A perturbed spirit—The loss of a fortune—A broken bank—A study in bimetallism—Auri sacra fames—A rough diamond—A friend of the peerage—And of Dublin stout—His weaknesses—The Quarterly Review—The dilemma—An amateur hospital nurse—A terrible night—Benvenuto Cellini—A subtle jest—The disappearance of the jester—An appropriated leaderette—An appropriated anecdote—An appropriated quatrain.

ONCE I saw a sub-editor actually within easy reach of suicide. It was not the duplicating of a five-column speech in flimsy, nor was it that the foreman printer had broken his heart. It was that he had been the victim of a heartless theft. His savings of years had been carried off in the course of a single night. So he explained to me with “tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,” when I came down to the office one evening. He was walking up and down his room, with three hours’ arrears of unopened telegrams on his desk and a p.p.c. note from the foreman beneath a leaden “rule,” used as a paper weight; for the foreman, being, as usual, a conscientious man, invariably promised to hand in his notice at sundown if kept waiting for copy.

“What on earth is the matter?” I inquired.

“Is it neuralgia or——”

“It’s worse—worse!” he moaned. “I’ve lost all my money—all—all! there’s the tin I kept it in—see for yourself if there’s a penny left in it.” He threw himself into his chair and bowed down his head upon his hands.

Far off a solitary (speaking) trumpet blew.

“If the hands are to go home you’ve only got to say so and I release them,” was the message that was delivered into my ear when I went to the end of the tube communicating with the foreman.

“Three columns will be out inside half an hour,” I replied. Then I turned to the sobbing sub-editor. “Come,” said I, “bear it like a man. It’s a terrible thing, of course, but still it must be faced. Tell me how many pounds you’ve lost, and I’ll put the matter into the hands of the police.”

He looked up with a vacant white face.

“How many—there were a hundred and forty pence in the tin when I went home last night. See if there’s a penny left.”

A cursory glance at the chocolate tin that lay on the table was quite sufficient to convince me that it was empty.

“Cheer up,” I said. “A hundred and forty pence. It sounds large in pence, to be sure, but when you think of it from the standard of the silver currency it doesn’t seem so formidable. Eleven and eightpence. Of course it’s a shocking thing. Was it all in pence?”

“All—all—every penny of it.”

“Keep up your heart. We may be able to trace the money. I suppose you are prepared to identify the coins?”

He ran his fingers through his hair, and I could see that he was striving manfully to collect his thoughts.

“Identify? I could swear to them if I saw them in the lump—one hundred and forty—one—hundred—and—forty—pence! Yes, I’ll swear that I could swear to them in the lump. But singly—oh, I’ll never see them again!”

“Tell me how it came about that you had so much money in this room,” said I, beginning to open the telegrams. “Man, did you not think of the terrible temptation that you were placing in the way of the less opulent members of the staff? Eleven and eight in a disused chocolate tin! It’s a temptation like this that turns honest men into thieves.”

Then it was that he informed me on the point upon which I confess I was curious—namely, how he came to have this fortune in copper.

His wife, he said, was in the habit of giving him a penny every rainy night, this being his tramcar fare from his house to his office. But—he emphasised this detail—she was usually weak enough not to watch to see whether he got into the tramcar or not, and the consequence was that, unless the night was very wet indeed, he was accustomed to walk the whole way and thus save the penny, which he nightly deposited in the chocolate tin: he could not carry it home with him, he said, for his wife would be certain to find it when she searched his waistcoat pockets before he arose in the morning.

“For a hundred and forty times you persevered in this course of duplicity for the sake of the temporary gain!” said I. “It is this craving to become quickly rich that is the curse of the nineteenth century. I thought that journalists were free from it; I find that they are as bad as Stock Exchange gamblers or magazine proprietors. Oh, gold! gold! Go on with your work or there’ll be a blue-pencilled row to-morrow. Don’t fancy you’ll obtain the sympathy of any human being in your well-earned misfortune. You don’t deserve to have so good a wife. A penny every rainy night—a penny! Oh, I lose all patience when I think of your complaining. Go on with your work.”

He went on with his work.

Some months after this incident he thought it necessary to tell me that he was a Scotchman.

It was not necessary; but I asked him if his wife was one too.

“Not exactly,” said he argumentatively. “But she’s a native of Scotland—I’ll say that much for her.”

I afterwards heard that he had become the proprietor of that very journal upon which he had been sub-editor.

I was not surprised.

My memories of the sub-editor’s room include a three months’ experience of a remarkable man. He imposed upon me for nearly a week, telling me anecdotes of the distinguished persons whom he had met in the course of his career. It seemed to me—for a week—that he was the darling of the most exclusive society in Europe. He talked about noble lords by their Christian names, and of noble ladies with equal breezy freedom. Many of his anecdotes necessitated a verbatim report of the replies made by marquises and countesses to his playful sallies; and I noticed that, so far as his recollection served him, they had always addressed him as George; sometimes—but only in the case of over-familiar daughters of peers—Georgie. I felt—for a week—that journalism had made a sensible advance socially when such things were possible. Perhaps, I thought, some day the daughter of a peer may distort my name, so that I may not die undistinguished.

I have seen a good many padded peeresses and dowdy duchesses since those days, and my ambition has somehow drifted into other channels; but while the man talked of his intimacies with peers, and his friendship—he assured me on his sacred word of honour (whatever that meant) that it was perfectly Platonic—with peeresses.

I was carried away—for a week.

He was an undersized man, with a rooted prejudice against soap and the comb. He spoke like a common man, and wore clothes that were clearly second-hand. He posed as the rough diamond, the untamed literary lion, the genius who refuses to be trammelled by the usages—most of them purely artificial—of society, and on whom society consequently dotes.

What he doted on was Dublin stout. If he had acquired during his intercourse with the aristocracy their effete taste in the way of drinking, he certainly managed to chasten it. He drank six bottles of stout in the course of a single night, and regretted that there was not a seventh handy.

For a month he did his work moderately well, but at the end of that time he began to put it upon other people. He made excuse after excuse to shirk his legitimate duties. One night he came down with a swollen face. He was suffering inexpressible agony from toothache, he said, and if he were to sit down to his desk he really would not guarantee that some shocking mistake would not occur. He would, he declared, be serving the best interests of the paper if he were to go home to his bed. He only waited to drink a bottle of stout before going.

A few days after his return to work he entered the office enveloped in an odoriferous muffler, and speaking hoarsely. He had, he said, caught so severe a cold that the doctor was not going to allow him to leave his house; but so soon as he got his back turned, he had run down to tell us that it was impossible for him to do anything for a night or two. He wanted to bind us down in the most solemn way not to let the doctor know that he came out, and we promised to let no one know except the manager. This assurance somehow did not seem to satisfy him. But he drank a bottle of porter and went away.

The very next week he came to me in confidence, telling me that he had just received the proofs of his usual political article in the Quarterly, and that the editor had taken the trouble to telegraph to him to return the proofs for press without fail the next day. Now, the only question with him was, should he chuck up the Quarterly, for which he had written for many years, or the humble daily paper in the office of which he was standing.

I did not venture to suggest a solution of the problem.

He did.

“Maybe you wouldn’t mind taking a squint”—his phraseology was that of the rough genius—“through the telegrams for to-night,” said he. “I don’t like to impose on a good-natured sonny like you, but you see how I’m situated. Confound that Quarterly!

“Do you do the political article for the Quarterly?” I asked.

“Man, I’ve done it for the past eleven years,” said he. “I thought every one knew that. It’s editor of the Quarterly that I should be to-day if William Smith hadn’t cut me out of the job. But I bear him no malice—bless your soul, not I. You’ll go over the flimsies?”

I said I would, and he wiped a bath sponge of porter-froth off his beard in order to thank me.

I knew that he was telling me a lie about the Quarterly, but I did his work.

Less than a week after, he entered my room to express the hope that I would be able to make arrangements to have his work done for him once again, the fact being that he had just received a message from Mrs. Thompson—the wife of young Thompson, the manager for Messrs. Gibson, the shippers—to ask him for heaven’s sake to help her to look after her husband that night. Young Thompson had been behaving rather wildly of late, it appeared, and was suffering from an attack of that form of heredity known as delirium tremens. He had been held down in the bed by three men and Mrs. Thompson the previous night, my informant said, and added that he himself would probably be one of a fresh batch on whom a similar duty would devolve inside an hour or so.

He had scarcely left the office—after refreshing himself by the artificial aid of Guinness—before a knock came to my door, and the next moment Mr. Thompson himself quietly entered. I saw that the poker was within easy reach, and then asked him how he was.

“I’m all right,” he replied. “I merely dropped in to borrow the Glasgow Herald for a few minutes. I heard to-day that a ship of ours was reported as spoken, but I can’t find it in any paper that has come to us.”

“You can have the Herald with pleasure,” said I. “You didn’t go to the concert last night?”

“No,” said he. “You see it was the night of our choir practice, and I had to attend it to keep the others up to their work.”

The next night I asked the sub-editor how his friend Mr. Thompson was, and if he had experienced much difficulty in keeping him from making an onslaught upon the snakes.

He shook his head solemnly, as if his experiences of the previous night were too terrible to be expressed in ordinary colloquialisms.

“Sonny,” said he, “pray that you may never see all that I saw last night.”

“Or all that Thompson saw,” said I. “Was he very bad?”

“As bad as they make them,” he replied. “I sat on his head for hours at a stretch.”

“When he was off his head you were on it?”

“Ay; but every now and again he would, by an almost superhuman effort, toss me half way up to the ceiling. Man, it was an awful night! It’s heartless of me not being with the poor woman now; but I said I’d do a couple of hours’ work before going.”

“All right,” said I. “Maybe Thompson will call here and you can walk up with him.”

“Thompson call? What the blue pencil do you mean?”

“Just what I say. If you had waited for five minutes last night you might have had his company up to that pleasant little séance in which you turned his head into a chair. He called to see the Glasgow Herald before you could have reached the end of the street.”

He gave a little gasp.

“I didn’t say Thompson, did I?” he asked, after a pause.

“You certainly did,” said I.

“I’ll be forgetting my own name next,” said he. “The man’s name is Johnston—he lives in the corner house of the row I lodge in.”

“Anyhow, you’ll not see him to-night,” said I.

The fellow failed to exasperate me even then. But he succeeded early the next month. He came to me one night with a magazine in his hand.

“I wonder if the boss”—I think I mentioned that he was a rough diamond—“would mind my inserting a column or so of extracts from this paper of mine in the Drawing Room on Benvenuto Cellini?” He pronounced the name “Selliny.”

“On whom is the paper?” I inquired.

“Selliny—Benvenuto Selliny. I’ve made Selliny my own—no man living can touch me there. I knocked off the thing in a hurry, but it reads very well, though I say it who shouldn’t.”

“Why shouldn’t you say it?” I inquired.

“Well when you’ve written as much as me,”—he was a rough diamond—“maybe you’ll be as modest,” he cried, gaily. “When you can knock off a paper——”

“There’s one paper that you’ll not knock off, but that you’ll be pretty soon knocked off,” said I; “and that paper is the one that you are connected with just now. If lies were landed property you’d be one of the largest holders of real estate in the world. I never met such a liar as you are. You never wrote that article on Benvenuto Cellini—you don’t even know how to pronounce the man’s name.”

“The boy’s mad—mad!” he cried, with a laugh that was not a laugh. “Mr. Barton,”—the managing editor had entered the room,—“this fair-haired young gentleman is a bit off his head, I’m thinking.”

“I’m not off my head in the least,” said I. “Do you mean to say, in the presence of Mr. Barton, that you wrote that paper in the Drawing Room on Benvenuto Cellini?”

“Do you want me to take my oath that I wrote it?” said he. “What makes you think that I didn’t write it?”

“Nothing beyond the fact that I wrote it myself, and that this slip of paper which I hold in my hand is the cheque that was sent to me in payment for it, and that this other slip is the usual form of acknowledgment—you see the title of the article on the side—which I have to post to-morrow.”

There was a silence in the room. The managing editor had seated himself in my chair and was scribbling something at the desk.

“My fair-haired friend,” said the sub-editor, “I thought that you would have seen from the first the joke I was playing on you. Why, man, the instant I read the paper I knew it was by you. Don’t you fancy that I know your fluent style by this time?”

“I fancy that there’s no greater liar on earth than yourself,” said I.

“Look here,” he cried, assuming a menacing attitude. “I can stand a lot, but——”

“And so can I,” said the managing editor, “but at last the breaking strain is reached. That paper will allow of your drawing a month’s salary to-morrow,”—he handed him the paper which he had scribbled,—“and I think that as this office has done without you for eleven nights during the past month, it will do without you for the twelfth. Don’t let me find you below when I am going away.”

He didn’t.

I cannot say that I ever met another man connected with a newspaper quite so unscrupulous as the man with whom I have just dealt. I can certainly safely say that I never again knew of a journalist laying claim to the authorship of anything that I wrote, either in a daily paper, where everything is anonymous, or in a magazine, where I employed a pseudonym. No one thought it worth his while doing so. A man who was not a journalist, however, took to himself the honour and glory associated with the writing of a leaderette of mine on the excellent management of a local library. The man who was idiot enough to do so was a theological student in the Presbyterian interest. He began to frequent the library without previously having paid his fare, and on being remonstrated with mildly by the young librarian, said that surely it was not a great concession on the part of the committee to allow him the run of the building after the article he had written in the leading newspaper on the manner in which the institution was conducted. It so happened, however, that the librarian had, at my request, furnished me with the statistics that formed the basis of the leaderette, and he had no hesitation in saying of the divinity student at his leisure what David said of all men in his haste. But after being thrust out of the library and called an impostor, the divinity student went home and wrote a letter signed “Theologia,” in which he made a furious onslaught upon the management of the library, and had the effrontery to demand its insertion in the newspaper the next day.

He is now a popular and deservedly respected clergyman, and I hear that his sermon on Acts v., 1-11 is about to be issued in pamphlet form.

Curiously enough quite recently a man in whose chambers I was breakfasting, pointed out to me what he called a good story that had appeared in a paper on the previous evening.

The paragraph in which it was included was as follows:—

“A rather amusing story is told by the Avilion Gazettes Special Commissioner in his latest article on ‘Ireland as it is and as it would be.’ It is to the effect that some of the Irish members recently wished to cross the Channel for half-a-crown each, and to that end called on a boat agent, a Tory, who knew them, when the following conversation took place:—

“‘Can we go across for half-a-crown each?’

“‘No, ye can’t, thin.’

“‘An’ why not?’

“‘Because’tis a cattle boat.’

“‘Nevermind that, sure we’re not particular.’

“‘No, but the cattle are.’”

That was the entire paragraph..

“It’s a bit rough on your compatriots,” said my host. “You look as if you feel it.”

“I do,” said I; “I feel it to be rather sad that a story that a fellow takes the trouble to invent and to print in a pamphlet, should be picked up by an English correspondent in Dublin, printed in one of his letters from Ireland, and afterwards published in a London evening paper without any acknowledgment being made of the source whence it was derived.”

And that is my opinion still. The story was a pure invention of my own, and it was printed in an anonymous skit, only without the brogue. It was left for the English Special Commissioner to make a feature of the brogue, of which, of course, he had become a master, having been close upon two days in Dublin.

But the most amusing thing to me was to find that the sub-editor of the newspaper with which I was connected had actually cut the paragraph out of the London paper and inserted it in our columns. He pointed it out to me on my return, and asked me if I didn’t think it a good story.

I said it was first rate, and inquired if he had ever heard the story before. He replied that he never had.

That was, I repeat, the point of the whole incident which amused me most; for I had made the sub-editor a present of the original pamphlet, and he said he had enjoyed it immensely.

He also hopes to be one day an ordained clergyman.

When in Ireland during the General Election of 1892, I got a telegram one night informing me that Mr. Justin M’Carthy had been defeated in Derry that day by Mr. Ross, Q.C.

It occurred to me that if a quatrain could be made upon the incident it might be read the next day. The following was the result of the great mental effort necessary to bring to bear upon the task:—

“That the Unionists Derry can win

Is a matter to-day beyond doubt;

For Ross the Q.C. is just in,

And the one that’s Justin is just out.”

I put my initials to this masterpiece, and I need scarcely say that I was dizzy with pride when it appeared at the head of a column the next morning. Now, that thing kept staring me in the face out of every newspaper, English as well as Irish, that I picked up during the next fortnight, only it appeared without my initials, but in compensation bore as preface, lest the reader might be amazed at coming too suddenly upon such subtle humour, these words:—

“The following epigram by a Dublin wit is being widely circulated in the Irish metropolis.” Some months afterwards, when I chanced to pay a visit to Dublin, the author of the epigram was pointed out to me.

“So it was he who wrote that thing about just in and just out?” I remarked.

“It was,” said my friend. “I’d introduce you to him only, between ourselves, though a nice enough fellow before he wrote that, he hasn’t been very approachable since.”

I felt extremely obliged to the gentleman. I thought of Mary Barton, the heroic lady represented by Miss Bateman long ago, who had accused herself of the crime committed by another.

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