The new-comer was a young man with an impassive face and weary eyes, who, as he slouched in, described a parabola in the air with one of his feet, which was his way of keeping a burned slipper on. Rorrison introduced him to Rob as Mr. Noble Simms, after which Simms took himself into a corner of the room, like a man who has paid for his seat in a railway compartment and refuses to be drawn into conversation. He would have been a handsome man had he had a little more interest in himself.
'I thought you told me you were going out to-night,' said Rorrison.
'I meant to go,' Simms answered, 'but when I rang for my boots the housekeeper thought I asked for water, and brought it, so, rather than explain matters to her, I drank the water and remained indoors.'
'I read your book lately, Mr. Simms,' Rob said, after he had helped himself to tobacco from Simms's pouch, 'Try my tobacco,' being the Press form of salutation.
'You did not buy the second volume, did you?' asked Simms, with a show of interest, and Rob had to admit that he got the novel from a library.
'Excuse my asking you,' Simms continued, in his painfully low voice; 'I had a special reason. You see I happen to know that, besides what went to the libraries, there were in all six copies of my book sold. My admirer bought two, and I myself bought three and two-thirds, so that only one volume remains to be accounted for. I like to think that the purchaser was a lady.'
'But how did it come about,' inquired Rob, while Rorrison smoked on imperturbably, 'that the volumes were on sale singly?'
'That was to tempt a public,' said Simms gravely, 'who would not take kindly to the three volumes together. It is a long story, though.'
Here he paused, as if anxious to escape out of the conversation.
'No blarney, Simms,' expostulated Rorrison. 'I forgot to tell you, Angus, that this man always means (when he happens to have a meaning) the reverse of what he says.'
'Don't mind Rorrison,' said Simms to Rob. 'It was in this way. My great work of fiction did fairly well at the libraries, owing to a mistake Mudie made about the name. He ordered a number of copies under the impression that the book was by the popular novelist, Simmons, and when the mistake was found out he was too honourable to draw back. The surplus copies, however, would not sell at all. My publisher offered them as Saturday evening presents to his young men, but they always left them on their desks; so next he tried the second-hand book-shops, in the hope that people from the country would buy the three volumes because they looked so cheap at two shillings. However, even the label "Published at 31s. 6d.: offered for 2s.," was barren of results. I used to stand in an alley near one of these book-shops, and watch the people handling my novel.'
'But no one made an offer for it?'
'Not at two shillings, but when it came down to one-and-sixpence an elderly man with spectacles very nearly bought it. He was undecided between it and a Trigonometry, but in the end he went off with the Trigonometry. Then a young lady in grey and pink seemed interested in it. I watched her reading the bit about Lord John entering the drawing-room suddenly and finding Henry on his knees, and once I distinctly saw her smile.'
'She might have bought the novel if only to see how it ended.'
'Ah, I have always been of opinion that she would have done so, had she not most unfortunately, in her eagerness to learn what Henry said when he and Eleanor went into the conservatory, knocked a row of books over with her elbow. That frightened her, and she took to flight.'
'Most unfortunate,' said Rob solemnly, though he was already beginning to understand Simms—as Simms was on the surface.
'I had a still greater disappointment,' continued the author, 'a few days afterwards. By this time the book was marked "Very Amusing, 1s., worth 1s. 6d."; and when I saw a pale-looking young man, who had been examining it, enter the shop, I thought the novel was as good as sold. My excitement was intense when a shopman came out for the three volumes and carried them inside, but I was puzzled on seeing the young gentleman depart, apparently without having made a purchase. Consider my feelings when the shopman replaced the three volumes on his shelf with the new label, "924 pp., 8d.; worth 1s."'
'Surely it found a purchaser now?'
'Alas, no. The only man who seemed to be attracted by it at eightpence turned out to be the author of John Mordaunt's Christmas Box ("Thrilling! Published at 6s.: offered at 1s. 3d."), who was hanging about in the interests of his own work.'
'Did it come down to "Sixpence, worth ninepence"?'
'No; when I returned to the spot next day I found volumes One and Three in the "2d. any vol." box, and I carried them away myself. What became of volume Two I have never been able to discover. I rummaged the box for it in vain.'
'As a matter of fact, Angus,' remarked Rorrison, 'the novel is now in its third edition.'
'I always understood that it had done well,' said Rob.
'The fourth time I asked for it at Mudie's,' said Simms, the latter half of whose sentences were sometimes scarcely audible, 'I inquired how it was doing, and was told that it had been already asked for three times. Curiously enough there is a general impression that it has been a great success, and for that I have to thank one man.'
'The admirer of whom you spoke?'
'Yes, my admirer, as I love to call him. I first heard of him as a business gentleman living at Shepherd's Bush, who spoke with rapture of my novel to any chance acquaintances he made on the tops of buses. Then my aunt told me that a young lady knew a stout man living at Shepherd's Bush who could talk of nothing but my book; and on inquiry at my publisher's I learnt that a gentleman answering to this description had bought two copies. I heard of my admirer from different quarters for the next month, until a great longing rose in me to see him, to clasp his hand, to ask what part of the book he liked best, at the least to walk up and down past his windows, feeling that two men who appreciated each other were only separated by a pane of glass.'
'Did you ever discover who he was?'
'I did. He lives at 42 Lavender Crescent, Shepherd's Bush, and his name is Henry Gilding.'
'Well?' said Rob, seeing Simms pause as if this was all.
'I am afraid, Mr. Angus,' the author murmured in reply, 'that you did not read the powerful and harrowing tale very carefully, or you would remember that my hero's name was also Henry Gilding.'
'Well, but what of that?'
'There is everything in that. It is what made the Shepherd's Bush gentleman my admirer for life. He considers it the strangest and most diverting thing in his experience, and every night, I believe, after dinner, his eldest daughter has to read out to him the passages in which the Henry Gildings are thickest. He chuckles over the extraordinary coincidence still. He could take that joke with him to the seaside for a month, and it would keep him in humour all the time.'
'Have done, Simms, have done,' said Rorrison; 'Angus is one of us, or wants to be, at all events. The Minotaur is printing one of his things, and I have been giving him some sage advice.'
'Any man,' said Simms, 'will do well on the Press if he is stupid enough; even Rorrison has done well.'
'I have just been telling him,' responded Rorrison, 'that the stupid men fail.'
'I don't consider you a failure, Rorrison,' said Simms, in mild surprise. 'What stock-in-trade a literary hand requires, Mr. Angus, is a fire to dry his writing at, jam or honey with which to gum old stamps on to envelopes, and an antimacassar.'
'An antimacassar?' Rob repeated.
'Yes; you pluck the thread with which to sew your copy together out of the antimacassar. When my antimacassars are at the wash I have to take a holiday.'
'Well, well, Simms,' said Rorrison, 'I like you best when you are taciturn.'
'So do I,' said Simms.
'You might give Angus some advice about the likeliest papers for which to write. London is new to him.'
'The fact is, Mr. Angus,' said Simms, more seriously, 'that advice in such a matter is merely talk thrown away. If you have the journalistic instinct, which includes a determination not to be beaten, as well as an aptitude for selecting the proper subjects, you will by and by find an editor who believes in you. Many men of genuine literary ability have failed on the Press because they did not have that instinct, and they have attacked journalism in their books in consequence.'
'I am not sure that I know what the journalistic instinct precisely is,' Rob said, 'and still less whether I possess it.'
'Ah, just let me put you through your paces,' replied Simms. 'Suppose yourself up for an exam. in journalism, and that I am your examiner. Question One: "The house was soon on fire; much sympathy is expressed with the sufferers." Can you translate that into newspaper English?'
'Let me see,' answered Rob, entering into the spirit of the examination. 'How would this do: "In a moment the edifice was enveloped in shooting tongues of flame: the appalling catastrophe has plunged the whole street into the gloom of night"?'
'Good. Question Two: A man hangs himself; what is the technical heading for this?'
'Either "Shocking Occurrence" or "Rash Act."'
'Question Three: "Pabulum," "Cela va sans dire," "Par excellence," "Ne plus ultra." What are these? Are there any more of them?'
'They are scholarship,' replied Rob, 'and there are two more, namely, "tour de force" and "terra firma."'
'Question Four: A. (a soldier) dies at 6 P.M. with his back to the foe. B. (a philanthropist) dies at 1 A.M.: which of these, speaking technically, would you call a creditable death?'
'The soldier's, because time was given to set it.'
'Quite right. Question Five: Have you ever known a newspaper which did not have the largest circulation in its district, and was not the most influential advertising medium?'
'Question Six: Mr. Gladstone rises to speak in the House of Commons at 2 A.M. What would be the sub-editor's probable remark on receiving the opening words of the speech, and how would he break the news to the editor? How would the editor be likely to take it?'
'I prefer,' said Rob, 'not to answer that question.'
'Well, Mr. Angus,' said Simms, tiring of the examination, 'you have passed with honours.'
The conversation turned to Rorrison's coming work in Egypt, and by and by Simms rose to go.
'Your stick, I suppose, Mr. Angus?' he said, taking Rob's thick staff from a corner.
'Yes,' answered Rob, 'it has only a heavy knob, you see, for a handle, and a doctor once told me that if I continued to press so heavily on it I might suffer from some disease in the palm of the hand.'
'I never heard of that,' said Simms, looking up for the first time since he entered the room. Then he added, 'You should get a stick like Rorrison's. It has a screw handle which he keeps loose, so that the slightest touch knocks it off. It is called the compliment-stick, because if Rorrison is in the company of ladies, he contrives to get them to hold it. This is in the hope that they will knock the handle off, when Rorrison bows and remarks exultingly that the stick is like its owner—when it came near them it lost its head. He has said that to fifteen ladies now, and has a great reputation for gallantry in consequence. Good-night.'
'Well, he did not get any copy out of me,' said Rob.
'Simms is a curious fellow,' Rorrison answered. 'Though you might not expect it, he has written some of the most pathetic things I ever read, but he wears his heart out of sight. Despite what he says, too, he is very jealous for the Press's good name. He seemed to take to you, so I should not wonder though he were to look you up here some night.'
'Here? How do you mean?'
'Why, this. I shall probably be away from London for some months, and as I must keep on my rooms, I don't see why you should not occupy them. The furniture is mine, and you would be rent free, except that the housekeeper expects a few shillings a week for looking after things. What do you think?'
Rob could have only one thought as he compared these comfortable chambers to his own bare room, and as Rorrison, who seemed to have taken a warm liking to him, pressed the point, arguing that as the rent must be paid at any rate the chambers were better occupied, he at last consented, on the understanding that they could come to some arrangement on Rorrison's return.
'It will please my father, too,' Rorrison added, 'to know that you are here. I always remember that had it not been for him you might never have gone on to the Press.'
They sat so late talking this matter over that Rob eventually stayed all night, Rorrison having in his bedroom a couch which many journalists had slept on.
Next morning the paper whose nickname is the Scalping Knife was served up with breakfast, and the first thing Rob saw in it was a leaderette about a disease generated in the palm of the hand by walking-sticks with heavy knobs for handles.
'I told you,' said Rorrison, 'that Simms would make his half-guinea out of you.'
When Rorrison went down to Simms's chambers later in the day, however, to say that he was leaving Rob tenant of his rooms, he was laughing at something else.
'All during breakfast,' he said to Simms, 'I noticed that Angus was preoccupied, and anxious to say something that he did not like to say. At last he blurted it out with a white face, and what do you think it was?'
Simms shook his head.
'Well,' said Rorrison, 'it was this. He has been accustomed to go down on his knees every night to say his prayers—as we used to do at school, but when he saw that I did not do it he did not like to do it either. I believe it troubled him all night, for he looked haggard when he rose.'
'He told you this?'
'Yes; he said he felt ashamed of himself,' said Rorrison, smiling. 'You must remember he is country-bred.'
'You were a good fellow, Rorrison,' said Simms gravely, 'to put him into your rooms, but I don't see what you are laughing at.'
'Why,' said Rorrison, taken aback, I thought you would see it in the same light.'
'Not I,' said Simms; 'but let me tell you this, I shall do what I can for him. I like your Angus.'