The frock-coat and muffler journalist—A doomed race—One of the specimens—A masterpiece—-“Stilt your friend”—A jaunty emigrant—A thirsty knave—His one rival—Three crops—His destination—“The New Grub Street”—A courteous friend—Free lodgings—The foreign guest—Outside the hall door—The youth who found things—His ring—His watch—The fruits of modesty—Not to be imitated—A question for Sherlock Holmes—The liberty of the press—Deadheads.

I HAVE come in contact with many journalists of the old school—the frock-coat and muffler type. The first of the class whom I met was for a few months a reporter on a newspaper in Ireland with which I was connected. He had at one time been a soldier, and had deserted. I tried, though I was only a boy, to get some information from him that I might use afterwards, for I recognised his value as the representative of a race that was, I felt, certain to become extinct. I talked to him as I talked—with the aid of an interpreter—to a Botjesman in the South African veldt: I wanted to learn something about the habits of a doomed type. I succeeded in some measure.

The result of my researches into the nature of both savages was to convince me that they were born liars. The reporter carried a pair of stage whiskers and a beard with him when sent to do any work in a country district; the fact being that the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the country barracks are the most earnest students of the paper known as Hue and Cry, and the man said that, as his description appeared in every number of that organ, he should most certainly be identified by a smart country policeman if he did not wear a disguise. Years afterwards I got a letter from him from one of her Majesty’s gaols. He wanted the loan of some money and the gift of a hat.

This man wrote shorthand admirably, and an excellent newspaper English.

Another specimen of the race had actually attained to the dizzy eminence of editor of a fourth-class newspaper in a town of one hundred thousand inhabitants. In those days Mr. Craven Robertson was the provincial representative of Captain Hawtree in Caste, and upon the Captain Hawtree of Craven Robertson this “journalist” founded his style. He wore an eyeglass, a moustache with waxed ends, and a frock coat very carefully brushed. His hair was thin on the top—but he made the most of it. He was the sort of man whom one occasionally meets on the Promenade at Nice, wearing a number of orders on the breast of his coat—the order of Il Bacio di St. Judæus, the scarlet riband of Ste. Rahab di Jericho, the Brazen Lyre of SS. Ananias and Sapphira. He was the sort of man whom one styles “Chevalier” by instinct. He was the most plausible knave in the world, though how people allowed him to cheat them was a mystery to me. His masterpiece of impudence I have always considered to be a letter which he wrote to a brother-editor, from whom he had borrowed a sum of money, to be repaid on the first of the next month. When the appointed day came he chanced to meet this editor-creditor in the street, and asking him, with a smile as if he had been on the lookout for him, to step into the nearest shop, he called for a sheet of paper and a pen, and immediately wrote an order to the cashier of his paper to pay Mr. G. the sum of five pounds.

“There you are, my dear sir,” said he. “Just send a clerk round to our office and hand that to the cashier. Meantime accept my hearty thanks for the accommodation.”

Mr. G. lost no time in presenting the order; but, as might have been expected, it was dishonoured by the cashier, who declared that the editor was already eight months in advance in drawing his salary. Mr. G. hastened back to his own office and forthwith wrote a letter of furious upbraidings, in which I have good reason to suspect he expressed his views of the conduct of his debtor, and threatened to “take proceedings,” as the grammar of the law has it, for the recovery of his money.

The next day Mr. G. received back his own letter unopened, but inside the cover that enclosed it to him was the following:—

“My dear Mr. G.,—

“You may perhaps be surprised to receive your letter with the seal unbroken, but when you come to reflect calmly over the unfortunate incident of your sending it to me, I am sure that you will no longer be surprised. I am persuaded that you wrote it to me on the impulse of the moment, otherwise it would not contain the strong language which, I think I may assume, constitutes the major portion of its contents. Knowing your natural kindness of disposition, and feeling assured that in after years the consciousness of having written such a letter to me would cause you many a pang in your secret moments, I am anxious that you should be spared much self-reproach, and consequently return your letter unopened. You will, I am certain, perceive that in adopting this course I am acting for the best. Do not follow the next impulse of your heart and ask my forgiveness. I have really nothing to forgive, not having read your letter.

“With kindest regards, I remain

“Still your friend

“A. Swinne Dell.”

If this transaction does not represent the high-water mark of knavery—if it does not show something akin to genius in an art that has many exponents, I scarcely know where one should look for evidence in this direction.

Five years after the disappearance of Mr. A. Swinne Dell from the scene of this coup of his, I caught a glimpse of him among the steerage passengers aboard a steamer that called at Madeira when I was spending a holiday at that lovely island. His frock-coat was giving signs (about the collar) of wear, and also (under the arms) of tear. I could not see his boots, but I felt sure that they were down at the heel. Still, he held his head jauntily as he pointed out to a fellow-passenger the natural charms of the landscape above Funchal.

Another of the old school who pursued a career of knavery by the light of the sacred lamp of journalism was, I regret to say, an Irishman. His powers of absorbing drink were practically unlimited. I never knew but one rival to him in this way, and that was when I was in South Africa. We had left our waggon, and were crouching in most uncomfortable postures behind a mighty cactus on the bank of a river, waiting for the chance of potting a gemsbok that might come to drink. Instead of the graceful gemsbok there came down to the water a huge hippopotamus. He had clearly been having a good time among the native mealies, and had come for some liquid refreshment before returning to his feast. He did not plunge into the water, but simply put his head down to it and began to drink. After five minutes or so we noticed an appreciable fall in the river. After a quarter of an hour great rocks in the river-bed began to be disclosed. At the end of twenty minutes the broad stream had dwindled away to a mere trickle of water among the stones. At the end of half an hour we began to think that he had had as much as was good for him—we wanted a kettleful of water for our tea—so I put an elephant cartridge (‘577) into my rifle and aimed at the brute’s eye. He lifted up his head out of pure curiosity, and perceiving that men with rifles were handy, slouched off, grumbling like a professional agitator on being turned out of a public house.

That hippopotamus was the only rival I ever knew to the old-school journalist whose ways I can recall—only he was never known to taste water. Like the man in one of H. J. Byron’s plays, he could absorb any “given”—I use the word advisedly—any given quantity of liquor.

“Are you ever sober, my man?” I asked of him one day.

“I’m sober three times a day,” he replied huskily. “I’m sober now. This is one of the times,” he added mournfully.

“You were blind drunk this morning—I can swear to that,” said I.

“Oh, yes,” he replied promptly. “But what’se good of raking up the past, sir? Let the dead past burits dead.” He took a step or two toward the door, and then returned. He carefully brushed a speck of dust off the rim of his hat. All such men wear the tallest of silk hats, and seem to feel that they would be scandalised by the appearance of a speck of dust on the nap. “D’ye know that I can take three crops out of myself in the day?” he inquired blandly.

“Three crops?”

“Three crops—I said so, of drunk. I rise in morn’n,—drunk before twelve; sleep it off by two, and drunk again by five; sleep it off by eight—do my work and go to bed drunk at two a.m. You haven’t such a thing as half-a-crown about you, sir? I left my purse on the grand piano before I came out.”

I was under the impression that this particular man was dead years ago; and I was thus greatly surprised when, on jumping on a tramcar in a manufacturing town in Yorkshire quite recently, I recognised my old friend in a man who had just awakened in a corner, and was endeavouring to attract the attention of the conductor. When, after much incipient whistling and waving of his arms, he succeeded in drawing the conductor to his side, he inquired if the car was anywhere near the Wilfrid Lawson Temperance Hotel.

“I’ll let you down when we come to it,” said the conductor.

“Do,” said the other in his old husky tones.

“Lemme down at the Wellfed Laws Tenpence Otell.”

In another minute he was fast asleep as before.

At present no penal consequences follow any one who calls himself a literary man. It is taken for granted, I suppose, that the crime brings its own punishment.

One of the most depressing books that any one straying through the King’s Highway of literature could read is Mr. George Gissing’s “The New Grub Street.” What makes it all the more depressing is the fact of its carrying conviction with it to all readers. Every one must feel that the squalor described in this book has a real existence. The only consolation that any one engaged in a branch of literature can have on reading “The New Grub Street,” comes from the reflection that not one of the poor wretches described in its pages had the least aptitude for the business.

In a town of moderate size in which I lived, there were forty men and women who described themselves for directory purposes as “novelists.” Not one of them had ever published a volume; but still they all believed themselves to be novelists. There are thousands of men who call themselves journalists even now, but who are utterly incapable of writing a decent “par.” I have known many such men. The most incompetent invariably become dissatisfied with life in the provinces, and hurry off to London, having previously borrowed their train fare. I constantly stumble upon provincial failures in London. Sometimes on the Embankment I literally stumble upon them, for I have found them lying in shady nooks there trying to forget the world’s neglect in sleep.

Why on earth such men take to journalism has always been a mystery to me. If they had the least aptitude for it they would be earning money by journalism instead of trying to borrow half-crowns as journalists.

I knew of one who, several years ago, migrated to London. For a long time I heard nothing about him; but one night a friend of mine mentioned his name, and asked me if I had ever known him.

“The fact is,” said he, “I had rather a curious experience of him a few months ago.”

“You were by no means an exception to the general run of people who have ever come in contact with him,” said I. “What was your experience?”

“Well,” replied he, “I came across him casually one night, and as he seemed inclined to walk in my direction, I asked him if he would mind coming on to my lodgings to have a bottle of beer. He found that his engagements for the night permitted of his doing so, and we strolled on together. I found that there was supper enough for two adults in the locker, and our friend found that his engagements permitted of his taking a share in the humble repast. He took fully his share of the beer, and then I offered him a pipe, and stirred up the fire.

“We talked until two o’clock in the morning, and, as he told me he lived about five miles away—he didn’t seem quite sure whether it was at Hornsey or Clapham—I said he could not do better than occupy a spare truckle that was in my bedroom. He said he thought that I was right, and we retired. We breakfasted together in the morning, and then we walked into Fleet Street, where we parted. That night he overtook me on my way to my lodgings, and in the friendliest manner possible accompanied me thither. Here the programme of the night before was repeated. The third night I quite expected to be overtaken by him; but I was mistaken. I was not overtaken by him: he was sitting in my lodgings waiting for me. He gave me a most cordial welcome—I will say that for him. The night following I had a sort of instinct that I should find him waiting for me again in my sitting-room. Once more I was mistaken. He was not waiting for me; he had already eaten his supper—my supper, and had gone to bed—my bed; but with his usual thoughtfulness, he had left a short note for me upbraiding me, but in a genial and quite a gentlemanly way, for staying out so late, and begging me not to awake him, as he was very tired, and—also genially—inquiring if it was absolutely necessary for me to make such a row in my bath in the mornings. He was a light sleeper, he said, and a little noise disturbed him. I did not awake him; but the next morning I was distinctly cool towards him. I remarked that I thought it unlikely that I should be at home that night. He begged of me not to allow him to interfere with my plans. When I returned that night, I found him sitting at my table playing cards with a bleareyed foreigner, whom he courteously introduced as his friend Herr Vanderbosch or something.

“‘Draw your chair to the table, old chap, and join in with us. I’ll see that you get something to drink in a minute,’ said he.

“I thanked him, but remarked that I had a conscientious objection to all games of cards.

“‘Soh?’ said the foreigner. ‘Das is yust var yo makes ze mistook. Ze game of ze gards it is grand—soblime!’

“He added a few well-chosen sentences about sturm und drang or something; and in about five minutes I found myself getting a complete slanging for my narrow-minded prejudices, and for my attempt to curtail the innocent recreation of others. I will say this for our friend, however: he never for a moment allowed our little difference on what was after all a purely academic question, to interfere with his display of hospitality to myself and Herr Vanderbosch. He filled our tumblers, and was lavish with the tobacco jar. When I rose to go to bed he called me aside, and said he had made arrangements for me to sleep in the truckle for the night, in order to admit of his occupying my bed with Herr Vanderbosch—the poor devil, he explained to me with many deprecating nods, had not, he feared, any place to sleep that night. But at this point I turned. I assured him that I was constitutionally unfitted for sleeping in a truckle, or, in fact, in any bed but my own.

“‘All right,’ he cried in a huff, ‘I’ll sleep in the truckle, and I’ll make up a good fire for him to sleep before on the sofa.’

“Well, we all breakfasted together, and the next night the two gentlemen appeared once more at the door of the house. They were walking in as usual, when the landlady asked them where they were going.

“‘Why, upstairs, to be sure,’ said our friend. “‘Oh no!’ said the landlady, ‘you’re not doing that. Mr. Plantagenet has left his rooms and gone to the country for a month—maybe two—and the rooms is let to another gent.’ “Well, our friend swore that he had been treated infernally, and Herr Vanderbosch alluded to me as a schweinhund—I heard him. I fancy the word must be a term of considerable opprobrium in the German tongue. Anyhow, they didn’t get past the landlady,—she takes a large size in doors,—and after a while our friend’s menaces dwindled down to a request to be permitted to remove his luggage.

“‘I’ll bring it down to you,’ said the landlady; and she shut the hall door very gently, leaving them on the step outside. When she brought down the luggage—it consisted of three paper collars and one cuff with a fine carbuncle stud in it—they were gone.

“Our friend told some one the other day of the disgraceful way I had treated him and his foreign associate. But he says he would not have minded so much if the landlady had not shut the door so gently.”

Another remarkable pressman with whom I came in contact several years ago was a member of the reporting staff of an Irish newspaper. One day I noticed him wearing what appeared to me to be an extremely fine ring. It was set with an antique polished intaglio surrounded by diamonds. The ring was probably unique, and would be worth perhaps £70 to a collector. I have seen very inferior mediaeval intaglios sold for that sum. I examined the diamonds with a lens, and then inquired of the youth where he had bought it, and if he was anything of a collector.

“I picked it up going home one wet night,” he replied. “I advertised for the owner in all the papers for a week—it cost me thirty shillings in that way,—but no one ever came forward to claim it. I would gladly have sold the thing for thirty shillings at the end of a month; but then I found that it was worth close upon a hundred pounds.”

“You’re the luckiest chap I ever met,” said I.

In the course of a short time another of the reporters asked me if I had ever seen the watch that the same youth habitually wore. I replied that I had never seen it, but should like to do so. The same night I was in the reporters’ room, when the one who had mentioned the watch to me asked the wearer of the article if ten o’clock had yet struck. The youth forthwith drew out of his pocket one of the most charming little watches I ever saw. The back was Italian enamel on gold, both outside and within, and the outer case was bordered with forty-five rubies. A black pearl about the size of a pea was at the bow, right round the edge of the case were diamonds, and in the rim for the glass were twenty-five rubies and four stones which I fancied at a casual glance were pale sapphires. I examined these stones with my magnifier, and I thought I should have fainted when I found that they were blue diamonds.

“Le Temps est pour l’Homme,

L’Eternité est pour l’Amour”

was the inscription which I managed to make out on the dial.

I handed back the watch to the reporter—his salary was £120 per annum—and inquired if he had found this article also.

“Yes,” he said, with a laugh. “I picked that up, curiously enough, during a trip that I once made to the Scilly Islands. I advertised it in the Plymouth papers the next day, for I believed it to have been dropped by some wealthy tourist; but I got no applicant for it; and then I came to the conclusion that the watch had been among the treasures of some of the descendants of the smugglers and wreckers of the old days. It keeps good enough time now, though a watchmaker valued the works at five shillings.”

“Any time you want a hundred pounds—a hundred and fifty pounds,” said I, “don’t hesitate to bring that watch to me. Have you found many other articles in the course of your life?” I asked, as I was leaving the room.

“Lots,” he replied. “When I was in Liverpool I lived about two miles from my office, and through getting into a habit of keeping my eyes on the ground, I used to come across something almost every week. Unfortunately, most of my finds were claimed by the owners.”

“You have no reason to complain,” said I.

I was set thinking if there might not be the potentialities of wealth in the art of walking with one’s eyes modestly directed to the ground; and for three nights I was actually idiot enough to walk home from my office with looks, not “commercing with the skies,” but—it was purely a question of commerce—with the pavements. The first night I nearly transfixed a policeman with my umbrella, for the rain was coming down in torrents; the second, I got my hat knocked into the mud by coming in contact with the branch of a tree overhanging the railings of a square, and the third I received the impact of a large-boned tipsy man, who was, as the idiom of the country has it, trying to walk on both sides of the road at once.

I held up my head in future.

The reporter left the newspaper in the course of a few months, and I never saw him again. But quite recently I was reading Miss Dougall’s novel “Beggars All,” and when I came upon the account of the reporter who carries out several adroit schemes of burglary, the recollection of the remarkable “finds” of the young man whose ring and watch had excited my envy, flashed across my mind; and I began to wonder if it was possible that he had pursued a similar course to that which Miss Dougall’s hero found so profitable. I should like to consult Mr. Sherlock Holmes on this point when he returns from Switzerland—we expect him every day.

At any rate, it is certain that the calling of a reporter would afford many opportunities to a clever burglar, or even an adroit pickpocket. A reporter can take his walks abroad at any hour of the night without exciting the suspicion of a policeman; or, should such suspicion be aroused, he has only to say “Press,” and he may go anywhere he pleases. The Press rush in where the public dare not tread; and no one need be surprised if some day a professional burglar takes to stenography as an auxiliary to the realisation of his illegitimate aims.

One of the countless St. Peter stories has this privilege of the Press for its subject, and a reporter for its hero. This gentleman was walking jauntily through the gate of him “who keeps the keys,” but was stopped by the stern janitor, who inquired if he had a ticket.

“Press,” said the reporter, trying to pass.

“What do you mean by that? You know you can’t be admitted anywhere without a ticket.”

“I tell you that I belong to the Press; you don’t expect a reporter to pay, do you?”

“Why not? Why shouldn’t you be treated the same as the rest of the people? I can’t make flesh of one and fish of another,” added St. Peter, as if a professional reminiscence had occurred to him.

The reporter suddenly brightened up. “I don’t want exceptional treatment,” said he. “Now that I come to think of it, aren’t they all deadheads who come here?”

I fancy that reporter was admitted.

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