same with those which had been addressed to me. And so ended on a happy note this very distressing episode. But the lesson it contained was a severe one, and I certainly benefited by it in after life, for I never again embarked upon a statement of facts before feeling satisfied that I knew--yes, knew, what I was writing about.

In the case of historical romances this was of course of vital importance. I won't say that I never stumbled; I would not be so arrogant as to suggest this for a moment, but in writing of times that are past and gone there are such countless little details to remember and so much study needed to master them all that I venture to say mea culpa with a persistent but not too shamefaced a spirit.

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And thus did I bring down many little sparrows at which I had not aimed but for which I was indeed immensely grateful. I was gathering confidence and, above all, experience all the time. And it is experience--of this I am absolutely certain--which is the only word to real and lasting success. Experience of life, of humanity, of its virtues and its failings. Mine has been a long life, and I have seen much and studied a great deal, and in my old age now I am more convinced than I ever was that youth is far too readily inclined to give out to the world all that it has learned and absorbed in the very few years of development out of childhood. In the essence of things that 'all' can only be very little. Against that it may be very fine and the world may welcome it with enthusiasm. But having given its all and having tasted the sweets of success, youth no longer wants to study or to absorb. It has already absorbed all that it needed for the making of success, for astonishing the world and bringing that world to its feet. Why should it trouble itself any longer? Why continue to study life when one knew by the instinct of genius all there was to know? and the result is almost invariably the same.

How often has that initial success, gained by the flicker of genius, survived the years that followed? How often has a young prodigy continue to bring out work equal in quality and staying power to that first wonderful book or play that the select few had proclaimed immortal. And this applies not only to the making of books, but very much to music. Think of the great number of 'infant prodigies' in the musical world who seemed to fade out of recognition as they passed from adolescence into manhood. You will think of Mozart, of course, but how many more can you remember?

During the course of my musical life I heard and admired a great many, but twenty years later their very names had faded out of one's ken: "Oh yes! So-and-so," one often heard musicians say; "I remember hearing him play at the Philharmonic Concerts, or in Paris, or Vienna, I forget which. He was marvellous, and only ten years old at the time, and with a technique that would take all that time and more to acquire. I have often wondered what became of him. I haven't heard of him for years."

Yes! that was just it, the admirers of this or that infant prodigy so often wonder in the years to come what had happened and why they had not heard of him for years. Strangely enough there has been no infant prodigy among artists (meaning painters). With the exception of Millais, who was said to have had a picture exhibited in the Royal Academy when he was ten years old, I know of no other. My readers will probably put me right if I am wrong there. But I do wonder whether this means that art (again meaning painting) requires longer study than music, and more years of maturity than the making of books.

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Among the many little sparrows that fell to my gun about this time there was one which I facetiously called a blackbird. He was too big to be called a sparrow. The firm of C. Arthur Pearson who, in the person of Mr. Everett, continued to show me both kindness and encouragement, had launched their great scheme of bringing out a daily paper, very much on the lines of the Daily Mail (by way of a rival to it, so everyone thought). It was to be called the Daily Express and to be distinct from its great rival by various new features, even if it would necessarily perhaps wear the same old face. Among other things, the editor desired to run a serial and I was asked, among other unknown writers, to submit a long story of adventure, not a detective story, but something equally exciting without the paraphernalia of police and amateur investigations of crime.

My mind, of course, jumped at once to the great (!) story conceived in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and not as yet in its initial stage. What a joy to set at once to work with the certainty of its appearing in print as soon as complete (and it wouldn't take long), first as a serial in a widely read paper and then in book form. The editor of the Daily Express granted me an interview, and I told him quite vaguely what I had in my mind. But I got a could douche as soon as I mentioned the two words 'French Revolution'. "No! no! no!" was the emphatic response, "we must have something modern. The public doesn't care for France and her revolution. Let's have something that the man in the street will understand and feel that it might happen again to-day or to-morrow, and not the romantic imaginings of the past."

Very much subdued, but in no way discouraged, I did write a modern story of adventure which I called The Shamrock, and which duly appeared in the Daily Express as a serial. But my mind at this time was so engrossed with my beloved great story and the adventures which those six months in the Latin Quarter of Paris had helped me to conceive, that something of their spirit crept into The Shamrock, and which duly appeared even though the scene was laid in Russia, and the period was entirely of the day. I don't think that the serial was particularly successful. I certainly never made the slightest effort to offer it for book publication.

And so The Shamrock died a natural death.


©Blakeney Manor, 2001