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Chapter 8

IN FLEET STREET

Mary was wrong. It was quite true that Rob had run away to London without paying his landlady's bill.

The immediate result of his meeting with Miss Abinger had been to make him undertake double work, and not do it. Looking in at shop-windows, where he saw hats that he thought would just suit Mary (he had a good deal to learn yet), it came upon him that he was wasting his time. Then he hurried home, contemptuous of all the rest of Silchester, to write an article for a London paper, and when he next came to himself, half an hour afterwards, he was sitting before a blank sheet of copy paper. He began to review a book, and found himself gazing at a Christmas card. He tried to think out the action of a government, and thought out a ring on Miss Abinger's finger instead. Three nights running he dreamt that he was married, and woke up quaking.

Without much misgiving Rob heard it said in Silchester that there was some one staying at Dome Castle who was to be its mistress's husband. On discovering that they referred to Dowton, and not being versed in the wonderful ways of woman, he told himself that this was impossible. A cynic would have pointed out that Mary had now had several days in which to change her mind. Cynics are persons who make themselves the measure of other people.

The philosopher who remarked that the obvious truths are those which are most often missed, was probably referring to the time it takes a man to discover that he is in love. Women are quicker because they are on the outlook. It took Rob two days, and when it came upon him checked his breathing. After that he bore it like a man. Another discovery he had to make was that, after all, he was nobody in particular. This took him longer.

Although the manner of his going to London was unexpected, Rob had thought out solidly the inducements to go. Ten minutes or so after he knew that he wanted to marry Mary Abinger, he made up his mind to try to do it. The only obstacles he saw in his way were, that she was not in love with him, and lack of income. Feeling that he was an uncommon type of man (if people would only see it), he resolved to remove this second difficulty first. The saw-mill and the castle side by side did not rise up and frighten him, and for the time he succeeded in not thinking about Colonel Abinger. Nothing is hopeless if we want it very much.

Rob calculated that if he remained on the Mirror for another dozen years or so, and Mr. Licquorish continued to think that it would not be cheaper to do without him, he might reach a salary of 200 per annum. As that was not sufficient, he made up his mind to leave Silchester.

There was only one place to go to. Rob thought of London until he felt that it was the guardian from whom he would have to ask Mary Abinger; he pictured her there during the season, until London, which he had never seen, began to assume a homely aspect. It was the place in which he was to win or lose his battle. To whom is London much more? It is the clergyman's name for his church, the lawyer's for his office, the politician's for St. Stephen's, the cabman's for his stand.

There was not a man on the Press in Silchester who did not hunger for Fleet Street, but they were all afraid to beard it. They knew it as a rabbit-warren; as the closest street in a city where the bootblack has his sycophants, and you have to battle for exclusive right to sweep a crossing. The fight forward had been grimmer to Rob, however, than to his fellows, and he had never been quite beaten. He was alone in the world, and poverty was like an old friend. There was only one journalist in London whom he knew even by name, and he wrote to him for advice. This was Mr. John Rorrison, a son of the minister whose assistance had brought Rob to Silchester. Rorrison was understood to be practically editing a great London newspaper, which is what is understood of a great many journalists until you make inquiries, but he wrote back to Rob asking him why he wanted to die before his time. You collectors who want an editor's autograph may rely upon having it by return of post if you write threatening to come to London with the hope that he will do something for you. Rorrison's answer discomfited Rob for five minutes, and then, going out, he caught a glimpse of Mary Abinger in the Merediths' carriage. He tore up the letter, and saw that London was worth risking.

One forenoon Rob set out for the office to tell Mr. Licquorish of his determination. He knew that the entire staff would think him demented, but he could not see that he was acting rashly. He had worked it all out in his mind, and even tranquilly faced possible starvation. Rob was congratulating himself on not having given way to impulse when he reached the railway station.

His way from his lodgings to the office led past the station, and as he had done scores of times before, he went inside. To Rob all the romance of Silchester was concentrated there; nothing stirred him so much as a panting engine; the shunting of carriages, the bustle of passengers, the porters rattling to and fro with luggage, the trains twisting serpent-like into the station and stealing out in a glory to be gone, sent the blood to his head. On Saturday nights, when he was free, any one calling at the station would have been sure to find him on the platform from which the train starts for London. His heart had sunk every time it went off without him.

Rob woke up from a dream of Fleet Street to see the porters slamming the doors of the London train. He saw the guard's hand upraised, and heard the carriages rattle as the restive engine took them unawares. Then came the warning whistle, and the train moved off. For a second of time Rob felt that he had lost London, and he started forward. Some one near him shouted, and then he came upon the train all at once, a door opened, and he shot in. When he came to himself, Silchester was a cloud climbing to the sky behind him, and he was on his way to London.

Rob's first feeling was that the other people in the carriage must know what he had done. He was relieved to find that his companions were only an old gentleman who spoke fiercely to his newspaper because it was reluctant to turn inside out, a little girl who had got in at Silchester and consumed thirteen halfpenny buns before she was five miles distant from it, and a young woman, evidently a nurse, with a baby in her arms. The baby was noisy for a time, but Rob gave it a look that kept it silent for the rest of the journey. He told himself that he would get out at the first station, but when the train stopped at it he sat on. He twisted himself into a corner to count his money covertly, and found that it came to four pounds odd. He also took the Christmas card from his pocket, but replaced it hastily, feeling that the old gentleman and the little girl were looking at him. A feeling of elation grew upon him as he saw that whatever might happen afterwards he must be in London shortly, and his mind ran on the letters he would write to Mr. Licquorish and his landlady. In lieu of his ticket he handed over twelve shillings to the guard, under whose eyes he did not feel comfortable, and he calculated that he owed his landlady over two pounds. He would send it to her and ask her to forward his things to London. Mr. Licquorish, however, might threaten him with the law if he did not return. But then the Mirror owed Rob several pounds at that moment, and if he did not claim it in person it would remain in Mr. Licquorish's pockets. There was no saying how far that consideration would affect the editor. Rob saw a charge of dishonesty rise up and confront him, and he drew back from it. A moment afterwards he looked it in the face, and it receded. He took his pipe from his pocket.

'This is not a smoking carriage,' gasped the little girl, so promptly that it almost seemed as if she had been waiting her opportunity ever since the train started. Rob looked at her. She seemed about eight, but her eye was merciless. He thrust his pipe back into its case, feeling cowed at last.

The nurse, who had been looking at Rob and blushing when she caught his eye, got out with her charge at a side station, and he helped her rather awkwardly to alight. 'Don't mention it,' he said, in answer to her thanks.

'Not a word; I'm not that kind,' she replied, so eagerly that he started back in alarm, to find the little girl looking suspiciously at him.

As Rob stepped out of the train at King's Cross he realised sharply that he was alone in the world. He did not know where to go now, and his heart sank for a time as he paced the platform irresolutely, feeling that it was his last link to Silchester. He turned into the booking-office to consult a time-table, and noticed against the wall a railway map of London. For a long time he stood looking at it, and as he traced the river, the streets familiar to him by name, the districts and buildings which were household words to him, he felt that he must live in London somehow. He discovered Fleet Street in the map, and studied the best way of getting to it from King's Cross. Then grasping his stick firmly, he took possession of London as calmly as he could.

Rob never found any difficulty afterwards in picking out the shabby eating-house in which he had his first meal in London. Gray's Inn Road remained to him always its most romantic street because he went down it first. He walked into the roar of London in Holborn, and never forgot the alley into which he retreated to discover if he had suddenly become deaf. He wondered when the crowd would pass. Years afterwards he turned into Fetter Lane, and suddenly there came back to his mind the thoughts that had held him as he went down it the day he arrived in London.

A certain awe came upon Rob as he went down Fleet Street on the one side and up it on the other. He could not resist looking into the faces of the persons who passed him, and wondering if they edited the Times. The lean man who was in such a hurry that wherever he had to go he would soon be there, might be a man of letters whom Rob knew by heart, but perhaps he was only a broken journalist with his eye on half a crown. The mild-looking man whom Rob smiled at because, when he was half way across the street, he lost his head and was chased out of sight by half a dozen hansom cabs, was a war correspondent who had been so long in Africa that the perils of a London crossing unmanned him. The youth who was on his way home with a pork chop in his pocket edited a society journal. Rob did not recognise a distinguished poet in a little stout man who was looking pensively at a barrowful of walnuts, and he was mistaken in thinking that the bearded gentleman who held his head so high must be somebody in particular. Rob observed a pale young man gazing wistfully at him, and wondered if he was a thief or a sub-editor. He was merely an aspirant who had come to London that morning to make his fortune, and he took Rob for a leader-writer at the least. The offices, however, and even the public buildings, the shops, the narrowness of the streets, all disappointed Rob. The houses seemed squeezed together for economy of space, like a closed concertina. Nothing quite fulfilled his expectations but the big letter holes in the district postal offices. He had not been sufficiently long in London to feel its greatest charm, which has been expressed in many ways by poet, wit, business man, and philosopher, but comes to this, that it is the only city in the world in whose streets you can eat penny buns without people's turning round to look at you.

In a few days Rob was part of London. His Silchester landlady had forwarded him his things, and Mr. Licquorish had washed his hands of him. The editor of the Mirror's letter amounted to a lament that a man whom he had allowed to do two men's work for half a man's wages should have treated him thus. Mr. Licquorish, however, had conceived the idea of 'forcing' John Milton, and so saving a reporter, and he did not insist on Rob's returning. He expressed a hope that his ex-reporter would do well in London, and a fear, amounting to a conviction, that he would not. But he sent the three pounds due to him in wages, pointing out, justifiably enough, that, strictly speaking, Rob owed him a month's salary. Rob had not expected such liberality, and from that time always admitted that there must have been a heroic vein in Mr. Licquorish after all.

Rob established himself in a little back room in Islington, so small that a fairly truthful journalist might have said of it, in an article, that you had to climb the table to reach the fireplace, and to lift out the easy-chair before you could get out at the door. The room was over a grocer's shop, whose window bore the announcement: 'Eggs, new laid, 1s. 3d.; eggs, fresh, 1s. 2d.; eggs, warranted, 1s.; eggs, 10d.' A shop across the way hinted at the reputation of the neighbourhood in the polite placard, 'Trust in the Lord: every other person cash.'

The only ornament Rob added to the room was the Christmas card in a frame. He placed this on his mantelpiece and looked at it frequently, but when he heard his landlady coming he slipped it back into his pocket. Yet he would have liked at times to have the courage to leave it there. Though he wanted to be a literary man he began his career in London with a little sense, for he wrote articles to editors instead of calling at the offices, and he had the good fortune to have no introductions. The only pressman who ever made anything by insisting on seeing the editor, was one—a Scotsman, no doubt—who got him alone and threatened to break his head if he did not find an opening for him. The editor saw that this was the sort of man who had made up his mind to get on, and yielded.

During his first month in London Rob wrote thirty articles, and took them to the different offices in order to save the postage. There were many other men in the streets at night doing the same thing. He got fifteen articles back by return of post, and never saw the others again. But here was the stuff Rob was made of. The thirty having been rejected, he dined on bread-and-cheese and began the thirty-first. It was accepted by the Minotaur, a weekly paper. Rob drew a sigh of exultation as he got his first proof in London, and remembered that he had written the article in two hours. The payment, he understood, would be two pounds at least, and at the rate of two articles a day, working six days a week, this would mean over six hundred a year. Rob had another look at the Christmas card, and thought it smiled. Every man is a fool now and then.

Except to his landlady, who thought that he dined out, Rob had not spoken to a soul since he arrived in London. To celebrate his first proof he resolved to call on Rorrison. He had not done so earlier because he thought that Rorrison would not be glad to see him. Though he had kept his disappointments to himself, however, he felt that he must remark casually to some one that he was writing for the Minotaur.

Rorrison had chambers at the top of one of the Inns of Court, and as he had sported his oak, Rob ought not to have knocked. He knew no better, however, and Rorrison came grumbling to the door. He was a full-bodied man of middle age, with a noticeably heavy chin, and wore a long dressing-gown.

'I'm Angus from Silchester,' Rob explained.

Rorrison's countenance fell. His occupation largely consisted in avoiding literary young men, who, he knew, were thirsting to take him aside and ask him to get them sub-editorships.

'I'm glad to see you,' he said gloomily; 'come in.'

What Rob first noticed in the sitting-room was that it was all in shadow, except one corner, whose many colours dazzled the eye. Suspended over this part of the room on a gas bracket was a great Japanese umbrella without a handle. This formed an awning for a large cane chair and a tobacco-table, which also held a lamp, and Rorrison had been lolling on the chair looking at a Gladstone bag on the hearthrug until he felt that he was busy packing.

'Mind the umbrella,' he said to his visitor.

The next moment a little black hole that had been widening in the Japanese paper just above the lamp cracked and broke, and a tongue of flame swept up the umbrella. Rob sprang forward in horror, but Rorrison only sighed.

'That makes the third this week,' he said, 'but let it blaze. I used to think they would set the place on fire, but somehow they don't do it. Don't give the thing the satisfaction of seeming to notice it.'

The umbrella had been frizzled in a second, and its particles were already trembling through the room like flakes of snow.

'You have just been in time to find me,' Rorrison said; 'I start to-morrow afternoon for Egypt in the special correspondent business.'

'I envy you,' said Rob, and then told the manner of his coming to London.

'It was a mad thing to do,' said Rorrison, looking at him not without approval, 'but the best journalists frequently begin in that way. I suppose you have been besieging the newspaper offices since you arrived; any result?'

'I had a proof from the Minotaur this evening,' said Rob.

Rorrison blew some rings of smoke into the air and ran his finger through them. Then he turned proudly to Rob, and saw that Rob was looking proudly at him.

'Ah, what did you say?' asked Rorrison.

'The Minotaur has accepted one of my things,' said Rob.

Rorrison said 'Hum,' and then hesitated.

'It is best that you should know the truth,' he said at last. 'No doubt you expect to be paid by the Minotaur, but I am afraid there is little hope of that—unless you dun them. A friend of mine sent them something lately, and Roper (the editor, you know) wrote asking him for more. He sent two or three other things, and then called at the office, expecting to be paid.'

'Was he not?'

'On the contrary,' said Rorrison, 'Roper asked him for the loan of five pounds.'

Rob's face grew so long that even the hardened Rorrison tried to feel for him.

'You need not let an experience that every one has to pass through dishearten you,' he said. 'There are only about a dozen papers in London that are worth writing for, but I can give you a good account of them. Not only do they pay handsomely, but the majority are open to contributions from any one. Don't you believe what one reads about newspaper rings. Every thing sent in is looked at, and if it is suitable any editor is glad to have it. Men fail to get a footing on the Press because—well, as a rule, because they are stupid.'

'I am glad to hear you say that,' said Rob, 'and yet I had thirty articles rejected before the Minotaur accepted that one.'

'Yes, and you will have another thirty rejected if they are of the same kind. You beginners seem able to write nothing but your views on politics, and your reflections on art, and your theories of life, which you sometimes even think original. Editors won't have that because their readers don't want it. Every paper has its regular staff of leader-writers, and what is wanted from the outside is freshness. An editor tosses aside your column and a half about evolution, but is glad to have a paragraph saying that you saw Herbert Spencer the day before yesterday gazing solemnly for ten minutes in at a milliner's window. Fleet Street at this moment is simply running with men who want to air their views about things in general.'

'I suppose so,' said Rob dolefully.

'Yes, and each thinks himself as original as he is profound, though they have only to meet to discover that they repeat each other. The pity of it is, that all of them could get on to some extent if they would send in what is wanted. There is copy in every man you meet, and, as a journalist on this stair says, when you do meet him you feel inclined to tear it out of him and use it yourself.'

'What sort of copy?' asked Rob.

'They should write of the things they have seen. Newspaper readers have an insatiable appetite for knowing how that part of the world lives with which they are not familiar. They want to know how the Norwegians cook their dinners and build their houses, and ask each other in marriage.'

'But I have never been out of Britain.'

'Neither was Shakspeare. There are thousands of articles in Scotland yet. You must know a good deal about the Scottish weavers—well, there are articles in them. Describe the daily life of a gillie: "The Gillie at Home" is a promising title. Were you ever snowed up in your saw-mill? Whether you were or not, there is a seasonable subject for January. "Yule in a Scottish Village" also sounds well, and there is a safe article in a Highland gathering.'

'These must have been done before, though,' said Rob.

'Of course they have,' answered Rorrison; 'but do them in your own way: the public has no memory, and besides, new publics are always springing up.'

'I am glad I came to see you,' said Rob, brightening considerably; 'I never thought of these things.'

'Of course you need not confine yourself to them. Write on politics if you will, but don't merely say what you yourself think; rather tell, for instance, what is the political situation in the country parts known to you. That should be more interesting and valuable than your individual views. But I may tell you that, if you have the journalistic faculty, you will always be on the look-out for possible articles. The man on the stair I have mentioned to you would have had an article out of you before he had talked with you as long as I have done. You must have heard of Noble Simms?'

'Yes, I know his novel,' said Rob; 'I should like immensely to meet him.'

'I must leave you an introduction to him,' said Rorrison; 'he wakens most people up, though you would scarcely think it to look at him. You see this pipe here? Simms saw me mending it with sealing-wax one day, and two days afterwards there was an article about it in the Scalping Knife. When I went off for my holidays last summer I asked him to look in here occasionally and turn a new cheese which had been sent me from the country. Of course he forgot to do it, but I denounced him on my return for not keeping his solemn promise, so he revenged himself by publishing an article entitled "Rorrison's Oil-Painting." In this it was explained that just before Rorrison went off for a holiday he got a present of an oil-painting. Remembering when he had got to Paris that the painting, which was come to him wet from the easel, had been left lying on his table, he telegraphed to the writer to have it put away out of reach of dust and the cat. The writer promised to do so, but when Rorrison returned he found the picture lying just where he left it. He rushed off to his friend's room to upbraid him, and did it so effectually that the friend says in his article, "I will never do a good turn for Rorrison again!"'

'But why,' asked Rob, 'did he turn the cheese into an oil-painting?'

'Ah, there you have the journalistic instinct again. You see a cheese is too plebeian a thing to form the subject of an article in the Scalping Knife, so Simms made a painting of it. He has had my Chinese umbrella from several points of view in three different papers. When I play on his piano I put scraps of paper on the notes to guide me, and he made his three guineas out of that. Once I challenged him to write an article on a straw that was sticking to the sill of my window, and it was one of the most interesting things he ever did. Then there was the box of old clothes and other odds and ends that he promised to store for me when I changed my rooms. He sold the lot to a hawker for a pair of flower-pots, and wrote an article on the transaction. Subsequently he had another article on the flower-pots; and when I appeared to claim my belongings he got a third article out of that.'

'I suppose he reads a great deal?' said Rob.

'He seldom opens a book,' answered Rorrison; 'indeed, when he requires to consult a work of reference he goes to the Strand and does his reading at a bookstall. I don't think he was ever in the British Museum.'

Rob laughed.

'At the same time,' he said, 'I don't think Mr. Noble Simms could get any copy out of me.'

Just then some one shuffled into the passage, and the door opened.

James M. Barrie

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