Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051
Horace Jewdwine, a literary editor, thinks he discovered a genius in Savage Keith Rickman, a young and unknown poet who earns his living by making catalogs for his father, a bookseller. Jewdwine hesitates, however, to declare openly that Rickman is a genius, for his reputation could suffer if the young man then proves otherwise. He encourages Rickman privately but fails to give him the public recognition that would mean so much to the young writer.
Rickman himself cares little for fame or money. He knows that he is a genius, that is, that part of him is a genius. He is also a student, a young man about town, a journalist, a seeker after simple pleasures, and sometimes a drunk. He finds it difficult to have so many facets to his nature. One part wars constantly with the others; but no matter in what form he finds himself, honor never leaves him. Even when drunk, he continues to be honorable.
Rickman’s intelligence and his ability to judge books are the foundations upon which the elder Rickman built his financial success as a book dealer, yet father and son never understand each other. Money is the father’s god; the muse is Rickman’s. The father is backed by and supported by Mr. Pilkington, a financier of questionable ethics but a great success. When Pilkington informs him that the Harden library might soon be on the market, the old man sends his son to evaluate it. At the same time, Miss Lucia Harden, daughter of the owner of the library, asks for someone to catalog it for her. Rickman is chosen because his knowledge of old books is infallible.
Rickman is awed by Lucia. She is the daughter of a baronet and far above him in station, but from the first, he knows that she is destined to be his inspiration. Lucia is Jewdwine’s cousin, and he is unhappy when he learns of her association with Rickman. He knows Rickman is beneath her, but he also knows that his cousin is moved by poetry. Jewdwine thinks that he himself will one day marry Lucia and inherit the library and the country estate, but he cannot bring himself to ask for her hand; making decisions is almost impossible for Jewdwine.
While working for Lucia, Rickman learns that his father and Pilkington are planning to pay a ridiculously low price for the Harden library. In order to help the girl, he writes to Jewdwine and asks him to buy the library at a fair figure. Jewdwine fails to answer the letter. When Lucia’s father dies suddenly, leaving her indebted to Pilkington, Rickman goes to his father and tries to persuade him to change the offer. The old man refuses, and Rickman leaves the bookshop forever, refusing to compromise his honor in return for the partnership his father offers him if he will stay. Not wanting to hurt Lucia, he tells her little of what happened. He even tries to excuse Jewdwine’s failure to buy the library and so salvage some of her father’s estate.
Pilkington takes the Harden house and furniture and Rickman’s father the library. After Rickman leaves him, the old man’s business begins to fail, and he is forced to mortgage the library to Pilkington. The books are stored, pending redemption. Rickman does not see Lucia again for five years.
Back in London, Rickman continues to write for various journals. Jewdwine gives him a junior editorship on the journal he edits, and the job allows Rickman to live fairly comfortably. He puts his serious writing away in a drawer. Although the product of his genius, it will bring no money. Eventually, he is trapped into a proposal of marriage by Flossie Walker, a fellow boarder. Flossie will never understand the ways of genius; her world is a house in the suburbs decorated with hideous furniture. Rickman finds himself with the house bought and the wedding date set.
Chance saves him. After five years, Lucia visits a friend in Rickman’s boardinghouse, and the two meet again. No word of love is spoken, for Lucia, even without her fortune, is still above him, and Rickman has no desire to hurt Flossie, who waited two years for him to accumulate enough money for their marriage. He and Lucia, however, find inspiration and comfort in their renewed acquaintance. The real blow to Flossie’s dreams comes when Rickman’s father dies, leaving him a small inheritance. With it, Rickman will be able to redeem the mortgaged Harden library from Pilkington and return it to Lucia. If he does so, he will not be able to marry for at least two more years. Flossie cannot understand Rickman’s belief that a debt of honor can be just as binding as a legal debt. Rickman is greatly relieved to learn that Flossie refuses to wait. She quickly marries another boarder and finds her house in the suburbs, complete with nursery.
Rickman lives through years of grinding labor. He works all night, starves himself, and lives in an unheated attic to redeem the complete library. He gets extensions from Pilkington, who enjoys the sight of genius chasing an impossible goal. His friends lose track of him. He loses his job with Jewdwine because he will not compromise his honor even in his desperate need to help Lucia. At last, he seems doomed to fail, for his lack of food and his feverish work have made him desperately ill. Friends find him and take him, unconscious, to a hospital. Later, they find the work of his genius while going through his belongings. When it is published, Rickman’s fame is assured. Poor Jewdwine! How he wishes now that he had the courage to claim Rickman in time. By that time, however, Jewdwine sacrificed his own principles, and success is beyond hope for him.
When he recovers, Rickman goes to Lucia. He finds her ill and unable to walk. When she learns that his illness was caused by his having worked for her, the gift is almost more than she can bear. With his aid, she arises from her bed. Cured of the malady that she knows now is only heartbreak, she sees Rickman whole, the genius and the man fused at last.
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