“Benjamin’s mess”—An alluring name—Scarcely accurate—A frugal supper—Why the sub-editor felt rather unwell—“A man should stick to plain homely fare”—Two Sybarites—The stewed lemon as a comestible—The midnight apple—The roasted crabs—The Zenana mission—The pibroch as a musical instrument—A curious blunder—The river Deccan—Frankenstein as the monster—The outside critics—A critical position—The curate as critic—A liberal-minded clergyman—Bound to be a bishop—The joy-bells.

TO return to the sub-editors and their suppers, I may say that I never met but one vegetarian pressman. He was particularly fond of a supper dish to which the alluring name of Benjamin’s Mess was given by the artful inventor. I do not know if the editor of this compilation had any authority—Biblical or secular—for assuming that its ingredients were identical with those with which Joseph, with the best of intentions, no doubt, but with very questionable prudence, heaped upon the dish of his youngest brother. I am not a profound Egyptologist, but I have a distinct recollection of hearing something about the fleshpots of Egypt, and the longing that the mere remembrance of these receptacles created in the hearts of the descendants of Joseph and his Brethren, when undergoing a course of enforced vegetarianism, though somewhat different in character from that to which, at a later period, Nebuchadnezzar—the most distinguished vegetarian that the world has ever known—was subjected. Therefore, I think it is only scriptural to assume that the original mess of Benjamin was something like a glorified Irish stew, or perhaps what yachtsmen call “lobscouce,” and that it contained at least a neck of mutton and a knuckle of ham—the prohibition did not exist in those days, and if the stew did not contain either ham or corned beef it would not be worth eating. But the compilation of which my friend was accustomed to partake nightly, and to which the vegetarian cookery book arrogates the patriarchal title, was wholly devoid of flesh-meat. It consisted, I believe, of some lentils, parsnips, a turnip, a head of cabbage or so, a dozen of leeks, a quart of split peas, a few vegetable marrows, a cucumber, a handful of green gooseberries, and a diseased potato to give the whole a piquancy that could not be derived from the other simple ingredients.

I was frequently invited by the sub-editor to join him in his frugal supper, but invariably declined. I told him that I had no desire to convert my frame into a costermonger’s barrow.

Upon one occasion the man failed to come down to the office when he was due. He appeared an hour later, looking very pale. His features suggested those of an overboiled cauliflower that has not been sufficiently strained after being removed from the saucepan. He explained to me the reason of his delay and of his overboiled appearance.

“The fact is,” said he, “that I did not feel at all well this morning. For my breakfast I could only eat one covered dishful of peasepudding, a head or two of celery and a few carrots, with a tureen of lentil soup and a raw potato salad; so my wife thought she would tempt me with a delicacy for my dinner. She made me a bran pie all for myself—thirty-two Spanish onions and four Swedish turnips, with a beetroot or two for colouring, and a thick paste of oatmeal and bran—that’s why it’s called a bran pie. Confound the thing! It’s too fascinating. I can never resist eating it all, and scraping the stable bucket in which it is cooked. I did so to-day, and that’s why I’m late. Well, well, perhaps I’ll gain sense late in life. I don’t feel quite myself even yet. Oh, confound all those dainty dishes! A man should stick to plain homely fare when he has work to do.”

But on reflection I think that the most peculiar supper menus of the sub-editorial staff were those partaken of by two journalists who occupied the same room for close upon a year—a room to which I had access occasionally. One of these gentlemen was accustomed to place in a saucepan on the fire a number of unpeeled lemons with as much water as just covered them. After four hours’ stewing, this dainty midnight supper was supposed to be cooked. It certainly was eaten, and with very few indications, all things considered, of abhorrence, by the senior occupant of the sub-editor’s room. He told me once in confidence that he really did not dislike the stewed lemons very much. He had heard that they were conducive to longevity, and in order to live long he was prepared to make many sacrifices. There could be little doubt, he said, that the virtue attributed to them was real, for he had been partaking of them for supper for over three years, and he had never suffered from anything worse than acute dyspepsia. I congratulated him. Nothing worse than acute dyspepsia!

His stable companion, so to speak, did not believe in heavy hot suppers such as his colleague indulged in. He said it was his impression that no more light and salutary supper could be imagined than a single apple, not quite ripe.

He acted manfully up to his belief, for every night I used to see him eating his apple shortly after midnight, and without offering the fruit the indignity of a paring. The spectacle was no more stimulating than that of the lemon-eater. My mouth invariably became so puckered up through watching the midnight banquets of these Sybarites, it was only with difficulty that I could utter a word or two of weak acquiescence in their views on a question of recognised difficulty.

It is somewhat remarkable that the apple-eating sub-editor should be the one who was guilty of the most remarkable error I ever knew in connection with an attempted display of erudition. He had set out to write a lively little quarter-of-a-column leaderette on a topic which was convulsing society in those days—namely, the cruelty of boiling lobsters alive. I am not quite certain that the question has even yet been decided to the satisfaction either of the humanitarian who likes lobster salad, or of the lobster that finds itself potted. Perhaps the latter may some day come out of its shell and give us its views on the question.

At any rate, in the year of which I write, the topic was almost a burning one: the month was September, Parliament had risen, and as yet the sea-serpent had not appeared on the horizon. The apple-eating sub-editor was doing duty for the assistant-editor, who was on his holidays; and as evidence of his light and graceful erudition, he asserted in his article that, however inhuman modern cooks might be in their preparation of Crustacea for the fastidious palates of their patrons, quite as great cruelty—assuming that it was cruelty—was in the habit of being perpetrated in cookery in the days of Shakespeare. “Readers of the immortal bard of Avon,” he wrote, “will recollect how, in one of the charming lyrics to ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ among the homely pleasures of winter it is stated that ‘roasted crabs hiss in the bowl.’

“This reference to the preparation of crabs for the table makes it perfectly plain that it was quite common to cook them alive, for were it otherwise, how could they hiss? That listening to the expression of the suffering of the crabs should be regarded by Shakespeare as one of the joys of a household, casts a somewhat lurid light upon the condition of English Society in the sixteenth century.”

It was the lemon-eating sub-editor who, on being requested by the editor to write something about the Zenana Mission, pointing out the great good that it was achieving, and the necessity there was for maintaining it in an efficient condition, produced a neat little article on the subject. He assured the readers of the paper that, among the many scenes of missionary labour, none had of late attracted more attention than the Zenana mission, and assuredly none was more deserving of this attention. Comparatively few years had passed since Zenana had been opened up to British trade, but already, owing to the devotion of a handful of men and women, the nature of the inhabitants had been almost entirely changed. The Zenanese, from being a savage people, had become, in a wonderfully short space of time, practically civilised; and recent travellers to Zenana had returned with the most glowing accounts of the continued progress of the good work in that country. The writer of the article then branched off into the “labourer-worthy-of-his-hire” side of this great evangelisation question—in most questions of missionary enterprise this side has a special interest attached to it—and the question was aptly asked if the devoted labourers in that remote vineyard were not deserving of support. Were civilisation and Christianity to be snatched from the Zenanese just when both were within their grasp? So on for nearly half a column the writer meandered in the most orthodox style, just as he had done scores of times before when advocating certain missions.

I found him the next day running his finger down the letter Z, in the index to the Handy Atlas, with a puzzled look upon his face. I knew then that he had received a letter from the editor, advising him to look out Zenana in the Atlas before writing anything further about so ticklish a region.

I also knew a sub-editor who fancied that the pibroch was a musical instrument widely circulated in the Highlands.

But who can blame a humble provincial journalist for making an odd blunder occasionally, when a leading London newspaper, in announcing the death, some years ago, of Captain Wallace, son of Sir Richard Wallace, stated that the sad event had occurred while he was “playing at bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne”? It might reasonably have been expected, I think, that the sub-editor of the foreign news should know of the existence of the historic mansion Bagatelle, which the Marquis of Hertford left to Sir Richard Wallace with the store of art treasures that it contained.

What excuse, one may also ask, can be made for the Dublin Professor who referred in print “to those populous districts of Hindostan, watered by the Ganges and the Deccan”?

In alluding to Frankenstein as the monster, and not merely the maker of the monster, the mistakes made by provincial journalists of the old school may certainly also be condoned, when we find the same ridiculous hallucination maintained by one of the most highly representative of modern journalists, as-well as by the editor of a weekly paper of large circulation, who enshrined it in the preface to a book for which he was responsible. In this case the writer could not have been pressed for time. But the marvel is, not that so many errors are run into by provincial journalists, but that so few can be laid to their charge. With telegrams pouring in by private wire, as well as by the P.A. and C.N., to say nothing of Baron Reuter’s and Messrs, Dalziel’s special services; with the foreman printer, too, appearing like a silent spectre and departing like one that is not silent, leaving the impression behind him that no newspaper, except that composed by a hated rival, can possibly be produced the next morning;—with all these drags upon the chariot wheels of composition, how can it be reasonably expected that an editor or a sub-editor will become Academic in his erudition? When, however, it is discovered the next day by some tenth-rate curate, who probably gets a free copy of the paper, that the quotation “O tempora! O mores!” is attributed to Virgil instead of Cicero, in a leading article a column in length, written upon a speech of seven columns, the writer is at once referred to as an ignorant boor, and an invitation is given to all that curate’s friends to point the finger of scorn at the journalist.

A long experience has convinced me that the curate who gets a free copy of the paper, and who is most velvet-gloved in approaching any member of the staff when he wants a favour, such as a leaderette on the Zenana Mission, in which several of his lady friends are deeply interested, or a paragraph regarding a forthcoming bazaar, or the insertion of a letter signed “Churchman,” calling attention to some imaginary reform which he himself has instituted—this very curate is the person who sends the marked copies of the paper to the proprietor with a gigantic Sic opposite every mistake, even though it be only a turned letter.

I put a stop to the tricks of one of the race who had annoyed me excessively. I simply inserted verbatim a long letter that he wrote on some subject. It was full of mistakes, and to these the next day, in a letter which he meant to be humorous, he referred as “printer’s errors.” I took the liberty of appending an editorial note to this communication, mentioning that the mistakes existed in the original letter, and adding that I trusted the writer would not think it necessary to attribute to the printer the further blunders which appeared in the humorous communication to which my note was appended.

The fellow sought an interview with me the next day, and found it. He was furiously indignant at the course which I had adopted, and said I had taken advantage of the haste in which he had written both letters. I brought out of my desk forthwith a paper which he had taken the trouble to re-edit with red ink for the benefit of the proprietor, who had, naturally, handed it to me. I recognised the handwriting of the red-ink editor the moment I received the first of his letters.

“Did you make any allowance for the haste of the writers of these passages that you took the trouble to mark and send to the proprietor?” I inquired blandly.

He said he did not know what it was that I referred to; and added that it was a gratuitous assumption on my part to say that he had marked and sent the paper.

“Very well,” said I. “I’ll assume that you deny having done so. May I do so?”

“Certainly you may,” he replied. “I have something else to do beside pointing out the blunders of your staff.”

“Then I ask your pardon for having assumed that you marked the paper,” said I. “I was too hasty.”

“You were—quite too hasty,” said he, going to the door.

“I’ve acknowledged it,” said I. “And therefore I’ll not go to your rector until to-morrow evening to prove to him that his curate is a sneak and a liar as well as an extremely ignorant person.”

He returned as I sat down.

“What paper is it that you allude to?” he asked.

“I showed it to you,” said I. “It was the paper that you re-edited in red ink and posted anonymously to the proprietor.”

“Oh, that?” said he. “Why on earth didn’t you say so at once? Of course I sent that paper. My dear fellow, it was only my little joke. I meant to have a little chaff with you about the mistakes.”

“Go away—go away,” said I. “Go away, Stiggins.”

And he went away.

I need scarcely say that such clergymen are not to be interviewed every day. Equally exceptional, I think, was the clergyman who was good enough to pay me a visit a few months after I had joined the editorial staff of a daily paper. Although I had never exactly been the leader of the coughers in church, yet on the other hand I had never been a leader of the scoffers outside it; and somehow the parson had come to miss me. I had an uneasy feeling when he entered my room that he had come on business—that he might possibly have fancied I was afflicted with doubts on, say, the right of unbaptised infants to burial in consecrated ground, and that he had come prepared to lift the burden from my soul; but he never so much as spoke of business until he had picked up his hat and gloves, and had said a cheerful farewell. Only then he remarked, as if the thing had occurred to him quite suddenly,—

“Oh, by the way, I don’t think I noticed you in church during the past few Sundays. I was afraid that you were indisposed.”

“Oh, no,” said I. “I was all right; but the fact is, you see, that I’ve become a sort of editor, and as I can never get to bed before three or four in the morning, it would be impossible for me to rise before eleven. To be sure I’m not on duty on Saturday nights, but the force of habit is so great that, though I may go to bed in decent time on that night, I cannot sleep until my usual hour.”

“Oh, I see, I see,” said he, beginning to draw on his gloves. “Well, perhaps on the whole—all things considered—the—ah—” here he was seized with a fit of coughing, and when he recovered he said he had always been an admirer of old Worcester, and he rather thought that some cups which I had on a shelf were, on the whole, the most characteristic as regards shape that he had ever seen.

Then he went away, and I perceived from the appearance that his back presented to me, that he would one day become a bishop. A clergyman with such tact as he exhibited can no more avoid being made a bishop than the young seal can avoid taking to the water.

Before five years had passed he was, sure enough, raised to the Bench, and every one is delighted with him. The celery from the Palace garden invariably takes the first prize at the local shows; his lordship smiles when you congratulate him on his repeated successes with celery, but when you talk about chrysanthemums he becomes grave and shakes his head.

This is his tact.

The church of which he was rector was situated in a fashionable suburb of the town, and it possessed one of the noisiest peals of bells possible to imagine. They were the terror of the neighbourhood.

Upon one occasion an elderly gentleman living close to the church contracted some malady which necessitated, the doctor said, the observance of the strictest quiet, even on Sundays. A message was sent to the chief of the bellringers to this effect, the invalid’s wife expressing the hope that for a Sunday or two the bells might be permitted to remain silent. Of course her very reasonable wish was granted. The chief of the ringers thoughtfully called every Sunday morning to inquire after the sufferer’s condition, and for three weeks he learned that it was unchanged, and the bells consequently remained silent. On the fourth Sunday, he was told that the man had died during the night. He immediately hastened off to the other seven bellringers, worse than the first, and telling them that their prohibition was removed, they climbed the belfry and rang forth the most joyous peal that had ever annoyed the neighbourhood.

“Ah,” said the lady with whom I lodged, “there are the joy bells once more. Poor Mr. Jenkins must be dead at last.”

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