Rob had a tussle for it, but he managed to live down his first winter in London, and May-day saw him sufficiently prosperous and brazen to be able to go into restaurants and shout out 'Waiter.' After that nothing frightened him but barmaids.
For a time his chief struggle had been with his appetite, which tortured him when he went out in the afternoons. He wanted to dine out of a paper bag, but his legs were reluctant to carry him past a grill-room. At last a compromise was agreed upon. If he got a proof over night, he dined in state next day; if it was only his manuscript that was returned to him, he thought of dining later in the week. For a long time his appetite had the worse of it. It was then that he became so great an authority on penny buns. His striking appearance always brought the saleswomen to him promptly, and sometimes he blushed, and often he glared, as he gave his order. When they smiled he changed his shop.
There was one terrible month when he wrote from morning to night and did not make sixpence. He lived by selling his books, half a dozen at a time. Even on the last day of that black month he did not despair. When he wound up his watch at nights before going hungry to bed, he never remembered that it could be pawned. The very idea of entering a pawnshop never struck him. Many a time when his rejected articles came back he shook his fist in imagination at all the editors in London, and saw himself twisting their necks one by one. To think of a different death for each of them exercised his imagination and calmed his passion, and he wondered whether the murder of an editor was an indictable offence. When he did not have ten shillings, 'I will get on' cried Rob to himself. 'I'm not going to be starved out of a big town like this. I'll make my mark yet. Yes,' he roared, while the housekeeper at the other side of the door quaked to hear him, 'I will get on; I'm not going to be beaten.' He was waving his arms fiercely, when the housekeeper knocked. 'Come in,' said Rob, subsiding meekly into his chair. Before company he seemed to be without passion, but they should have seen him when he was alone. One night he dreamt that he saw all the editors in London being conveyed (in a row) to the hospital on stretchers. A gratified smile lit up his face as he slept, and his arm, going out suddenly to tip one of the stretchers over, hit against a chair. Rob jumped out of bed and kicked the chair round the room. By and by, when his articles were occasionally used, he told his proofs that the editors were capital fellows.
The only acquaintances he made were with journalists who came to his chambers to see Rorrison, who was now in India. They seemed just as pleased to see Rob, and a few of them, who spoke largely of their connection with literature, borrowed five shillings from him. To his disappointment Noble Simms did not call, though he sometimes sent up notes to Rob suggesting likely articles, and the proper papers to which to send them. 'I would gladly say "Use my name,"' Simms wrote, 'but it is the glory of anonymous journalism that names are nothing and good stuff everything. I assure you that on the Press it is the men who have it in them that succeed, and the best of them become the editors.' He advised Rob to go to the annual supper given by a philanthropic body to discharged criminals and write an account of the proceedings; and told him that when anything remarkable happened in London he should at once do an article (in the British Museum) on the times the same thing had happened before. 'Don't neglect eclipses,' he said, 'nor heavy scoring at cricket matches any more than what look like signs of the times, and always try to be first in the field.' He recommended Rob to gather statistics of all kinds, from the number of grandchildren the crowned heads of Europe had to the jockeys who had ridden the Derby winner more than once, and suggested the collecting of anecdotes about celebrities, which everybody would want to read if his celebrities chanced to die, as they must do some day; and he assured him that there was a public who liked to be told every year what the poets had said about May. Rob was advised never to let a historic house disappear from London without compiling an article about its associations, and to be ready to run after the fire brigade. He was told that an article on flagstone artists could be made interesting. 'But always be sure of your facts,' Simms said. 'Write your articles over again and again, avoid fine writing as much as dishonest writing, and never spoil a leaderette by drawing it out into a leader. By and by you may be able to choose the kind of subject that interests yourself, but at present put your best work into what experienced editors believe interests the general public.'
Rob found these suggestions valuable, and often thought, as he passed Simms's door, of going in to thank him, but he had an uncomfortable feeling that Simms did not want him. Of course Rob was wrong. Simms had feared at first to saddle himself with a man who might prove incapable, and besides, he generally liked those persons best whom he saw least frequently.
For the great part of the spring Simms was out of town; but one day after his return he met Rob on the stair, and took him into his chambers. The sitting-room had been originally furnished with newspaper articles; Simms, in his younger days, when he wanted a new chair or an etching having written an article to pay for it, and then pasted the article on the back. He had paid a series on wild birds for his piano, and at one time leaderettes had even been found in the inside of his hats. Odd books and magazines lay about his table, but they would not in all have filled a library shelf; and there were no newspapers visible. The blank wall opposite the fireplace showed in dust that a large picture had recently hung there. It was an oil-painting which a month earlier had given way in the cord and fallen behind the piano, where Simms was letting it lie.
'I wonder,' said Rob, who had heard from many quarters of Simms's reputation, 'that you are content to put your best work into newspapers.'
'Ah,' answered Simms, 'I was ambitious once, but, as I told you, the grand book was a failure. Nowadays I gratify myself with the reflection that I am not stupid enough ever to be a great man.'
'I wish you would begin something really big,' said Rob earnestly.
'I feel safer,' replied Simms, 'finishing something really little.'
He turned the talk to Rob's affairs as if his own wearied him, and, after hesitating, offered to 'place' a political article by Rob with the editor of the Morning Wire.
'I don't say he'll use it, though,' he added.
This was so much the work Rob hungered for that he could have run upstairs and begun it at once.
'Why, you surely don't work on Saturday nights?' said his host, who was putting on an overcoat.
'Yes,' said Rob, 'there is nothing else to do. I know no one well enough to go to him. Of course I do nothing on the Sab—I mean on Sundays.'
'No? Then how do you pass your Sundays?'
'I go to church, and take a long walk, or read.'
'And you never break this principle—when a capital idea for an article strikes you on Sunday evening, for instance?'
'Well,' said Rob, 'when that happens I wait until twelve o'clock strikes, and then begin.'
Perceiving nothing curious in this, Rob did not look up to see Simms's mouth twitching.
'On those occasions,' asked Simms, 'when you are waiting for twelve o'clock, does the evening not seem to pass very slowly?'
Then Rob blushed.
'At all events, come with me to-night,' said Simms, 'to my club. I am going now to the Wigwam, and we may meet men there worth your knowing.'
The Wigwam is one of the best known literary clubs in London, and as they rattled to it in a hansom, the driver of which was the broken son of a peer, Rob remarked that its fame had even travelled to his saw-mill.
'It has such a name,' said Simms in reply, 'that I feel sorry for any one who is taken to it for the first time. The best way to admire the Wigwam is not to go to it.'
'I always thought it was considered the pleasantest club in London,' Rob said.
'So it is,' said Simms, who was a member of half a dozen; 'most of the others are only meant for sitting in on padded chairs and calling out "sh-sh" when any other body speaks.'
At the Wigwam there is a special dinner every Saturday evening, but it was over before Simms and Rob arrived, and the members were crowding into the room where great poets have sat beating time with churchwardens, while great artists or coming Cabinet ministers sang songs that were not of the drawing-room. A popular novelist, on whom Rob gazed with a veneration that did not spread to his companion's face, was in the chair when they entered, and the room was full of literary men, actors, and artists, of whom, though many were noted, many were also needy. Here was an actor who had separated from his wife because her notices were better than his; and another gentleman of the same profession took Rob aside to say that he was the greatest tragedian on earth if he could only get a chance. Rob did not know what to reply when the eminent cartoonist sitting next him, whom he had looked up to for half a dozen years, told him, by way of opening a conversation, that he had just pawned his watch. They seemed so pleased with poverty that they made as much of a little of it as they could, and the wisest conclusion Rob came to that night was not to take them too seriously. It was, however, a novel world to find oneself in all of a sudden, one in which everybody was a wit at his own expense. Even Simms, who always upheld the Press when any outsider ran it down, sang with applause some verses whose point lay in their being directed against himself. They began—
When clever pressmen write this way,
'As Mr. J. A. Froude would say,'
Is it because they think he would,
And have they read a line of Froude?
Or is it only that they fear
The comment they have made is queer,
And that they either must erase it,
Or say it's Mr. Froude who says it?
Every one abandoned himself to the humour of the evening, and as song followed song, or was wedged between entertainments of other kinds, the room filled with smoke until it resembled London in a fog.
By and by a sallow-faced man mounted a table to show the company how to perform a remarkable trick with three hats. He got his hats from the company, and having looked at them thoughtfully for some minutes, said that he had forgotten the way.
'That,' said Simms, mentioning a well-known journalist, 'is K——. He can never work unless his pockets are empty, and he would not be looking so doleful at present if he was not pretty well off. He goes from room to room in the house he lodges in, according to the state of his finances, and when you call on him you have to ask at the door which floor he is on to-day. One week you find him in the drawing-room, the next in the garret.'
A stouter and brighter man followed the hat entertainment with a song, which he said was considered by some of his friends a recitation.
'There was a time,' said Simms, who was held a terrible person by those who took him literally, 'when that was the saddest man I knew. He was so sad that the doctors feared he would die of it. It all came of his writing for Punch.'
'How did they treat him?' Rob asked.
'Oh, they quite gave him up, and he was wasting away visibly, when a second-rate provincial journal appointed him its London correspondent, and saved his life.'
'Then he was sad,' asked Rob, 'because he was out of work?'
'On the contrary,' said Simms gravely, 'he was always one of the successful men, but he could not laugh.'
'And he laughed when he became a London correspondent?'
'Yes; that restored his sense of humour. But listen to this song; he is a countryman of yours who sings it.'
A man, who looked as if he had been cut out of a granite block, and who at the end of each verse thrust his pipe back into his mouth, sang in a broad accent, that made Rob want to go nearer him, some verses about an old university—
'Take off the stranger's hat!'—The shout
We raised in fifty-nine
Assails my ears, with careless flout,
And now the hat is mine.
It seems a day since I was here,
A student slim and hearty,
And see, the boys around me cheer,
'The ancient-looking party!'
Rough horseplay did not pass for wit
When Rae and Mill were there;
I see a lad from Oxford sit
In Blackie's famous chair.
And Rae, of all our men the one
We most admired in quad
(I had this years ago), has gone
Completely to the bad.
In our debates the moral Mill
Had infinite address,
Alas! since then he's robbed a till,
And now he's on the press.
And Tommy Robb, the ploughman's son,
Whom all his fellows slighted,
From Rae and Mill the prize has won,
For Tommy's to be knighted.
A lanky loon is in the seat
Filled once by manse-bred Sheen,
Who did not care to mix with Peate,
A bleacher who had been.
But watch the whirligig of time,
Brave Peate became a preacher,
His name is known in every clime,
And Sheen is now the bleacher.
McMillan, who the medals carried,
Is now a judge, 'tis said,
And curly-headed Smith is married,
And Williamson is dead.
Old Phil and I who shared our books
Now very seldom meet,
And when we do, with frowning looks
We pass by in the street.
The college rings with student slang
As in the days of yore,
The self-same notice boards still hang
Upon the class-room door:
An essay (I expected that)
On Burns this week, or Locke,
'A theory of creation' at
Precisely seven o'clock.
There's none here now who knows my name,
My place is far away,
And yet the college is the same,
Not older by a day.
But curious looks are cast at me,
Ah! herein lies the change,
All else is as it used to be,
And I alone am strange!
'Now, you could never guess,' Simms said to Rob, 'what profession our singer belongs to.'
'He looks more like a writer than an artist,' said Rob, who had felt the song more than the singer did.
'Well, he is more an artist than a writer, though, strictly speaking, he is neither. To that man is the honour of having created a profession. He furnishes rooms for interviews.'
'I don't quite understand,' said Rob.
'It is in this way,' Simms explained. 'Interviews in this country are of recent growth, but it has been already discovered that what the public want to read is not so much a celebrity's views on any topic as a description of his library, his dressing-gown, or his gifts from the king of Kashabahoo. Many of the eminent ones, however, are very uninteresting in private life, and have no curiosities to show their interviewer worth writing about, so your countryman has started a profession of providing curiosities suitable for celebrities at from five pounds upwards, each article, of course, having a guaranteed story attached to it. The editor, you observe, intimates his wish to include the distinguished person in his galaxy of "Men of the Moment," and then the notability drops a line to our friend saying that he wants a few of his rooms arranged for an interview. Your countryman sends the goods, arranges them effectively, and puts the celebrity up to the reminiscences he is to tell about each.'
'I suppose,' said Rob, with a light in his eye, 'that the interviewer is as much taken in by this as—well, say, as I have been by you?'
'To the same extent,' admitted Simms solemnly. 'Of course he is not aware that before the interview appears the interesting relics have all been packed up and taken back to our Scottish friend's show-rooms.'
The distinguished novelist in the chair told Rob (without having been introduced to him) that his books were beggaring his publishers.
'What I make my living off,' he said, 'is the penny dreadful, complete in one number. I manufacture two a week without hindrance to other employment, and could make it three if I did not have a weak wrist.'
It was thus that every one talked to Rob, who, because he took a joke without changing countenance, was considered obtuse. He congratulated one man on his article on chaffinches in the Evening Firebrand, and the writer said he had discovered, since the paper appeared, that the birds he described were really linnets. Another man was introduced to Rob as the writer of In Memoriam.
'No,' said the gentleman himself, on seeing Rob start, 'my name is not Tennyson. It is, indeed, Murphy. Tennyson and the other fellows, who are ambitious of literary fame, pay me so much a page for poems to which they put their names.'
At this point the applause became so deafening that Simms and Rob, who had been on their way to another room, turned back. An aged man, with a magnificent head, was on his feet to describe his first meeting with Carlyle.
'Who is it?' asked Rob, and Simms mentioned the name of a celebrity only a little less renowned than Carlyle himself. To Rob it had been one of the glories of London that in the streets he sometimes came suddenly upon world-renowned men, but he now looked upon this eminent scientist for the first time. The celebrity was there as a visitor, for the Wigwam cannot boast quite such famous members as he.
The septuagenarian began his story well. He described the approach to Craigenputtock on a warm summer afternoon, and the emotions that laid hold of him as, from a distance, he observed the sage seated astride a low dyke, flinging stones into the duck-pond. The pedestrian announced his name and the pleasure with which he at last stood face to face with the greatest writer of the day; and then the genial author of Sartor Resartus, annoyed at being disturbed, jumped off the dyke and chased his visitor round and round the duck-pond. The celebrity had got thus far in his reminiscence when he suddenly stammered, bit his lip as if enraged at something, and then trembled so much that he had to be led back to his seat.
'He must be ill,' whispered Rob to Simms.
'It isn't that,' answered Simms; 'I fancy he must have caught sight of Wingfield.'
Rob's companion pointed to a melancholy-looking man in a seedy coat, who was sitting alone glaring at the celebrity.
'Who is he?' asked Rob.
'He is the great man's literary executor,' Simms replied: 'come along with me and hearken to his sad tale; he is never loth to tell it.'
They crossed over to Wingfield, who received them dejectedly.
'This is not a matter I care to speak of, Mr. Angus,' said the sorrowful man, who spoke of it, however, as frequently as he could find a listener. 'It is now seven years since that gentleman'—pointing angrily at the celebrity, who glared in reply—'appointed me his literary executor. At the time I thought it a splendid appointment, and by the end of two years I had all his remains carefully edited and his biography ready for the Press. He was an invalid at that time, supposed to be breaking up fast; yet look at him now.'
'He is quite vigorous in appearance now,' said Rob.
'Oh, I've given up hope,' continued the sad man dolefully.
'Still,' remarked Simms, 'I don't know that you could expect him to die just for your sake. I only venture that as an opinion, of course.'
'I don't ask that of him,' responded Wingfield. 'I'm not blaming him in any way; all I say is that he has spoilt my life. Here have I been waiting, waiting for five years, and I seem farther from publication than ever.'
'It is hard on you,' said Simms.
'But why did he break down in his story,' asked Rob, 'when he saw you?'
'Oh, the man has some sense of decency left, I suppose, and knows that he has ruined my career.'
'Is the Carlylean reminiscence taken from the biography?' inquired Simms.
'That is the sore point,' answered Wingfield sullenly. 'He used to shun society, but now he goes to clubs, banquets, and "At Homes," and tells the choice things in the memoir at every one of them. The book will scarcely be worth printing now.'
'I dare say he feels sorry for you,' said Simms, 'and sees that he has placed you in a false position.'
'He does in a way,' replied the literary executor, 'and yet I irritate him. When he was ill last December I called to ask for him every day, but he mistook my motives; and now he is frightened to be left alone with me.'
'It is a sad business,' said Simms, 'but we all have our trials.'
'I would try to bear up better,' said the sad man, 'if I got more sympathy.'
It was very late when Simms and Rob left the Wigwam, yet they were amongst the first to go.
'When does the club close?' Rob asked, as they got into the fresh air.
'No one knows,' answered Simms wearily, 'but I believe the last man to go takes in the morning's milk.'
In the weeks that followed Rob worked hard at political articles for the Wire, and at last began to feel that he was making some headway. He had not the fatal facility for scribbling that distinguishes some journalists, but he had felt life before he took to writing. His style was forcible if not superfine, and he had the faculty that makes a journalist, of only seeing things from one point of view. The successful political writer is blind in one eye.
Though one in three of Rob's articles was now used, the editor of the Wire did not write to say that he liked them, and Rob never heard any one mention them. Even Simms would not read them, but then Simms never read any paper. He got his news from the placards, and bought the Scalping Knife, not to read his own articles, but to measure them and calculate how much he would get for them. Then he dropped them into the gutter.
Some weeks had passed without Rob's seeing Simms, when one day he got a letter that made him walk round and round his table like a circus horse. It was from the editor of the Wire, asking him to be in readiness to come to the office any evening he might be wanted to write. This looked like a step toward an appointment on the staff if he gave satisfaction (a proviso which he took complacently), and Rob's chest expanded, till the room seemed quite small. He pictured Thrums again. He jumped to Mary Abinger, and then he distinctly saw himself in the editorial chair of the Times. He was lying back in it, smoking a cigar, and giving a Cabinet minister five minutes.
Nearly six months had passed since Rob saw Miss Abinger—a long time for a young man to remain in love with the same person. Of late Rob had been less given to dreaming than may be expected of a man who classifies the other sex into one particular lady and others, but Mary was coming to London in the early summer, and when he thought of summer he meant Mary. Rob was oftener in Piccadilly in May than he had been during the previous four months, and he was always looking for somebody. It was the third of June, a day to be remembered in his life, that he heard from the editor of the Wire. At five o'clock he looked upon that as what made it a day of days, but he had changed his mind by a quarter past.
Rob had a silk hat now, and he thrust it on his head, meaning to run downstairs to tell Simms of his good fortune. He was in the happy frame of mind that makes a man walk round improbabilities, and for the first time since he came to London he felt confident of the future, without becoming despondent immediately afterwards. The future, like the summer, was an allegory for Miss Abinger. For the moment Rob's heart filled with compassion for Simms. The one thing our minds will not do is leave our neighbours alone, and Rob had some time before reached the conclusion that Simms's nature had been twisted by a disappointment in love. There was nothing else that could account for his fits of silence, his indifference to the future. He was known to have given the coat off his back to some miserable creature in the street, and to have been annoyed when he discovered that a friend saw him do it. Though Simms's walls were covered with engravings, Rob remembered all at once that there was not a female figure in one of them.
To sympathise with others in a love affair is delightful to every one who feels that he is all right himself. Rob went down to Simms's rooms with a joyous step and a light heart. The outer door stood ajar, and as he pushed it open he heard a voice that turned his face white. From where he stood paralysed he saw through the dark passage into the sitting-room. Mary Abinger was standing before the fireplace, and as Rob's arm fell from the door, Simms bent forward and kissed her.