Critics are evil monsters. On a closer read of Dante, it isn’t difficult to find a remote, special place for their breed among the lower levels of hell. They’re somewhere right between fraudsters and heretics. It’s worth noting that Eve, when taking a bite of that forbidden fruit, did so only at the annoying, incessant insistence of a critic.
Thus, I feel my disappointment justified when, on reaching the bright red door of Langley’s Miscellany for my morning debrief with Byron Livingston, I happened across one of these vile creatures. On the outside steps, he tipped his hat to me as if to say “good-day.” But if he considered the day good, he must have already, at nine in the morning, gutted at least one poor journalist. And, seeing as Langley’s was the publication for which I wrote, I was nearly certain that journalist was me.
I shuffled through the door and shivered. Inside, I could feel the autumn chill that possesses those buildings too frugal to burn coal in September. Sure enough, Byron, my betrothed and editor, had not yet taken off his coat. He stood near his office, staring pensively at his prized skylark, which rested quietly on a wooden perch in its wire cage. I could tell he was troubled. The wrinkles in his eyebrows, already deep set for a man in his forties, still held their crease from the morning’s vexations. No doubt, he had been stewing over whatever Brutus, the loving name I’d lended to our most regular critic, had to say.
Byron rarely showed me his troubles. In fact, I treasured the moments when I happened upon him like this. It reminded me that he, like me, might not always be the picture of polite happiness. The moment vanished as he noticed me enter, and he gave me a broad smile under his large mustache.
“Luella, good morning,” he said, standing to grasp my hands. The coat fell to the floor, revealing a herringbone waistcoat. “You look radiant. I love the way you’ve done your hair.”
That had to be a lie. I looked perturbed, and my hair, somewhere between dark brown and red, had hardly seen a brush that morning.
“What did Brutus want?” I asked.
“Brutus? I haven’t the foggiest—oh right! I forgot your pet name for our friend—”
“He’s not our friend,” I cut in. “Is he?”
“Why not sit down for some tea? Mrs. Barker just brought over some biscuits from down the street,” he said, motioning to the cramped editing table. The two same tired teacups sat there waiting to go through their same old routine. In fact, everything about the office looked about the same as it always did. The small, spent fireplace sat in a corner across from Byron’s small office, which was nearly tucked out of sight. Old, weathered, wood wainscoting came waist-high on the walls. The windows, though dirty, let in an abundant portion of the morning light. Pages were strewn on chairs, tables, windowsills and the floor, which didn’t enjoy nearly enough rug.
“Why must you always draw out bad news?” I asked.
“I don’t intend to. I just believe the world is far more pleasant when viewed over the rim of a teacup,” he replied, pulling out a chair with an encouraging grin. The scraping of the chair woke up the bird, which eased into a few attempts of its practiced song.
I took off my gloves and sat down, pursing my lips as he slowly poured the tea. Byron Livingston. The man who took a chance on me, a twenty-five-year-old woman. When I met him, he was full of life and energy, even for a man past forty. He had a passion for journalism and economy and, by the way he had talked, would soon become the very wealthy owner of a popular weekly magazine. However, the intricacies of the publishing business weren’t as favorable as he anticipated, and now he seemed to grow older every day as he toiled to publish his weekly. Langley’s Miscellany. He made out alright, but I wasn’t expecting an estate of our own after the wedding. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we moved into the rundown flat above the publishing house where he lived now. “Until business improves, as it surely will!” he always tittered on whenever I expressed concern about his finances and their future.
Until business improved, indeed. Brutus had our jugular in a vice grip.
“Well?” I spat out, breaking the tea-time tranquility.
“Well, how is your sister?” he asked, taking a sip.
“She has a bit of a cough. Who doesn’t? It’s midway through autumn.”
“The poor dear. What a lovely blouse you’re wearing. Is that the one I bought for you?”
It wasn’t, and I hardly looked any different than I did any other day. I wasn’t big on fashion. I liked my clothes to be attractive but practical. My sister on, the other hand, made herself presentable even when on her sickbed.
“Of course. It goes so well with my grey vest and skirt. Now will you tell me what Brutus said or not?”
He stiffly replaced his teacup. “Well, if it’s all business then. Mr. Blakely,” I winced as he used my pseudonym, “you’re right. It wasn’t a friendly call.”
“It wasn’t all bad. In fact, he didn’t hate it. What was the word he used? He said he was… indifferent.”
The word knocked the wind right out of me. “Indifferent?”
“Neither here nor there,” Byron said. “Not good and not bad.”
“You said it wasn’t bad,” I stammered. “Indifferent is the worst type of bad. All our hard work might as well just be letters and words printed on a paper napkin. Neither here nor there? That someone might pass it in the street and walk on, or worse! That someone might actually take the time to read my piece but then go on and never think of it again?”
“You’re getting yourself riled up, my dear,” he said. “Have a biscuit.”
I did not want a biscuit, but I took one.
“Byron, do you agree with him?”
He set down the biscuits and stood up. He leaned against the window and lit his pipe, taking a deep drag on it. The smell of the tobacco reminded me of my father. My father had sacrificed much so that I might be educated. The first time I published an article, I took the printed edition to Papa’s sickbed. I helped him read it, and when we finished, tears streamed on his cheeks into his whiskers. I’d only seen my father cry once. He died a week later.
“I’m so very fond of you,” Byron started. “I continually try to check this sentiment so that it doesn’t seep into our relationship as author and editor.”
“And you know I appreciate that,” I said.
“Sometimes I fear that my, well, my feelings for you sway my objectivity. But, I’ll be damned if the man that came in here this morning was right. You are a fantastic writer. If there is fault, it must be found elsewhere. I am to blame.”
Inside of me, I felt Byron was speaking absolute nonsense, but I’m not one to stop a man from spouting out his own crude type of love poem. Even if it is ill-timed.
“You report on the stories I suggest,” he continued. “And, since Langley’s Miscellany is a smaller publication, we don’t get the same tips and leads as the bigger papers. I’m ashamed to say it. I’m failing you, my darling.”
Personally, I find this type of humility not a little grating and disingenuous. Perhaps Byron spoke the words honestly, but I suspected their sincerity sprung, not from their veracity, but his desire to spare me pain. I thought this in spite of his brazen disclaimer to the contrary. Seized by this conclusion, I found myself at an emotional crossroads, unsure of whether to take strength from his devotion or languish in his confirmation of Brutus’ critique.
Men are never so unmanly as when swept up by an insecure infatuation.
All the same, I know not to bite an outstretched hand. Langley’s had given me a rare opportunity to test my mettle. He was not the first editor to whom I had submitted my work. I had applied at a dozen other publications before, and they, pen name or no, were convinced that, as a woman from a station like mine, I didn’t have the snuff to compete in the pressing world of journalism and authorship. Byron saved me.
We met at a dinner party arranged by my sister. I forget the precise occasion, but Byron could tell you all the details. To this day, I’m thankful we did not start our relationship on business footing.
In fact, it wasn’t until many meetings and a proposal later that I learned he managed Langley’s, and he only told me after learning that I was an aspiring writer. Before that, our relationship had been all about “Do you know so and so?” and “Have you ever read such and such?” But, after revealing his true identity as editor and publisher, he said he was always looking for good stories and would be happy to give me an audition. After all, sooner or later, our finances would conjoin, and what would be better than to have a dual threat from the hearth? Naturally, he had reminded me, this wouldn’t relieve me of my wifely chores and duties, especially once children came about, but I still counted it a measure ahead of any other. Not just to be led by a husband but yoked to his enterprise, it felt modern, progressive, and exciting.
But as time went on, the illustrious nature of our arrangement had faded. When I first began writing for him, I naively eyed our city’s top literary prize, The Golden Inkwell, reserved each year for Dawnhurst-on-Severn’s most esteemed columnist. With a backer like Byron Livingston, I would at least qualify for consideration of the award. I had a platform. I just had to write more prolific stories than any of my colleagues or competitors. There could be no sweeter realization of my father’s hopes for my future than having the Golden Inkwell on my mantle.
Once, I thought I had come close. Soon after I started writing for Langley’s, one of my stories titled “At Home with a Woman” caused quite the stir in our little city. The story detailed the benefits of aspiring to the type of gentlemanly conduct, be it in business, social or domestic responsibilities, that inspires women to affection. The story was widely read, and since I published it under the pen name Travis Blakely, even men even took it seriously.
A reporter who chronicled literary achievement in Dawnhurst came to our door one workday and asked to speak with Mr. Blakely. I was tempted to give away my identity in exchange for the interview, but Byron scooped up the reporter and claimed no small amount of credit for my work. As he had explained where the idea came from and its lasting importance for our society, I felt the bitter dredges of resentment in my throat.
Afterward, he had explained it was important for my career that I retain my pen name for now, and I couldn’t argue with his reasoning, but I couldn’t help but notice the arrogant gleam in his eye, the residual high of being interviewed by a reporter and anticipation of public praise.
Much to our mutual disappointment, I had never been able to replicate that initial success, and Travis Blakely lost whatever momentum he had toward the Golden Inkwell.
Now, with my professional prestige neatly departmentalized in Byron’s mind, when my stories performed poorly, I failed doubly, once as a writer and again as a wife-to-be. I recognized in Byron’s management style no progressive, pro-feminist temperament but a fear that I might decide to break our engagement should he now choose to cut me off.
Did he fear for nothing? The question scared me. Perhaps because it held a mirror up to my criticism of him. I was afraid to think about what I might do if he decided to let me go. I wanted to believe that I could happily live out my life as Mrs. Livingston, giving my opinion here or there on the publication when asked. Another part of me whispered that my gift of literacy was too dear to me, too central to my identity, just to spectate the print business as an onlooker. So, we had melted into a cocktail of love and business, unable to distinguish one relationship from another, ambition from security, or my love of writing from my love for the man who so clearly would give the world for me.
“What do you think about that?” Byron asked, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. I snapped to attention.
“I’m sorry. I’m afraid I must have missed your last point.”
“Are you well, my dear?” he asked, the skylark singing merrily and energetically by now.
“Fine, just lost in my head for a moment.”
“I was asking whether or not you think we could afford to bring on a lad to dig up leads for us. Harold’s Weekly has at least three or four on staff for that. It’s no wonder we’re behind on the big stories when the editor and publisher are also trying to sniff out where the action is. You know me. I’m independent to a fault, but I think I’m beginning to understand that I have only so many hands.”
“Nonsense,” I responded. “You’re stretched thin as it is. How could we afford to hire on a lad if you won’t even put the fire on?”
“I’m terribly sorry! Look at me forgetting!” he said through a large puff of smoke and starting toward the fireplace.
“I don’t bring it up for my sake. I can’t imagine our competitors sit there editing stories without taking their coats off. If there is more work to be done, allow me to do it.”
“Oh, no! Luella, please. I can manage to hire a lad. It’s no trouble.”
“Neither for me,” I quipped, but I could tell by the way he left his mouth slightly agape that there was something about my proposal that made him feel a little uneasy. “Don’t you think I can do the job?”
“It’s just—well, I’m not sure if it’s a woman’s place. To find these stories, you might find yourself in some rough areas of town.”
“Excellent. Then they will never see me coming,” I said, rising before he could protest again. I gathered my gloves and thanked him for the tea and biscuits, but he crossed from the hearth and barred my way.
“Luella, I won’t allow it. You’re not to go sniffing out any leads. Do you understand? I forbid it. What if something happened to you?”
I chewed on my lip. What did he expect me to do? If I needed leads and he couldn’t spare the time or money to get them, then I could only see one way forward.
“Promise me,” he insisted.
I fingered the wire cage and listened to the bird sing sweetly inside of it.
“Are you asking me as my editor or my fiancé?” I asked.
“Both,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation.
I sighed but nodded dutifully.
“Please don’t worry too much about the critics,” he said, taking my hand firmly in his. “I’m certain we will still sell plenty of copies. Our savings will be on schedule for our pending marriage, my dear. This I promise. I think that most people will truly be interested in your piece on proper street etiquette for rainy days.”
His summary of my most recent article made me blush a deep fuchsia. I was grateful he had already bent to kiss my hand. I walked away from the shop bitterly aware that Brutus was doing us a favor by even reading me at all.