TRULY, a most fitting place for the Starvation Act,’ said the Author, as he laid a fresh supply of stationery on the table, ‘and a whole week to do it in, unless the story pans out well, which of course it won’t; I don’t suppose there’s a ghost of a chance of that.’
‘Here I am!’
‘Oh, there you are! yes, to be sure, so you are. And how do you do? I hope you will excuse my saying it, but aren’t you an uncommonly small ghost?’
‘Yes, I am slim; but I’ve seen smaller chances, and you know I am all the one you have got.’
‘Why, yes, as William has it, “A poor thing, but mine own.” Allow me to help you up on the table; there, how is that? Do you think you could sit on that cuff-box and rest your feet on the pen-wiper? I am afraid the table is rather bare and cold, and you don’t look very well. Is that comfortable?’
‘Oh, very, thank you;—and now you may begin.’
‘Yes, in a minute. I want to ask you first if you really are my only chance?’
‘Yes, absolutely your only one,’ said the small figure sitting on the box, with his hands resting on his knees. He was a clever-looking little ghost, eight or nine inches high, clean shaven, with his hair brushed back to hide an evidently increasing tendency to baldness—he was not in his first youth. He was plainly but neatly dressed, though his clothes looked a little shiny at the seams. His face was careworn and anxious in its expression, but attractive, and his manners were unobjectionable.
‘So you are my only chance, are you? May I ask where you came from?’
‘Oh, I am sent here from the “Bureau of Chances”; we have to go just wherever we are sent, you know; we haven’t any choice in the matter.’
‘Yes, of course, that stands to reason; I can readily understand no ghost of the slightest financial instinct would have chosen me to come to; I am all the more obliged for any chance at all, on any terms. It is very encouraging to have you sit there; I like it. I think I will try and do some work.’
‘Yes, I would,’ said the little Ghost, with alacrity.
The Author leaned back, and, clasping his hands behind his head, he fixed his eyes on the little Ghost, and began:
‘It is to be a story, you know—a romance. She is to be the central figure—a splendid red-haired creature, with great instincts, primeval, untrained, capacious; she is to devour the world; she can’t wait for experience; she hungers and thirsts for sensations; she is to boom through the story—no lagging, no questioning; see?’
‘Yes,’ nodded the little Ghost.
‘And then,’ continued the Author, ‘she is to meet the hero; he is to be Tradition, Culture, Development, Conservatism; and there will be, so to speak, no one else in the world except these two forces, and the battle royal will be between these two.’
‘Yes,’ nodded the little Ghost.
‘I think I will write that out before I go any further with the plot.’
‘I would,’ said the little Ghost.
‘Well, here goes,’ said the Author, drawing himself up to the table.
He wrote for some hours; his pen moved ceaselessly over the pages, and from time to time he laid a sheet at the feet of the little Ghost. The clock struck twelve, the clock struck one; the Author’s hair fell lankly over his pale face; on and on went his pen. At two, he looked up and saw the little Ghost sitting, all alert, on the cuff-box, with his blue eyes wide open; he gave a bright little smile in answer to the Author’s glance.
‘Why bless me! I had clean forgotten you! aren’t you tired?’ said the Author.
‘Not in the least; I feel quite fresh.’
‘Upon my word, you look it; I believe you are going to be a tough little chap, and will see me through. And now where will you sleep?’
‘Why, here, anywhere—I am not particular.’
‘Aren’t you hungry? you haven’t had anything to eat since you came. By the way, what do you eat?’
‘Oh, I’m all right, don’t bother about me; I live very well on hope, and we are supposed to supply that ourselves.’
‘That’s extremely lucky for you; I haven’t had a scrap of hope for a month, and I’m afraid you’d starve if you depended on me.’
‘Thank you, that’s all right—good night.’
The Author slept heavily, all dressed as he was when he threw himself down on the bed. The little Ghost took off his necktie and his little boots, and, folding his coat carefully for a pillow, he too slept, after adjusting the pen-wiper for a coverlid. At six o’clock the little Ghost got up and rambled about the table for a while. He regulated the loose sheets of manuscript and counted the pages. He looked quite well in the morning light, and his step had the assurance and measured quality that comes only to the prosperous. He carried his left hand carelessly in his pocket, with his elbow slightly raised, after the manner of the man of the world. He began to be restless towards seven o’clock, and at half-past seven he took his breakfast, very sparingly, off of his stock of hope, evidently considering the possibility of a longer stay than he had anticipated when he first got up. At eight o’clock, his face was full of anxiety, and he had dropped his nonchalant air and had taken his hand out of his pocket. At nine, his head was bent, and he paced to and fro from the inkstand to the dictionary, with his hands clasped behind him. He looked old and feeble. At ten, he had a slight fainting turn and had to sit down on the cuff-box. His forehead was damp and he shivered; he was evidently deeply disturbed, and he was a pitiful little object to look at.
Then the Author awoke, and, sitting up, called out: ‘Why, great heavens! what is the matter, are you ill?’
‘Thank you, I do feel a little off this morning.’
‘Morning, is it? Why, I feel as if I had just dropped off; you haven’t been drinking my ink, have you? You are all blue around the gills?’
The little Ghost was offended, but he did not answer except by a reproachful look.
‘Oh, don’t play the lacrimoso role; I’ll be up in no time, and you must remember I wrote a pile last night; just hear me read some of it. Why, did I do all this? It reads better than I thought.’
‘Yes, it reads very well—very well indeed. I think I will go out and take a stroll, and lunch at the club, and not write any more till to-night; I do my best work at night.’
As the Author said this, he looked right at the Ghost; there was a feeling in the room that somebody was justifying himself, but the little Ghost said nothing. Then the Author made himself a cup of coffee and freshened himself up, all the time not looking at the little Ghost. Then he took his cane, and, going out, he nodded carelessly, and said:
‘Good-bye, old boy; I will be back in good time, don’t worry.’
All the way down the street the Author kept hearing the words: ‘I am all the chance you’ve got—I am all the chance you’ve got,—I am all the chance you’ve got.’
‘Hang it all,’ said he, ‘I might as well go back and grind; it will please the little chap, and it don’t matter to anyone else. I don’t suppose he is much of a critic—he’ll never know how bad the stuff is that I wrote last night.’
So back he went. When the door opened he was shocked to see his little Ghost of a chance apparently on the verge of dissolution. He lay across the dictionary, where he had evidently thrown himself in despair; his arm hung down over the edge of the book, and he was limp and almost like a lifeless thing. He smiled a wan but forgiving smile on the Author and then wearily composed himself, as if for death. The Author bent his head over the little Ghost to see if he was still breathing. The Ghost was alive, and he heard him whisper:
‘Write, write, write!’
Seizing his pen, the Author dashed ahead, hardly knowing what words came; he knew that write he must to save his dear little Ghost of a chance—his only little chance. By the time he had written one chapter the Ghost was up and strutting around the table like a little king, but the poor Author was in the depths of despair; he knew that every word he was writing was trash; that nobody, even the most philanthropic of editors, would ever take his story, and that starve he must. Still, the little Ghost improved; he grew stout, he grew rosy, he even seemed to be getting a fresh accession of yellow hair to cover his bald spot. At last the Author spoke:
‘Little fiend,’ said he, ‘you fatten on my despair; you are nourished on my misery; the vagaries of my tired brain are wine and bread to your morbid taste. Why should I drain my brain to feed you, you pigmy of chance! you respectable little vampire! you masquerader in the form of “my chance,” “my only chance!” Away with you, vanish, wither, be gone! I will burn my words, even though you perish with the flame. I will not be saved by such a chance, if the price of my life be this unworthy work!’
And the Author thrust his manuscript into the fire. He turned, thinking to see the Ghost wither and die before him; but instead of that there was the queer little contradictory fellow dancing on the table. He danced, he capered, he looked fairly fat; in truth he began to puff with his exertions, and then he shouted out:
‘O you authors! O you strange creatures! You think you can kill me by burning your manuscript; why, you are feeding me, you are pampering me, and you yourself are improving in spite of yourself. Your chance is great, your chance is sure, you will write now; you will be a success!’
And sure enough the next day the story was done. The Author went out with it, knowing it to be good; it was a go. The Author’s hand rested lightly in his trousers’ pocket, and he walked with the assurance of a prosperous man. As he came back, he said to himself:
‘Now, I am going to say to that little Ghost chap: “Here, half of this gold is yours, half is mine; remain with me, and we will be partners, share and share alike.”’
But when he went into the room, the fat little Ghost had gone back to the ‘Bureau of Chances,’ to be sent out again along with all the other little Ghost Chances. I recognized him the other day sleeping in the pigeonhole of the desk of a friend of mine.
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