Off and on, in common with most high-school graduates, Felix Kennaston had been an "intending contributor" to various magazines, spasmodically bartering his postage-stamps for courteously-worded rejection-slips. Then, too, in the old days before his marr iage, when Kennaston had come close to capturing Margaret Hugonin and her big fortune, the heiress had paid for the printing of The King's Quest and its companion enterprises in rhyme, as well as the prose of Defence of Ignorance-- wide-marg ined specimens of the far-fetched decadence then in vogue, and the idol of Kennaston's youth, when he had seriously essayed the parlor-tricks of "stylists."
And it was once a familiar story how Marian Winwood got revenge on Felix Kennaston, when he married Kathleen Saumarez, by publishing, in the transparent guise of fiction, all the love-letters he had written Miss Winwood; so that Kennaston might actually h ave claimed to be generally recognized as the actual author of her Epistles of Ananias, which had, years earlier, created some literary stir.
But this book was to be different from any of his previous compositions. To paraphrase Felix Kennaston's own words (as recorded in the "Colophon" to Men Who Loved Alison), he had determined in this story lovingly to deal with an epoch and a societ y, and even a geography, whose comeliness had escaped the wear-and-tear of ever actually existing. He had attempted a jaunt into the "happy, harmless Fable-land" which is bounded by Avalon and Phaeacia and Sea-coast Bohemia, and the contiguous forests of Arden and Broceliande, and on the west of course by the Hesperides, because he believed this country to be the one possible setting for a really satisfactory novel. Kennaston was completing, in fine, The Audit at Storisend--or, rather, Men Who Loved Alison, as the book came afterward to be called.
Competent critics in plenty have shrugged over Kennaston's cliche of pretending that the romance is "re-told" from an ancient manuscript. But to Kennaston the clerk Horvendile, the fictitious first writer of the chronical and eye-witness of its events, w as necessary. No doubt it handicapped the story's progress, so to contrive matters that one subsidiary character should invariably be at hand when important doings were in execution, and should be taken more or less into everyone's confidence--but then, somehow, it made the tale seem real.
For in the writing it all seemed perfectly real to Felix ennaston. His life was rather barren of motive now.. In remoter, when he had wandered impecuniously from one adventture to another, sponging without hesitancy upon such wealthy people as his chatte r amused, there had always been exquisite girls to make love to--such girls as the younger generation did not produce--and the ever-present problem of whence was to come the fares for to-morrows hamsoms, in which the younger generation did not ride. For now hansom cabs were wellnigh as uncommon as bicycles or sedan-chairs, he owned two motors, and, by the drollest turn, had money in four banks. As recreation went, he and Kathleen had in Lichfield their round of decorous social duties; and there was noth ing else to potter with save the writing. And a little by a little the life he wrote of came to seem to Felix Kennaston more real, and far more vital, than the life his body was shuffling through aimlessly.
This was not the first time that Kennastion had written of Ettarre and Horvendile: for The King's Quest, of course, tells all about that ruining which this evasive pair contrived for King Alfgar, in somewhat stodgy Spenserian verse. But Kennaston now understood this Horvendile more comlletely.... And so, as Horvendile he lived among such gallant circumstances as he had always vaguely hoped his real life might provide by and by.
This Horvendile, coming unintelligibly to Storisende, and wittnessing there the long combat between Sir Guiron des Rocques and Maugis d'Aigremont for possession of La Beale Alison--as Kennaston's heroine is called of course in the printed book,--this Horv endile now seems tto us no very striking figure; as in Rob Roy and Esmond, it is not to the narrator, but to the people and events he tells of, that attention is riveted. But Felix Kennnaston, writing the book, lived the life of Horvendile in the long happy hours of writing, in stints which steadily became longer and more pleasurable; and insensiibly his existence blended and was absorbed into the more colorful life of Horvendile. It was as Horvendile he wrote, seeming actually at times to remember what he recorded, rather than to invent....
And he called it inspiration....
So the tale flowed on, telling how Count Emmerick planned a nottable marriage-feast for his sister La Beale Ettarre and Sir Guiron des Rocques, with vastly different results from those already recorded--with the results, in fine, which figure in the print ed Men Who Loved Allison, wherin Horvendile keeps his proper place as a more-or-less convenient device for getting the tale told.
But to Kennaston that first irrational winding-up of affairs, wherin a world's creator was able to wring only contempt and pity from his puppets--since he had not endowed them with any faculties wherwith to comprehend thier creator's nature and intent--wa s always the tale's real ending....
So it was that the lonely man lived with his dreams, and toiled for the vision's sake conttentedly: and we of Lichfield who were most familiar with Felix Kennaston in the flesh knew nothing then of his mental diversions; and, with knowledge, would probab ly have liked him not a bit better. For ordinary human beings, with other normal forms of life, turn naturally toward the sun, and are at thier best thereunder; but it is the misfortune of dreamers that thier peculiar talents find no exercise in daylight . So we regared Kennaston with the distrust universally accorded people who need to be meddling with ideas in a world which sustains its mental credit comfortably enough with a current coinage of phrases.
And therefore it may well be that I am setting down his story not all in sympathy, for in perfect candor I never, quite, liked Felix Kennaston. His high-pitched voice in talking, to begin with, was irritating: you new it was not his natural voice, and f ound it so entirely senseless for him to speak thus. Then, too, the nervous and trivial grin with which he prefaced almost all his infrequent remarks--and the odd little noise, that was nearly a snigger and just missed being a cough, with which he ended them--was peculiarly uningratiating in a fat and middle-aged person; his weak eyes very rarely met yours full-gaze; and he was continually handling his face or fidgeting with a cigarette or twisting in his chair. When listening to you he usually nibbled at his finger-nails, and when he talked he had a secretive way of looking at them.
Such habits are not wholly incompatible with wisdom or generosity, and the devil's advocate would not advance them against their possessor's canonization; none the less, in everyday life they make against your enjoying a chat with their possessor: and as for Kennaston's undeniable mental gifts, there is no escaping, at times, the gloomy suspicion that fiddleing with pens and ink is, after all, no fit employment for a grown man.
Felix Kennaston, to fix the word, was inadequate. His books apart, he was as a human being a failure. Indeed, in some inexpressible fashion, he impressed you as uneasily shriking life. Certainly he seemed since his marriage to have relinquished all con versationaal obligements to his wife. She had a curious trick of explaining him, before his face--in a manner which was not unreminiscent of the lecturer in "side-shows" pointing out the peculiarities of the living skeleton or the glass-eater; but it was done with such ill-concealed pride in him that I found it touching, even when she was boring me about the varieties of food he could not be induced to touch or his finicky passion for saving every bit of string he came across.
That suggests a minor mystery: many women had been fond of Felix Kennaston; and I have yet to find a man who liked him even moderately, to offset the host who marveled, with unseemly epithets, as to what these women saw in him. My wife explains it, rath er enigmatically, that he was "just a twoser"; and that, in addittion, he expcted women to look after him, so that naturally they did. To her superior knowledge of the feminine mind I can but bow: with the addition (quoting the same authority) that a "t woser" is a trousered individual addicted to dumbness in coompany and the very thrilliest sort of play-acting in tete-a-tetes.
At all events, I never quite liked Felix Kennaston--not even after I came to understand that the man I knew in the flesh was but a very ill-drawn likeness of Felix Kennaston. After all, that is the whole sardonic point of his story--and, indeed, of every human story--that the person you or I find in the mirror is condemned eternally to misrepresent us in the eyes of our fellows. But even with comprehension, I never cordially liked the man; and so it may well be that his story is set down not all in symp athy.
With which Gargantuan parenthesis, in equitable warning, I return again to his story.