Cavalry Life by John Strange Winter


MY first book 'as ever was' was written, or, to speak quite correctly, was printed, on the nursery floor some thirty odd years ago. I remember the making of the book very well; the leaves were made from an old copybook, and the back was THREE SOLDIERS AND
a piece of stiff paper, sewed in place and carefully cut down to the right size. So far as I remember, it was about three soldiers and a pig. I don't quite know how the pig came in, but that is a mere detail. I have no data to go upon (as I did not dream thirty years ago that I should ever be so known to fame as to be asked to write the true history of my first book), but I have a wonderful memory, and to the best of my recollection it was, as I say, about three soldiers and a pig.

It never saw the light, and there are times when I feel thankful to a gracious Providence that I have been spared the power of gratifying the temptation to give birth to those early efforts, after the manner of Sir Edwin Landseer and that pathetic little childish drawing of two sheep, which is to be seen at provincial exhibitions of pictures, for the encouragement and example of the rising generation.

So far as I can recall, I made no efforts for some years to woo fickle fortune after the attempt to recount the story of the three soldiers and a pig; but when I was about fourteen my heart was fired by the example of a schoolfellow, one Josephine H——, who spent a large portion of her time writing stories, or, as our schoolmistress put it, wasting time and spoiling paper. All the same, Josephine H—— 's stories were very good, and I have often wondered since those days whether she, in after life, went on with her favourite pursuits. I have never heard of her again except once, and then somebody told me that she had married a clergyman, and lived at West Hartlepool. Yes, all this has something to do, and very materially, with the story of my first book. For in emulating Josephine H——, whom I was very fond of, and whom I admired immensely, I discovered that I could write myself, or at least that I wanted to write, and that I had ideas that I wanted to see on paper. Without that gentle stimulant, however, I might never have found out that I might one day be able to do something in the same way myself.

My next try was at a joint story—a story written by three girls, myself and two friends. That was in the same year. We really made considerable headway with that story; and had visions of completely finishing it and getting no less a sum than thirty pounds for it. I have a sort of an idea that I supplied most of the framework for the story, and that the elder of my collaborators filled in the millinery and the love-making.

But—alas for the futility of human hopes and desires!—that book was destined never to be finished, for I had a violent quarrel with my collaborators, and we have never spoken to each other from that day to this.

So came to an untimely end my second serious attempt at writing a book; for the stories that I had written in emulation of Josephine H—— were only short ones, and were mostly unfinished.

I wasted a terrible deal of paper between my second try and my seventeenth birthday, and I believe that I was, at that time, one of the most hopeless trials of my father's life. He many times offered to provide me with as much cheap paper as I liked to have; but cheap paper did not satisfy my artistic soul, for I always liked the best of everything. Good paper was my weakness—as it was his—and I used it, or wasted it, which you will, with just the same lavish hand as I had done aforetime.

When I was seventeen, I did a skit on a little book called 'How to Live on Sixpence a Day.' It was my first soldier story—excepting the original three soldiers and a pig—and introduced the 'sixpence a day' pamphlet into a smart cavalry regiment, whose officers were in various degrees of debt and difficulty, and every man was a barefaced portrait, without the smallest attempt at concealment of his identity. Eventually this sketch was printed in a York paper, and the honour of seeing myself in print was considered enough reward for me. I, on the contrary, had no such pure love of fame. I had done what I considered a very smart sketch, and I thought it well worth payment of some kind, which it certainly was.

After this, I spent a year abroad, improving my mind—and I think, on the whole, it will be best to draw a veil over that portion of my literary history, for I went out to dinner on every possible occasion, and had a good time generally. Stay—did I not say my literary history? Well, that year had a good deal to do with my literary history, for I wrote stories most of the time, during a large part of my working hours and during the whole of my spare time, when I did not happen to be going out to dinner. And when I came home, I worked on just the same until, towards the end of '75, I drew blood for the first time. Oh, the joy of that first bit of money—my first earnings! And it was but a bit, a mere scrap. To be explicit, it amounted to ten shillings. I went and bought a watch on the strength of it—not a very costly affair; a MR. ARTHUR STANNARD
(From a photograph by Frances Browne,
135 Regent Street, W.) MR. ARTHUR STANNARD
(From a photograph by Frances Browne,
135 Regent Street, W.)
matter of two pounds ten and an old silver turnip that I had by me. It was wonderful how that one half-sovereign opened up my ideas. I looked into the future as far as eye could see, and I saw myself earning an income—for at that time of day I had acquired no artistic feelings at all, and I genuinely wanted to make name and fame and money—I saw myself a young woman who could make a couple of hundred pounds from one novel, and I gloried in the prospect.

I disposed of a good many stories in the same quarter at starvation prices, ranging from the original ten shillings to thirty-five. Then, after a patient year of this not very luxurious work, I made a step forward and got a story accepted by the dear old Family Herald. Oh, yes, this is really all relevant to my first book; very much so, indeed, for it was through Mr. William Stevens, one of the proprietors of the Family Herald, that I learned to know the meaning of the word 'caution'—a word absolutely indispensable to any young author's vocabulary.

At this time I wrote a great deal for the Family Herald, and also for various magazines, including London Society. In the latter, my first 'Winter' work appeared—a story called 'A Regimental Martyr.'

I was very oddly placed at this point of my career, for I liked most doing the 'Winter' work, but the ordinary young-lady-like fiction paid me so much the best, that I could not afford to give it up. I was, like all young magazine writers, passionately desirous of appearing in book form. I knew not a single soul in the way connected with literary matters, had absolutely no help or interest of any kind to aid me over the rough places, or even of whom to ask advice in times of doubt and difficulty. Mr. William Stevens was the only editor that I knew to whom I could go and say, 'Is this right?' or 'Is that wrong?' And I think it may be interesting to say here that I have never asked for, or indeed used, a letter of introduction in my life—that is, in connection with any literary business.

Well, when I had been hard at work for several years, I wrote a very long book—upon my word, in spite of my good memory, I forget what it was called. The story, however, lives in my mind well enough; it was the story of a very large family—about ten girls and boys, who all made brilliant marriages and lived a sort of shabby, idyllic, happy life, somewhat on the plan of 'God for us all and the devil take the hindermost.' Need I say that it was told in the first person and in the present tense, and that the heroine was anything but good-looking?

I was very young then, and thought a great deal of my pretty bits of writing and those seductive scraps of moralising, against which Mr. Stevens was always warning me. Well, this very long, not to say spun-out, account of this very large family of boys and girls, did not happen to please the 'readers' for the Family Herald—then my stay-by—so I thought I would have a try round the various publishers and see if I could not get it brought out in three volumes. Of course, I tried all the best people first, and very often, when I receive from struggling young authors (who know a great deal more about my past history than I do myself, and who frequently write to ask me the best and easiest way to get on at novel-writing, without either hard work, or waiting, or disappointment, because, if you please, my own beginnings were so singularly successful and delightful) the information that I have never known of any of their troubles, it seems to me that my past and my present cannot be the past and present of the same woman. Yet they are. I went through it all; the same sickening disappointments, the same hopes and fears; I trod the self-same path that every beginner must assuredly tread, as we must all in time tread that other path to the grave. I went through it all, and with that exceedingly long and detailed account of that large and shabby family, I trod the thorny path of publishing almost to the bitter end—ay, even to the goal where we find the full-blown swindler waiting for us, with bland looks and honeyed words of sweetest flattery. Dear, dear! many who read this will know the process. It seldom varies. First, I sent my carefully written MS., whose very handwriting betrayed my youth, to a certain firm which had offices off the Strand, to be considered for publication. The firm very kindly did consider it, and their consideration was such that they made me an offer of publication—on certain terms.

Their polite note informed me that their readers had read the work and thought very highly of it, that they were inclined—just by the way of completing their list for the approaching September, the best month in the year for bringing out novels—to bring it out, although I was, as yet, unknown to fame. Then came the first hint of 'the consideration,' which took the form of a hundred pounds, to be paid down in three sums, all to fall due before the day of publication. I worked out the profits which could accrue if the entire edition sold out I found that, in that case, I should have a nice little sum for myself of 180l. Now, no struggling young author in his or her senses is silly enough to throw away the chance of making 180l. in one lump. I thought, and I thought the whole scheme out, and I must 'THE FIRM'
CONSIDERING 'THE FIRM' CONSIDERING confess that the more I thought about it, the more utterly tempting did the offer seem. To risk 100l.—and to make 180l.! Why, it was a positive sin to lose such a chance. Therefore, I scraped a hundred pounds together, and, with my mother, set off for London, feeling that, at last, I was going to conquer the world. We did a theatre on the strength of my coming good fortune, and the morning after our arrival in town set off—in my case, at all events—with swelling hearts, to keep the appointment with the kindly publisher who was going to put me in the way of making fame and fortune.

I opened the door and went in. 'Is Mr.—— at home?' I asked. I was forthwith conducted to an inner sanctum, where I was received by the head of the firm himself. Then I experienced my first shock—he squinted! Now, I never could endure a man with a squint, and I distrusted this man instantly. You know, there are squints and squints! There is the soft uncertain squint feminine, which is really charming. And there is a particular obliquity of vision which, in a man, rather gives a larky expression, and so makes you feel that there is nothing prim and formal about him, and seems to put you on good terms at once.


And there is a cold-blooded squint, which makes your flesh creep, and which, when taken in connection with business, brings little stories to your mind—'Is anyone coming, sister Anne?' and that sort of thing.

Mr.—— asked me to excuse him a moment while he gave some instructions, and, without waiting for my permission, looked through a few letters, shouted a message down a speaking-tube, and then, after having arranged the fate of about half-a-dozen novels by the means of the same instrument, he sent a final message down the tube asking for my MS., only to be told that he would find it in the top right-hand drawer of his desk.

As a matter of fact, all this delay, intended to impress MISS STANNARD
(From a photograph by H. S.
Mendelssohn) MISS STANNARD
(From a photograph by H. S. Mendelssohn)
me and make me understand what a great thing had happened to me in having won attention from so busy a man, simply did for Mr.—— so far as I was concerned. Instead of impressing me, it gave me time to get used to the place, it gave me time to look at Mr.—— when he was not looking at me.

Then, having found the MS., he looked at me and prepared to give me his undivided attention.

'Well,' he said, with a long breath, as if it was quite a relief to see a new face, 'I am very glad you have decided to close with our offer. We confidently expect a great success with your book. We shall have to change the title though. There's a good deal in a title.'

I replied modestly that there was a good deal in a title. 'But,' I added, 'I have not closed with your offer—on the contrary, I—— '

He looked up sharply, and he squinted worse than ever. 'Oh, I quite thought that you had definitely—— '

'Not at all,' I replied; then added a piece of information, which could not by any chance have been new to him. 'A hundred pounds is a lot of money, you know,' I remarked.

Mr.—— looked at me in a meditative fashion. 'Well, if you have not got the money,' he said rather contemptuously, 'we might make a slight reduction—say, if we brought it down to 75l., solely because our readers have spoken so highly of the story. Now look here, I will show you what our reader says—which is a favour that we don't extend to everyone, that I can tell you. Here it is!'

(From photographs by H. S. Mendelssohn) 'THE TWINS'—BOOTLES AND BETTY
(From photographs by H. S. Mendelssohn)

Probably in the whole of his somewhat chequered career as a publisher, Mr.—— never committed such a fatal mistake as by handing me the report on my history (in detail) of that very large family of boys and girls. 'Bright, crisp, racy,' it ran. 'Very unequal in parts, wants a good deal of revision, and should be entirely re-written. Would be better if the story was brought to a conclusion when the heroine first meets with the hero after the parting, as all the rest forms an anti-climax. This might be worked up into a really popular novel, especially as it is written very much in Miss—— 's style' (naming a then popular authoress whose sole merit consisted in being the most faithful imitator of the gifted founder of a very pernicious school).

I put the sheet of paper down, feeling very sick and ill. And the worst of it was, I knew that every word of it was true. I was young and inexperienced then, and had not nous enough to say plump out that my eyes had been opened, and that I could see that I should be neither more nor less than a fool if I wasted a single farthing over a story that must be utterly worthless. So I prevaricated mildly, and said that I certainly did not feel inclined to throw a hundred or even seventy-five pounds away over a story without some certainty of success. 'I'll think it over during the day,' I said, rising from my chair.

'Oh, we must know within an hour, at the outside,' Mr.—— said very curtly. 'Our arrangements will not wait, and the time is very short now for us to decide on our books for September. Of course, if you have not got the money, we might reduce a little more. We are always glad, if possible, to meet our clients.'

'It's not that,' I replied, looking at him straight. 'I have the money in my pocket; but a Yorkshire woman does not put down a hundred pounds without some idea what is going to be done with it.'

'You must let me have your answer within an hour,' Mr.—— remarked briefly.

'I will,' said I, in my most polite manner; 'but I really must think out the fact that you are willing to knock off twenty-five pounds at one blow. It seems to me if you could afford to take that much off, and perhaps a little more, there must have been something very odd about your original offer.'

'My time is precious,' said Mr.—— in a grumpy voice.

'Then, good morning,' said I cheerfully.

My hopes were all dashed to the ground again, but I felt very cheerful, nevertheless. I trotted round to my friend, Mr. Stevens, who gave a whistle of astonishment at my story. 'I'll send my head clerk round for your MS. at once,' he said, 'else you'll probably never see it again.'

And so he did, and so ended my next attempt to bring out my first book.

After this I felt very keenly the real truth of the old LONG-LEGGED SOLDIERS LONG-LEGGED SOLDIERS saying, 'Virtue is its own reward.' For, not long after my episode with Mr.——, the then editor of London Society wrote to me, saying that he thought that as I had already had several stories published in the magazine, it might make a very attractive volume if I could add a few more and bring them out as a collection of soldier stories.

I did not hesitate very long over this offer, but set to work with all the enthusiasm of youth—and youth does have the advantage of being full of the fire of enthusiasm, if of nothing else—and I turned out enough new stories to make a very respectable volume.

Then followed the period of waiting to which all literary folk must accustom themselves.

I was, however, always of a tolerably long-suffering disposition, and possessed my soul in patience as well as I could. The next thing I heard was that the book had very good prospects, but that it would have its chances greatly improved if it were in two volumes instead of being in only one.

Well, youth is generous, and I did not see the wisdom of spoiling the ship for the traditional ha'porth of tar, so I cheerfully set to work and evolved another volume of stories, all of smart, long-legged soldiers, and with—as Heaven knows—no more idea of setting myself up as possessing all knowledge about soldiers and the Service than I had of aspiring to the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. But, even then, I had need of a vast amount of patience, for time went on, and really my book seemed as far from publication as ever. Every now and then I had a letter telling me that the arrangements were nearly completed, and that it would probably be brought out by Messrs. So-and-so. But days wore into weeks, and weeks into months, until I really began to feel as if my first literary babe was doomed to die before it was born.

Then arose a long haggle over terms, which I had thought were settled, and to be on the same terms as the magazine rates—no such wonderful scale after all. However, my literary guide, philosopher, and friend thought, as he was doing me the inestimable service of bringing me out, that 20l. was an ample honorarium for myself; but I, being young and poor, did not see things in the same light at all. Try as I would—and I cannot lay claim to trying very hard—I could not see why a man, who had never seen me, should have put himself to so much trouble out of a spirit of pure philanthropy, and a desire to help a struggling young author forward. So I obstinately kept to my point, and said if I did not have 30l., I would rather have all of the stories back again. I think nobody would credit to-day what that special bit of firmness cost me. Still, I would cheerfully have died before I would have given in, having once conceived my claim to be a just one. A bad habit on the whole, and one that has since cost me dear more than once.

Eventually, my guide and I came to terms for the sum for which I had held out, namely, 30l., which was the price I received for my very first book, in addition to about 8l. that CAVALRY LIFE CAVALRY LIFE I had already had from the magazine for serial use of a few of the stories.

So, in due course, my book, under the title of 'Cavalry Life,' was brought out in two great cumbersome volumes by Messrs. Chatto & Windus, and I was launched upon the world as a full-blown author under the name of 'Winter.'

So many people have asked me why I took that name, and how I came to think of it, that it will not, perhaps, be amiss if I give the reason in this paper. It happened like this. During our negotiations, my guide suggested that I had better take some nom de guerre, as it would never do to bring out such a book under a woman's name. 'Make it as real-sounding and non-committing as you can,' he wrote, and so, after much cogitation and cudgelling of my brains, I chose the name of the hero of the only story of the series which was written in the first person, and called myself J. S. Winter. I believe that 'Cavalry Life' was published on the last day of 1881.

Then followed the most trying time of all—that of waiting to see what the Press would say of this, my first child, which had been so long in coming to life, and had been chopped and changed, bundled from pillar to post, until my heart was almost worn out before ever it saw the light. Then, on January 14, 1882, I went into the Subscription Library at York, where I was living, and began to search the new journals through, in but faint hopes, however, of seeing a review of my book so soon as that; for I was quite alone in the world, so far as literary matters went. Indeed, not one friend did I possess who could in any way influence my career, or obtain the slightest favour for me.

I remember that morning so well; it is, I think, printed on my memory as the word 'Calais' was on the heart of Queen Mary. It was a fine, cold morning, and there was a blazing fire in the inner room, where the reviews were kept. I sat down at the table, and took up the Saturday Review, never dreaming for a moment that I should be honoured by so much as a mention in a journal which I held in such awe and respect. And as I turned over the leaves, my eyes fell on a row of foot-notes at the bottom of the page, giving the names of the books which were noticed above, and among them I saw—'Cavalry Life, by J. S. Winter.'

For full ten minutes I sat there, feeling sick and more fit to die than anything else. I was perfectly incapable of looking at the notice above. But, at last, I plucked up courage to meet my fate, very much as one summons up courage to have a tooth out and get the horrid wrench over. Judge of my surprise and joy when, on reading the notice, I found that the Saturday had given me a rattling good notice, praising the new author heartily and without stint. I shall never, as long as I live, forget the effect of that, my first review, upon me. For quite half an hour I sat without moving, only feeling, 'I shall never be able to keep it up. I shall never be able to follow it up by another.' I felt paralysed, faint, crushed, anything but elated and jubilant. And, at last, through some instinct, I put my hand up to my head to find that it was cold and wet, as if it had been dipped in the river. Thank Heaven, from that day to this I have never known what a cold sweat was. It was my first experience of such a thing, and sincerely I hope it will be my last.