Last Updated on November 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1220
Geoffrey Betton awakens at a late hour in his pleasant apartment on Fifth Avenue. Eighteen months earlier, he had been in quite a different set of circumstances: he had lived in a crowded building, waking up at seven to be at work by nine, and he had shared a cluttered bathroom with other lodgers. In contrast, his current apartment is very nice, but he no longer takes any joy in it.
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
This is because he is now a famous novelist, having published Diadems and Faggots two years ago. Since then, he has been exhausted by the deluge of letters he has received from readers. The letters seem devoid of real meaning, and Betton finds them—and the requests they contain—overwhelming. This morning he is particularly stressed because his next novel, Abundance, is about to be published. He knows that “the letters, the cursed letters, [will] begin again.”
Betton's valet, Strett, brings him two notes. One of the notes announces that a Duncan Vyse is coming to see Betton at ten. Strett reminds him that at ten he is supposed to be seeing applicants for a secretarial position, but Betton says he will see Vyse first.
Betton remembers his friendship with Vyse after they had left college. Vyse wrote a novel, The Lifted Lamp, which Betton promised himself he would recommend to his own soon-to-be publisher, Apthorn. However, over the following six months he repeatedly forgot to contact Apthorn. Eventually a girl, presumably sent by Vyse, came to Betton’s home and retrieved the manuscript. Betton was appalled that Vyse would send someone Betton didn't know to his lodgings, and therefore feels "magnanimity" in seeing Vyse at all.
It transpires that Vyse has come to apply for Betton’s secretarial position. He says he has given up writing, and his office job does not pay him enough to live on. Betton, embarrassed, explains that the job entails replying to letters from readers under Betton's name. Vyse asks when he should begin work, and Betton asks him to return the following Thursday, after the new book has been published.
As letters about Abundance begin to pour in, Betton feels an immense sense of freedom knowing that he doesn't have to answer them. Vyse asks for Betton's approval of his first few replies; Betton says they’re “too beautiful” and Vyse revises his tone accordingly.
After a while, Betton’s feeling of freedom wears off. He thinks he might like to read some of the letters—after all, it is nice to read praise he doesn't have to reply to. He asks Vyse to pass the letters to him before answering them, and gradually returns to reading all the letters upon delivery.
One day, Betton notes that the rush of letters has slowed significantly. He thinks that Vyse might be keeping some back, but Vyse says that no, he has given every letter received to Betton. Some of the letters have been critical of Betton’s novel, and he starts to feel embarrassed at the thought of Vyse reading them. He assumes that after his neglect of Vyse’s manuscript, Vyse "would naturally take a vindictive joy in any unfavourable judgments passed on his rival's work." As time goes on—and the letters become less favorable—Betton thinks he should "get rid of Vyse" to avoid embarrassment.
Betton asks Vyse to dinner, where he tells him that he is "ashamed" to ask Vyse to do work which is "not worthy" of him. In response, Vyse confesses that he is extremely poor and would keep his position even for lower pay. Betton feels guilt about having left Vyse's novel "gathering dust" for months without passing it to Apthorn. He cannot bear to dismiss Vyse.
The daily letters become fewer and fewer. Though he’d wanted Vyse gone, Betton feels it would be a "triumph" for Vyse if the letters were to stop. Given this “intolerable” prospect, and considering his secretary’s poverty, Betton comes up with a plan. He tells Vyse he no longer wishes to see all the letters before Vyse answers them. Soon, the volume of correspondence increases; Vyse cheerfully says that Betton's readers have “got their second wind.”
After about three weeks, Vyse confesses to Betton that he had replied to one letter in his own name. His reply was returned by the Dead Letter Office—the woman who’d written to Betton did not exist at the given address. However, the reply posted under Betton's name was not similarly returned.
Having noted similarities of phrasing and handwriting, Vyse now believes that many of the letters received over the past three weeks were in fact written by one person. He asks Betton if Strett could be responsible for the hoax, since Strett posts Betton's letters. Betton, laughing, dismisses the possibility.
Betton does not believe that Vyse suspects Strett. He feels scrutinized by Vyse. Though he has come to terms with the fact that his new book is a failure, he cannot stand Vyse knowing as much. But, he is afraid that dismissing Vyse would draw attention to his shame.
The letters have stopped almost entirely since Vyse revealed his suspicions. After a couple of days without letters to answer, Vyse asks if there is other work he could do for Betton. Betton turns him down, and Vyse insists that “the people who read carefully read slowly.” He says that Betton is experiencing only “a temporary lull in the letters.”
The letters do start up again, particularly from two determined correspondents, a professor and a girl in Florida. Their letters are "so exceptional" that Betton decides to answer them himself.
Betton spends the spring engaged in these correspondences. The professor's attention "satisfie[s] his craving for intellectual recognition"; Betton comes to believe that he was foolish for being discouraged by popular opinion. The girl, Betton finds, understands him as a person, and he is flattered by her apparent interest.
Eventually he asks the girl if he can see her. Her reply reads only, "Impossible." Betton posts a second letter of entreaty, and, "just after," Vyse leaves for two weeks to visit his father.
On the day that Vyse is due to return, Betton receives a beautiful letter from the girl in Florida—and also the last letter he had sent her, returned by the Dead Letter Office.
When Vyse appears, Betton accuses him of having written the recent letters himself. Betton wrote the "second wind" letters that Vyse identified as a hoax, and he has assumed that Vyse was immediately aware of this. Vyse, he thinks, "drew the natural inference that [he] had to have popular approval, or at least had to make [Vyse] think [he] had it," and so constructed the letters from "careful readers" out of sympathy. Bitterly, Betton praises Vyse's sophisticated characters, calling the other novelist's writing "immeasurably superior" to his own.
Seeing Vyse's "pale distress," Betton softens his approach. He acknowledges the validity of Vyse's assumed grudge against him for his neglect of Vyse's manuscript. To Betton, the deception of the letters "evens up things, as it were." Vyse laughs at this, and Betton, "the moisture drying out of his voice," inquires what strong motivation Vyse has against him.
Wearily, Vyse replies that he is "stone broke" and wanted to keep his job.