The Shadow of A Crime by Hall Caine

ICANNOT follow Mr. Besant with any pitiful story of rejection at the hands of publishers. If refusal is quite the best thing that can happen to the candidate for literary honours, my fate has not been favourable. No tale of mine has yet passed from publishing house to publishing house. Except the first of the series, my stories have been accepted before they have been read. In two or three instances they have been bought before they have been written. It has occurred to me, as to others, to have two or three publishers offering terms for the same book. I have even been offered half payment in hand on account of a book which I could not hope to write for years, and might never write at all. Thus the most helpful confession which the more or less successful man of letters can make for the comfort and cheer of his younger and less fortunate brethren, it is out of my power to offer.

But I reflect that this is true of my literary experiences in the character of a novelist only. I had an earlier and semi-subterranean career that was very different. At eighteen I wrote a poem of a mystical sort, which was printed (not at my own risk) and published under a pseudonym. Happily, no man will ever identify me behind the romantic name wherein I hid my own. Only one literary man knew my secret. That was George Gilfillan, and he is dead. Then at twenty I wrote an autobiography for another person, and was paid ten pounds for it. These were really my first books, and I grow quite hot when I think of them. At five-and-twenty I came up to London with the manuscript of a critical work, which I had written while at Liverpool. Somebody had recommended that I should submit it to a certain great publishing house, and I took it in person. At the door of the office I was told to write my own name, and the name of the person whom I wished to see, and to state the nature of my business. I did so, and the boy who took I LEFT IT I LEFT IT my message brought back word that I might leave my manuscript for consideration. It seemed to me that somebody might have seen me for a minute, but I had expected too much. The manuscript was carefully tied up in brown paper, and so I left it.

After waiting three torturing weeks for the decision of the publishers, I made bold to call again. At the same little box at the door of the office I had once more to fill up the same little document. The boy took it in, and I was left to sit on his table, to look at the desk which he had been whittling away with his penknife, to wait and to tremble. After a time I heard a footstep returning. I thought it might be the publisher or the editor of the house. It was the boy back again. He had a pile of loose sheets of white paper in his hands. They were the sheets of my book. 'The editor's compliments, sir, and—thank you,' said the boy, and my manuscript went sprawling over the table. I gathered it up, tucked it as deep as possible into the darkness, under the wings of my Inverness cape, and went downstairs ashamed, humiliated, crushed, and broken-spirited. Not quite that, either, for I remember that, as I got to the fresh air at the door, my gorge rose within me, and I cried in my heart, 'By God! you shall—— ' and something proud and vain.

drawing by Geo. Hutchinson
signed: with Kindest regards,
Hall Caine

I dare say it was all right and proper and in good order. The book was afterwards published, and I think it sold well. I hardly know whether I ought to say that the editor should have shown me more courtesy. It was all a part of the anarchy of things which Mr. Hardy considers the rule of life. But the sequel is worth telling. That editor became MY MS. WENT SPRAWLING OVER
my personal friend. He is dead, and he was a good and able man. Of course he remembered nothing of this incident, and I never poisoned one hour of our intercourse by telling him how, when I was young and a word of cheer would have buoyed me up, he made me drink the waters of Marah. And three times since that day the publishing house I speak of has come to me with the request that I should write a book for them. I have never been able to do so, but I have outgrown my bitterness, and, of course, I show no malice. Indeed, I have now the best reasons for wishing the great enterprise well. But if literary confessions are worth anything, this one may perhaps be a seed that will somewhere find grateful soil. Keep a good heart, even if you have to knock in vain at many doors, and kick about the backstairs of the house of letters. There is room enough inside.

I wrote and edited sundry things during my first years in London, but not until I had published a story did I feel that I had so much as touched the consciousness of the public.

Hence, my first novel may very properly be regarded as my first book, and if I have no tale to tell of heart-broken impediments in getting it published, I have something to say of the difficulty of getting it written. The novel is called 'The Shadow of a Crime,' but title it had none until it was finished, and a friend christened it. I cannot remember when the story was begun, because I cannot recall a time when the idea of it did not exist in my mind. Something of the same kind is true of every tale I have ever written or shall ever DERWENTWATER DERWENTWATER write. I think it must be in the nature of imagination that an imaginative idea does not spring into being, that it has no spontaneous generation, but, as a germinating conception, a shadow of a vision, always comes floating from somewhere out of the back chambers of memory. You are waiting for the central thought that shall link together incidents that you have gleaned from among the stubble of many fields, for the motif that shall put life and meaning into the characters that you have gathered and grouped, and one morning, as you awake, just at that moment when you are between the land of light and the mists of sleep, and as your mind is grappling back for the vanishing form of some delicious dream, a dim but familiar ghost of an idea comes up unbidden for the hundredth time, and you say to yourself, with surprise at your own stupidity, 'That's it!'


The idea of my first novel moved about me in this way for many years before I recognised it. As usually happens, it came in the shape of a story. I think it was, in actual fact, first of all, a tale of a grandfather. My mother's father was a Cumberland man, and he was full of the lore of the hills and dales. One of the oldest legends of the Lake mountains tells of the time of the plague. The people were afraid to go to market, afraid to meet at church, and afraid to pass on the highway. When any lonely body was ill, the nearest neighbour left meat and drink at the door of the afflicted house, and knocked and ran away. In these days, a widow with two sons lived in one of the darkest of the valleys. The younger son died, and the body had to be carried over the mountains to be buried. Its course lay across Sty Head Pass, a bleak and 'brant' place, where the winds are often high. The eldest son, a strong-hearted lad, undertook the duty. He strapped the coffin on to the back of a young horse, and they started away. The day was wild, and on the top of the pass, where the path dips into Wastdale, between the breast of Great Gable and the heights of Scawfell, the wind rose to a gale. The horse was terrified. It broke away and galloped over the fells, carrying its burden with it. The lad followed and searched for it, but in vain, and he had to go home at last, unsatisfied.


This was in the spring, and nearly all the summer through the surviving son of the widow was out on the mountains, trying to recover the runaway horse, but never once did he catch sight of it, though sometimes, as he turned homeward at night, he thought he heard, in the gathering darkness, above the sough of the wind, the horse's neigh. Then winter came, and the mother died. Once more the dead body had to be carried over the fells for burial, and once again the coffin was strapped on the back of a horse. It was an old mare that was chosen this time, the mother of the young one that


had been lost. The snow lay deep on the pass, and from the cliffs of the Scawfell pikes it hung in great toppling masses. All went well with the little funeral party until they came to the top of the pass, and though the day was dead calm the son held the rein with a hand that was like a vice. But just as the mare reached the spot where the wind had frightened the young horse, there was a terrific noise. An immense body of the snow had parted at that instant from the beetling heights overhead, and rushed down into the valley with the movement as of a mighty earthquake, and the deafening


sound as of a peal of thunder. The dale echoed and re-echoed from side to side, and from height to height. The old mare was affrighted; she reared, leapt, flung her master away, and galloped off. When they had recovered from their consternation, the funeral party gave chase, and at length, down in a hollow place, they thought they saw what they were in search of. It was a horse with something strapped on its back. When they came up with it they found it was the young horse, with the coffin of the younger son. They led it away and buried the body that it had carried so long, but the old mare they never recovered, and the body of the mother never found sepulchre.

Such was the legend, sufficiently terrible, and even ghastly, which was the germ of my first novel. Its fascination for me lay in its shadow and suggestion of the supernatural. I thought it had all the grip of a ghost story without ever passing out of the world


of reality. Imagination played about the position of that elder son, and ingenuity puzzled itself for the sequel to his story. What did he think? What did he feel? What were his superstitions? What became of him? Did he die mad, or was he a MAN, and did he rise out of all doubt and terror? I cannot say how many years this ghost of a conception (with various brothers and sisters of a similar complexion) haunted my mind before I recognised it as the central incident of a story, the faggot for a fire from which other incidents might radiate and imaginary characters take life. When I began to think of it in this practical way I was about six-and-twenty, and was lodging in a lonely farmhouse in the Vale of St. John.

Rossetti was with me, for I had been up to London at his request, and had brought him down to my retreat. The story of that sojourn among the mountains I have told elsewhere. It lives in my memory as a very sweet and sad experience. The poet was a dying man. He spent a few hours of every day in painful efforts to paint a picture. His nights were long, for sleep never came to him until the small hours of the


morning; his sight was troublesome, and he could not read with ease; he was in that condition of ill-health when he could not bear to be alone, and thus he and I were much together. I was just then looking vaguely to the career of a public lecturer, and was delivering a long course of lectures at Liverpool. The subject was prose fiction, and to fortify myself for the work I was reading the masterpieces over again. Seeing this, Rossetti suggested that I should read aloud, and I did so. Many an evening we passed in this way. The farmhouse stood at the foot of a fell by the side of the lowest pool of a ghyll, Fishers' Ghyll, and the roar of


falling waters could be heard from within. On the farther side of the vale there were black crags where ravens lived, and in the unseen bed of the dale between lay the dark waters of Thirlmere. The surroundings were striking to the eye and ear in the daylight, but when night came, and the lamp was lit, and the curtains were drawn, and darkness covered everything outside, they were yet more impressive to the imagination. I remember those evenings with gratitude and some pain. The little oblong room, the dull thud of the ghyll like faint thunder overhead, the crackle of the wood fire, myself reading aloud, and Rossetti in a long sack painting coat, his hands thrust into its upright pockets, walking with his heavy and uncertain step to and fro, to and fro, laughing sometimes his big deep laugh, and sometimes sitting down to wipe his moist spectacles and clear his dim eyes. The autumn DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI was far spent, and the nights were long. Not rarely the dead white gleams of the early dawn before the coming of the sun met the yellow light of our candles as we passed on the staircase going to bed a little window that looked up to the mountains, and over them to the east.

Perhaps it was not all pleasure, so far as I was concerned, but certainly it was all profit. The novels we read were 'Tom Jones,' in four volumes, and 'Clarissa,' in its original eight, one or two of Smollett's, and some of Scott's. Rossetti had not, I think, been a great reader of fiction, but his critical judgment was in some respects the surest and soundest I have known. He was one of the only two men I have ever met with who have given me in personal intercourse a sense of the presence of a gift that is above and apart from talent—in a word, of genius. Nothing escaped him. His alert mind seized upon everything. He had never before, I think, given any thought to fiction as an art, but his intellect played over it like a bright light. It amazes me now, after ten years' close study of the methods of story-telling, to recall the general principles which he seemed to formulate out of the back of his head for the defence of his swift verdicts. 'Now why?' I would say, when the art of the novelist seemed to me to fail, or when the poet's condemnation appeared extreme. 'Because so-and-so must happen,' he would answer. He was always right. He grasped with masterly strength the operation of the two fundamental factors in the novelist's art—the sympathy and the 'tragic mischief.' If these were not working well, he knew by the end of the first chapters that, however fine in observation, or racy in humour, or true in pathos, the work as an organism must fail.

It was an education in literary art to sharpen one's wits on such a grindstone, to clarify one's thought in such a stream, to strengthen one's imagination by contact with a mind that was 'of imagination all compact.'

Now, down to that time, though I had often aspired to the writing of plays, it had never occurred to me that I might write a novel. But I began to think of it then as a remote possibility, and the immediate surroundings of our daily life brought back recollection of the old Cumberland legend. I told the story to Rossetti, and he was impressed by it, but he strongly advised me not to tackle it. The incident did not repel him by its ghastliness, but he saw no way of getting sympathy into it on any side. His judgment disheartened me, and I let the idea go back to the dark chambers of memory. He urged me to try my hand at a Manx story. '"The Bard of Manxland"—it's worth while to be that,' he said—he did not know the author of 'Foc's'le Yarns.' I thought so, too, but the Cumbrian 'statesman' had begun to lay hold of my imagination. I had been reviving my recollection and sharpening my practice of the Cumbrian dialect which had been familiar to my ear, and even to my tongue, in childhood, and so my Manx ambitions had to wait.

Two years passed, the poet died, I had spent eighteen months in daily journalism in London, and was then settled in a little bungalow of three rooms in a garden near the beach at Sandown in the Isle of Wight. And there, at length, I began to write my first novel. I had grown impatient of critical work, had persuaded myself (no doubt wrongly) that nobody would go on writing about other people's writing who could do original writing himself, and was resolved to live on little and earn nothing, and never go back to London until I had written something of some sort. As nearly as I can remember, I had enough to keep things going for four months, and if, at the end of that time, nothing had got itself done, I must go back bankrupt.

Something did get done, but at a heavy price of labour and heart-burning. When I began to think of a theme, I found four or five subjects clamouring for acceptance. There was the story of the Prodigal Son, which afterwards became 'The Deemster'; the story of Jacob and Esau, which in the same way turned into 'The Bondman'; the story of Samuel and Eli, which, after a fashion, moulded itself ultimately into 'The Scapegoat'; and half-a-dozen other stories, chiefly Biblical, which are still on the forehead of my time to come. But the Cumbrian legend was first favourite, and to that I addressed myself. I thought I had seen a way to meet Rossetti's objection. The sympathy was to be got out of the elder son. He was to think God's hand was upon him. But whom God's hand rested on had God at his right hand; so the elder son was to be a splendid fellow—brave, strong, calm, patient, long-suffering, a victim of unrequited love, a man standing square on his legs against all weathers. It is said that the young novelist usually begins with a glorified version of his own character; but it must interest my friends to see how every quality of my first hero was a rebuke to my own peculiar infirmities.

(From a photograph by A. M. Pettit) MR. HALL CAINE IN HIS STUDY
(From a photograph by A. M. Pettit)

Above this central figure and legendary incident I grouped a family of characters. They were heroic and eccentric, good and bad, but they all operated upon the hero. Then I began to write.

(From a photograph by A. M. Pettit) MRS. HALL CAINE
(From a photograph by A. M. Pettit)

Shall I ever forget the agony of the first efforts? There was the ground to clear with necessary explanations. This I did in the way of Scott in a long prefatory chapter. Having written it I read it aloud, and found it unutterably slow and dead. Twenty pages were gone, and the interest was not touched. Throwing the chapter aside I began with an alehouse scene, intending to work back to the history in a piece of retrospective writing. The alehouse was better, but to try its quality I read it aloud, after the 'Rainbow' scene in 'Silas Marner,' and then cast it aside in despair. A third time I began, and when the alehouse looked tolerable the retrospective chapter that followed it seemed flat and poor. How to begin by gripping the interest, how to tell all and yet never stop the action—these were agonising difficulties.

It took me nearly a fortnight to start that novel, sweating drops as of blood at every fresh attempt. I must have written the first half volume four times at the least. After that I saw the way clearer, and got on faster. At the end of three months I had written nearly two volumes, and then in good spirits I went up to London.

My first visit was to J. S. Cotton, an old friend, and to him I detailed the lines of my story. His rapid mind saw a new opportunity. 'You want peine forte et dure,' he said. 'What's that?' I said. 'An old punishment—a beautiful thing,' he answered. 'Where's my dear old Blackstone?' and the statute concerning the punishment for standing mute was read to me. It was just the thing I wanted for my hero, and I was in rapture, but I was also in despair. To work this fresh interest into my theme, half of what I had written would need to be destroyed!

It was destroyed, the interesting piece of ancient jurisprudence took a leading place in my scheme, and after two months more I got well into the third volume. Then I took my work down to Liverpool, and showed it to my friend, the late John Lovell, a most able man, first manager of the Press Association, but then editing the local Mercury. After he had read it he said, 'I suppose you want my candid opinion?' 'Well, ye—s,' I said. 'It's crude,' he said. 'But it only wants sub-editing.' Sub-editing!

I took it back to London, began again at the first line, and wrote every page over again. At the end of another month the story had been reconstructed, and was shorter by some fifty pages of manuscript. It had drawn my heart's blood to cut out my pet passages, but they were gone, and I knew the book was better. After that I went on to the end and finished with a tragedy. Then the story was sent back to Lovell, and I waited for his verdict.

My home (or what served for it) was now on the fourth floor of New Court, in Lincoln's Inn, and one morning Lovell came purring and blowing and steaming (the good fellow was a twenty-stone man) into my lofty nest. He had re-read my novel coming up in the train. 'Well?' I asked, nervously. 'It's magnificent,' he said. That was all the favourable criticism he offered. All save one practical and tangible bit. 'We'll give you 100l. for the serial right of the story for the Weekly'.


He offered one unfavourable criticism. 'The death of your hero will never do,' he said. 'If you kill that man Ralph, you'll kill your book. What's the good? Take no more than the public will give you to begin with, and by-and-by they'll take what you give them.' It was practical advice, but it went sorely against my grain. The death of the hero was the natural sequel to the story; the only end that gave meaning, and intention, and logic to its motif. I had a strong predisposition towards a tragic climax to a serious story. To close a narrative of disastrous events with a happy ending it always seemed necessary to turn every incident into accident. That was like laughing at the reader. Comedy was comedy, but comedy and tragedy together was farce. Then a solemn close was so much more impressive. A happy end nearly always frayed off into rags and nothingness, but a sad one closed and clasped a story as with a clasp. Besides, a tragic end might be a glorious and satisfying one, and need by no means be squalid and miserable. But all these arguments went down before my friend's practical assurance: 'Kill that man, and you kill your book.'

With much diffidence I altered the catastrophe and made my hero happy. Then, thinking my work complete, I asked Mr. Theodore Watts (a friend to whose wise counsel I owed much in those days) to read some 'galley' slips of it. He thought the rustic scenes good, but advised me to moderate the dialect, and he propounded to me his well-known views on the use of patois in fiction. 'It gives a sense of reality,' he said, 'and often has the effect of wit, but it must not stand in the way.' The advice was sound. A man may know over much of his subject to write on it properly. I had studied Cumbrian to too much purpose, and did not realise that some of my scenes were like sealed books to the general reader. So once again I ran over my story, taking out some of the 'nobbuts' and the 'dustas' and the 'wiltas.'

My first novel was now written, but I had still to get it published. In my early days in London, while trying to live in the outer court of a calling wherein the struggle for existence is keenest and bitterest and cruellest, I conceived one day the idea of offering myself as a reader to the publishers. With this view I called on several of that ilk, who have perhaps no recollection of my early application. I recall my interview with one of them. He was sitting at a table when I was taken into his room, and he never once raised his head from his papers to look at me. I just remember that he had a neck like a three-decker, and a voice like a peahen's. 'Well, sir?' he said. I mentioned the object of my visit. 'What can you read?' 'Novels and poems,' I answered. 'Don't publish either—good day,' he said, and I went out.

But one of the very best, and quite, I think, the very oldest of publishers now living, received me differently. 'Come into my own room,' he said. It was a lovely little place, full of an atmosphere that recalled the publishing house of the old days, half office, half study; a workshop where books might be made, not turned out by machinery. I read many manuscripts for that publisher, and must have learned much by the experience. And now that my novel was finished I took it to him first. He offered to publish it the following year. That did not suit me, and I took my book elsewhere. Next day I was offered 50l. for my copyright. That was wages at the rate of about four shillings a day for the time I had been actually engaged upon the work, sweating brain and heart and every faculty. Nevertheless, one of my friends urged me to accept it. 'Why?' I asked. 'Because it is a story of the past, and therefore not one publisher in ten will look at it.' I used strong language, and then took my novel to Chatto & Windus. Within a few hours Mr. Chatto made me an offer which I accepted. The book is now, I think, in its fifteenth edition.

The story I have told of many breakdowns in the attempt to write my first novel may suggest the idea that I was merely serving my apprenticeship to fiction. It is true that I was, but it would be wrong to conclude that the writing of a novel has been plain sailing with me ever since. Let me 'throw a crust to my critics,' and confess that I am serving my apprenticeship still. Every book that I have written since has offered yet greater difficulties. Not one of the little series but has at some moment been a despair to me. There has always been a point of the story at which I have felt confident that it must kill me. I have written six novels (that is to say, about sixteen), and sworn as many oaths that I would never begin another. Three times I have thrown up commissions in sheer terror of the work ahead of one. Yet here I am at this moment (like half-a-dozen of my fellow-craftsmen), with contracts in hand which I cannot get through for three years. The public expects a novel to be light reading. It may revenge itself for occasional disappointments by remembering that a novel is not always light writing.

Let me conclude with a few words that may be timely. Of all the literary cants that I despise and hate, the one I hate and despise the most is that which would have the world believe that greatly gifted men who have become distinguished in literature and are earning thousands a year by it, and have no public existence and no apology apart from it, hold it in pity as a profession and in contempt as an art. For my own part, I have found the profession of letters a serious pursuit, of which in no company and in no country have I had need to be ashamed. It has demanded all my powers, fired all my enthusiasm, developed my sympathies, enlarged my friendships, touched, amused, soothed, and comforted me. If it has been hard work, it has also been a constant inspiration, and I would not change it for all the glory and more than all the emoluments of the best-paid and the most illustrious profession in the world.