First(?) published 4th December 1935*
(First read 17/11/2014)
Siblings Dick and Violet Cundall live in grinding poverty in London, with only one piano and one servant between them. Dick is a clerk (or something else) in the City; Violet devotes herself to looking after her brother. One day Dick has the idea to write a parody of the kind of 'literature' Violet loves: poor orphan girl turns out to be daughter of earl ~ that kind of thing. He reads her said story and she ~ who appears not to know what 'parody' means ~ thinks it's marvellous. He sends it off to a magazine. It's a hit. They set themselves up as producers of stories of this kind: Violet originates the plots, Dick does the actual work; their pseudonym is 'Dorothy Crystal'. Vi falls in love with her publisher, and vice versa, and all ends rosily.
To call this story 'slight' would be a serious understatement: if you breathe on it too heavily while reading, it all but vanishes.
* I found this story in the 04/12/1935 edition of The Courier, a newspaper published in Taunton (Somerset, UK), where it was described as 'published by special arrangement', which I'm assuming means this was its first outing. It later appeared in the 08/07/1936 edition of The Teesdale Mercury, so it's possible it had been 'doing the rounds' of provincial British papers before appearing in the aforementioned Courier.
Anyway, below is the story reproduced in full ~ to the best of my knowledge ~ for the first time in 79 years, free gratis and for all the world to see and be very very mildly amused by. (You can see the first page of the Mercury version here.)
THE DOROTHY CRYSTAL SYNDICATE by E. F. Benson
It was a fine moment when the Editor of that very largely-circulated magazine, Cosy Corner, not only accepted the short story which Dick Cundall had sent him (with a stamped and directed envelope inside) but intimated that he would be glad to see any further work. This particular story was of the most degraded description and concerned a sweet young girl who lived with an aged and doddering father, and was like a sunbeam about their two squalid rooms. They were incredibly poor, but the sweet young girl's optimistic view of life and her touching belief in the beneficence of Providence, made them both as happy as the day was long. She sold flowers in Piccadilly Circus, and had a refined nature. Eventually her grandfather turned out to be an Earl, which showed how right Hermione was in pinning her faith to the beneficence of Providence.
The origin of this loathsome tale, thought trivial in itself, was proved to be of momentous significance and strangely affected the lives of three people. Dick had been annoyed with his sister one evening because instead of playing draughts with him as usual after dinner, she had sat mopping her eyes over The Old Curiosity Shop. When she had gone damp and red-eyed to bed, he had taken up the book, with rising nausea, read a chapter or two concerning Little Nell and her grandfather, and had sat up half the night in writing a similar assault on the emotions. The second half containing the glad tidings that her father was an Earl was added on the principle that though some readers like Violet herself loved to wallow naked and unashamed in sheer sentimentality, others adored the aristocracy. To such insignificant beginnings, steeped in the spirit of mockery, the Dorothy Crystal Syndicate owed its origin.
Dick had always wanted to be an author, but a rebellious parent had put him at the age of eighteen into an office in the City, where now, seven years later, he earned his living. His father had died soon after his entry there, and the money which he had left to be divided equally between his two children enabled them jointly with the addition of Dick's salary to live comfortably enough in a small flat off the Brompton Road. Violet at this time was a very pretty girl of twenty, devoted to her brother but with no use for any other member of his sex; and her sentimentality, which was of the deepest dye, she indulged solely over cinemas, theatres, and books. She did not in the least desire that life should be like that, it was merely that she loved these emotions as exhibited in art, and when she came out of the picture-palace or shut her book, she was a young lady of an extraordinarily practical turn of mind. She ran the flat with the greatest ability, providing extreme comfort with notable economy, doing her marketing herself, and finding an exquisite pleasure in keeping down the house-books while still preserving the high standard of excellent meals and perennial hot water.
A wet Sunday enabled Dick to finish this awful little tale, and in the afternoon he read it to Violet.
“It's a parody, of course,” he said, “but it's really not much more ridiculous than the stories you are so fond of. It's called Lady Hermione: there's richness for you.”
“That's a splendid name,” said Violet enthusiastically. “Wait a minute till I put the kettle on the boil. Then I can enjoy it thoroughly.”
Dick was soon deep in his reading and giggling at the more atrocious passages, when he heard a stifled sob from his sister.
“Dick, darling, don't laugh,” she said huskily. “It's too lovely! It isn't a parody at all. But if Hermione's going die, I don't think I shall be able to bear it.”
Dick stared at her.
“You're perfectly incredible,” he said. “It was meant to be funny, and there you are snivelling.”
“Never mind me,” said Violet. “Just go on, and please don't laugh any more.”
The story was not a long one, and presently he came to its happy conclusion. Violet dried her eyes.
“Perfect!” she said. “And an Earl. That is nice. Of course, it would have been lovely if she had died; I should have cried all evening. But it's much better as it is.”
A hissing noise interrupted her, and she flew to the fireplace.
“And the water's been boiling over,” she cried with a stern relapse into practical affairs. “How careless of me.”
The practical side of Violet's nature continued in the ascendant over their tea. Though the 'Lady Hermione' had roused all her deepest sentimentality, there was another side to that lady.
“Of course you must have it published, Dick,” she said. “Any editor of a popular magazine would jump at it. It's exactly what the ordinary reader wants nowadays, something to make him utterly miserable first, and then quite comfortable afterwards. People are getting tired of dreary analytical accounts of what typists think about when they're going home on the top of an omnibus. They want things to happen: great romantic things. Of course there's no love interest in Lady Hermione at present—“
“That's all there's ever going to be of her,” said Dick. “Why I only wrote it to show you the kind of slosh you like.”
“You've shown me a great deal more then by accident,” said she. “You've shown me you have got the trick—of course I'm talking now from the commercial point of view—you've got the trick of writing what the average reader (that's me) adores. You must instantly send it to some popular magazine; Cosy Corner would be as good as any.”
“I wouldn't let that rubbish appear under my name for a hundred pounds,” said Dick. “Supposing somebody in the office came across it?”
“Oh, they won't give you a hundred pounds,” said Violet. “More likely two guineas. And you needn't send your name at all. Dick Cundall isn't a good name for that sort of author. Just sign it D.C. with this address. As for pay, just take whatever they offer you. It's the appearance of the story that I want.”
Violet was perfectly right about its acceptation by the Editor of Cosy Corner, and she laughed with pleasure at the request that he should be permitted to see more of D.C.'s work. She had been equally correct in her estimate of what the Editor proposed to pay for it.
“We won't let him on another time with that starvation wage,” she said. “But never mind the money; that's a mere detail at present. Write to him and say you accept it, but that you only sell him first serial rights, and that the story remains your property. Or you'd better let me do that for you: I'm much more business-like.”
“Rather, as long as you give me the two guineas,” said Dick. “Now let's play draughts.”
Violet saw that he was looking about for a cigarette, and flew to put the box by his elbow. That sort of attention, she had observed, always paid.
“There you are,” she said. “Now, Dick, do be kind, and let me talk to you for ten minutes. I'm bursting with ideas; you've no notion of how I've been thinking.
“This story will appear, and I bet you a box of cigarettes that within a fortnight, Mr John Dacres will write to D.C. repeating his request to see more of his work, and if possible more about Lady Hermione. Now let's be business-like. Do you take that bet?”
“Yes,” said Dick yawning.
“Well then, I want you to let me reply to that saying that you have written another story about Hermione, but that you are afraid—that is, D.C. is afraid—that a reward of two guineas is not a great temptation to you.”
“I thought you said money was only a detail,” said Dick.
“Yes, but details have to be attended to,” said she.
“Then another detail is that I haven't written a further story about Hermione,” said he.
“Oh, but Dick, you will have by the time I tell him so,” said Violet. “You must! I promise you that you won't get less than ten pounds for it. It won't take you long; you wrote the other in a few hours. And ten pounds is ten pounds.”
“But supposing it isn't?” asked Dick. “I mean supposing Mr. Dacres doesn't give me ten pounds for it?”
Violet did not hesitate.
“Then I will,” she said. “I shan't have to, because he will. And you won't have to invent a story; I've got it all ready for you. All you'll have to is to tell it in just the superb way you told the first one.”
Dick threw away the end of his cigarette.
“What are you up to, Vi?” he asked.
“I can't tell you all that I'm up to,” she said, “because in the first place you would laugh at me, and call me mad; and in the second, I never make cut-and-dried plans for long ahead. I see the next step quite clearly, and that is that when Mr. Dacres asks you, as he will, for another Hermione story, and when you tell him that you won't take less than ten pounds for it, you must have one read to send him.”
“And what's the story?” asked Dick. “You said you had it ready.”
Violet's eyes grew sentimental for a moment.
“Oh, it's lovely!” she said. “Lady Hermione's father has become an earl—the Earl of Tintagel, I think—and they now live in Park Lane. She goes to a ball, or perhaps she gives one, and meets a very interesting-looking young man with coal-black hair, who is lame—“
Dick shouted with laughter.
“Not the strong, silent Englishman again?” he asked.
“You may call him so if you like. He is strong and silent, and Hermione feels there is something very wonderful about him. As he goes away he holds both her hands for a moment, and gazes into her eyes and says 'Pshaw!' to himself. What a suspense.”
“It seems to me that you're embarking on a serial,” said Dick.
“I don't say that I'm not,” she said. “But that depends on all sorts of other things. All I want you to do at present is to write the second story on the lines I've given you. And whatever happens, you'll get ten pounds. It may be more—but it will certainly be that. And that's only the beginning, Dick.”
Dick had the firmest belief in his sister's practical ability, and he had never seen her more in earnest.
“Go on,” he said. “Tell me some more of your plans.”
“My dear, I can't tell you much,” she said. “But one thing I have quite made up my mind abut. You only signed yourself D.C., didn't you?”
“Well, D.C. mustn't be Dick Cundall. That would never do as the name of the author of Lady Hermione. I've been pondering very carefully, for the answer to 'What's in a name?' is 'A very great deal.' And I don't think—of course, I should be delighted to consider any suggestions—I don't think you could better 'Dorothy Crystal.' In fact, when I write to Mr. Dacres telling him that there is another Hermione story I shall sign it Dorothy Crystal.”
“Lor! What a name!” said Dick.
“I'm glad you like it. She's just right for the author of Lady Hermione.”
Violet's forecast was fulfilled with an accuracy that would have done credit to a major prophet. Within a week after the appearance of Dick's first story, Mr. Dacres wrote again to ask if D.C. could not send him, on the same terms, another little tale about Lady Hermione. Violet thereupon replied with a most able letter, stating frankly that Dorothy Crystal (for so she signed herself) had another story just completed but that she was probably sending it elsewhere, as two guineas was scarcely a price that she cared to accept. Mr. Dacres instantly wrote asking whether he might see the story, and having read it, decide whether he wished to purchase it at a higher rate than was at all usual. Would Miss Crystal ring him up before 11 a.m. next morning and give her reply.
Violet, as she read this, became aware that she had come to cross-roads, and instead of ringing him up as requested, or going out to her marketing, perused his letter again, trying to conjecture exactly how he had felt when he wrote it. If Dorothy Crystal declined to send the sumptuous typewritten manuscript (sumptuous it was: Dick had produced a marvellous, strong, silent Englishman) it was possible that Mr. Dacres might meanly acquiesce in her decision and ring off. In that case she would have to pay Dick ten pounds and what was more excruciating, the columns of Cosy Corner, easily the best for the purpose, would be closed against him. On the other hand her acute sense detected a certain anxiety in Mr. Dacre's note; he clearly wanted to see the story, and she was most desirous of knowing how great his interest in it was, for it would be a splendid endorsement to her own estimate of the very marketable quality of Dick's work, if so practical a judge as the Editor of Cosy Corner bought it at the price she proposed to ask without seeing it. That would add immensely to her confidence for the future.
Violet spread all these problems before her mind and regarded them like a panorama. She glanced also at the clock which was verging on 11 a.m.
“I'll chance it,” she said to herself. “And I won't even ring him up. I believe he'll ring me up. That would be much better.”
It was almost with a sob of relief that she heard the telephone bell tinkle, and a crisp voice asked if Miss Crystal was in. Violet controlled her trembling lips and said she was Miss Crystal and who ws it please … And it was he.
Mr. Dacres was a little abrupt at first. He had expected to be rung up by Miss Crystal. To which Miss Crystal without a tremor said how stupid it was of her, but she had quite forgotten. And that was a lie, because she had been thinking of nothing whatever else.
“About that story,” said Mr. Dacres.
Violet gulped and then spoke.
“Yes, so kind of you, Mr. Dacres, to take an interest in it,” she said. “But I don't think I'll send it to you on approval. In fact I've almost—oh, well never mind that.”
Mr. Dacre's voice became a little anxious and very cordial.
“I should very much like to see it,” said he. “It is, I believe, about your charming heroine, Lady Hermione.”
“Oh, how nice of you,” said Violet. “Yes, it's about Hermione.”
“And what are you asking for it?” said Mr. Dacres.
“Ten guineas,” said Violet. Guineas sounded more professional than pounds.
“I'll take it,” said Mr. Dacres. “Will you kindly send it round?”
“Certainly,” said Violet. “And would you kindly confirm your purchase by letter, at ten guineas for magazine appearance in Cosy Corner.”
Violet instantly sent it off, with a small piece of pretty riband holding the sheets together.
The development of Dorothy Crystal grew swiftly. Mr. Dacres (by telephone) was charmed with Lady Hermione's Ball, but, with all deference, was not the gap between the first chapter and that rather large? Her readers, he felt sure, would want to know what happened between the elevation of her father to the peerage and her full-blown appearance in Park Lane. There might be much interesting—indeed, absorbing romance in the début of Hermione into London society. (Mr. Dacres hinted at highly-coloured episodes which made Violet's mouth water.) Could not Miss Crystal interpolate some such chapter, since two chapters of the material to be dealt with could not be worthily treated in one, between the first chapter already published, and that of the delightful, the inimitable ball? And then, again, readers would be wild to know the unfolding of the love-interest so thrillingly adumbrated at the close of the chapter about the ball. In fact, Mr. Dacres had a proposition to make to Miss Crystal, which he hoped would meet with her approval, and would, he felt sure, be advantageous to them both. The matter could be discussed more easily in an interview than over the telephone-wire and if she would be so good as to appoint him a time, he would be most pleased to wait upon her. Violet did not hesitate for a moment. She instantly said that she would expect Mr. Dacres in half-an-hour's time, rang off, and sat down to consider what she had done, and what she intended to do.
What she had done was definitely to assume the personality of Dorothy Crystal and the authorship of Dick's stories. What she intended to do was to consent to provide not only these three chapters, but any amount more. She felt certain that Mr. Dacres wanted her (Dick) to write a complete serial story, and, now assured of his anxiety to obtain that, she meant to screw him up to the highest possible figure, and undertake to supply it. If she consulted Dick about it first he would almost certainly say that he couldn't and wouldn't do anything of the kind, and though she might ultimately persuade him, it would require a great deal of time and energy. It was far better then to confront him with the fait accompli of a contract in which large prospective sums of money would speak for themselves. As for the identification of herself with Dorothy Crystal, she had no qualms about the wisdom of that, for she rightly felt that it was a great asset to the scheme that a young and very pretty girl (it would have been rank injustice to herself not to acknowledge that) should be the author of the romantic history of Hermione rather than a stockbroker's clerk. Mr. Dacres might easily propose giving an interview in Cosy Corner with the gifted young authoress, illustrated by a photograph of herself, and a corner of the study where she worked. It would all be wonderful advertisement. Besides, Dick had said that not for a hundred pounds would he let it be known that he was the author.
Violet dismissed all qualms, and started into a whirlwind of activity. She told her servant that a visitor would presently arrive and ask for Miss Crystal, and was to be shown in. She put on an extremely becoming blouse, and prettily disordered her hair. She pictured to herself the character and tastes she was to assume, and in accordance with these put a copy of 'The Rosary' on the music-rest of the piano, hid the cigarettes, took the daffodils out of the vase where she had just placed them, in order that she might be discovered arranging them, and laid a copy of Shakespeare open by them.
Mr. Dacres took away with him, an hour later, a whirl of charming impressions, a signed contract, a sheaf of short-hand notes, and a photograph. Of them all the charming impression, or perhaps the photograph which he several times furtively regarded under the lid of his despatch-case, affected him personally the most, and being an enthusiastic and impressionable young gentleman, he longed to be at work on his shorthand notes, in order to do homage and justice to the delicious subject of them. From a popular point of view the topic teemed with romance; never had he heard such a telling tale as that which Dorothy Crystal had so ingenuously unfolded to him. What a name, too! How expressive of her sweet, almost old-fashioned simplicity! Her orphaned childhood, living with the dear, old aunt in the country, amid wallflowers and beehives and cowslip-wine, her early love of scribbling, which dated from the time when Aunt Dorcas used to read The Wide Wide World to her, sitting in her armchair of winter evenings by the open hearth, her determination to be one day a writer of pure and elevating books, which should show her readers the loveliness of life and the heights to which human nature could rise, all these, while making Mr. Dacres feel rather sick, were clearly of the highest value for the article which he was planning, and which should arouse the most widespread interest in Dorothy Crystal. Then how deeply touching was the death of Aunt Dorcas, the sale of the beehives and wallflowers, and her move to London with that dearly-loved brother, and their poverty until he got a situation in the city. The brother was evidently a good fellow, fond of her, but not in the least understanding her, or her marvellous gift; he had laughed (how sweetly she said it) at the story of Hermione's early struggles, before wealth and title came, and pooh-poohed the idea that any editor would consider it for the humblest of his columns … And what a delicious picture she had made arranging daffodils with her Shakespeare open on the table, and that mellifluous song 'The Rosary' on the piano. His practised fountain-pen itched to be at work on so promising a subject.
Besides the softer emotions which were stimulated by Dorothy Crystal's charms, Mr. Dacre's business instincts were well satisfied with the contract he had made. From an artistic point of view he had nothing but the supremest contempt for the instalments he had seen of Lady Hermione; to put it tersely, it was the most appalling drivel he had ever read, but his professional eyes saw a fortune in it. He had therefore bought the serial rights of Dorothy Crystal's novel The Lady Hermione, which was to appear weekly in the Cosy Corner, and, what pleased him more, he had acquired the book-rights of the same, which was to be published on the conclusion of its serial appearance. It was true that only two chapters of the work were yet in existence, but he was perfectly satisfied that the girl who had written the account of Lady Hermione's ball, and her first meeting with Roger Falconhurst (such was the encouraging name of the strong, silent one) would produce a story which would at once soar pre-eminent among 'best sellers'. He had an extraordinary flair in gauging the public taste, and he was convinced that in Dorothy Crystal (properly advertised) he had discovered a coming popular idol. He had just started a small publishing house of his own and his autumn list would be headed by Lady Hermione, already known to many readers through Cosy Corner. From a business point of view he felt he had never done a better morning's work.
His immediate business now was to rouse popular interest in Dorothy Crystal by means of the interview and photograph she had given him. That was a labour if not at present of love, of a very ardent admiration. Not only was she a very pretty girl (the photograph did her justice) with a most attractive story, but had a very shrewd brain behind those child-like blue eyes, and unbobbed wealth of golden hair. She was the most interesting type of the modern girl who, with all her adorable femininity was well able to take care of herself. He took another long look at her photograph, and began his panegyric.
Dick was informed, on his return that evening to the flat, of the soaring flights he had been pledged to in his absence. Violet gave him the most delicious dinner, intending to spring these disclosures on him when he was thoroughly well-fed. But roast partridge following white-bait aroused his suspicions.
“Why this opulence?” he said. “Why this luxury? I believe you've got something to tell me which I shan't like.”
“We are opulent, Dick,” she said. “At least we shall be if you are sensible.”
“Something about Hermione,” said the astute Dick.
“My dear, how clever you are!” said Violet. “Well, this morning Mr. Dacres came to see me—“
Dick behaved very well. Naturally he was furious at first. Naturally he said he would not write a single line, and that since Violet had become Dorothy Crystal she might take on the engagement she had made for him. But anger gave place to amazement as the narrative proceeded and Violet acquainted him with the financial aspects of the case.
“And I'll make up all her story,” she said. “You'll only have to write it down. Shall I begin? Then you can get in two hours' work before you go to bed.”
The appearance of The Lady Hermione in the autumn amply fulfilled her publisher's expectations, and Dorothy Crystal leaped to her throne. Edition after edition was called for and absorbed, and Violet spent half the day in signing autograph albums and answering appreciative letters, and writing criticisms on the innumerable manuscripts which young and aspiring authoresses sent her. But pleasant as all this was, the entire falsity of her position made her shiver like an east wind that chilled the flattering sunshine. It was true that Dick was perfectly content with the situation; she had already contracted for him, with his eager approval, to write a successor to The Lady Hermione, for which he would receive a very notable sum in advance on account of royalties, and those fruits of popularity were, he assured her, quite sufficient for him. And after all, the boom, so he pointed out, was largely due to Violet, it was she who had supplied him with all the events of Lady Hermione's career, with episode of the abandoned marquis who passed himself off as a bachelor and tried to marry her, with the misunderstanding between her and Roger, and his total disappearance from the scene for a year and a half, with his return lamer and stronger and more silent than ever, with his gaining of the V.C. in the war, and his arrival, wounded, at a base hospital in France, where, of course, Hermione was a nurse, and finally with their marriage at St. Peter's, Eaton-square, and the birth of her baby. Dick would never have invented these occurrences if left to himself; he had only clothed them in the robes of narrative when they were forcibly thrust into his hands by Violet.
Violet's east wind was far more biting than that. She and John Dacres had fallen in love with each other, and the bitter gale that howled round her was the fact that either she must refuse him, or she must tell him that from their first interview when she had invented Aunt Dorcas and the beehives down to the present moment, all that he had built on his knowledge of her was reared on a foundation of solid lies.
She was alone this morning in their flat. Dick, who had retired from office work in the city, was out getting tickets for their journey to the Italian Lakes, where the scene of the next novel was to be largely laid, and she was beginning the draughting of the first chapters. But his nightmare of a situation came between her and her work; she could not concentrate on the villainous count, nor feel her customary ecstasy at the picturing of his young ward who made sunshine in such incredible quantities for all who came within [the] rays of her beams. And they were to start to-morrow without even telling John that they were going. Life really was becoming powerfully like the sort of existence which it was so pleasant to read about. But then any proper author could be trusted to invent a blissful solution to these heart-rending perplexities, and rack her brains as she would, she could not think of one. Celibacy, or exposure (and, if exposure, possibly both) inexorably faced her.
So deep she was in depressed meditation that she did not hear the door-bell ring, and John Dacres was announced. He appeared to be in excellent spirits, which was unkind of him.
“I just brought some letters for you that came to the office,” he said. “More adoring epistles, I suppose. And what rot gets into the papers! I saw a paragraph this morning that you were going to the Italian Lakes.”
With a pang of annoyance Violet remembered that she had given this information to an interviewer yesterday. But she was so accustomed now to false positions that she answered without a qualm:
“How utterly ridiculous!” she said.
Something in her voice made him look fixedly at her. It rang (Hermione would have said) false.
“It isn't true, then?” he asked.
Violet opened her mouth and then shut it again like a duck emitting a noiseless quack. Then she opened it once more.
“Yes, it is true,” she said. “Dick and I are going to-morrow.”
He turned his back on her and spoke.
“Dorothy, will you marry me?” he said.
Violet did not pause to think what Hermione would have done. But then Hermione was a very different sort of girl. She was sweet and good and true and noble, instead of being such an awful liar. She gave a gasp.
“I will if you want to after what I am going to tell you,” she said.
“How perfectly ripping!” said John. “Drive ahead!”
Violet tried to say “It will hurt you,” but though it would have looked all right in a book, she thought it wouldn't sound right.
“I'm not Dorothy,” she said, “or Crystal. It's a nom-de-plume. It's not even my nom-de-plume. It's Dick's. He wrote Lady Hermione.”
John looked at her in amazement and then broke out into a loud laugh.
“I can't tell you what a relief that is,” he said. “It was the only thing I had against you that you wrote such awful twaddle! Oh, it pays; I know that, so do you. And so Dick did it all! Well, I never!”
“Not quite all,” said she. “I made up the events.”
“Oh they're nothing. Anyone could do that. It's the way of telling it. What is your name then?”
“Violet Cundall!” said she. “And I never had an Aunt Dorcas or anything of that sort.”
“Better and better. Now you've told me … Violet, you darling!”
After an interlude Violet's practical nature asserted itself.
“And what's to be done about Dorothy Crystal?” she asked.
“Keep her up, of course,” he said. “She's a gold-mine to Dick and me. We shall be a sort of syndicate—The Dorothy Crystal Syndicate.”
Which still tropically flourishes.
Reproduced from The Courier [Taunton], 04/12/1935